There is a point where two opposite extremes meet. For this world is not flat, but is a sphere.
Likewise, if you commit to one extreme, you will eventually embody the other as well.
Being severely underweight is like being severely overweight. In both conditions, the body is weak and lacking in energy. Physical tasks are extra-difficult. The heart is overworked—it races frequently, and may very well succumb to heart attack. In both conditions, the body tends to be malnourished in some way, whether it is lack of calories or lack of certain micronutrients.
From the outside, these states of being- underweight and overweight- appear very different. However, there are a number of similarities between them, and both have the same overall result: poor health.
To get these results, you can focus on only one of the extremes, and only take one path. If you try to combine the extremes by taking two paths at once, you’ll end up smack-dab in the middle of them. You will be an equal distance from each, meaning that you won’t actually be at either. You will not be at an extreme. Instead, you will be in the middle. In other words, you will be average.
The Extremes of Motivation
This is how polarity works. To attain peak motivation, you must choose one of two opposing paths. You can choose either the path of love, where you trust unwaveringly in life and focus on serving people, or you can choose the path of fear, where you fundamentally distrust life and everything in it, and focus on serving yourself so that you can attain a sense of security.
Love and fear are complete opposites. It is impossible to use both in any single moment. Still, you can try to. If you do this, however, you will be in a fog—you will lack clarity. You won’t be too sure of what you should do. You’ll want to connect with people and do good things for the world, and you’ll want to feel safe and protect yourself, too. But you cannot do both—not by trying to, anyhow.
The truth is that you can indeed do both. The way to do this, however, is by deliberately choosing to do only one. The paths of love and fear- of giving and receiving- do eventually meet. But if you try to make them meet prematurely you will end up on neither path. Instead you’ll have a foggy mixture of the two.
Making a committed, one-sided choice may seem like closing your options and limiting yourself. This is true—once you commit to a path, there are certain things you must do (and avoid doing) in order to stay on that path. You will have to stay aligned with the extreme you are after.
That being said, don’t let the apparent limits of the present blind you to the reality of the future, where the extremes will meet. It turns out that choosing the path of one extreme is actually much like being on two paths at once—that of the extreme, as well as that of its opposite extreme.
But, again, you can’t have this experience by shooting for the middle. There is no path to the middle. You are in the middle by default. You don’t need to go anywhere to get there. If you try to combine both extremes, and therefore choose the middle, then you will just stay where you are. Nothing will change—except maybe for your levels of frustration.
A Personal Example
One area of my life where I’ve been applying these ideas about extremes (aside from motivation itself) is running. About 10 months ago, I began doing exclusively-aerobic training. This means that I never exceed a certain level of exertion when I run. The point is to stay within your fat-burning zone, which is roughly 60-75% of your maximum heartrate (for me, this would be 120-150 beats per minute). I don’t have a heart rate monitor, so I’ve just been pacing myself based on how I feel.
The opposite of aerobic respiration is anaerobic respiration. Whereas aerobic respiration burns fat and is sustainable, anaerobic respiration burns carbohydrates, and cannot be sustained for long periods of time. Your body switches over to anaerobic respiration when your heartrate exceeds the fat-burning zone, and you work very hard.
In short, if you want to win a marathon, you need aerobic respiration. If you want to win a sprint, you need anaerobic respiration.
In the past 10 months, I haven’t respired anaerobically at all (it’s hard to say for sure, since I haven’t used a heart-rate monitor, but that is beside the point). I never breathe through my mouth. I don’t even remember what it’s like to enter an anaerobic state. It’s just not a thing that I do anymore.
At the start of my training this way, the exclusivity of this path was difficult to accept. In the beginning, never pushing myself too hard meant that I could barely run up hills. I had to walk to keep myself from exceeding the fat-burning zone. And when I did run, I was so slow it was silly. To an outside observer, it might have appeared that much of the fitness I had developed over 6 and a half years had vanished.
However, that was just an appearance. When you first begin on the path to an extreme, you will appear below average. Essentially, you are. You are departing from the middle, and for a time, you will appear to be inferior to the middle. But that is just an appearance. Stay on the path.
Improvements came about steadily, yet quickly. Soon I started running up parts of hills I had previously walked all the way up. As time went on I could run more and more of the hill, until finally I could run all the way up with ease.
Now, running up those hills is far easier than it ever was prior to beginning this type of training. And I can run up some pretty damn big hills.
Likewise, my running pace steadily got faster, too. 3 months after beginning aerobic training, I went for a 35 mile run that took 8 hours and 15 minutes. 5 months after that run, I went for a 35.5 mile run that took 7 hours and 20 minutes—I shaved off an hour. While the courses weren’t the same, I assure you they were both quite hilly. In fact, the elevation gain was greater on the faster, second run than on the first run (about a 300 foot difference, if MapMyRun is to be trusted).
