“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Excuse me while I empty my bowels into the nearest toilet.
Please understand, it’s not that I disagree with the sentiment – nothing could be further from the truth – it’s that the phrase has been bastardized to the point where it no longer strikes a chord with us. Like anything we’ve had “beaten into us” for as long as we can remember, we’re callous and downright sick of hearing it for the umpteen-millionth time.
So what does this mean? Why do we find it so hard to live a life of moderation?
To answer this question, I’d like to focus on the dangers of excessive behavior that take us well beyond moderation or balance – specifically, the two ends of the spectrum, from laziness to obsession.
Our society prides itself on extremes. “You can never be too rich or too thin” is a persistent message. “We have a more is better algorithm built in,” says Glenn Geher, a psychologist at SUNY New Paltz. For example, he continues, “we evolved to like fatty food, but too much isn’t good. So many substances or stimuli are beneficial in certain amounts, but then reach a tipping point after which they become harmful. We don’t naturally moderate ourselves because, in ancestral conditions, we didn’t have to.”1
Many hover around the light-to-none end of the exercise spectrum, which is not surprising considering that early humans didn’t have to gather the will to work out for an hour. “A more adaptive tendency for them was to move as little as possible to conserve energy,” Geher says. “And that was fine because, with a nomadic lifestyle, they were already getting way more exercise than the typical modern-day American.”
To some degree or another, we all focus on the now at the expense of planning for later. This is especially true of “passionate” or “obsessive” people (usually those type-A folks I talk so much about). According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, “many activities that we overdo at the moment have a negative impact somewhere in the future. No particular cigarette is the one that kills a person; it’s the accumulation of toxins over time that creates negative health consequences. The motivational system doesn’t take that long-term consequence strongly into account. It just decides: ‘This feels really good right now, so let’s do it.'” 2
We’ve evolved into seeing things in black and white rather than shades of gray. When presented with a “life or death” situation where every second counts, blunt decisions are useful. Thankfully for most of us, that’s not a decision we have to make regularly. Instead, the day-to-day, seemingly mundane decisions require a more nuanced assessment.
I’ve touched on a couple of related concepts in other posts, including how “busy” everyone is or how we’re always reaching, striving for more because we’ve failed to determine what “enough” means in our lives. But the problem is that when we aspire to extremes, we risk losing control of our ambitions, which soon collapse into the opposite of what we’re striving for: an obsession.
The Dark Side of Obsession
So what’s wrong with being obsessed? Isn’t being passionate about something a part of life? Doesn’t it show that we care and are committed to an outcome? Won’t it make our life more fulfilling and meaningful? Yes and no.
Like most things in life, there’s no free lunch. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. It’s a double-edged sword. Pick your analogy.
One of the reasons we have such difficulty accepting that moderation is the key to happiness is our innate compulsion to compare ourselves to others. Pick any field and identify its most successful individuals. I’d make a strong wager that few (if any) reached such heights without two things: obsession and sacrifice. Obsession always demands sacrifice; I think of sacrifice as the oxygen which allows obsession to live.
Can you be the best at something without being obsessed? No, I don’t think so. But ask yourself why. Why do I care about being the best? What am I striving for? What void am I hoping to fill in my endless pursuit of something that will (most likely) always be out of reach?
You see, that’s the thing about an obsession. It’s a quenchless thirst, a hunger you can never satisfy. No amount of success will ever be enough.
No better example comes to mind when thinking about the dark side of obsession than Michael Jordan.
When Michael Jordan accepted his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, it was evident that he was a bitter, unhappy man. In fact, for a guy who won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, five MVP awards, and two gold medals, Jordan’s speech almost sounded as if he’d never won anything.3
What more did Jordan need to prove? Who else did he need to impress? How could a man worth nearly $2 billion with all the accolades we just mentioned not feel complete, satisfied, and fulfilled?
Most acceptance speeches feature a lot of “thank yous”. The awardee takes the opportunity to show gratitude to those who have contributed to their success in the most public of manners.
But no, instead of gratitude, instead of humility, Michael Jordan just roasted everyone – and I mean everyone. He even found a way to knock the Hall of Fame for raising ticket prices for which he had to pay. Remember that $2 billion I just mentioned (pity, party of none?) – let’s move on.
He had one night to show the world the real, genuine Michael Jordan – the man behind the curtain, er basketball – and he blew it.
