Please allow me to counter myself: fuck balance. There is nothing more important than purpose, and it comes with a steep price. But it’s a price that anyone should want to pay because, as I just declared, there is nothing more important than purpose. All the things we say we want – love, money, health, etc. – are inhabitants in the kingdom of purpose.
There’s a major difference between doing things and doing things. People living in the non-italicized state may think they comprehend some truth that the overweight mogul has missed; they are wrong. The mogul knew the rules – there is a steep price to pay – and decided to play anyway. Some on the path to doing things may pretend the rules don’t apply. They are also wrong. These are the people, specifically women in our current “The Future is Female” moment, who “want it all.” I want to be CEO AND a great mother AND healthy AND well-read AND a great spouse. Naw, it doesn’t work like that, because operating at the highest levels requires a form of singular purpose that blocks out other endeavors – maintaining concentrated purpose is hard enough that spreading it across disciplines is damn near impossible.
So what do I mean by doing things, by “having purpose”? Two useful metrics:
- The consumption index
- The competition index
#1 measures the amount of time one thinks about a certain thing. Is the idea there when you wake up? Do totally unrelated ideas somehow get filtered back through the lens of that thing? Do you feel guilty when not directly working on it? Yes, yes, yes means you pass.
#2 seems to have fallen out of fashion, which simply leaves a massive opening for those who harness its power. Too many today just aim to “get along” and want everyone to have a nice things and search endlessly for some explanation for disparate outcomes between peers as if it’s a cosmic injustice that everything doesn’t end in a universal tie for 1st place. This philosophy would be nice and all if it didn’t ignore the ugly (depending on your temperament) reality that reaching one’s peak almost always requires the motivation derived from competition with others. For every enlightened tennis player who is perfectly in the moment, only caring about the process, not the outcome, there is someone who trusts that the purpose gained from wanting to defeat, prevail, destroy is the edge of all edges:
“I just told myself before the match, ‘You know, I’m going to try to switch off as much as I can from what is happening around us, and just be there, be present.’ I thought I could have played better. But at the same time, one thing that probably allowed me to come back and save match points and win this match was the mental stability in those moments.
I guess that all of these things combined result in a courageous effort. There’s not a specific formula to find courage, at least from my perspective. You can go all out and just close your eyes and just hit the ball as hard as you can, you can call that courage. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it courage in some particular situations. You need to be constantly playing well throughout five hours if you want to win a match like this. I guess there is an endurance part. But I think there is always this self-belief. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re there for a reason and that you are better than the other guy.”
That’s Novak Djokovic, the man whose tennis-playing peak is higher than any human’s ever, explaining how he ultimately won Wimbledon 2019 despite losing on basically every statistical metric (and having the entire crowd against him). It’s fitting that this happened versus Federer, since Federer is perhaps the best ever at new-age-anti-competition philosophy as explained after winning the 2017 Australian Open:
“And here we stand in the finals,” Federer said to Nadal. “I’m happy for you. I would’ve been happy to lose to you, to be honest. Tennis is a tough sport; there’s no draws. But if there was going to be one, I would be very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa.” The crowd gasped so loudly—happy to lose?—that Federer added, “Really.”
We adore Federer for this. This adoration in part comes from a desire to believe that we humans are more than base desires to compete, because those base desires mean there are losers, and we fear being a loser.
This fear will keep us out of the ring entirely, in purpose purgatory, wandering through life hoping for some magical spark to grace us with the feeling of being ALIVE! But magic doesn’t exist. All that exists is your ability to make choices and understand that everything has tradeoffs; there is no medicine without side effects. Some, though, don’t even get to the cliff where choosing happens because they are never compelled enough by anything – I don’t know what I want to do with my life – to force cost/benefit exercises. You, however, are at that cliff. You, however, do know what you want to do, and you know some of the sacrifices required. You, like everyone, don’t get to be good at everything, and that will totally suck at times when you are even worse than average in many areas compared to balanced peers. A stark illustration from “Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry”:
But we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll play lip service to these sacrifices – we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the privation, the prefight celibacy, etc. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up-close and personal profiles” of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life – outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.
Now, I don’t actually think your life has to be that extreme1, even as I think that those extreme tradeoffs still net the upside of life’s highest form of living. That’s what this is all about: how best to live. I think you are a unique enough individual in a unique enough situation where you can opt out of mere existence. Of course, you have already done this in certain ways. But you can “push the envelope” more. And I, despite any previous equivocations about burn out or well-roundedness or balance or my own choices to step back, think that pushing it is a good thing.
- Needing to reside in a “very small” world is not necessary, I don’t think, for all paths, including yours. Your career benefits from you being multi-talented in a way an athlete never would because your success in many ways depends on people liking you. And one of the surest ways to be liked is to be interesting. And one of the surest ways to be interesting is to be preposterously diverse – jumping from law talk to “oh yea, I can fly” to sports exploits and on and on.