by Brian Tomasik
First published: 12 Mar. 2017; last update: 12 Mar. 2017

Summary

This piece explains my view that a moderate lifestyle is generally most advisable.

Introduction

When I was in elementary school, I learned about The Guinness Book of World Records. I got a few editions of the book and read them in the car, asking my family to guess the magnitudes of various records. A friend and I even created our own book of records set by people we knew, which we drafted on early word-processing software. One of the records I remember was that, as a child (around 2nd grade), I ate ~14 pieces of toast in a row when I was particularly hungry one night.

Harm caused by trying to break records

Records are interesting, and we tend to feel some admiration for record holders. Unfortunately, the incentive to break records can sometimes drive people to self-destructive behavior. As a result, Guinness has sometimes closed records:

The Guinness Book also dropped records within their "eating and drinking records" section of Human Achievements in 1991 over concerns that potential competitors could harm themselves and expose the publisher to potential litigation.[21] These changes included the removal of all liquor, wine, and beer drinking records, along with other unusual records for consuming such unlikely things as bicycles and trees.[21]

I would go further and argue that striving to achieve most records is generally self-harmful to some degree, whether physically or in terms of lost opportunity to better spend one's time, except in rare cases where breaking a record is overwhelmingly meaningful to one's life.

Many historical philosophers have argued in favor of moderation in one's life. There's a saying that "too much of anything isn't good for you". People generally converge on good ways of living, and it's plausibly unwise to stray too far outside of the range of practices that people have discovered to work. At least, if you do stray, you should realize that you're a human guinea pig.

The value of moderation

In my opinion, a good life—both in terms of personal satisfaction and usually also altruistic impact—involves balance among many things. For instance, it's useful to do some Ivory Tower learning and to have some exposure to "the real world". It's useful "to learn something about everything". It's useful to do some amount of exercise, get reasonable amounts of sleep, have some amount of social interactions, etc.

Setting records, or even just getting into extreme percentiles according to some metric, generally requires significant optimization for one or a few activities at the expense of most other aspects of life. There may be a few cases in which this is useful. For example, people who found billion-dollar companies are probably right to hyper-optimize for the company's success—at least for a few years until they become rich, at which point they should broaden horizons to, e.g., learn about where to best donate their earnings. There may be a few other domains in which there are increasing marginal returns to additional effort along a single dimension that are strong enough to outweigh the costs of sacrificing other dimensions (e.g., sleep, health, or broad education).

But for most of us, it seems that moderation is generally the best policy. This suggests to me that rather than praising those who achieve extreme feats, we should generally instead admire those who live balanced lives, except in cases where an extreme lifestyle is so socially valuable that it needs to be strongly incentivized. Likewise, I think this reasoning suggests that you shouldn't feel inferior for not setting records; you may be living a better life than those who pursue a more extreme path. For example, I suspect that I have a happier and more fulfilling life than many celebrities, Olympic athletes, rock stars, etc., although I don't have hard data on this.

In this piece I've been discussing records that people set by deliberate effort. My comments don't apply to achievements that result from luck, such as one's genes or success that one has mostly by accident. People who, by good fortune, end up having enormous positive impact on the world do accomplish much more than you, but this doesn't imply that you should adjust your life in response to this fact.