A tennis player hoping some day to be at the US Open improves their serve; hits it harder and deeper. Good! They practice more; hit it harder and deeper. Now, every serve is rocketing over the net and sliding off the service line. But should they hit it even harder, they will double fault their games, their sets, their matches and their careers away.
A baseball pitcher learns to throw faster and faster, hitting the corners of the strike zone. Too far left or right and no-one will swing. Right in the middle risks at least a single and probably worse.
The surgeon cuts beside the heart. The tumor must go. The cut must be made but should the scalpel slide too far from the target, the surgeon could prove more lethal than the tumor.
A life lesson hard to learn is that there really can be too much of a good thing.
How much is too much varies according to circumstances.
Yet, individuals and businesses seem so easily to fall into the trap of “If some is good, more is better.” This is almost never the case except within extremely narrow contexts and under many sets of assumptions. Much more common is the case where some is good, more is better, and too much is worse than none at all.
Cases in point litter the annals of human misery throughout the centuries. No vitamin A is very bad. A little is better than none. More is better. But only up to a point. Beyond that, it becomes toxic. Too much.
There are often natural boundaries and tradeoffs in nature that do some of the work for us by keeping things within reasonable boundaries. For example, we think it’s really cool if a football player (whether American football or soccer) is extremely fast. But by “extremely fast”, we mean humanly possibly fast. It would ruin the game if one player could run 300 miles per hour.
Like most kids, I liked candy. Favorites came and went though themes repeated such as chocolate, nuts, and crunchiness. Caramel and peanut butter — yum. I would always opt for more rather than less candy. Parents though consistently pushed toward less candy. Nonetheless, I found and developed clever ways to cajole and trick them into letting me have enough candy to ruin my teeth. Too much of a good thing.
One of the chief ways that companies make too much of a good thing is when it comes to motivation. It has long been known that the performance of people tends to increase with increasing motivation, but only up to a point. After that, further motivation reduces performance. This so-called “inverted U” is true, not only for humans, but throughout the animal kingdom. In work that involves more than one person, companies often multiply the error. As pointed out by Frederick Brooks many years ago in “The Mythical Man-Month” when a software project gets behind schedule, the typical response of management is to require tighter reporting on progress and to add more people to the project. Requiring more reporting obviously puts people under more pressure and takes time away from actually accomplishing anything. Adding more people is typically even worse because they don’t know what is going on in the project and the people who actually are being productive have to take time away in order to instruct them!
The optimal level of motivation interacts with other things of course. For one thing, how you take external stress depends a lot on how you take it. Some people begin to awfulize when things get hot; they take things personally; they imagine the worst, etc. So, to an extent, it depends on the person’s own character how they react, but it also does depend a lot on the external stress. No-one is most productive under too much stress.
The optimal level also interacts with how creative is the task at hand. For an extremely simple task, higher motivation can work well. If I ask you to hang suspended onto a bar as long as possible, you may be able to do it for a minute. If I offer you a thousand dollars, you’ll probably hang on longer. Suspend you over the grand canyon and you may be able to hold on still longer. But now imagine instead, I ask you type, without error, a page of text at your maximum keying speed. You may do better for a thousand dollars than doing it for free, but if you’re life’s on the line you are almost certain to make errors. When it comes to a task requiring you to do something completely new or do something creative, you will most likely to best under very low levels of stress. The more stress you experience, the more you are likely to stick to what you already know.
Again, these relations can be moderated by personality but they are pretty robust across gender, age, education and, in fact, even apply to other animals. If you want to teach your pet a new trick, you will have much better success if they are motivated but not overly so. A simple “creativity” task for animals is the “Umweg” test. “Umweg” means “way around” in German. You place the animal and a treat on a platform separated by a screen that does not go all the way across the platform. A lizard may starve to death instead of walking around the screen. They are too bent on going straight for the treat. A dog will typically have zero or little problem with this task, unless the dog is extremely hungry. As for humans?
I recall reading about such a test that was performed on US army recruits. Each recruit in the experiment was put in a large room they had never been in before. This room had a large number of doors. An announcement came over the loudspeaker asking them to leave. Each recruit would go to a door, typically find it locked, move to another door, etc. At last, they would find the door that was unlocked and leave the room. Sounds easy, right? You and I could probably solve this without any real difficulty.
