Complex Conscientiousness

This post was first published on Duff McDuffee’s blog, Beyond Growth. I’ve linked to other pieces on his site in the past.  Today this post hit a nerve and so I asked him if I might share it in full here. 

Complex Conscientiousness — by Duff McDuffee

Conscientiousness is one of the big five personality traits. It means something like being self-disciplined, painstaking and careful, thorough, organized, hard working, goal-oriented, reliable, deliberate. It also means acting according to one’s conscience. In simpler times this was a key element of what people meant by one’s character, but in excess looks like perfectionism, stuck-upness, rigidity, and an inability to “let loose.”

Conscientiousness is single biggest factor promoting longevity according to the Longevity Project. This is probably because conscientious people are more likely to follow certain rules like “don’t smoke cigarettes,” “exercise for 30 minutes 3-5 times a week,” and “eat your vegetables.” These rules are simple, easy to remember, and don’t conflict with each other. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lately in just about every field imaginable, there is so much information available that it is difficult to keep up with all the rules, let alone sort out the numerous conflicts!

Take nutrition. It used to be simple: drink your 8 glasses of water a day, eat your veggies, don’t smoke cigarettes, moderate or abstain from alcohol, exercise a little every day (pushups, pullups, situps) and walk or play sports, etc. Nowadays we’ve got raw vegans vs. paleo diets, gluten free vs. whole grains, diets based around cultured vegetables and kefirs and other “probiotics,” alkaline diets, low carb protein power diets, studies showing alcohol is good for you, studies showing sugar causes obesity not fat which was previously thought, studies proving eggs were bad but now good again unless you have certain pre-existing conditions in which…and that’s just nutrition!

As we get more and more information about how things really work, we get more and more complex rule sets emerging. Many of us don’t want to do the same exercise as people did 100 years ago, we want the latest and greatest, personalized to our bodies, our goals, our sport-specific requirements, and our pre-existing injuries. Either that or we skip exercise altogether because it appears to be so incredibly complex, or we have recurring injuries that exercise seems to make worse.

For most people it is difficult enough to follow a simple program like “do 3 sets of pushups, pullups, situps, and squats each morning.” But what if I can’t do pullups because I’m too heavy for my strength? What if pushups aggravate a shoulder injury? What if squats hurt my knees? What if situps hurt my neck? Should I really exercise the same muscles every day? And aren’t these movements all very linear? What about twisting movements and balance exercises and cardio and my tight hamstrings and…. What then?

Then we must add additional rules—rehab programs, specific adaptations, additional exercises, more complex movements, stretching, foam rolling and trigger point massage—all of which either must be outsourced to a professional (a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a massage therapist, etc.) or the individual must not only learn these multiple modalities and their rules, but also create or follow an additional program with additional variables if they wish to answer these additional questions.

Once upon a time, we didn’t have all these options. We didn’t know what we were missing. We didn’t know we could live without a high-density black foam roller and a pair of toe shoes and ignorantly (but not blissfully) engaged in static stretching before going out for a run in a pair of New Balances (and no GPS connected iPhone mapping our progress either!). Once upon a time we ate eggs and bacon and oatmeal for breakfast with black coffee and then we discovered eggs are high in cholesterol and bacon will give you a heart attack and oatmeal is full of gluten so we switched to Cheerios which then we discovered are devoid of nutrition so we had green smoothies with soymilk and agave nectar but 5 years later discovered we were allergic to soy which was once considered a superfood and agave is high in fructose which is apparently toxic and the real cause of the obesity epidemic so now eat amaranth and chia seeds with stevia powder but are afraid we are eating too much of the same thing and killing the enzymes by cooking it and chia seeds are just so hard to find organic that we’re thinking of switching to organic quinoa flakes and flax meal. We still haven’t figured out lunch. And we’re still drinking the coffee, but now it has antioxidants apparently. Maybe we’ll just skip lunch, do some intermittent fasting (for economic justice?).

The world has become very complex (or was it always that way), and thus conscientiousness has also become more complex. In order to keep up with all the rules for self-development, for health and for getting ahead in an ever more complex world, we learn to follow ever more complex rule sets. Those that succeed appear like capitalist supermen (and women)—able to cope with the bewildering madness of modern global society, and enthusiastic that you can too. When we encounter these übermench we doubt not only our own ability but our own sanity. Perhaps the world isn’t insane, perhaps we are for not taking advantage of all these shiny new opportunities. Should we attempt to master the ever more complex rules? Do we have a choice? Yes, we shall give it one more try, starting tomorrow. But if it doesn’t work this time, let’s buy an RV and drive up into the mountains someplace where cell phones and wifi don’t reach, where we can be simple again, simple and free. But no such place exists anymore, does it?

From Beyond Growth, by Duff McDuffee (you can visit his blog for commenting)