Recently I turned 30, so I spent some time pondering on what that means. In some ways, it means very little. Age is just a number and being 29 years, 364 days is essentially the same thing as being 30.
I also know that at 30, I’m not that old yet. There are many happy, healthy, productive years ahead of me. Some might say my best years are ahead of me. On the flip side, I’m not that young anymore either. It occurred to me that at age 30, I now have a sense for how much time in my existence I have left. As a child, when school was out for the summer, the freedom of the season seemed like an eternity. Of course, it always came to an end (summer’s over already?), and then the new school year would seem so vast and overwhelmingly long that I wouldn’t even consider plans beyond it. Beyond the month even.
Not so anymore.
The old adage that ‘time flies’ becomes truer and truer as I get older. I’ve lived 30 years now, so I have a solid sense for how long a year is, and frankly, as I’m sure most adults would agree, it’s not that long. A few weeks ago I signed a two-year job contract and didn’t even flinch. Two years is nothing.
Expanding on that idea, I even have a sense for how long a decade is. If I live to be 100, I know that I only have seven more decades to go. Having experienced 30 years, I can project another 30 years, and another, then it’s only a little more before the experience of being Graham Ballachey comes to an end. Now, that’s a long time, but not the seemingly infinite time scales imagined during childhood. I can imagine it. In that sense, I’m grateful to even be 30!
I don’t want to be a downer or get too morbid, but it only occurred to me recently that I can now feel how much time I have left. It reminds me of a great song written by my friend Mike Harbo that I’ve always really liked (and covered on a few occasions). Here’s the chorus:
I’m tired of fighting
it’s kind of frightening
how this grip is tightening
on my throat
although I’m divided
I’ll try and hide it
this internal riot
yeah, and I’m done
– Hydrate Midrange Contempt, Mike Harbo
In the spirit of renewals, which birthdays provide, I’d like to share some insight into what has brought me the greatest joy and balance while minimizing negativity. (Note: I’m now aware of this, but I’m still working on it).
Quality over Quantity
The concept of quality over quantity is almost cliche, yet I feel it can be a powerful tool in securing a satisfying and balanced life. It applies on so many levels, and looking back, the only periods in my life that felt truly confusing and overwhelming were the times I had too much going on (internally and externally). And most of it was unnecessary.
As human beings, we are complex beings capable of amazing things, but we are also finite. Finite not only with respect to our lifespans, but with our attention, intensity, passion, energy, and capacity for renewal as well. We can’t simply optimize ourselves and expect to operate at maximum efficiency at all times. We are not machines. Reflection and downtime are equally important as sweat and tears.
It’s a hard truth in life that by committing to one thing and giving it everything we have, we are turning our backs on other opportunities. This isn’t a bad thing; indeed, giving something your full attention and presence is one of the most satisfying feelings one can experience, but it also means that we have to choose our experiences wisely. Taking on way too much, or feeling obligated to experience things we don’t want to drains us of our life energy. In short, if you spread yourself too thin, you disappear. So, we must carefully choose what we bring our attention to, because at some point, there won’t be any left.
This is best explained with some examples:
In this day and age of email, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, and Tinder, it is incredible easy to communicate with others in a rapid fashion. Maintaining relationships with people all over the world has never been simpler, so it’s easy to think that nowadays we can have more close friends than ever since the investment is relatively little.
In reality, our brains are only capable of handling so many human relationships at a time. According to a popular theory called Dunbar’s Number, the average number of people that we can actually maintain deep and meaningful connections with is about 150. Now, that’s a decent number, but of those 150, only about ten are going to be really close friends/family members. You know, the type you talk to frequently that you can call up at anytime to discuss anything and you really trust. This is the “inner circle”.
The people in your inner circle are extremely important and have a profound effect on you. To keep up this sort of connection, the investment of a lot of quality time and energy is required, which is why this type of relationship generally maxes out at ten. Any more than that, and the inner circle gets stretched too thin (not enough quality time with each one).
After that, I know from my experience that I can maintain about 30-40 more “buddies”, or people that I like and hang out with and know fairly well, but don’t communicate with regularly unless there’s a reason to. After that, there’s about 100 people that I’m acquaintances with, but generally don’t set up any one-on-one time. There’s just not enough time.
Over my life, I’ve known far more people than 150 (more like thousands), but as far as active relationships go at any one time, 150 feels about right, and ten-ish for the inner circle rings true as well. When new people come in, others go out. I’m only one person, so I only need a few really close relationships to be complete and happy. In fact, it’s better this way. The quality of relationships is the most important factor, not the quantity. Sure, I could have 1000’s of “friends”, but it would become stressful and near impossible to maintain high-quality relationships with all of them, and when it comes time support each other, would I really have a strong enough bond with anyone? To have high-quality relationships, I have to be there for people, which means I can’t be there for everyone. That’s what others are for.
This goes both ways, and that’s why I have been training myself to understand when people I like don’t have time for me. I get it. You already have your 150. It’s nothing personal, and I appreciate that. If ever we both have an opening, then hey, I’ll be happy to have you on board. Until then, I wish you the best with your high-quality relationships.