First, he laid into his high school coach for not putting him on the varsity squad (as a sophomore) and even flew in the guy who beat him out for the position. “He somehow found a way to throw barbs at his former coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith, which just seems impossible, and naturally went on to cut down the architect of the Bulls dynasty, longtime Chicago GM Jerry Krause.”4
Nobody was safe from Jordan that night. He ripped numerous NBA legends, more of his old coaches, his college roommate, and even his own brothers and kids to a point. For the vast majority of the speech, Jordan comes across as insecure, trapped in a labyrinth of petty personal vendettas. Instead of remembering all his great moments, he spent most of the time with “I showed you,” “You should have known better,” “Don’t cross me again,” and other provocations. As sportswriter “Hacksaw” Hamilton puts it:
The night at the podium should have been cast with remembrances of Jordan winning the NBA trophy and lying on the floor weeping, remembering his late father. It was the Bulls star kissing the MVP trophy. Him hugging Scotty Pippen. A photo with his legendary coach Phil Jackson, smoking cigars. It was the crossover dribble, the thundering slam dunks, and sizzling hot three point shots, the legendary steals and fast breaks going the other way. Michael Jordan’s nights should have been remembered. The 69-point outburst against Cleveland; 63 in the playoff loss to Bird and Boston; 55-against the Suns. 13-shots in a row that fell in one playoff game. On and On. It should have been a special night, but it wasn’t. Michael Jordan turned the party into bitch session, railing against all those who wronged him.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports sums up the speech noting that:
This wasn’t a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria. He had a responsibility to his standing in history, to players past and present, and he let everyone down. This was a night to leave behind the petty grievances and past slights – real and imagined. This was a night to be gracious, to be generous with praise and credit.5
Why am I spending so much time talking about one man’s story? Because Michael Jordan probably wouldn’t have achieved the level of success he has had he not been a brutal competitor, obsessed with winning at all costs.
Jordan embraced the dark side of obsession. He didn’t care what his teammates, or anyone else, thought when it came to winning and being a champion. No sacrifice was too great, no cost was too high.
Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.– Carl Jung
One more example is the story of Tom Brady, specifically as it relates to his short-lived retirement and recent divorce. Again, most of us know the details, so I’ll touch on the highlights.
On February 1, 2022, Tom Brady announced via Twitter, “I have loved my NFL career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.”6 He went on to say, “It’s not always what I want. It’s what we want as a family, and I’m going to spend a lot of time with them and figure out in the future what’s next.”7 There was much more to the post, but the bottom line was that it was over. He was hanging it up.
Now, Brady’s retirement was not unexpected: at age 44, he’d been the oldest player in the NFL during the previous season. And he had been talking for years about wanting to spend more time with his wife, Gisele Bündchen, and his three children.
And then, on March 13, just 40 days later, he says, “jk lol.” Well, maybe he didn’t use that exact acronym, but the message was the same. He tweeted: “These past two months I’ve realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands. That time will come. But it’s not now. I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. They make it all possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa. Unfinished business LFG.”
What transpired in 40 days for Tom Brady to pull a complete 180? What happened to “It’s not always what I want. It’s what we want as a family…”? What “unfinished business” could Brady possibly have? Seriously. With a net worth of $250+ million and widely considered to be the greatest NFL quarterback of all time (if not the greatest player of all time), what more was there to prove? Here are some of Tom Brady’s accomplishments.
- 7x Super Bowl Champion
- 5x Super Bowl MVP
- 3x NFL MVP
- 15x Pro Bowl
- 5x NFL Passing Touchdowns Leader
- 4x NFL Passing Yards Leader
- 2x NFL Offensive Player of the Year
- 3x First-Team All-Pro
What is enough? What will it take for Tom Brady to feel his “business is finished”? He clearly has that insatiable thirst. It’s highly doubtful that money and accolades still fuel his need for “more.” Quite the opposite; it’s been said that Brady, in fact, isn’t obsessed with winning (though he’s pretty good at it) but rather with the never-ending process of getting better. As Ryan Holiday so eloquently puts it, “that’s his drug…that’s the dragon he chases.”8
My intent is not to judge Tom Brady. I know nothing of the man beyond what I read in the news and the occasional story I stumble across on TV, and I treat all such outlets with a healthy level of skepticism. And yet, beyond all the speculative journalism, beyond the “juicy” details, is the simple question: why?
In an article for CNN, Brady said, “I haven’t had a Christmas in 23 years and I haven’t had a Thanksgiving in 23 years, I haven’t celebrated birthdays with people that I care about that are born from August to late January. And I’m not able to be at funerals and I’m not able to be at weddings.”9 The truth is, the life of a professional athlete, regardless of their fame or success, requires tremendous selfishness and focus. From the physical and mental demands to the relentless travel schedule, it takes a toll on even the most decorated stars.
With rare exceptions, the celebrities at the highest level (usually those who make the most money) have the least control over their lives. Yes, I know; how much sympathy can we assuage for a man worth a quarter of a billion dollars? As former MLB baseball player Curt Flood said, “A well-paid slave is, nonetheless, a slave.”10
So where’s the “tragic downfall” of Tom Brady, the “fall from grace?” It may seem premature to speculate, as the “story” seems yet to be told. But I’ll conclude by asking one question. Was Brady’s inability to define “enough” in his own life what ultimately led to the end of his marriage?
We have to at least admit that it’s possible, if not probable.
To be fair, I’m not a marriage counselor. I don’t even play one on the internet, nor do I tout myself as the “world’s greatest husband” (just ask my wife). However, regardless of the reasons behind any (well, most divorces), there is an inherent level of sadness. If nothing else, divorce is sad because it’s probably not what either party intended when they committed their lives to one another.
While Brady and his ex-wife parted ways amicably, Giselle has spoken to numerous outlets about her dismay with Tom for changing his mind and coming out of his short-lived retirement.
