The Sweet Spot
A man I trust told me not long ago that the sweet spot is somewhere between too much and not enough. I have since been mulling over this concept and applying it frequently, certainly consciously and likely subconsciously as well. Just the other day I was reminded of the broad applicability of the concept through an accidental physical metaphor.
Despite being generally fit, I have a frustrating limitation of flexibility and mobility at my hip and shoulders. That led to me tearing one shoulder which required a surgical repair and has made me prone for other injuries when lifting weights. To remedy and mitigate these issues I have been experimenting with various physical therapists.
The exact diagnoses and methods vary by the lot but what has been consistent is that each any every practitioner I have seen has noted, sometimes exclaimed, that I have the tightest hamstrings of any human they’ve ever seen. Now, having seen quite a few, I am aware that the more accurate diagnosis is actually that I have the most limited internal rotation of the hip that anyone has ever seen which manifests as it appearing that my hamstrings are very tight since I can’t bend very well at the waist. Bonus points to any trainer or physical therapist that calls that out on the first look; if they do, I know they’re super legit. By now I’ve come to terms with being problematically anatomically anomalous in this regard, but that hasn’t ended the commentary from fascinated, bemused, and often sympathetic therapists.
The most promising of the lot; let’s call him Doug because I like codenames, noted that this tightness and inflexibility isn’t entirely bad. He said if I was too flexible that I’d prone to injuries from pushing my joints to unacceptable extremes. Never mind that the reason that I was seeing him was that I had already injured myself several times due to the extreme inflexibility and immobility. He was right. I wouldn’t want to be too flexible, because that would be bad too. Doug’s words were for a moment comforting, then mostly just amusing as it was clear that from my starting point, I could use all the added flexibility I could get. But his words resonated for another reason.
Flexibility had a sweet spot, too. In my mind, having been so lacking in it at the hip, I idealized flexibility to an extreme. I dreamed of folding over like a piece of paper. Forget looking cool doing downward dog to impress all the cute people at the yoga studio; I wanted to be able to fold myself into a paper plane. But that wouldn’t be the sweet spot. That would too much. Right now I don’t enough flexibility, but the right amount of flexibility to have is somewhere between what I have and too much; the sweet spot. There are sweet spots everywhere.
A few weeks ago I was back in Bethesda, my home town in Maryland which is generally a pretty nice place. My family wasn’t particularly wealthy growing up but I grew up an exceptionally pleasant if modest part of town, particularly before people starting plowing down single story post-war ramblers to replace with them McMansions. Like many towns, there was the area where the normal people lived, and the area where the rich people lived. I grew up where the normal people lived but dreamed of living where the rich people lived. So when I was back home recently, I decided to relive those desires by taking a drive through the tony streets of neighboring Potomac, MD.
I was shocked, and a bit appalled, but just how excessive some of those houses were. Growing up in a modestly sized home, my ideal home size was basically infinite; mansions on mansions with pools and gardens and tennis courts and basketball courts and guest houses so big they had their own guests houses. That was my dream when I was say, 9. Turns out Potomac is where adults built those exact homes.
Maybe it’s just my New York City pretentiousness, knowing now that a 3-bedroom apartment in a nice part of Manhattan can cost many multiples of a 14-bedroom mansion with 2 guest houses, 3 pools, and tennis courts in Potomac, but I was no longer in any way drawn to such excesses. I wondered — what would I do with all that space? How I would I avoid guests getting lost in my own home? How would I avoid losing my children and panicking constantly about losing my children, if I had children, in such an absurdly huge house? I suppose I would have to hire someone to constantly watch the children or simply board up vast portions of the house. But then I’d worry my savvy children would sneak into the boarded up parts of the house, because what child wouldn’t crave such adventures and intrigues, and have to tear through those boarded up halls with professional child recoverers each time little Jimmy Fonseka wouldn’t show up to the butler’s call for afternoon tea, because it would be insane to live in such an absurd house, on the east coast mind out, and not have a butler and afternoon tea. All of this just seems sort of unnecessary; definitely too much. Definitely not the sweet spot. I still would like to have a home with a little extra space, especially in the interest of hosting guests and events, but not too much. There’s a sweet spot for cars too.
It turns out with infinite money the car you want is probably a BMW 5-series or similar. Try driving a Lamborghini through Manhattan. You might enjoy the attention and glances for a while, but after not long you’ll be seeing the chiropractor because the suspension and potholes hurt your back and borrowing your Fiat 500 any time you actually have to go somewhere because you can leave it with a valet without worrying about it or possibly even actually just park it on the street. Bentleys are more comfy than Lamborghinis but still a hassle when actually in use versus being admired your garage. I would say a 7-series or S-class is the ideal car, but try squeezing one through a McDonalds drive-through in Brooklyn and you’ll see that a 5-series or similar is the best choice. There are sweet spots for materials, and there are sweet spots for the physical.
