Do We Need Extremists?

Warning – this is a serious blog entry. Do not expect to be entertained…

I’ve had a clash of worlds happen in the last 24 hours about extremes and extremists.

  1. You’ve likely read my post on the weather extremes of late.
  2. A blog I follow posted an amazingly raw look at the extreme mental states among high earners.
  3. This morning in my book club we talked about how extreme environmentalists keep the corporations honest and providing moderate environmental protections, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric and actions that seem so abhorrent.
  4. In other circles, I’ve been reading about and discussing religious zealots and their affect on faith, doctrine, civilizations, and politics.
  5. Last night’s conversation with my wife around public vs. private schools, finances, and what makes her happy.

You see, if you remember my post about the enneagram, you’ll recall that I’m a reformer, a steadfast “true believer” that wants to see things done right and for the right reason. I’m also a very steady, status quo loving, don’t-rock-the-boat, nose-to-the-grindstone type guy.

This makes extremes both fascinating and frightening at the same time. Take my career as an example. I chose engineering for undergrad because I was good at math and the fact that an engineering degree is as close was you can come to a guaranteed job. No drama, no fuss.

I worked for my first company for five years. I only left because my first wife wanted to go to grad school and pushed me to do it as well. I joined HP, a nice comfortable place, after grad school and stayed with them for five years. I left mostly because a close friend convinced me to join his new company. Notice the pattern? It took other people to get me to move on to the next thing. And neither my ex-wife or my ex-business partner would argue that their lives would fall under the extreme category. I’m obviously attracted to my opposites and find they move me in the right direction, albeit with some pain involved.

So if you look at the list at the beginning of the post again, you’ll see there are extremes (some subtle, some not so subtle) that despite the pain, seem to produce good. The weather, though everyone complains about it, definitely gets you out of any rut you might be in regarding habits, exercising, hobbies, or fun (try roasting coffee on a back porch when it is 15 degrees…). Number two reverberates through my experiences in the Bay Area where I saw company after company lifted to success by people with severe personalities, leaving employees, spouses, children, and friends trampled in their path.

As for number five, the reason that it’s on the list is my equanimity around life. I don’t have many lows but that also means I also don’t have many highs. I’ve made some progress in this area, but it will never get to where my wife needs it to be. Because she needs to celebrate little things and big things, laugh so hard you cry, and jump up and down like a little girl (with our 5 yr old setting the example). I very rarely can conjure up enough emotional juices to do that, even if I need to.

To a large degree, that is why I usually choose friends and spouses that tend to extremes (relatively). I need that influence, that push, that damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead mentality to shake me out of my linear, plodding, safe life path.

So now to take it out of the personal and into humanity, this is also why I think civilization needs extremes. Yes, the influence of extremes is both good and bad. People are harmed, things are damaged, relationships torn apart. But in a holistic way, we (as a society) need extremes to keep us on the right path, to nudge us in the right direction in spite of our desire for complete goodness and absence of evil.

In a way, I’ve been lucky. I’ve piggybacked off the extremes of others (such as my ex-business partner), using them as a springboard to change, challenge, success, and adventure while avoiding much of the pain. My hope for the world is that with our modern communication systems in place such as ubiquitous internet and/or phone service, we can learn and springboard off a smaller quantity of pain-from-extremes going forward, so that the pain vs. good equation value continues to go in the direction of more good, less pain.

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Categories: Deep Thoughts

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