I’m reading a fascinating book right now called David and Goliath.
In it, New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell proves with countless and concrete examples that commonly held beliefs are not always true, and that we limit our potential (and ourselves) if we buy into them without careful consideration.
Take the notion that giant warriors will always come out victorious against smaller and weaker men during wartime. We assume that’s true. It seems logical that the stronger men will survive. However, it certainly wasn’t true three thousand years ago on a battlefield in ancient Palestine when a shepherd boy named David defeated a mighty warrior named Goliath with nothing more than a small stone and a sling.
The world assumed the stronger man would win, and the world was proved wrong.
Beliefs hold us back when we believe things are always true.
Another commonly held belief that Gladwell takes on in the book is the relationship between class size and academic excellence. The assumption everyone tends to make, in most countries around the world, is that as class size decreases, academic excellence increases.
Most people believe the relationship between class size and academic excellence looks like this:
It seems like a safe assumption to make—the fewer the kids, the more attention and the more academic excellence. The only problem is that it isn’t true.
It’s true for a while, until it’s not.
Gladwell analyzed dozens of quantitative studies from 13 different countries that painstakingly studied how class size affected academic excellence when all other factors were held equal.
In reality, the relationship looks like this:
The inverted U-curve makes a fascinating point that we often miss when we make assumptions. Just because a relationship starts one way, doesn’t mean it continues that way forever. In other words, it’s not always a straight line up and to the right.
Some relationships start out as good relationships, become neutral and then end up bad. The chart above, based on thousands of data points, is not a straight line; it has three critical components that make all the sense in the world in the context of class size.
- Forming: Reducing the number of students in a class has a positive effect on academic performance—e.g., going from 30 students to 20.
- Flat: Reducing the number of students in a class has a neutral effect on academic performance—e.g., going from 20 students to 15.
- Falling: Reducing the number of students in a class has a negative effect on academic performance—e.g., going from 15 students to 5.
If we assume the straight line, we would assume that a classroom with five kids would out-perform a classroom with thirty kids every time, and that’s simply not true.
Long story short, there’s a certain ideal level of interaction and dialogue that happens in mid-sized classrooms that aids in comprehension which is lost when the class gets too small.
Smaller is better to a certain point, but then it can make things worse.
The point here isn’t whether your child is in the right size classroom right now—that’s not for me or for Malcolm Gladwell to decide. The revelation is in the inverted U-curve that Malcolm uses to make his point.
What inverted U-curve can you see in your life?
Can you think of a relationship between two things in your life that everyone assumes should improve with time (the line chart) but you have the data to prove that the relationship starts out good, becomes neutral and then ends up bad (the inverted U-curve)?
For me, it’s the relationship between my career success and my sanity.
While most people make the assumption that more success means more happiness, I have seen a different relationship play out in my own life and it fits the inverted U-curve perfectly:
- Forming: In the beginning of my career, more success definitely had a positive effect on my sanity. More success helped me earn more respect, more opportunities and more income. The theme was the more, the merrier.
- Flat: Ten years into my career, more success had a neutral effect on my sanity. I was collecting more titles and trophies at work but I felt no better or worse each time I made it to a new rung on the corporate ladder.
- Falling: Twelve years into my career, more success had a negative effect on my sanity. The more I achieved, the more responsibility I took on and the more sacrifices I had to make at home and in my personal life to keep it going.
And what used to seemed crazy to me, but became crystal clear after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s work, is that it’s really hard to convince people you’re unhappy when they assume more success makes your line chart go up and to the right when you know, from all your own data points, that the chart peaks at the top and then takes a sharp turn into the ground.
More success made things better for a while, but then it made them worse.
Knowing the actual, and not just the perceived, relationship my success has with my sanity changed everything for me. I realized this fact three years ago and swiftly started making changes in my life.
As a result, the balancing act in my life is less about balancing my work life and my home life—because I love and respect them both. The balancing act for me is to balance on the peak of my inverted U-curve.
In running The Mom Complex, I’ve reached the top of the chart, where there’s a beautiful relationship between my success and my sanity—and I refuse to strive for more success, like I used to in the past, because I know it will negatively affect my happiness.
Everything seems so clear to me now.
Now I know, for sure, why I love this blog post so much and why my mission in life will always be to dance on the plateau of my success instead of seeking more.
More is not always more. Sometimes it’s less.