Saturday, February 25, 2012
Law of Diminishing Returns
Everyone who has a goal exerts an effort toward achieving that goal. Typical of overachievers (or hardheads), they press on even more. As a culture, we are told that with greater effort, tenacity and perseverance results will come abundantly. “Work is its own greatest reward.”
The Law of Diminishing Returns states otherwise. The law states that with increased and sustained effort toward a goal, the return will actually decline. We see this in athletics: overtraining can result in strained ligaments, torn muscles, increased irritability, disrupted sleep and joint pain. Run too hard too often and too long and you’re not gonna be running much at all very soon.
Consider my beloved yoga. I recently read that too much yoga-inspired meditating can slow the metabolism and counteract any muscle building the work can impart. Obviously taking a pose beyond what our bodies can withstand can cause injury and clearly issues with inversions (headstands, backbends and similar poses) can royally mess up the spine. Would you rather unwind or unravel?
The Law of Diminishing Returns reigns in personal relationships and dynamics: stalkers go to prison.
All too often, all that pushing, working, believing, and wishing will be the undoing of the effort. Tenacity sometimes can kick your own ass.
Take Thing 2 for example. This evening, he wanted to go outside after dinner to play and we said no because it was too cold, too dark and very windy outside. As I type, I can hear the winds, they are gusting at about 35 mph. Our neighborhood has a lot of old trees with brittle branches and that is that. We have learned over the years to head him off at the pass: to offer the reasons and conditions for our decision before he has a chance to whine, “But whhhhy?” I said no. Not two minutes later, he asks again, but in this way, “So you don’t want me to go out after dinner?” And we both said no.
Thing 2: “I’m asking DAD. So DAD, you don’t want me to go out after dinner?”
Dad: [I love this]: “What did your mother say?”
Thing 2: “I’m asking you. Can-I-go-out-side-af-ter-din-ner?”
Dad: “Again, I ask you, what did your mother say? She said ‘no,’ right?”
Thing 2: “Yes, but I want to know what you say, Dad.”
Dad: “If your mother says ‘no’ then I say ‘no’ and that’s it.”
. . . . . . . . . . Kiss of death:
Thing 2: “Guuuuh … huff. But I waaaaant toooooooo…”
Dad: “You’re about to lose playing outside tomorrow. Now sit down and eat.
That is a prime example of the Law of Diminishing Returns.
For all of us, Thing 2 included, our id (the wah-wah baby in us) is the voice that says go ahead, keep trying harder, ask again, ask louder, get what you want, go faster, push again. We like that voice because we want to be rewarded with bigger, better, stronger, faster, richer, smarter -- because why? Because we know best. We know that our goal is the best goal. Oh, and because when you get what you want, you’ll be a different, a stand-out; you’ll be NOTICED.
Bobby Brady tried it when he wanted to be taller: he used the backyard swing set to stretch himself so he’d grow a couple inches to impress a girl. It didn’t work.
So if we have the id, what about the other voice? The super ego, the rational one, the one that says, “give it time and it will work out.” “Don’t overdo, you might get overdone.” In most first-world nations we push that annoying, nasaly, Felix Unger voice off the nearest cliff. Surely our super ego or even our intuition can’t be right. Intuition? That’s so … Fiji and woo-woo. In our world of watching a movie on our phones while waiting in line at a store or paying a premium to block access to WiFi at hotels and resorts, acting with our intuitive intelligence doesn’t always fly. If there’s no app for that, we don’t want it. Go Go GO!
Quite often tenacity works and it’s great: you study hard and you get a good grade. You work long hours and your boss gives you a raise. You watch what you eat, exercise with care and you lose weight and gain energy. You show kindness and patience to a new friend and you are rewarded with a solid relationship. It’s good.
How can our tenacity kick our asses? Well, when we push the boundaries sometimes. Duh. No, I mean if we involve other people, tenacity can backfire. For example: What about the partner, the child, the friend who continually implores an addict to change his or her behavior? It’s at moments like this when tenacity has become our enemy.
Consider the popular phrase, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It dovetails beautifully for someone who loves someone else so much that he or she loses his or her self in their beloved’s problems: the partner nags, pushes, reads, researches, hides, distracts, connives, plans, schemes, dreams and wishes, tries again and never gives up thinking or hoping that things will change. And guess what? The addict does almost exactly the same thing, but just in the opposite direction: hides, schemes, lies, steals, distracts and dreams that things will stay the same but that the other person will change.
I was in a strained and significant relationship where I wanted to thank someone for something. I didn’t want to let that person think that I didn’t appreciate their efforts despite any challenges in the relationship. I was in a good place emotionally and so I started to write a letter of gratitude and appreciation and unfortunately, it morphed into a place where I apologized for any strain I had placed on things but my apology wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t look away from the bright and shiny trophy that I felt we both deserved if we owned our parts in the challenges. It was at this point that things went a little pear-shaped but they reformed before the end of the letter. The letter was never sent because I realized that it wasn’t pure and isolated. Despite the fact that I’d printed the letter, folded it, put it in an envelope, addressed it, sealed it and put a stamp on it and walked it to my outgoing mailbox, I realized several hours later that I wasn’t ready to send it. Even with all of my best intentions, and all those letter-closing actions I knew I had created a back-handed compliment and I had twisted and contorted my way around the communication to sincerely thank the person but also suggest, “by the way, you’re welcome for my putting up with all your manipulative crap…” which wasn’t altogether fair.