Now, comes the “fun” condition. In that condition, the announcement comes on while a simulated fire is right outside. The announcement now says to leave because the building is on fire. What happens? The vast majority of recruits go to the nearest door, try to open it and upon finding it locked, do not try another door. Instead, they try harder and harder to open this same door, jiggling the handle ever more vigorously. Yes, under enough stress, people cannot solve this simple problem.
In my sophomore year at college, my girlfriend at the time was a Freshman at Oberlin. As part of her requirement for introductory psychology, she ran an experiment about the inverted U of motivation with lab rats. I helped. Here is how the study went. Rats were in one of three states of “stress” before having to swim a small underwater maze. The maze was quite simple. The rat had to go down a long corridor, make a left turn and then come back another long corridor. The “stress” was induced by holding them under water for a small, medium, or long period of time before they started. (I don’t really like this as a way of inducing “stress” because brains don’t work as well with less oxygen but I didn’t design the experiment). Anyway, my job was to get the designated rat out of the cage, hold under water for a few seconds and then let it go so it could swim the simple maze.
All went well until I went to get one of the rats who was in the “high stress” condition. All the other rats were pretty tame, but not Mr. “High Stress Condition.” Oh, no. He ran around the cage trying to avoid my hands. When I finally grabbed him around the belly, he grabbed hold of the cage wire with all four paws! He began barking like a dog! I had done various training exercises with rats before and this was the first one that did anything like bark! I had to pry his little paws off the cage one by one. I can tell you that at this point, this poor rat was already in the “high stress” condition. And so were Janet and I!
And, now I needed to hold him under water for the longest time before letting him swim the maze. I felt horrible. I was well aware that this rat was already stressed and was already probably exhibiting an oxygen debt from his vigorous attempts to avoid capture and escape my clutches. Nonetheless, we decided to go forward with the experiment. I held the poor critter under water the requisite time. Now, we could hear him swimming down the long corridor, make a quick turn and swim toward his freedom. As long as we could hear him swimming, we knew he hadn’t drowned. He was indeed the slowest of the rats so far. We didn’t care at this point. We just wanted him to survive. Down the long corridor he came to the open place where he could escape the water at last. He got there! Whew! We both sighed in relief.
But only for a second! Unlike every other rat, when this one got to the open space instead of surfacing so he could get to the air, he immediately made a U-turn and began back the other way! Oh, crap! I hadn’t really signed up for drowning rats! We could still hear his little rat paws churning through the water. Janet and I were trying to figure out whether we could break into this apparatus and save the rat if he stopped swimming. Meanwhile, Mr. “High Stress Condition” kept paddling along. He came all the way back to the origin of the maze, turned and went back. Freedom was there for the taking for this poor rat, but he was too stressed to look up and see it. Sigh.
At long last, after Mr. “High Stress Condition” had swum three times as far as his mates, he finally came out of the water. He looked a lot like a … well, a drowned rat. I patted the poor fellow off with a towel and put him back in his cage. His stress level hopefully fell at that point, but I know Janet and I were both relieved that he survived. Our pulse rates eventually returned to normal too.
As a therapist at the “Institute for Rational Emotive Therapy” I had plenty of chance to work with people who were just as over-stressed as poor Mr. “High Stress Condition” had been. This is not to say that people are just like rats. Of course, they aren’t. But when it comes to reactions to stress, we are very similar to our animal cousins. What people can learn to do is to moderate their stress by what the focus on and what they tell themselves.
To take a sports example, if you are playing in the US Open tennis round of 16, you are in much higher stakes game than someone who is just having a friendly social match. But every world class athlete learns to control their stress level. They do this by focusing on their process and on the current condition. If they start thinking much about the score, the stakes, the errors they’ve made, they will get in trouble. And if they start saying things like, “Oh, you idiot! How could miss that shot? Now, if you don’t get this next point, your chances to win are ruined.” Humans can intentionally make themselves more stressed or less stressed than the objective situation would justify. This is a skill that everyone should learn, by the way, not just athletes.
Our society seems to have forgotten how to motivate people “just enough” and instead puts too much stress on employees, encouraging them to work too many hours and thereby lowering productivity and greatly lowering creativity. Once again, it’s no accident that IBM was successful for so many years and had the motto: “THINK” and every employee had this on their desk. Mr. “High Stress Condition” rat would have done better had he kept this in mind.
