Essay

Why We Need to Go “Beyond Growth”

By Duff McDuffee on April 14th, 2011

I remember the first time I got my hands on a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records as a kid. Printed on thin sheets of newsprint with black ink that rubbed off on your fingers, these were simpler times when a 750 page book could contain all the known records of the freakshow that is humanity. From the tallest man to the fattest, the tiniest painting to the biggest Ferris wheel , this little tome outlined the limits of human achievement and weirdness.

Nowadays the glossy, full-color printed Guinness Book is only a small sample of the total number of records. There has been an enormous explosion in record-keeping leading to a kind of freakshow bubble. People have come up with all sorts of stupid things to set records in, from the number of tango spins in one minute, to the number of hula hoops spun at a time (107). One man has even made a pseudo religion out of breaking ridiculous world records under the inspiration of his Indian guru Sri Chinmoy.

Mr. Ashrita Furman has spent many thousands of hours of his adult life devoted to breaking records like how many hopscotch games one can play in a 24 hour period (434), how far one can travel with a milk bottle balanced on his head (80.95 miles), and how fast one can duct tape himself to a wall (5 min, 9 seconds). Furman even holds the record for most current world records held at one time (119). Here is a video documenting his world record for rolling an orange with his nose, a feat which took place in the JFK airport:

At 1:45 Mr. Furman says of rolling an orange with your nose…

Well, it’s actually uh really, physically very very demanding. But besides that, a lot of it’s technique.

Technique, right.

From Mr. Furman’s own about page

What compels this 56-year old health food store manager from Queens, New York, to perform these fantastic feats? “I’m trying to show others that our human capacity is unlimited if we can truly believe in ourselves,” he says. Ashrita maintains that while some of his records may draw more laughter than respect, each one requires a great deal of determination, concentration and fitness.

While part of me appreciates Mr. Furman’s dedication to weirdness, I don’t think we need more inspiration to show that our human capacity is unlimited—certainly not more competition for how much jello one can eat with chopsticks in 1 minute (1lb, 5oz), nor for how many candles one can burn on a cake simultaneously (48,523). When do we concede that enough is enough? I think focusing on what capacities are important to develop, and to what extent, are far more important than breaking a record just to say you did it. Being able to do 50 pushups in a row is a sign of a strong, enduring upper body. Being able to do 10,000 might instead be a sign of an unhealthy obsession and monomania.

If we measure growth with a single metric, we inevitably get a freakshow like The Guinness Book of World Records. If instead we think of growth as more like an ecosystem, or a tree, or a human physical body, we realize right away that maximizing a single metric doesn’t capture what makes for a mature, healthy, or wise result. While growth has an important function in the adolescent period of any system, once a system reaches maturity, different factors come into play, or growth may take place in a more complex fashion with multiple dependent variables.

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12 Responses to “Why We Need to Go “Beyond Growth””

  1. Gina says:

    Yes Indeed! When is enough enough? This constant competition for more bigger faster is to me a big distraction to real life. Who, in touch with themselves can consider spending the precious life that this is rolling an orange further? Maybe Mr Furman's Guru is still waiting for the sheepish fellow to ask "why?"

  2. 32000days says:

    It's a natural human trait to be curious, and one of the most exciting things to be curious about is extremes, limits, and boundaries. The people who go to extremes to break the records (however contrived) make for some good stories. It's like a modern circus sideshow – strictly wacky entertainment.

    That said, I definitely agree with your comment: I think focusing on what capacities are important to develop, and to what extent, are far more important than breaking a record just to say you did it.

    Which is why you won't see me pursuing any Guinness records soon. But for those who aspire – good luck!
    My recent post I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

  3. Jack Christopher says:

    These related words bug me: growth, progress, (most) efficient, effective, productive or best. Their opposites do too.

    These things are hard, impossible to measure or arguably subjective.

    I keep these in mind, “Nothing is above criticism” and “There’s always tradeoff.” If many people are seeing something as all “upside”, I try to find the unnoticed “downside”.

  4. Rrr says:

    Ok so what do you think of the fast growing PUA self movement? Like BradP.com. what do u think of that? Scam or revolution?

  5. "I think focusing on what capacities are important to develop, and to what extent, are far more important than breaking a record just to say you did it."

    This statement can be applied to so many things, not just Guinness world records. In our action- and achievement-oriented culture, how often do people stop to ask whether what they are doing is worth doing? Or really consider the long-term consequences of those actions? And if you openly speak such concerns, how many direct or indirect ways do people use to ignore you or try to make you go away?

    Reasons why people might be afraid to examine what they are doing include fear that they will have to make huge changes (they probably will, for which they need emotional, social and structural support), or fear that they will be publicly seen to "not know what they're doing" (particularly for those raised in the traditional masculine ethos).

    Emma

  6. Jacq says:

    I just read an article in Sports Illustrated about a good thing gone bad or excessive. One of the things that has always inspired me when I'm pushing through a block is that youtube video of the Hoyt's – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRHxHapwirw

    The dad has pushed and pulled his disabled son through hundreds of marathons and triathlons. It's very inspiring, but oh, what a price he has paid for our 5 minutes of inspiration.
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/ma…
    My recent post Punny money Why you leave

    • Ugh. For years I've cringed when I've heard about the "Ironman" because I knew a man in his 50's who kept looking for some way to keep doing the grueling, inhumane endurance event. He approached various alternative medicine practitioners for ways to deal with his chronic joint pain caused from excessive running, biking, and swimming. This sort of thing is extremely common here in Boulder. My lady works as a massage therapist at a place where many of the customers have beaten up their bodies with extreme sports of one kind or another. So stupid!

  7. Steven says:

    The two key ideas here seem to be:

    1) There is always room for growth.

    2) Growth applies to all different aspects of our life.

    Well done, and I think what Mr. Furman has accomplished should be really inspiring to the rest of us here. Most limitations we encounter can always be pushed 1 step further, and another, and another…
    My recent post How To Stay Strong When Everyone Doubts You

    • I guess you got out of it what you got out of it, but my key points were a bit different. What I was saying was more that at some point a focus on growth becomes absurdly foolish (Mr. Furman being my primarily example) and we need to change the focus to some other value. Or to put it another way, maximizing linear, measurable growth leads to freakshows, not maturity or wisdom.

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