Everyone has their own perspective on sweet spot physical attributes, some of which we can’t control like height, and others which we can like muscular definition. It’s known that there are downsides to being lacking in either but it’s just as clear that each has its point of excess. I’ve always wanted to be a bit taller, say 6'1" or 6'2", or maybe even 6'3" like my half-brother cousin, but I definitely wouldn’t want to be over 7'. I imagine it would be tremendously inconvenient and perhaps quite awkward to be that tall, despite appreciating the general value of height. I’d love to be stronger and look stronger, but I’d rather not look like those men on the covers of muscle magazines. These are sweet spots for physical outputs but there are also sweet spots for physical inputs.
There’s a sweet spot for the intensity at which one should work out. If one doesn’t push themself hard enough they won’t see any improvement in fitness or gains in muscle mass, if that’s the aim. If one pushes too hard they wear out and get injured. The sweet spot is somewhere in between and found only by playing against those limits.
It’s almost too easy to call out and see that there are sweet spots in the realm of the physical, but just as if not more significant are the sweet spots of the mind.
Having lived in San Francisco, I heard many bold proclamations as to how one ought to manage their bodies and minds. Charlatans of various persuasions would claim to have the answers to everything, evangelizing their beliefs through podcasts and seminars and medium posts just like this one. Some argued one ought to take cold showers every single morning. Others argued you ought to only consume Soylent in the interest of Efficiency (capitalization intended — it’s practically a religion amongst some in the Bay Area). Before I left San Francisco I would often hear people say “3 people, 5 diets,” and one’s social credibility was linked to their diet’s strictness and, seemingly, the extent to which it inconvenienced and annoyed others. All of this silliness aside, the rules of mind, which people took more seriously and viewed with reverence, were even more pervasive.
In startup land, the culture of the extreme is glorified. The entrepreneur is expected to give up everything and never give up. Those who won’t risk everything are too afraid. Those who give up on verge of failure are weak. A founder should give it their all, they are told.
In the day to day management of a startup the proclamations are just as extreme. VCs, pundits, and others founders blog and tweet: hire slow, fire fast; move fast, break things. Founders, and their employees, are meant to be ‘mission-driven.’ There is an emphasis on focus and prioritization at the emphasis of all else. There is credence to much of this thinking within the context of trying to build a successful company, but all of it should be caveated with a sweet spot.
I have seen too many people take principles to an extreme. Prioritization need not be ruthless. One can focus, but also take a step back every now and then to see if they should refocus. Breaking things may be okay but one should be aware of what they’re breaking. This isn’t just true for founders.
San Francisco is filled with awesome people trying to better themselves. A common aim is self-actualization or other varying degrees of woke-ness. There is much talk and conflation of yoga, mindfulness, and spirituality. All of these ought to be driven by sweet spots but instead are drifting towards the extremes.
Yoga for many is about core strength, flexibility, and focus. In regulating the body and breathing one can become calmer and stronger, physically and mentally. In an ideal world one practices yoga at the sweet spot; at the just the right never of physical and mental intensity. But I recently heard of a woman who began practicing Ashtanga yoga which the attendance of six 90 minute sessions per week. She used the word “militant” to describe the practice. To me, that sounds like too much. Maybe it’s the sweet spot for her.
On pure mindfulness, or meditation if we’re the equate the two, we see all extremes. On one hand I have an app that passively plays a meditation sound track and which is supposed to trigger a meditative state with no effort of my own. It is soothing, but that’s probably not enough. On the other hand, I have people who done in-person meditations a couple times signing up for 14 day silent meditation retreats. That sounds like way too much. The sweet spot is probably more akin to began with a daily meditative practice through an app or the attendance of in-person meditation apps consistently if not daily.
Cultural trends and practices seem generally to be trending to extremes, but as an individual one should consider those extremes not an expectation, but a bound. Maybe your sweet spot is at an extreme. Maybe you do want to practice militant yoga or be silent for 14 days, or live in a 20 bedroom mansion. But your sweet spot is most likely not any of those.
The beauty of the concept of the sweet spot is that it is completely subjective but also easily testable. Since being exposed to this concept, I have been astounded by how often I’ve applied it. Whether mind or body; internal or external; situations of work, debate, desire, family, health, morality, sex, or relationships, I’ve found myself finding solutions and answers to practical daily questions by simply asking myself — “what’s the sweet spot?”