With this type of training, I’ve found that it’s much easier to keep up with other people at longer distances, and as the race gets shorter, I fall farther behind. For instance, a person who I run slightly faster than in a 5K or a 10K passes me in the mile, and absolutely leaves me in the dust at any distance shorter than that (e.g. 800m, 1000m). The mile seems to be my “breaking point”: whenever I run a race shorter than one mile, I make a fool of myself. However, I have a feeling that that has to do more with psychology than with physical fitness. It’s hard to run very fast when you believe that you can’t.
The reason I got on this path is that I struggled with running for several years. In that time, I combined aerobic and anaerobic training—some days I did one, other days I did the other. When I raced, I thought the point was to work very hard, and be in an anaerobic state the whole time (ultramarathons aside).
However, every time I did that, I immediately felt fatigued. My legs felt like concrete blobs underneath me. Feeling like this brought me a lot of anxiety and self-pity, and those feelings in turn made running even harder.
Speed workouts (i.e. anaerobic training) were basically the same way. I began to question whether training this way was benefitting me at all, but I stuck with it for a few more months because I wasn’t sure of what else to do. I feared that if I stopped anaerobic training, I would lose what little speed I had left.
After the track season ended and I was left to make up my own workouts, I heard about exclusively-aerobic training from an ultrarunner named Rich Roll. Rich said, “If you want to run fast, you must first run slow.” He said that building your aerobic threshold takes a long time, but it is effective. Rich used this type of training to go from being sedentary and overweight to becoming an elite ultra-endurance athlete.
Because I had been struggling for so long, and I was now on my own, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying this path. Staying in the middle wasn’t working anymore. Why not shoot for one of the extremes?
10 months in, I am very pleased with how this type of training has gone. I’m not as fast as I was in the pre-struggle days, nor am I a very impressive runner, though I am faster (and consistently so) than I was during those struggle days (i.e. 1-2 years ago). Plus I feel 1000x better. Running is far more enjoyable now. :)
I intend on sticking with this path for a while, and I’m excited to see where it goes. Watch out—a few years from now I might be running 5-minute miles by your house… and I’ll look just like one of those anaerobic guys, even though I’m the opposite. :)
Which Extreme to Choose?
The opposite approach to aerobic training is described by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Body. He talks about a running coach named Brian MacKenzie, who prepares athletes for marathons by having them mostly do strength and speed workouts, consisting of sprints between 100- and 800m. He rarely has his athletes run farther than about 6 miles on any given day, nor more than 6 hours on any given week.
The basic idea is that a bit of anaerobic work, between running and strength training, provides all the aerobic ability necessary to run a marathon.
Contrast this with my approach, which is to run not-too-fast for 1-2 hours on most days, and much longer on others. I usually run at least 8 hours per week, and I’ve gone as long as 25 hours in a single week.
It is easy to say that the anaerobic approach is better, because it produces the same results in far less time.
I’m not denying that fact. However, I can’t say I want to take that approach. For one thing, I don’t want to switch now. The tree I planted 10 months ago is only a small sapling—it has a ways to go, and I don’t want to uproot it now. For another thing, I like the approach I’m using now. I enjoy the opposite extreme. It feels good.
The reality is that, in the long run, neither extreme is necessarily better than the other. They both produce results—ultimately, quite similar results. What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is which approach resonates with you more. All that really matters is that you choose your approach consciously, and that enjoy the experience of it.
There’s no need to bad-mouth the opposite extreme in order to justify the one that I’ve taken. In fact, choosing one extreme helps me to better understand the other extreme. The more extreme I go on one end, the clearer to me it is why people would go to the other end. I would go so far as to say that people at opposite extremes are more similar to each other than they are to people in the middle. A superhero can relate more easily to a supervillain than to an average citizen.
Find Your Extremes
Is there an area of your life that’s stagnant? Where you feel trapped in the middle? Is there anywhere that you’ve been combining two opposing approaches, and are getting mediocre results?
Are you trying to embrace the freedom of being an artist while simultaneously seeking external validity and security? If so, both sides of that coin will suffer for it.
Are you trying to help others, while also trying to protect yourself? Then you will become a master at neither.
Are you trying to connect with other people, while hoping that doing so will meet your emotional needs? Then you will not meet those needs—and you won’t connect, either.
Pick an extreme and go for it. You may worry that you’ll be limiting yourself, and you’ll only get half of what you want. But in the end, if you just stick with it, you can get the whole package. Stay on the path.