“Obviously, I have my concerns—this is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present,” she says. “I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again. But ultimately, I feel that everybody has to make a decision that works for [them]. He needs to follow his joy, too.”11
At what point is “following our joy,” walking our path, and choosing what we want to do worth the cost of leaving everyone else behind?
Was it Brady’s choice to return to the NFL that ultimately led to his divorce? I have no idea, but that’s really not the point. Tom Brady has an obsessive drive and thirst for greatness like few the world has ever seen. This obsession has undoubtedly been the foundation of his success and longevity. But was the cost of greatness worth the price? Only Tom can answer that question.
It’s not what we have in life, but who we have in our life that matters.– J.M. Laurence
Looking at the lives of Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, I’d guess that most people see nothing but two of the greatest athletes ever to walk the earth. And that’s an understandable conclusion to draw. Of course, there’s no denying their success, their well-deserved accolades, and their enormous wealth. But a closer look at their lives gives us an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.– Epicurus
First, let’s clear up a couple of common misconceptions about moderation.
Seeking a life of moderation doesn’t mean you’re accepting a life of mediocrity, nor are you lazy or lacking drive. Unfortunately, many of us fall into that thought trap, especially those type-A folks (myself included) I talk so much about. We must alter this mindset.
The quote below quantifies the reason why we must seek moderation.
Everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation.– Seneca
I was discussing this topic with a dear friend, and one of the words he uses when talking about obsessive nature is intensity. While many of us share similar interests, what’s unique are our levels of intensity for each of those traits. And it’s the amount of intensity that will ultimately determine the challenges we face.
The chart above needs little explanation. The further we slide to one end or the other, the less balanced our lives will be. Whether you find yourself at the lazy end of the spectrum or obsessed, you will sacrifice other areas of your life. The repercussions may not be immediately apparent, but rest assured, like a silent, deadly cancer that begins unnoticed, give it time, and it will rear its ugly head and destroy you.
A key to moderation is not becoming fixated on one part of life but taking a big-picture view so that assessing your overall balance of priorities is possible.
Do You Have an Obsession?
So when does a passion cross the line and become an unhealthy obsession? How do you identify it? Ask yourself the following questions, and if you answer yes to even one, you may have a problem.
- Does the thing you’re passionate about come with specific goals or aspirations that are unlikely ever to be fulfilled? Or, in other words, will your hunger ever be satisfied? Be honest with yourself. You likely already know the answer, but it may take time to admit it fully.
- What are you sacrificing to pursue your passion? Do any of those things ultimately hold more value in your life than the passion?
You might ask, But can I be truly great at something without being obsessed? The answer is, probably not. But neither can you be truly great at something without making tremendous sacrifices in other areas of your life. Are you willing to pay the price?
And even if you can convince yourself that yes is the answer to that last question, ask yourself the following:
How likely am I to achieve the greatness I’m striving for? You may not have an immediate answer, and that’s ok. In the meantime, here’s another question to think about: If I’m not successful in accomplishing what I’ve set out to achieve, can I live with the possible ramifications and guilt of my decision?
What’s left at the end of the day? What will you have to show for it? Whether you accomplish your goal or not, the answer to those questions is surprisingly similar. You see, . No one cares about it as much as you do.
Obsession is selfishness to the extreme. There is no more explicit expression of selfishness than to possess an insatiable obsession. We like to think that those around us – friends, family, fans – are as invested in our success as we are, but they’re not. This belief is merely our attempt to lessen the selfishness of our obsession. Don’t let yourself fall for it.
So much of this obsessive nature is connected to why we must fight to define what is enough in our lives. Once we know what we value, we’ll stop trying to chase things we’ll never be able to obtain.
As cliche as it sounds, life is about balance. Too much energy and focus in one area lead to an absence or avoidance in others. Symptoms of this balance shift include discord, bitterness, and regret. These might not be evident right away, but when they hit you, it will be rather like a baseball bat to the side of your head – its impact creating an all but (if you’re lucky) fatal blow.
My advice: avoid the painful wakeup call. Instead, heed the warning signs and strive to keep balance in your life. You’ll be glad you did.
1 | The Stoic Range of Virtue: In Defense of Moderation by Alex J. Hughes (October 26, 2017).
2 | Moderation is the Key to Life by Carlin Flora (Psychology Today, July 4, 2017).
3 | Michael Jordan Completely Embarrassed Himself During His Hall of Fame Speech… by Luke Norris (Sportcasting.com, May 15, 2021).
5 | Jordan’s Night to Remember Turns Petty, Adrian Wojnarowski (Yahoo Sports, Sept. 12 2009).
6 | Tom Brady Announces his Retirement from the NFL by James Doubek, (NPR Feb 1 2022).
7 | Tom Brady announces his retirement from the NFL after 22 seasons (Sky Sports, July 2, 2022).
8 | Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday.
9 | Tom Brady opens up about his divorce from Gisele (CNN, Nov. 1, 2022).
10 | The Bottom Line: The life of a professional athlete isn’t all glitz and glamour (Daily Trojan, April 17, 2019).
11 | Gisele Rides Again by Chantal Fernandez (Sept. 13, 2022).