Work + Study
This is one that gets a lot of people, myself included. Modern technology makes it seem like we can work from anywhere, and for some people this is true. Because of this, it’s all too easy to let what is supposed to be a 40 hour workweek turn into more. There’s also a lot of drive in some people to succeed, and that passion can lead to overworking. The passion is good, but the chronic overworking is an issue and can lead to stress-related diseases.
I’ve done my fair share of long days before, and I’m very sure there are more to come. Shying away from work has never been my style, but I have learned that my best work happens when I’m refreshed and ready to go. This means I need downtime. Science agrees with this statement.
Cranking out ‘work’ for the sake of it has diminishing returns. Eventually, if you’re exhausted, you’ll be making mistakes and producing crap. Taking breaks, sleeping properly, and vacationing are all necessary to come back inspired, feeling creative, and excited about what you are doing. This is when the quality work happens and when you’ll really start to succeed.
Sometimes with work, less is more. The modern phrase is becoming “Work smarter, not harder”, and although this is sometimes misconstrued as optimizing yourself into a robot, the reality is that our smartest work comes when we are ready for it, not when we’re overwhelmed.
Working long and stressful hours periodically is not the problem. We can handle the odd extremely stressful day, provided we are ready for it. Rather, it’s the chronic stress over long periods of time that dulls our minds and bodies and leads to burnout. Overcommitting yourself to ridiculously long hours for weeks/months will wear you down, while the quality and quantity of your work suffers. Relaxation and having fun outside of work isn’t optional; it’s mandatory.
Here’s one I have definitely overdone many times in my life. I love exercise and it has improved my life in countless ways, and when it comes to improving your physical performance, intensity is king. Pushing yourself with squats, deadlifts, sprints, pullups, and presses will strengthen you and increase your athleticism. That being said, I have come to the point of diminishing returns in different ways many times. There is such thing as too much exercise.
I’m not talking about going for hikes or an easy swim in the ocean. If exercise is a part of you having fun and you feel good, don’t stop. What I’m really referring to is when people run themselves in the ground with intense training long past the point of any benefit. After 45ish minutes of intense weight lifting or cardiovascular activity, your body will start pouring out the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic excessive cortisol will disrupt your sleep, suppress your immune system, and cause you to lose muscle over time. This is overtraining, and it’s not cool.
This means more is not always better. I whole-heartedly support intense training (in fact I love it), but only to a point. Too much can sometimes be worse than none at all. As Mark Sisson would say:
Make your short, intense workouts even shorter and more intense, and your long, easy workouts even longer and easier.
– Mark Sisson
Just another example of quality over quantity.
All food is not created equal. You can eat junk all day but beyond pure caloric energy, you won’t get all the nutrients you need. You’ll still be hungry too. Eating natural, whole, unprocessed foods as the basis of your diet (primal/paleo style) is they key to being satisfied, strong, and healthy on less.
Think organic veggies, properly raised animal products (organs included), fruits, nuts, high-quality fats (coconut, olive, avocado etc.), and if you tolerate them, the best dairy products you can get. These foods will nourish you so effectively that the temptation to over consume just won’t be there.
Endlessly pounding back candy and chips is all too easy (been there…), but beyond the instant gratification, it won’t do anything for you. Grass-fed beef, buttered broccoli, and yams? You’ll become satisfied and well nourished, and stop thinking about food until your body actually needs it. Once again, quality beats out quantity.
Hobbies are fun. There is a lot of cool stuff to do out there, but you’ll never do it all. I’ve found that with a working schedule combined with a social life, you can only make progress on a few hobbies at a time without having to give up on other ones. If eventually mastering your chosen activities is something you’re interested in, it’s best to focus on a few and give them the energy they require, and be at peace with not pursuing other things. Truthfully, it’s the quality of your focus on a few hobbies that provides long-term satisfaction, not having numerous hobbies that you never have time to truly enjoy.
This became clear to me after reading Mastery, by George Leonard. In that book, he explains his vision of the path to mastery in any form. He also explains how being the ‘dabbler’ (moving from one hobby to the next), the Hacker (never progressing at your hobby), or the Obsessive (extreme efforts for short periods), will never truly provide satisfaction.
For me, this meant evaluating the hobbies that I pursue and deciding how I was going to get on the path to mastery. Throughout a calendar year I pursue different hobbies. In the summer I’m focused on playing ultimate frisbee and the outdoors (hiking). During the winter I become more interested in weightlifting and music. And to top it all off, I have come to truly enjoy writing for Sustainable Balance as a creative outlet (and now with a time consuming full-time job, I aim to post quality over quantity). That’s about it. There are others that pop up here and there, but I don’t really spend too much time on them.
Sometimes I get tempted to throw myself into martial arts, drawing classes, skydiving, and a myriad of other things but that would take away from the hobbies that I’m already focused on. When the time comes that I truly want to start something new, I will, but I will do so with the full awareness that I’m sacrificing another hobby.
Well, that brings me to the end. I’m hoping that my next 30 years will embody the concept of quality over quantity, and that when I find that things are over-complicated, I will have the discipline to eliminate or severely reduce the unnecessary and focus on the quality of what I truly need.
There’s only so much one person can experience, so aim for quality.