The Optimal Level of Difficulty for Life is Radically Moderate

There is an optimally efficient slope for climbing a mountain, so is there also an optimal level of difficulty for the "climb" of life?


What’s The Most Efficient Way Up a Mountain?

What is the optimal incline for climbing a mountain as fast as possible?

I’ve wondered this many times while hiking, most recently last week on Lion’s Head here in Cape Town. 

This time, I finally remembered to look it up back home. And I found my answer in a 2015 Runner’s World article by Alex Hutchinson.1Link here, but it has broken images, so better to view this archived version.

Hutchinson writes about the “vertical kilometer”—a race to gain 1,000 meters in elevation. At the time, the record was 29:42 (0.56 meters per second).2Wikipedia says the current record is 28:53. The record holder did so over a distance of 2.2km. That equates to a gradient of 27.5 degrees. 

For context, stairwells typically go up at 37 degrees. Speaking of stairs, climbing, and records, the record for climbing the CN Tower’s 1,760 steps and 342 meters is 7:52 (0.72 meters per second). 

A research team from the University of Colorado jerry-rigged a treadmill to make it extra steep and used some sensors to determine that the optimal incline for maintaining a climbing pace of 0.35 meters per second is between 20 and 35 degrees. They also found that walking is more efficient than running at this angle. 

“Interesting!” I thought as I read this. “What would the optimal slope be for a vertical Everest (8,849m)? Or a vertical marathon (42km)?”

“And what about life?”

What’s The Most Efficient Way Up Life? 

In life, making gains feels rewarding, plateaus are demoralizing, and declines are depressing. 

There is no mountaintop3I enjoyed Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan’s recent podcast episode where they agreed that “don’t peak” is crucial to answering “What does success like?”, so all we can do is resist the gravitational suck of complacency to keep climbing. 

Could there also be an optimal incline?

The Steep Price of Going Too Steep

One thing’s for sure: suboptimal slopes for life exist. 

Exhibit A: New Year’s resolutions.

We wake up on January 1, look up at some mountainous personal development goal, and say to ourselves, “Hell yeah! This is the year I’m plowing straight up this motherf*cker. I’m going to lose 20 pounds / read 50 books / make a cool new circle of friends / become a billionaire.”

Then we all know what happens from personal experience: 

Climb, climb, slip, stumble, tumble, ouch, couch. 

Or maybe you power through and reach your lofty goal. “Yay! I did it!” But now you’re exhausted. The climb was no fun. And you have little desire for more. So you lay down and let complacency drag you back downhill. Or you suck it up, aim toward an even loftier goal, and your life continues to be a dreadful slog. 

A Case of Radical Moderation

I’d argue that the best strategy for health, learning, finances, and relationships is to take on a gradual, enjoyable slope that you can keep at perpetually.

My favorite example comes from a book I recommend, Richer, Wiser, Happier by William Green. It’s about the CEO of Markel, Tom Gayner. 

Funny his name is “gain-er,” because his example is about weight loss. In middle age, Gayner wanted to get back down to the weight he was at in his twenties. Rather than dramatically makeover his diet or splurge on Ozempic, Gayner set what he called a “radically moderate” goal: 

Lose a pound a year for ten years.

Too moderate a level of difficulty? Maybe. 

Sustainable and achievable? Certainly. And just think, if Gayner keeps it up for forty years he’ll be one svelte 90-year-old!

Suboptimal Is Optimal?

Paradoxically, radical moderation is optimal because it doesn’t require optimal habits. They just have to be directionally correct

This approach brings to mind the hot self-helf trend of Zone 2 exercise. 

Zone 2 is the maximum level of effort you can go at before you cross from aerobic to anaerobic. You can talk and nose breath during Zone 2 exercise. It doesn’t feel that difficult. But if you keep at it, you will get stronger and faster, all the while maintaining the same sustainable level of perceived effort.  

Investor Christopher Begg shared an acronym for this approach on the Richer, Wiser, Happier podcast

PIPER (Persistent Incremental Progress Eternally Repeated).

I think about this a lot in everything I do: improving my relationships, building my network, growing my net worth, preserving my fitness as I age, continuing to learn. It’s the core concept of my philosophy of pursuing a “perfectly perfect life”—a life full of challenging activities I enjoy that make each day better than the last.

What do you think?

Are You Ready to Be Radically Moderate?

Now that you’ve probably given up on your lofty New Year’s resolutions, I challenge you to ask yourself:

What kind of radically moderate goals can you set for life?

And if you’re in a rush, here’s a bonus challenge: 

Go climb a mountain or tall building as fast as you can, just for kicks.  

About the author

👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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The Zag shares my adventures off of the boring beaten paths of life and ideas for finding your own unfollowable path.