When is N +1 Too Much?

When is N +1 Too Much? 150 150 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Arthur T. Johnson

The story is told that a juggler who can suspend five objects will invariably be asked if he or she can juggle six objects. Jugglers who can handle six objects at a time will almost always be asked if he or she can handle seven. No matter how many things a juggler can deal with at a time, he or she will inevitably be asked if they can juggle one more.

Presumably, if a juggler could handle N + 1 objects, he or she would do so. Juggling N + 1 things is more impressive then suspending N things. Anybody who would take up the skill of juggling would most assuredly start with a small number of things and work toward a maximum number that can be juggled confidently. The juggler would then have found his or her limit.

It is good to know what one’s limitations are. Performing less than a limit on any physical or mental endeavor is not as productive as possible; performing above the limit, at least consistently, is not possible. Limits are the optimum performance points.

Watching youngsters pushing themselves to reach their limits is fun and entertaining. When they learn how to climb trees, for instance, they climb higher and higher until they can go no further. They then know what they are capable of, at least for climbing trees. They experiment with other undertakings to find out their capacities for performing those kinds of exercises. And, what’s most interesting about watching children strive to find their limits, is that their limits change as they grow. Constant experimentation is necessary to keep up with their (usually) improved capabilities.

Sometimes the source of the pressure to expend one’s limits comes from inside the person, and sometimes it comes externally. I have had students who were motivated to excel in school because of family expectations. If the external pressures are not internalized by the student, then a conflict can arise and the student can feel despondent.

Some external pressures are good. A certain amount of external pressure can transform a piece of coal into a diamond. However, ever higher external pressure can disintegrate the diamond, no matter how hard it is.

Family expectations can help to motivate, but some expectations are unrealistic, or do not match the wishes of the recipient. In those cases, mental homeostasis can be lost. We have had two instances of sports figures in the year 2021 who succumbed to mental crises attributable to a feeling of too much external pressure to perform well: Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open tennis tournament and Simone Biles withdrew from the U.S. gymnastics Olympic team because each had reached a point where she had felt the pressure to perform at the highest levels was too much with which to cope. They both had to deal with their own mental limitations in the face of perceived pressure from others’ expectations.

All of us need to know when N + 1 is too much. We need to know what performance we are capable of without trying to exceed the possible. And these limits can vary from day to day, or even within a day. But, pushing oneself to try to do more can become counterproductive and lead to underperformance.

Most adults can be likened to the juggler. We have work tasks to do, family tasks to do, and other responsibilities to attend to. There is a popular word attached for this condition, and it is called “multitasking.” Some people can multitask very well, but most must limit the number of tasks simultaneously attended to a certain few, or N. As for myself, I don’t multitask very well; I must attend to one thing at a time in order to feel that I am doing the best job that I expect of myself. My limitation is a small number. If I were a juggler, my limit might be one or two.