(The law of equal and opposite advice applies in droves.)
Caltech has a couple of strange traditions. One such the tradition are the houses, which are sort of like a mix of dorms and fraternities/sororities. New students spend their first two weeks “rotating” through the eight houses and getting a feel for their cultures. At the end, students express preferences and are “rotated” into one of houses.
(You may perceive some vaguely Hogwartsy vibes. You would be correct.)
A question that I think new students should ask members of a house is “what’s your least favorite part of your house?” I remember asking this when I first entered Caltech and being disappointed at the quality of answer. I resolved to do better. What follows is the answer I currently give (source for story):
There was once this guy named John Little and he decided that he wanted to get in shape. He was friends with Bruce Lee, so he was like “Hey Bruce, do you want to be my trainer?” and Bruce Lee was like “sure” so they started training together.
One thing that they did was go on daily runs for about three miles. Then one day, Bruce Lee was like “we’re going to run five miles today” and John Little’s like “I don’t think I can do this, but I’ll try”. So they’re running, and they hit three miles and John is doing okay. Then after about another mile, he’s like “Bruce I can’t take it anymore. If we keep going I’m going to die.” Bruce then turned to him and he said, “Then die.” This made John so angry that he completed the five miles.
In this situation, the culture of my house would have said ,”Okay, let’s slow down for a bit then.” My house’s culture encourages you to operate within your limits and maybe push then a little, but frowns upon attempts to blow past your limits entirely. It asks you to try your best and, if you fail, reassures you that this is fine and you can’t expect perfection from yourself. It doesn’t ask you to push your limits until you break.
This was good for me, at the time. Unconditional love and positive regard made it easier for me to grow into the person I was meant to be. But the warm waters of acceptance contain little fire and little spark, no hot fury and no cold resolve.
In practice, being at your limits doesn’t feel like being at your limits. In practice, you feel at your limit far before your true limits. I can do 30 push-ups with moderate effort. If I strain, I can manage 40. With what feels like immense effort, I can manage 50. How many could I do if my life was at stake? If my choices were 100 push-ups or death, would I be able to manage? I have never found out, nor do I intend to, but I think it might be possible.
I have something that I must protect. I care about it much more than my own life. What sort of effort does wanting something so much demand from me? My very best, and then some more. Perfection, because everything else gives me less of a chance.
Brains have limits; working yourself ragged is not a virtue. But you can still optimize within these limits. There exists some minimum leisure necessary to maintain productivity, some minimum happiness necessary to maintain motivation, some minimum play necessary to maintain health. Taking anything more is wasted motion.
Be perfect. Waste nothing. Don’t content yourself with anything less.