Be Even Steven

Moderation leads to a happy and healthy life, while extremes cause an unsustainable pattern of highs and lows.  Can moderation also lead to a successful life in all important aspects?  Being Even Steven (apologies to the women reading this – there seems to be no female version) does not mean a life of mediocrity.  Rather, being an Even Steven means balancing out all parts and not allowing one portion to receive outsized attention over the rest.  It ensures that we develop and improve across the board and in a well-rounded manner.

Building above average lives with above average families is the goal of this blog.  Take a look at your normal bell curve:

In a normal bell curve, Mu (µ) represents the average, while Sigma (σ) represents standard deviation.  The bell curve is pretty representative of most parts of our lives (finances, career, family, etc).  However, the bell curve is not representative for investments, as most investments have what’s known as a fat left tail (potential for big losses).  That is a topic for another blog post though.  Most people (68%) fall within one standard deviation of average in most parts of life.  Pretty ho hum, with some people modestly above average and some modestly below average.  These are individuals with the desire but not the work ethic to improve their lives.  They are also not bouncing from job to job or likely to end up in jail.  Add in another standard deviation, and you will get almost the entire population- 96% of people.  These include the high performers on the right hand side, and your lazy brother-in-law who smokes weed and plays video games all day on the left hand side.

Above three standard deviations sits the Elon Musks, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfreys and Warren Buffets of the world.  Being above three standard deviations (in the top 0.1%) in any part of your life requires sacrificing all the other parts of your life.  Elon Musk is an amazing visionary, but has also had three divorces.  Neglecting family, health, and even spirit is pretty common in this group, since you must devote nearly 100% of your time and energy to getting into the top 0.1% of wherever you choose to excel.

Being within two to three standard deviations above average represents our goal.  My career and finances are important to me but so is living a healthy lifestyle, playing with my kids and watching them grow, and enjoying the relationship I have with my wife.  Being in the top 2-3% in as many things as possible will lead to a very successful life that is more balanced, healthy, and fulfilling.

Lack of Balance

A lack of balance can lead to a cascade of failures.  Burnout exists and is a real threat to regular, continued progress.  Extremes in any one area of life are just too stressful.  To achieve the extreme, one must abide by too many rules and too many restrictions.  Imagine wanting to become a top ten triathlete.  Becoming a top ten triathlete requires four to six hours of training a day, in the pool, on the bike, and on the track.  It requires a very strict diet and sometimes, very expensive equipment.  This training schedule and diet must be kept up for years, if not longer.  Meanwhile, your career suffers because you can’t put in the hours needed to be a peak performer at the office, your family suffers because between work and training you have no time to spend with them, and even your spirit suffers because you spend your entire life focused on a single goal.  Contrast that with wanting to become a top 10% triathlete as opposed to a top ten.  Training can be cut back to one to two hours a day, and your diet can be strict but more relaxed.  Fitting an hour or two of training in a day is doable, while still allowing a full day at the office and a few hours of family time each evening.

Few high performers have the level of self-discipline needed to balance out the need to be above average in all important aspects of your life as opposed to going gung-ho in just one area.  Declaring a lack of self-discipline for ultra-high performers may sound odd, but it’s true.  Self-discipline needs to exist in more than one area of your life.  A dinner party companion with only one interest would get fairly dull pretty quickly.  A dinner party companion that can discuss a variety of topics would be one to spend a few hours with.  The balance demonstrated by our dinner companions allows someone to recharge their batteries.  Self-discipline includes self-reflection and self-moderation.  Knowing when you are going overboard and pulling yourself back is just as important as maintaining accountability and preventing yourself from slipping.  These are the yin and yang of deliberate practice.  Moderation means there is no need to “take a break” or “give yourself a treat” because you’ve been so focused on a single goal or process.  Slow but continual improvement really does allow you to do amazing things over time.

Furthermore, practicing moderation makes greater sense from a biological perspective.  Humans are not meant to be super-specialists; we are meant to be generalists.  Just like listening to the same song over and over again quickly makes you sick of it, so too does working only on your fitness or career after a while.  Working too hard in one area will require a longer break in order to renew your drive.  Taking a break is a risk.  New habits form and suddenly all that hard work reverses.

