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Quick Guide to a Balanced Life – the Four Essential Questions

January 18, 2011

Quick Guide to a Balanced Life – the Four Essential Questions

Most of us begin each New Year full of good intentions to lead a balanced life. The prior year we found we had over allocated to some area of our life (usually work) and sadly sacrificed other areas leading to exhaustion and all manner of mischief.

Over the holidays, I read an exceptional piece by Michael Lewis (author of The Big Short). The subject was a hot young broker who was consumed by his quest for money and the eighty-hour ethos of his rapacious work environment. Lewis recounted that the broker “routinely ranked in the top percent of revenue producers in whichever firm he happened to be working for. In his best years, he grossed more than $1 million. Only now he had a problem.  He was quickly becoming the world’s unhappiest man … A fellow broker had told him, “You are confused about your job. Your job is to turn your clients’ net worth into your own.” This young “master of the universe” told Lewis, “Everyone I worked with had a drinking issue. You can’t continue to hurt people and feel good about yourself.”

But how to avoid this mess ourselves? Most of us begin with New Years Resolutions that quickly evaporate under the pressure of circumstances. I am going to suggest that instead we would serve ourselves better by asking fruitful questions. Years ago at age 34 in the most intense part of my life, I was managing a television station and chasing deals all around the country. A work associate confronted me one day saying, “You are a frightening person. You are sooo focused on cash flow.” After some reflection, I said to myself, “She’s right, and what are you going to do about it?” I went aside and begin asking questions. My first question was, “What are you going to lose with all this gaining?” That quickly led to a second question, “What are the non negotiables in your life? What can you not afford to lose?” That led to my writing six goals for my entire life. They haven’t changed to this day. More on that in a moment.

I have taken note of the fact that the smartest people I know always begin with questions. For example, Peter Drucker’s three famous questions about business are: What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?  Jim Collins begins each of his book quests with a question. “What does it take to go from Good to Great?” What sort of companies are “Built to Last”?

A couple of years ago, I was privileged to hear Tom Tierney deliver a lecture in New York City. Tierney is one of my great examples of a fruitful Life II (he is interviewed in my book, Finishing Well). Tierney had succeeded Mitt Romney as world-wide Managing Director of Bain & Co, a leading strategy consulting group. He had left to form The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit that provides strategy consulting to nonprofits and philanthropy organizations. ( Tierney’s lecture was based on an organization’s willingness to rigorously confront four essential, interdependent questions. I didn’t write them down, but later Tierney sent me a note saying, “Recall my talk in NY – you asked about the ‘four questions’ – here they are.” Attached was a Harvard Business Review article. I retrieved the article during the Christmas holidays and have converted Tierney’s Four Questions from corporate application to personal application. What you will see next is a matrix that I hope will be useful for your planning to develop a balanced personal life. In the left-hand column are my six goals for a balanced life. The particulars have, of course, changed, but the nonnegotiable categories still provide the framework that supports all the important priorities of my life. Your dominant categories may be different, but it is critical to know what they are.

The line across the top has Bridgespan’s Four Essential Questions which apply to the categories listed on the left. It is a fill-in-the-box personal exercise. You will note that the Tierney questions stress results, what those results will cost and how they can be funded. I felt it important to leave cost considerations in for two reasons: the funding question often trips people up causing them to allocate less than they might to deployment of resources to significance activities. People simply answer the “How much is enough?” question by saying “more!!” The second reason is that often the costs are existential rather than economic. By that I mean they are questions of time and values, not money questions. If you read the Michael Lewis article about the young broker, you will quickly find that he doesn’t have time to allocate to anything except making money, deceiving his clients, and achieving a top ten ranking in his company.

So I wish you well in filling in the boxes to make them fit the person God has designed you to be.

Download pdf version of this worksheet.

As an example, my answers to Q1 for my six categories are:

  1. Linda happy.
  2. Serving others to fill “the Ross void” in my life. The fruit of my investment grows up on other peoples’ trees.
  3. Funds flow from 5-year plan. Reviewed annually.
  4. Assured lifestyle – the rest goes to “significance” projects preferably in my lifetime.
  5. Areas of interest: Management, visual arts, literature/history, investment/economics.
  6. To transform the latent energy in American Christianity into active energy.


So What about You?

  1. Are you willing to answer Bridgespan’s Four Essential Questions for your life? There is a wonderful line from Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
  2. I recommend you share your own musings with your spouse, your best friend, or a small group of people you trust. Often they can see more than you can.
  3. You can reconvert the Four Questions back to corporate usage by simply inserting “we” where I have used “I.”

One of my Favorite Poems:

It is the world’s one crime

that its babes grow dull.

Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap.

Not that they serve,

but that they have no God to serve.

The tragedy is not death.

The tragedy is to die

with commitments undefined,

with convictions undeclared

and with service unfulfilled.

— Rachel Lindsey



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Klitgaard permalink
    January 19, 2011 12:17 PM

    The poem cited at the end is a combination of “The Leaden Eyed” by Vachel (not Rachel) Lindsay and a comment by Ernest L. Boyer. Here are the sources:

    The Leaden Eyed

    Vachel Lindsay

    Let not young souls be smothered out before
    They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
    It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
    Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
    Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
    Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
    Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
    Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

    Boyer would often cite the poem and continue saying: “The tragedy is not death. The tragedy is to die with commitments undefined, convictions undeclared, and service unfulfilled.” For example, Boyer, “Making Connections,” in his Selected Speeches, 1979-1995 (Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1997), p. 116.


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