For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sense that time is running out. When I was in college, I felt like I only had a few years to make an impact on the world. Now that I’m 27, and my early 20s have turned into my late 20s, this sense of urgency has only accelerated.
I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. At least that’s what I tell myself. But life is comprised of both decisions that you make and other things that…just happen to you. The more I go through life, the more I realize that what happens to you has a greater impact than the decisions that you make. All we can try to do is shift the relative weights of that equation a little bit.
As a kid, I felt that the future was full of infinite possibilities. I had a million things to learn, books to read, places to travel, and experiences to rack up. I felt like I could be anything I wanted – a theoretical physicist, a musician, an athlete – if only I would dedicate myself to one pursuit.
I still feel like most of my life is ahead of me. But with each day that goes by, the universe of options that I have is quickly shrinking. Every day I decide to continue down my current path, countless other doors are closed off to me.
I started boxing last year. I really love it; it’s the first time I’ve felt dedicated to a sport since I played football in high school. But I will never be an elite boxer. That door has already closed. My athletic peak will probably occur in the next 5 years, if it hasn’t already. I could choose to train as hard as I could at boxing and devote myself to the sport, but even so, my ceiling would be a few amateur bouts. And the opportunity cost of going down that path is high.
You can’t have it all. Life is a series of tradeoffs. That truth, while simple, is hard to accept. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that your 20s is just a series of doors closing to you. Most people don’t even realize that those doors exist; their lives are lived by default. I wonder how much I fall into that camp. How much have I missed out on because I skated by on raw intelligence and didn’t challenge myself for the majority of my life?
When I was 10 years old, I thought that at this point in my life I’d be a pro athlete or a paleontologist. When I was 15, I thought that I’d be running a non-profit in Africa. When I was 20, I thought that I’d be a successful startup founder.
Now I fear that I’m not living up to my potential. By not diving deep into any one area, I’ve had an amazing breadth of experiences, but also worry that I’ve fallen victim to the Optionality Trap. Did I work hard enough over the past 10 years? Did I study the right things? Did I make the right choices?
There is so much I want to learn, experience, and accomplish in life. Despite my best efforts, I’ll only ever do a fraction of those. Life is short and I don’t have the time to do it all. I’m not sure if this feeling goes away with time, or if you just learn to live with it.
The Four Burners Theory
James Clear talks about the Four Burners Theory: there are tradeoffs among the different areas of your life. If your life is represented as a stove, every time you decide to invest time in one of the four burners – family, friends, health, and work – you necessarily lower the heat on your other burners. To be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. To perform at an elite level, you need to cut off two.
I’ve felt this acutely. I’m trying to:
- Perform well at work
- Get a coffee roasting business off of the ground
- Read and write regularly
- Be a good boyfriend, son, and brother
- Work out hard and reach my athletic potential
- Improve my technical skillset – I’m currently working on a few Coursera classes and have applied for a Masters program in Computer Science
Many days, I feel like I’m barely treading water. By trying to do everything, I excel at nothing.
How to combat this? For me, it’s a combination of:
- Introducing constraints
- Short-term immersion; long-term balance
I am not entirely happy with the final draft of this blog post. If I had worked on it for a few more hours, it would be better. But is the marginal benefit worth the marginal cost? (For those who don’t think in economic terms: Is the juice worth the squeeze?)
I’ve always been a procrastinator. I file an extension for my tax return every year. I’ve written every paper I was assigned in school the night before it was due. So I have tangibly experienced two truths:
- Work will fill the time allotted for it (Parkinson’s Law).
- “Done” is always better than “perfect…but not yet launched”.
I think often of the story of the clay pots, from the book Art & Fear.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
By time-boxing tasks and letting go of the pursuit of perfection, I can produce both a greater quantity and quality of work.
The overarching constraint in life is time. The clock is ticking: we will all die. Without this constraint, we wouldn’t have the motivation to do anything. Paradoxically, embracing constraints can lead to better long-term results.
Short-term Immersion; Long-term Balance
I’ve found that intense learning over short periods of time is superior to casual learning over longer periods of time. I took Spanish from second grade through college, but I only improved dramatically when I studied abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires. Those first few weeks in Argentina, I struggled, but by pushing through the pain period I was able to become functionally fluent. Since then, my Spanish abilities have declined, but I can reactivate my Spanish when necessary.
Likewise, to make substantial progress in any area of my life I need to get into a flow state, a period of obsession where all I’m thinking about is this blog or Cadena Coffee. Today, I worked on this blog post and spent time with family. I didn’t make any progress in my health or work-related goals. That’s okay.
By diving deep and solely focusing on 1-2 burners for a burst of a week, month, or quarter, I can make drastic progress in those areas – progress that I wouldn’t be able to make in the same number of hours spread out over a period of time. So while my life may not have balance at any single point in time, over the long-run I can make progress in all of the areas that I care about.