Moderation in All Areas

Practicing moderation means keeping all areas of life balanced.  This is the most important point to remember.  However, practicing moderation within each area of life helps as well.  Let’s walk through some specifics to demonstrate how:

  1. Overall: Keep a reasonable balance in time, effort, and resources spent on each of the following points. For most of us, career will be the largest allocation of time and effort.  However, try to refrain from going overboard.  Spending more than 40-60 hours a week in total, including time spent on side projects, can lead to burnout or sub-optimal outcomes in other areas.  Similarly, spending all of your free time on reading investment articles and books may make you a better investor, but could hurt your relationships with your spouse and children.  Be well-rounded and interested in a lot of topics.
  2. Career: As mentioned above, your career is likely the biggest use of time and effort in your life. Stress can build slowly through time only to suddenly appear like a knife-wielding, crazy ex-spouse.  As part of designing your ideal life, determine the proper work-family-health-spirit balance.  Write down all of the areas of your life that are important to you and put the processes and systems in place to ensure that you take care of those parts as well.  Look after your well-being, and be sure to incorporate good health, a strong family life, and great social structure.  You are working to live and not the other way around.  Remember that you are building something more important than just a career; you’re building an exceptional family in an exceptional life.
  3. Family: Planning balance and moderation in your family is important to all members, but especially if you have kids.  Make sure that family activities don’t overwhelm the calendar.  As your children get older, the pressure to put them in every activity all the time in order to build their resumes can be intense.  Allow your kids to be kids, and plan some free time.  Also, try to vary the types of activities you do together.  Not every family activity needs to be an all day trip to the theme park.  Game and pizza night, or a nice afternoon in the park create bonding experiences and lasting memories just as well.
  4. Health: Health and fitness are often activities taken to the extreme. The gym is always packed in January (not so much in September though) and there’s a new diet fad every month.  Don’t follow the herd.  Instead, eat sensibly and design a workout program that builds in time for rest.  Follow Michael Pollan’s advice and “Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Too Much.”  Get your heartbeat up and racing four to five times a week, and if you’re up for it, do some free weight or machine exercises.  Much like most things in life, good health is simple to understand in theory but tough to follow in practice.  Use your best judgement and don’t go overboard.
  5. Finances: Finances can also be taken to the extreme. Spenders and savers both can go too far.  Most people fall into the camp of spending too much relative to their income, but on the other side, especially within the FIRE community, some save such an extreme amount as to not allow any flexibility or fun in their lives.  Frugality only gets you so far, and the best way to build moderation into your finances is to make an above average income.  A family making $150,000 per year in a reasonably priced city should be able to save at least 30% of their income (pre-tax retirement savings and after-tax savings combined) and still live a very comfortable lifestyle.  Minimizing fixed expenses, including paying off your mortgage early, can allow for incredibly high savings rates while cutting few corners.  Imagine not having a $1,800 mortgage payment or a $200 cable or satellite plan.  The same goes for your investment portfolio.  Going to the extremes, either buying all high-risk assets or putting everything in US T-Bills, often leads to poor outcomes.
  6. Relationships: I’m going to single out men here, myself included, because we tend to not take care of our social lives very well. Women, generally speaking, seem to have a much more refined set of social skills for building and supporting a strong network of friends and families.  A loner leads a pretty sad and dull life, while an epic social butterfly lacks time for themselves.  Creating your tribe helps with life’s little hiccups, particularly as you age, get further away from your college years, and start a family.  Be the person who keeps up with their relationships, and find time to meet up and have a drink once in a while.
  7. Personal/Emotions: Try your best to moderate your emotions. Be the rock your family needs to stay grounded.  Swinging from elation to depression can try even the strongest of us.  Practice spirituality to help lift your mood, create steadiness, and connect yourself to something greater.  Balance out social time with solitude to regroup and refresh.

Be Even Steven

Being a more balanced person has benefits in all areas of life.  It helps to bring contentment and happiness, even when things go awry.  An Even Steven leads a life of better health, better finances, better family, and a better soul.  Balance and moderation allow for continual progress without the need for “cheat days” or the possibility of burnout.  Moderation does not imply that everything in life is simplified to its most basic or that stress and anxiety disappear.  It means that life does not swing from one extreme to the other.

Moderation does not imply mediocrity either.  On the contrary, moderation is key for building an above average life in many areas as opposed to just one.  Instead of trying to be the top .1% or top 1%, try to be in the top 3% or top 5%.  Making the jump from average to the top 5% is not as challenging as it seems.  Making the jump from the top 5% to the top 1% is an incredible hurdle.

Build a life worth living.  Moderation allows us to enjoy some of the better things in life while still maintaining control and self-discipline.  Extremes don’t allow for longevity, so plan appropriately and put the right processes in place.

Keep building my friends.

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