“The Barbell Strategy” is something I learnt from Nassim Taleb’s Incerto. The idea is that, in most domains, maximum benefit comes from occupying extremes instead of loitering in the middle. Taleb frames it using finance—better returns are made from investing, say, 90% in the lowest risk investments and 10% in the highest risk investments (as opposed to putting 100% of your resources in medium risk investments). It applies in other domains too.
Regular walks in the mountains coupled with irregular heavy deadlifts and sprints are usually better for health than a three-times a week gym routine. In commerce, there’s something called the “99-1” strategy. The idea is to give 99% of your ideas away for nothing, and charge a premium for the remaining 1%. Regarding productivity: people who work at a superhuman intensity for twenty hours a week and relax blissfully for the rest typically do “better” work than those who work for sixty to seventy hours a week at a moderate intensity. The “Barbell Strategy” can also be applied to writing. Write a little about a lot, frequently, and write a lot about a little, infrequently. One other example of a barbell—and perhaps the most important: There are only two modes of existence: action and reflection. Together, they make a life.
Taleb argued—and I believe– that maximum gains come from occupying extremes and avoiding middles. But how can we apply that to the Barbell of Life? The answer lies in Stephen Erikson’s Memories of Ice, the third volume of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Consider the thoughts of the character Kallor, the self-declared “High King”:
“No matter the stretch of decades and centuries, no matter the interminable boredom of inactivity that was so much a part of living, there were moments . . . moments when I must act, explosively, with certainty. And all that seemed nothing before was in truth preparation. There are creatures that hunt without moving; when they become perfectly still, perfectly motionless, they are at their most dangerous. I am as such a creature. I have always been so, yet all who know me are . . . gone. Ashes and dust. The children who now surround me with their gibbering worries are blind to the hunter in their midst. Blind . . .”
Motionlessness and absolute motion; Kallor occupied the barbell of life and his reward was legendary status and countless victories. Yet while us mere mortals cannot bide our time for centuries, we can try to approximate stillness and movement, the purest of action and reflection. We can practice not acting and acting irresistibly, with rapidity and without hesitation. We can teach ourselves to think completely and act entirely.