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Commentary: Fanatical Commitment to Moderation

On Aug. 24, 2016, I achieved my goal of losing exactly 100 pounds. For the first time in my adult life, my body mass index was classified as “normal.”

As I write today’s column exactly one year after reaching this objective, I’m pleased to report that I’m still down 100 pounds (well, 102 to be precise).

I’ve been asked numerous times how I achieved this physical transformation. The best piece of advice I can give is to marry a lovely, charming and wonderfully supportive wife. Beyond that, however, many of the “strategies” I used to guide me on this journey are actually rooted in the lessons of nearly three decades working in philanthropy.

Measure your progress. Whenever you are on a new journey, you need to watch for the markers of success. At the Door County Community Foundation, we think a lot about measurables so we can determine whether charities are making adequate progress toward their goals. On my personal path toward healthier living, I have my own set of markers. I’ve become hyper-aware of how my clothes fit and how much I tighten my belt. I weigh myself first thing every morning and track it relentlessly. I try to use the best measurables I can find to measure my progress toward my goal.

There is no perfect measurable. Yet as much as I like numbers, I have come to believe that the world of philanthropy has developed an unhealthy obsession with measurables. The health of a complex system is not easily distilled into a handful of statistics. On my journey to personal health, my weight, the size of my clothes, and the hole in my belt are all good ways to track my progress. However, behind these improving measures could actually lurk a terrible reality. Anorexia and bulimia are very effective methods of getting thin but they are more destructive to the body than the excess weight I was trying to lose. Thankfully I have never faced these disorders, but it is a reminder that while measurables are useful tools, they are just tools. They are neither a panacea nor the goal itself. It’s important that you track your progress, but you shouldn’t obsess too much over the numbers because there is no perfect measurable.

Trust in the process. Successful projects requires a considerable amount of planning before implementation. Let’s say you’ve mapped out the series of steps needed to get to your goal, you’re now implementing them, but have yet to see the markers of success along the way. If you know you’re doing the right things, sometimes you just have to be patient and trust in the process. When losing weight, there’s nothing more annoying than working out, eating right, then seeing absolutely no change on the scale in the morning. I’ve cursed out my scale so often that I’ve given it emotional scars. Yet I trusted in the process. I knew that if I just ate right and exercised more, eventually the signs of progress would appear. And they did.

Don’t let yesterday be an excuse for today. If a charity is trying to do something that’s hard, it’s almost a certainty that there will be a few missteps along the way. We might find that one of the assumptions underlying the project was incorrect. Or perhaps someone simply screwed up when implementing the next step. Regardless of how it occurred, we cannot let yesterday’s failure be an excuse for what we do next. Personally, I cannot count the number of times I’ve grabbed an extra piece of fried chicken or indulged in a second slice of coconut cream pie. Sometimes I feel compelled to accept these blessings as God’s great gifts to humanity. Yet I never let my failure at lunch justify being a glutton at dinner. Instead, I recommit myself to the process and work even harder the next day.

Incremental progress is the most common kind. It seems like every foundation in the country wants to invest in an “innovative” idea that will change everything. Unfortunately, in complex systems, a simple one-size fits all solution that changes everything rarely, if ever, exists. More commonly, we need to implement a lot of modest changes, each of which moves us incrementally closer to our goal. The same is true with my weight loss. There was no one thing I did to lose weight. I ate smaller meals, switched to healthier snacks, drank more water, walked more frequently, took the stairs, and did countless other little things. Individually, they had only an incremental impact on my health, but collectively, they transformed my body.

Fanatical commitment to moderation. Perhaps more than anything else, this is central to both my professional life and personal health. Experience has taught me that rarely is there one perfect and right answer to any problem. Yet I continually review proposals that assure me it’s this “new” and “innovative” idea that will cure every cancer, protect every baby seal, hug every tree, and educate every child. Most of these proposals are crafted by well-meaning people. Yet they’ve incorrectly extrapolated that their idea which worked in a specific situation will be a universal good in every situation. A lifetime in philanthropy has diminished my fanatical belief in any single organization or idea. Instead, my fanaticism has been reduced to just one. I have developed a fanatical commitment to moderation. I try to look beneath the grandiose façade to find those bits of wisdom which might be useful in this and other contexts. It’s in those ideas which I want to invest.

Similarly, when I started on my journey to healthy living, everyone shared with me their “solution” to my weight problem. Nothing but protein. Avoid all meat. Only raw foods. Shun all carbs. Cleansing juice diet. Absolutely no sugar. There’s likely a bit of wisdom in all of these maximalist or minimalist approaches, but their once useful idea has been so overdone that they have become unsustainable except by the most fanatical among us. There’s no kind of food I won’t eat. Rather, I simply eat everything in moderation. My fanatical commitment to moderation has enabled me to lose 100 pounds and keep it off for a whole year (and counting).

As for the part about my weight loss beginning with a wife as lovely, charming and wonderfully supportive as mine, well, you’re on your own there.

Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected]

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