The Journey and the 4 Quadrants

I’m sure at some point in your life, you’ve come across a book or an article titled something to the tune of “N things highly successful people do everyday”, or “The X keys to true happiness”, or how about “These Y habits will change your life forever”. Indeed, for as long as information has prevailed in its accessibility and power, the publishing industry, both offline and online, has been inundated by a myriad self-help, self-improvement, and “achieving success” titles. An ever-intensifying rat race to the top of the technological and economic pyramid has left businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and artists alike exhausted, burned out, and desperately seeking serenity, cleansing, and meaning. Among the sea of literature, if you take a quick scan of the titles, there are anywhere from 4 to 50 different “categories” you could focus on to improve the quality of your (mental) life.

I’m all for helping people — don’t get me wrong. The only problem I have with many of these frameworks, especially ones with more than 4 buckets, is that they are difficult to remember, incredibly hard to implement (and sustain), and sometimes don’t feel relevant to me at all. As such, I’m going to leave you with one mental model that is simple, relevant to you, and doesn’t impose any changes to your life. I first heard about this from fitness guru Bradley Martyn — he made a video about this.

Now, there’s no sexy name for the concept, but in essence it has 2 components: the Journey and the 4 Quadrants. Here’s how to think about it:

Each individual is, at any given time, on a journey to accomplish a goal that is most important to him or her in that moment. This may be a career journey to landing a dream job. It may be an emotional journey to reconcile with a romantic partner. It may be a fitness journey to lose 5 kg. You may wonder: based on that idea, couldn’t a person be on multiple journeys then? No. The last part of the initial description (first sentence in this paragraph) specifies that a journey pertains only to the most important goal for a person. Think back to when you were applying for a job you really wanted. Sure, you may still be maintaining good relationships, studying for exams or doing assignments, or trying to save money, but those are not top of mind for you, hence you’re not on a journey to do any of those things. You’re on a journey to secure that job you really want. Take a moment to reflect. Are you on a journey right now? What kind of journey is it? Is it tough or actually quite manageable? Do you feel like you’ve been on it for a long time now, or have you only just started?

Hopefully by now the idea of the Journey is clear. Let’s move onto the second component in this framework: the 4 Quadrants. A nice characteristic of the 4 Quadrants is that it’s MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive), so you can rest assured that every possible issue is covered. The notion is simple: every journey falls into 1 of the 4 quadrants: physical, mental, financial/career, relationships. You could argue that there are a few that are missing: what about spirituality, happiness, philanthropy, or creativity? With the exception of philanthropy, which I would bucket into career, the rest broadly fall into the mental quadrant for me. Spiritual well-being, happiness, and creativity all impact or involve the mind.

For all intent and purposes, this is a theoretical construct that is normative, not prescriptive. What in the world does that mean? It means you shouldn’t expect this framework to help you achieve great success, at least not directly. It’s not like a “7 steps you need to take to get rich”. Treat the 4 Quadrants like a diagnostic of your life. An illustrative example could be for John, the 4 Quadrants reveal he’s in a well-paying, highly respected job with great progression potential, he’s in shape and works out 3–4 times a week, and in general he’s quite content with life without many sources of stress. Yet, over the years, John’s grown distant from his parents. So his journey may be in the relationships quadrant, more specifically to foster a deeper and more meaningful bond with his parents.

We’re all on our own journeys, myself included. Being cognizant of this reality allows us to not only strive to do better and be better, but enables us to forgive ourselves when we’ve disappointed by not “meeting the bar” in one aspect of life, and moreover, instills sympathy in us towards others who are on their own personal journeys, dealing with unique sets of circumstances and constraints.