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.
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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