“A life well lived” is a maxim many people aspire to live up to.
Yet, so many of us modern Westerners instead end up with merely “a life well managed”.
Managing oneself is hailed as the “key to success”, both by Peter Drucker and by popular folklore. But can it go too far? Can we miss out on Life in the pursuit of optimal self-management?
I recently got this idea for a metaphor to illustrate the balance between managing your life and truly living it: a painting and a frame.
Imagine a beautiful painting (like the absolutely stunning work of art below!). This represents your life. The more vibrant the painting, the more vibrant your life, dull colours may represent dull times, interesting shapes are interesting forces shaping your life, and so on.
Now imagine a frame around your painting. The frame represents the management of your life.
A solid frame means you have your shit together. You have a strong grip on life. Your habits are sound, you pay your bills on time, you reach inbox zero on a regular basis, you’re considered a productive member of society, and so on. A thin, weak frame means the opposite. Your life is a mess. Your apartment looks like a postapocalyptic wasteland, your health is a train wreck, and you’re perpetually broke.
Clearly you’d prefer to have a strong frame around the painting that is your life. But here is the big question that self-aware, well-managed folks may sooner or later ask themselves: can the frame get too strong?
Yes, indeed it can. Consider the picture below. The unproportionally large frame looks ridiculous. The frame is so dominant there’s almost no space left for the actual painting!
This represents the life of a person who is Over-Managing and Under-Living his life. His life is hidden behind layers and layers of exquisite framing, barely visible to himself and others. He has been so hung up in creating efficient, intentional structures for his life that he has forgotten to also Live it.
As this metaphor illustrates, we ought to find the right balance between Living and Managing our lives. Luckily, we can all continuously develop both our painting and our frame at any point in our lives.
If you have a frame that is too dominant for your painting, you have two choices to regain a sense of symmetry and balance: make the frame smaller, or make the painting bigger. I’d recommend the latter – instead of throwing out all the structure you have built into your life, use it for support instead. Have it support a bigger, more extravagant and vibrant painting. Bring out the pencils!
If you have a frame that is too small for your painting, again you have two choices: make the frame bigger, or make the painting smaller. Advice to this person should be a little more nuanced. Obviously, work on strengthening the frame if you can. But these vivacious life-livers may also need to shrink the painting a little bit first, or at least create some blank space. After all, it’s extremely difficult to develop your frame and get your life in order if you’re constantly high as a kite, hung over or running to the next fun and life-affirming experience (/escape).
Let met wrap up with one final point on this metaphorical FRAMEwork: as your life expands in complexity, so should your frame. As a student, a sufficient frame might be a schedule showing the time of your classes, plus the established habit of waking up at some point (preferably daily). But as CEO of a big company for example, your frame might include nannies at home dealing with the kids, wealth managers dealing with your money, and personal assistants dealing with just about everything else.
But even then, even if every practicality is systematised, automated or delegated to someone else, you might need to be reminded to do something very simple: to occasionally Live.
Thank you for reading. Have a vivacious Monday,
-Jacob (working to expand my painting inside a pretty well-developed frame)
Also published on Medium.