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?