So I told my therapist about that attempt. She said it was a noble idea but she was glad I pulled the letter out of the mailbox. She knows I’m a word freak and that I shroud my emotions under my intellect, it’s a protective mechanism. She gave me homework. She said, “Instead of sending that letter of gratitude to your person, I want you to come up with an appreciation of yourself. I want you to thank yourself.”
I said, “You want me to thank myself?! Well THANK YOU!” and I sprang up from my seat on the couch, grabbed her box of tissues and beaned her with it. Gave her a shiner. Then she called security and had me arrested.
No, actually we didn’t do that. I sat on the couch and festered. I didn’t like this assignment because after mostly being on the couch for a few years, I knew that where we she was taking me was not Dairy Queen. It was going to be a mahogany-paneled library in my mind where great thinkers thought in leather chairs and considered great things. I had to do some work. “Ok, I’ll thank myself. This is not as easy as it sounds, y’know.” And you know what she said? She said, “I know. Good.”
So naturally, it had to be something major. I was lost. After a couple days of head-scratching, I went to the most sagacious place I knew: Facebook. I posted my status, “If you were going to thank yourself for something, what would it be?” and I got some answers that were good, but not right for me. They were lovely reasons, but they were extrinsic. I needed to go deep, down the sidelines and turn to receive a great pass and take it in for a home run. (I don’t watch much hockey.)
After the Facbook consult, I continued on. I didn’t forget about the assignment and I stayed on task, driven to distraction and the only word I could come up with, for myself when I considered all of my life and the story I had created in it was “TENACITY.” I laughed at the irony of how I’d finally arrived at it. I never gave up.
So all chest-puffy and feathers fluffed I marched in to my therapist's office about a week later and plopped on the couch.
“I know why I’d thank myself. I figured it out. It took me a while, but I did it and it makes perfect sense and it’s the most appropriate and good reason: I thank myself for my tenacity. For never giving up. For always swinging and putting in the good effort and for always believing things could happen and get better and that good times were just around the corner. I love that about myself. And that tenacity has made me a good mom and a good friend and a good person.”
My therapist has this cute mouth that reminds me of a turtle: right at the center of the upper lip she has a delicate dip and she has a sincere smile. Her smile did not belie her plan: she had me. And up went an eyebrow and down went the pen on to her notepad and as clear as the sky on a crisp fall day, she said, “Great. Tenacity is a noble quality and it has been good to your children and your friends and your family and the PTA and community, but has it really been good to YOU?”
My head tilted, my eyes locked and drilled, my neck unrolled and I said, “Urruh?” I felt I looked like my (incredibly gorgeous and talented) dog when he’s watching a squirrel on our front stoop through our storm door and he Can’t! Reach! The! Squirrel! “Urruh? Of course tenacity has been good to me. Pish posh. I’m there! I did it. I thanked myself! Tenacity is good; you agreed. Right? I mean, since when is optimism and perseverance a bad thing? Since when is commitment and never throwing in the towel . . . and never quitting . . . and believing a . . . better day is . . . just around . . . the . . . cor--- ner. . . a bad . . . idea? Oh . . . . . . . . . . shit.”
And from across the coffee table, my therapist scribbled, scribbled, scritched, scratched, nodded, nodded, “mm-hmm”-d and nodded … “And so when has tenacity been unkind to you?” she asked from her notepad.
“It’s been unkind to me and a foolish idea when the goal is out of my control. It’s a bad idea when it’s clearly not gonna happen. It’s a bad idea when the other factors don’t align; when the other person is out to lunch, when the other players are on a different field, playing a different sport, or are on the . . . worse: playing for the opposite team.”
That is when tenacity is bad. That is when the law of diminishing returns becomes your best friend: when you realize that what you’ve been doing, pushing, believing, pursuing, idealizing, praying for and dreaming about is simply never going to happen.
Does that mean your goal, your ideal is absurd? Not in a vacuum, no. Say you have a situation that is truly wrong: a friend who is unfaithful to its spouse. You disagree with the infidelity; you lecture, you listen, you engage, you debate, you defend and you hold your ground: that infidelity is wrong. The thing here isn’t whether your goal of honorable behavior is bad or good (it’s good). The thing is that your tenacity, your moxie will be your undoing. Your friend might not give a patoot if you are right or wrong; afterall, the id and its drives motivate that person and your id and probably super ego are what are motivating you to fight for truth and justice. But it’s a waste of your time because it’s not your battle.
So while tenacity is great, sometimes giving up is better. Hanging on to wishes, ideals, goals, hopes and dreams that you can never realize for someone or something else is effort, energy and time you will never get back. And that, sports fans, is a bummer.
So be tenacious about yourself by paying attention to the Law of Diminishing Returns, for it comes down always at the right time and its judgment is flawless. Having my tenacity turned on its head is the most liberating thing that could have ever happened to me.
ps - i wrote this in Word, that's why my I's are capitalized. a'hem. :o}