Family, friends, health, work: Pick three

sign in cubicle: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

There's an old saying the creatives in my old ad agency liked to lob at the suits when they started fire-breathing stuff like budgets and time and quality:

Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick any two.

Actually, we were rarely this articulate or polite under pressure, usually, we used a lot more words, rapid-fire and sotto voce, most of them of the NSFW variety.1

It's a cheap truism, obviously crafted by someone who was paid a lot of money or given much time to come up with it, but it makes it no less truthful. That whole having-it-all thing? Bullshit bullshit bullshit. A bill of goods you've been sold by a similarly well-paid, overworked team of mad men, most of whom have the fat lifestyle or lousy home lives to back it up.

Which brings us to the updated project-triangle illustration for the modern age of self-actualization, the Four Burners Theory as (apparently) laid out by David Sedaris, and expounded upon by my young friend Chris Guillebeau. In the interests of symmetry, a model worth aspiring to, I lay it out thusly:

Family. Friends. Health. Work. Pick any three.

The metaphor of burners is a great one, provided the four you envision sit on a cooktop of the ancient variety (like me!) where there is limited gas to go around (unlike me!), and it is impossible to go great guns on all four at once. If you've been privileged enough to grow up cooking on Wolf ranges, think crappy, old plumbing, where a neighbor's flush means your scalding-hot blast of shower. (Or, in the case of Gloomy Manor, any water running anywhere in the house means the trickle of shower water you're under reducing itself to spittle.)

The idea is not that you can't have all four, even at once: it's that you can't have an exceptional level of all four at once. You cannot put in the time required to raise children properly and nurture outstanding friendships of depth and be an elite athlete and win the Nobel prize in chemistry. Because to be outstanding at any one thing requires an outstanding level of focus on that thing. Ipso facto, right?

Since you are a smartypants, your brain is racing to find exceptions to this rule. Lance Armstrong, maybe. (Although, you know, that's an awful lot of primary relationships, not to mention single-parent offspring, to qualify for categories #1 and 2.) As Ben Casnocha notes, Tim O'Reilly seems to be living the dream, but I'd wager O'Reilly himself would say that he's not all-in with any one of the four categories.

My own bias has always been towards a singular focus on work; it's how I was raised, and I suspect that to a degree, it's also how I'm wired. My Crohn's epiphany brought an end to that, though. In one fell swoop (and several subsequent months of recovery), I realized that while elite athletic performance was as meaningless to me as it had ever been, a baseline level of health and happiness was not. The former requires a certain amount of time and attention in the form of rest and, because of my annoyingly high-maintenance diet, food preparation. The latter? Well, sleep pulls double-duty, I refuse to be miserable at my own hand, and an average of eight hours daily is required to keep the Mean Reds and blues at bay.

The happiness part of the equation is far, far trickier, because family, friends and work each factor into that level of buoyancy I strive to maintain. I'm guessing they do for most of us; we feel better when we're being useful, and that requires both meaningful work and a level of reasonable engagement with other human beings. Historically, I've let the first two slide. Most of the serious relationships I've had ended largely because I just can't handle the demands of a primary relationship.2 Hell, I can't always handle the demands of friendship. So I have a few close friends who, for whatever reason, put up with my bullshit, and many more casual friendships which are less time-intensive and which I can thus maintain without a lot of stress and drama.

This means I forfeit most of the benefits of family, and for now, I've made my uneasy peace with it. I really, really, really want to hit these next ten years hard, work-wise. If it means I end up pushing a shopping cart or a ward of the state in my old age, well, there's no one to blame but me and my choices. I also accept that there's no guarantee my work will be of a quality that justifies these choices. Frankly, that's even scarier to me than ending up alone, which is probably an indication that I have a long way to go before I can join the ranks of the mentally healthy, but there you go: it's the truth, and that's as good a place as any to start from.

If I have a point here (other than my seeming one, which is to depress the hell out of you), it is this: you are the sum of your choices, and there is no gobbling up your cake and still having it whole on the counter, pristine in its lovely glass cake stand, there for you to enjoy tomorrow. And a non-choice is a choice, too, so there's no weaseling out of it. Your life will get eaten up from under you, even if you don't do the eating. (Pro tip: deep-six the TV.) I have been extraordinarily lucky in that the IDIOTIC amount of time I spent doing something I hated, writing ads, turned out to be of some utility later on. Really though, the sooner you can get yourself out of something you're done with, or release something you have no use for, the better off you are. Trust me on this.3

In other words, let us not miss out on the most obvious and helpful part of the whole equation: pick. Choose. Decide. Spend time in thoughtful deliberation, weighing the pros and cons of your choices and actions and possible outcomes and then BE a verb.

Do not be like me and let life live you for too many years. A few, fine. No harm done. Everyone needs a break, and there is some value in playing at Candide a bit, here and there, for the adventure of it.

But do not lose sight of the almighty power you have built into you. Yes, be, but also, do.

Pick one to hit out of the park or pick a life that lets you gracefully enjoy a bit from the sampler plate of all four.

Pick, though. Pick today, and then pick again tomorrow...


UPDATE: Here's a link to the Sedaris essay referencing the four burners The lady who told him about it (she'd heard of it in a management seminar) said the stove could be electric or gas. I think for the analogy to really work, energy-wise, it needs to be gas and old, per my description, above. But hey, what the flock do I know?

1If we could talk at all, that is. Sometimes, we were so apoplectic at the unreasonable demands, all we could do was fume and point to the graphical representation we'd clipped from wherever, probably an ad, while we kept working.

2There were other reasons, but I fully accept that I suck at giving my beloveds the attention they deserve. And until I figure this shit out, I'm off the market.

3Or, hey, just read the archives.