One of Gandhi’s most popular quotes is this:
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Once we’ve gotten some much needed distance to whatever our education system forced us to remember, most of us rediscover the joy of voluntary learning at some point. Whether you like to research stocks, tend to your garden, or read books, self-improvement has many benefits.
Beyond satisfying our curiosity by regularly spending time in flow, we can use it to become better people, get what we want and solve problems. It seems so universal a tool that its usefulness feels limitless.
But that’s not the whole story. No matter how much we’d like it to, self-improvement isn’t a magic wand we can wave to cause whatever change we want to see. That’s because no amount of reading, learning, or even discipline can ever change that life still consists entirely of tradeoffs.
It’s like that line: “You can have anything you want, but not everything.” Choosing one thing always means not choosing another, so even if you’re the most dedicated person in the world, you still have to decide what to dedicate yourself to.
No idea highlights this problem better than The Four Burners Theory.
Two Out of Four
Imagine a stove with four burners on it, which represent the big aspects of your life:
Now, the theory says that in order to be successful, you can only turn on three burners at a time. If you want to be exceptional, it’s just two.
The second you hear this theory, you know it’s true. Take a moment to think. Which burners have you cut off? For me it’s friends and health. If I had to put percentages on it, I’d say work is at 80%, family at 15%, and friends get a crippling 5%. Almost out of oxygen. Ouch.
This theory explains why we’re frustrated, no matter how much we improve. Sooner or later, we find out self-improvement isn’t the universal remedy it is often claimed to be, and we want answers. Why can’t I have everything? Why?
Of course we never could, we’ve just fooled ourselves into believing we can over time.
The Four Burners Theory was originally just mentioned in passing in a New Yorker article, but James Clear popularized it. He also offered different views on what you can do about this problem.
- Be imbalanced. Sacrifice your health, or friends, or work and say “screw it, that’s just what it is.”
- Be mediocre. Do turn up all burners, but just enough to get by. As a result, you’ll go long in life, just never far.
- Outsource stuff. If you make more money, you can hire a chef, or a trainer, or pay a nanny to take care of your kids. All of these have limitations of their own, of course.
- Set constraints. “I’ll work 70 hours a week on becoming a millionaire, but not a single one more.” “Monday night is date night.” And so on.
All of these feel like weak attempts at bypassing the problem. If you’re a dedicated self-improvement nerd like me, you want a solution. Luckily, it seems there is one.
A Life for All Seasons
James says our default in which burners we turn up is to imitate the inspiring figures in our lives. If your boss is a workaholic, you’ll likely turn into one too and if your fellow students mostly hang out with one another, so will you.
That’s nice if those burners happen to match the ones you would’ve chosen, but if not, you have a problem. Life forces you to choose either way, but if you’re not the one picking, you’ll end up with a lot of regrets.
Besides starting to make the choice, Nathan Barry suggests living your life in seasons. Yes, it sucks to compromise, but no one said you have to stick with one compromise for the rest of your life.
In high school, my friends and family burners were turned up all the way. In college, that shifted to friends and work, then work and health and now, I’m on work and family. Next year? Who knows.
It’s a little tweak to that line from earlier, but it makes all the difference: “You can have anything you want, maybe even everything, just not all at once.”
Right now, I’m laying the foundation of the rest of my working life and spending what little time I have with the people I care about the most. In exchange, I can’t see my friends every day and I might not be in perfect shape.
I can be okay with that. And that’s the whole point.
Half of Happiness
When you work hard in your career, on your body, for your relationships, you can achieve a lot. You should. But if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
Don’t expect your dedication to becoming better to absolve you of all problems. Self-improvement, like all tools, is imperfect. Embracing the Four Burners Theory can make you happier, because it allows you to not fret over what you’re temporarily missing out on.
That’s the solution, I think. We don’t need to look for a bypass. We can just accept the problem and that’ll do.
Sometimes, it helps to remember that, in spite of what Gandhi said, tomorrow will be another day.