Some years ago, Dr. Robert Lustig worked with a group of kids who had brain cancer. The cancer treatments were successful, but later the kids became obese. According to their parents, the kids had developed enormous appetites and become sedentary. They spent all day sleeping or sitting in front of the TV and eating.
Lustig didn’t inform the parents that those kids needed to just stop being so lazy and gluttonous. He didn’t urge the parents to tell their kids to just eat less and move more, for goodness sake. As an endocrinologist, Lustig knew the change in behavior was being driven by a change in biochemistry. He suspected that as a side-effect of the cancer treatments, the kids were over-producing insulin. Tests confirmed his suspicion.
So he gave the kids an insulin-suppressing drug. Here’s how he described the results:
“When we gave these kids this drug that blocked insulin secretion, they started losing weight. But more importantly, something that was even more amazing, these kids started exercising spontaneously. One kid became a competitive swimmer, two kids started lifting weights, one kid became the manager of his high school basketball team … Changing the kids’ insulin levels had an effect not just on their weight, not just on their appetites, but on their desire to engage in physical activity.”
These kids didn’t get fat because they sat around and ate more. They sat around and ate more because they were hormonally driven to get fat. Luckily for them, Lustig understood that and treated the root of the problem: chemistry, not character.
When I started writing this series of posts, I knew I’d receive (and did) a comment or two along the lines of “But telling people it’s about chemistry gives them an excuse to just give up.” Comments like that usually come, of course, from people who have never been fat and chalk it up to their superior character. I understand the appeal of that belief.
I also understand wanting to believe it’s all about character because darnit, that just feels like cosmic justice. Effort ought to yield results, period. Most of us would like the world to work like that. As kids, we were told that if you work hard and put your mind to it, you can do almost anything. So in our little pea-picking brains, the formula for success looks like this:
Effort = Success
But as we grow older, we realize everyone inherits different talents and abilities. I admired Bart Starr and wanted his job someday, but I certainly knew by middle school that no matter how hard I worked, I’d never become a star quarterback in the NFL. Or in college. Or in high school. Or in the Pop Warner leagues. I just didn’t have the physical gifts. So after swallowing the knowledge that genetics matters, we update the success formula in our minds to look more like this:
Ability x Effort = Success
That’s where we’d like the equation to stay. That “ability” part still seems a bit unfair, but we can live with it.
Well, like it or not, there’s still more to it.
Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, the last Super Bowl notwithstanding. Sure, he inherited the ability to become great from his father, also an NFL quarterback in his day, but Manning’s dedication to his profession is legendary. He spends hours and hours studying videotape of opposing defenses so he can predict their moves and spot their weaknesses. It’s Ability x Effort at work, for sure.
But wait … what if Manning prepared for games by spending hours and hours studying and memorizing the birthdays, middle names, favorite desserts and horoscopes of the defensive players he’ll be facing? Would he still shred defenses like he did in the 2013 NFL season? Of course not, because that knowledge wouldn’t be useful in guessing how to pick apart a defense. The time and effort spent acquiring that knowledge would be wasted.
Let’s suppose I want to look better in shorts. Running for 10 hours a week might put some muscle on my thighs, but not as much as one set of leg presses per week with heavy weights. Resistance training is more effective for growing muscles, period. It doesn’t matter that running 10 hours per week takes more effort and dedication than spending three minutes on a leg-press machine.
So we have to update our formula for success one more time. Now it looks something like this:
Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success
Effort matters, absolutely, but only yields good results if it’s applied effectively.
Let me offer another example: suppose twin brothers both decide to take second jobs and invest most of the additional income to make for a more prosperous middle age. One twin works extra hard, spends less, and invests $500 per month in bank CDs that pay 1.05% interest. The second twin doesn’t work quite as much and treats himself to nicer clothes and other goodies, and thus only saves $250 per month, which he invests in mutual funds that earn the S&P 500 historical average of 11.69%.
After 20 years, the twin who invested $500 per month would have just over $134,000 in his account. Meanwhile, the twin who only invested $250 per month would be sitting on nearly $233,000.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? I think we’d all agree the first twin demonstrated more character. He worked harder, he sacrificed more. And yet it’s the brother who worked less and sacrificed less who has nearly $100,000 more in his account. That’s because while his efforts were smaller, they were applied much more effectively. Working and saving was a matter of character. The return on investment was, in a manner of speaking, a matter of financial chemistry.
And of course if the twin who worked harder and saved more invested it all in the next Enron, he’d get nothing in return. He would no doubt feel royally screwed by an unfair universe, but that would be the result. I hate to break it to anyone who doesn’t already know, but the universe doesn’t reward you based on how much effort you expend or how many sacrifices you make, no matter what all the touchy-feely self-help books say. The universe rewards effort that’s applied effectively.
If we sat down and explained to the ambitious young twins that their financial success would depend heavily on the effectiveness of their investments, I doubt either of them would say, “Well, that’s it, then. If it’s about return on investment, I don’t see the point in making the effort. I give up.”
I’d expect the opposite, in fact: I’d expect them to be motivated to find effective investments so their efforts wouldn’t go to waste.
Turning this back around to losing weight, yes, there has to be some effort and some sacrifice involved. If you’re obese, whatever you’ve been doing isn’t working. Your diet will have to change. But it has to be an effective change. Switching to a diet that works with your body’s chemistry so you feel satisfied even while eating less is effective. Switching to a diet that works against your body’s chemistry and leaves you ravenous and lethargic isn’t. That’s the dietary equivalent of investing in Enron.
Making the effort to find the diet that works with your chemistry and then sticking with it – even if means giving up the donuts and bread you love – requires some character. But if you’re willing to do that, you can be like the twin who saved and sacrificed less but ended with more money. Getting results won’t require as much sacrifice, and perhaps eventually it won’t feel like a sacrifice at all. I certainly didn’t feel deprived when I went back to bacon and eggs for breakfast. I used to love pasta, but now I don’t miss it.
So let’s look at that success equation one more time:
Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success
We all know that thanks to genetics, some people are naturally lean and others tend to get fat, so let’s swap genetics for ability. The effectiveness of a diet is largely a matter of chemistry. So now here’s our equation if we define weight loss as success:
Genetics x Effort x Chemistry = Weight Loss
But wait … genetics is also a matter of biochemistry. So we’re looking at Chemistry x Effort x Chemistry.
That’s why I say weight loss is mostly about chemistry, not character. Knowing that is hardly an excuse to give up. If anything causes people to give up, it’s effort and sacrifice that isn’t rewarded. That’s why the gyms become less and less crowded the farther we get from New Year’s and all those resolutions. Understanding that chemistry is a big part of the equation and choosing accordingly is what enables our efforts to finally succeed.