Our society’s obsession with overdoing is not limited to over-stressing employees. We tend to overeat, overuse drugs, over stimulate ourselves, drive too fast, spend too much money, buy way more than we need, and use way, way more energy than we need. It’s just too much! Too much of a good thing is bad for you personally and even too much success can be bad for a company in the long run. (See, for instance, the link below about how Kodak actually invented the digital camera but then got on board too little and too late because of their overwhelming success with film and cameras). And, in that spirit, rather than continue to argue the point, I will end with The Jewels of November.
The Jewels of November
(Third prize winner in the Chatfield National Poetry contest)
Winter ripped into our neighborhood last night;
Gale and pail of rain turned flake by morning;
Gutters filled to overflowing; my basement flooded.
And the riot of yesterday’s autumn light
Gone as though it never burned its magic riots of red and gold.
All the tallest tulip trees and oaks stand naked now,
Black, bucking wet twigs against the steel gray sky.
Bundled in my leather hat, jacket and gloves,
I walk out to survey the carnage of fallen leaf and broken branch.
The wind still gusts to make my eyes smart and my cheeks burn.
Low black clouds swim and swirl.
Somewhere a flag cord bangs against an empty pole.
So off I go through deserted streets of a condo Sunday morning
Into the drear of pale November.
The wind sings a shriller note when the leaves are gone,
The hush is replaced by a whistle.
And, walking down the hill toward the main road
I see beneath the broken canopy the first Jewels of November —
Coral leaves laid in relief against the wet black woods
The amber leaves, the carmine leaves of shrubs
Protected by the barren trunks of their taller cousins.
Beside the road, a head of goldenrod casts against green grass.
A few lonely wood asters, white and an occasional blue.
Hanging from the dead vines, clusters of gold and red.
Before me, the sky breaks for a moment only
And a hawk wheels through a single shaft of sunlight
Rejoicing, so it seems, in the thick cold air,
His outstretched white wing fingers glowing white for a moment.
And so I find, here in this gray and lifeless world
Treasures of color and texture and form — and music too
For the overflowing brooks are singing quiet giggles
Just as ten black crows careen and crackle through the trees.
I look down and see a broken piece of branch
Bedecked with lichens, the palest possible shade of blue-green.
I bend to pick it up and out of my jacket pocket coins tumble
Tinkling on the black macadam roadway, they splay themselves:
A shiny copper penny, dime, quarter, nickel and a dark penny.
How fine when I was a child to find a few coins like this! How rich!
I knew the different smell and taste of every coin,
My parents’ dire warnings not to put them in my mouth
Making the taste so much more exotic and exciting.
Now my money comes to me as a blue paper note
Claiming the check was deposited directly in my account.
How efficient, I note.
Another shaft of sunlight strikes me from the briefly parting clouds
As I retrieve my coins one by one
And remember that today is the New York City marathon.
Phillipides, so the story goes, died after bringing the news
Of a Greek victory back, from exhaustion, so we suppose.
But I wonder: was it simply that his life’s best work was done?
Or could it even be the sheer clear joy of the news delivered?
Or, the ecstasy of the swinging legs and arms, the hot heart,
The heaving chest — feeling so alive that pain itself is joy.
The wind is at my back and I wonder what it would feel like
To run today that long race through the windy streets of New York.
But a walk through the woods is enough for me, enough today,
Stopping to watch the hundred precious scenes laid out before me.
I wonder where all these treasures were last week-end
When I walked this same path.
The answer is, of course, that they were drowned in a sea of color
The neon chaos of autumnal carnival showing off.
I turn back toward home now.
Lonely snowflakes hit and actually bounce once off the black road
Before settling down to melt their brief beauty on still warm tar.
The wind is fully furious in my face.
I dream what lunch I might fix once out of this blowing cold
A steaming chicken broth thick with onions, carrots, and peppers.
And I recall a time when I was a senior in college and had the flu;
The medicine the doctor gave me made me worse
And I ended up not eating for three days
But the at-last, ah-ah, taste of the clear broth I savored oh so slowly!
A feast from a magic bullion cube!
And I wonder as I begin the ascent up the long hill toward home,
Whether winter might not be the whirling earth’s greatest gift.
What would autumn, full summer, or the tender spring be
Without the deadly in-between, the waiting, the wail, the white.
In a land of endless plenty and eternal life, would we ever see
The Jewels of November?