Essay

Complex Conscientiousness

By Duff McDuffee on July 18th, 2011 1

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?

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11 responses to “Complex Conscientiousness”

  1. mermit says:

    it's the "folk theory of enlightenment" and romantic notions of blissful solitude that send us looking for "such places" where there's no signal.

    The practical solution is quite simpler: switch off the signal yourself. Conscientiously.
    First, keep it on long enough to gather *useful* information about what works optimally for *you* (vis a vis trial-and-error, body awareness), and then switch off and do your thing, cease the neverending quest for *better* and *best*, and stick with the good: breathe like an Indian, walk like an Egyptian, eat what makes you feel good (longterm), find the yoga teacher you're comfortable with (not necessarily the Grand Master of the Greatest Method), cycle like there's no Tour De France, but rather an aluminium horse to take you to the hills (or the beach, or whatever is available locally)… back to basics.

    turn on, tune in, and switch out… the immediate, overwhelming release from the ceaseless chatter of Realtime Updates is incredible. A release from the pressing compulsion to Fix (Everything) Now, which leaves you free to observe, and to bask in momentary acts of transcendece – waking up at dawn to ride your bike, saving that automatic ciggy/spliff for later, breathing when you used to get tense… and each acts makes you freer, stronger…

    Don't hold your breath for the ubermenchen and the Superstars; Every Man and Every Woman is A Star.
    (love your blog)
    My recent post ‫האיקו לא כפי שעושים האחרים‬

    • Indeed, masculine romantic escape fantasies won't help us, which is what I was trying to capture at the end there. I think your solution is excellent! There is no escape from conscientiousness, but we can in fact decide how much to engage with the signal, with the cultural norms, etc. I especially like "cycle like there's no Tour De France"—living here in Boulder, many cyclists are decked out in all spandex on ultralight bikes, whether they compete or not (and there are a lot of pros too), but this I think can be demotivating too for someone less fantastically fit.

      • mermit says:

        Hi Duff,
        I didn't get any email notifications for further comments 🙁
        (THX Deb!)

        RE: spandex, I have to admit that dedicated cycling wear is much more comfortable… padded pants are indispensible. But they don't have to be spandex, and don't have to be Tour replicas.
        So basically, I agree: there's definitely an "arms race" surrounding cycling, with people upgrading parts or whole bikes (as well as clothing & accessories) as if their cycling experience depends on it.

        But it's just like everything else, isn't it? People get obssessed with The Robes, and forget the meditation.

        My recent post ‫הִתחילו את המהפכה בלעדיי‬

    • deb says:

      Mermit and Duff! I love your thoughts.

  2. Evan says:

    I think that place can exist if we create it – I'm not saying it's easy.
    My recent post The Shortcuts and the Recipes and Frameworks of Self Development

  3. brendamarroy says:

    Your message is so true. Personally, I ask my body what it needs and supply it. Nothing is written in stone so when I see folks running to and fro trying to follow the "nutrition and health" rules, I wonder why. What's good for us today, may not be good for us tomorrow. It seems it depends on who's making the latest statement and what their agenda might be.
    I was recently at a conference with someone who was telling me about her concern about whether to eat eggs or not. Lo and behold, people from the "Egg Council" had a booth at the conference. My friend was delighted because she could 'ask the experts' about eating eggs. After all, they knew all about eggs and could answer her questions. I pointed out to her that they not only might know a lot about eggs, but they also might be biased.
    My recent post Stress

  4. @l3art says:

    I'll take your suggestion after I figure out what the best type of car is and the best mountains are.
    Now I think about it – what are we supposed to /do/ in a place where there is nothing but silence, a cabin, some food, a bed and a big forest.

    Live?
    My recent post Het is goed

  5. Eric Normand says:

    Maybe the world isn't more complex. But it cannot be denied that there is more and more information available to us in ever more immediate ways. There are more parties vying for attention. And it will only become more so as time goes on.

    Disconnecting can help. Certainly. Turn off your computer. Turn off the radio. Turn off the TV. Stop reading books. Stop reading magazines. Reduce the amount of information coming into your life. These are all under our control. And it's probably the easiest.

    One thing that sometimes works is reducing the immediacy of my information. So I'll read an old book over a new book. Older things are tested with time. So the tendency is for the good ones to stand out more. They are more worthy of your time.

    Finally, another suggestion is to refuse to have an opinion. It's difficult and controversial. But keep an open mind. There are so many ideas vying for your attention, you just have to refuse some. Since most ideas that get to you are probably BS (marketing hype, political hype, scare tactics, etc.), making the default policy for dealing with new ideas outright refusal is a good bet. Repeat after me: I don't care!

    • Thanks for your comments, Eric. I've been working on turning off the computer and TV (ala Netflix) in favor of reading books and meditating. When I can get myself to do so, I enjoy my life so much more.

      I like the idea of refusing to have an opinion, or perhaps refusing to have an opinion immediately, taking one's time to slowly form opinions.

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