Optimize or Maximize Our Lives?

Everything in Moderation

Scoop Heuerman (my dad)


David Plummer used to see only one way to the top of the podium. The former Gophers swimmer believed he wouldn’t make it unless he stripped away everything but his sport, putting the pursuit of fast times above all else.

Earlier this month, with a 4-week-old son Ricky asleep on his chest, Plummer laughed at that thought. “I’m almost embarrassed at how long it took me to realize it,” he said. “But the better I try to do in every aspect of my life–as a dad, a husband, athlete, coach–the better everything goes.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune June 26, 2016)


The mechanistic world view, mostly unconscious, has dominated how we think about life and how to live it for 300 years. When we think of people as machines, we run them until they quit, breakdown or checkout. Then we turn to medicine for a quick-fix. Then we max out again.

A living system world view replaced and encompassed the mechanistic world view a century ago. We need to change how we think about life. We need to understand—at work and at home—that managing a social system (a company; a family) means finding the optimal values for the system’s variables (or the goals of the organization and the activities of the family). If we try to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing all variables, the person, the family or the organization will decline, suffer dysfunction, breakdown or die.

We can’t avoid occasional excessive stress and all-out effort in one area of life. Moderate stress alerts and motivates us and sharpens our focus. But maximum stress for a long time in one area of life puts stress on all aspects of our life and harms and destroys living systems–including people.

I’ve been a maximizer more than an optimizer over my lifetime—especially in my work life. I value excellence. I love achievement and strive relentlessly to accomplish my goals. I feel alive as I climb the newest mountain in my life. I’ve gotten a lot done. My late friend, Clinical Psychologist Diane Olson, Ph.D. said I had the intensity gene. As I age, my emotional intensity grows stronger than ever as I know time runs out for all of us and I want to do and experience as much as possible in my life. But at the extreme, I am perfectionistic and obsessive/compulsive. I don’t have a turnoff button. I am impatient and critical of myself and others. I burn out. I figured such intensity harms to me more as I get older than when I was younger. I took up meditation in large part to help me lower my appetites. I work to find the elusive moderation.

My dad was right and David Plummer had a valuable insight as a young age. I hope more kids who maximize sports to achieve unreachable goals, more adults who focus only on career aspirations and more organizations who die far earlier than necessary due to their singular pursuit of profit will learn the lesson David Plummer realized and the wisdom of my dad learned in the school of hard knocks.

As for me, I continue to work to learn how to live in new ways.

4 thoughts on “Optimize or Maximize Our Lives?

  1. “As for me, I continue to work to learn how to live in new ways.” Yes you do, Tom — and you’re teaching others to do the same, as well. Wonderful post!


  2. I suffer from same afflictions, Tom. I have found that success fueled by ambition is a young mans game, or at least it was for me, and as ambition wanes, I have re-imagined ‘success’ as simply the alignment between my Intentions and my Actions. Simply, do I spend my time actively engaged in those activities and ideas that I suppose to be important to my life? Its no longer a ‘race to the top’ – now more of an integration of those things I cherish.


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