the iron quadrangle

I was talking with a friend tonight about “The Iron Quadrangle” – my name for a concept that I’ve read about and pondered over the years.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I first saw it; happily, we agreed that this means I can restate it without attribution . . .

So here is the rule of the Iron Quadrangle:

Friends, family, work and health are the four most meaningful areas of pursuit in life.  The very best that most people can achieve is to be outstanding in two areas, mediocre in one, and barely tolerable in the last.

Be wary of any advice that rigidly proclaims to know which combination is best for everyone.  For example, a lot of well-meaning homilies put family and health above all other values.  But the Iron Quadrangle means that all four values are connected; activity in any one informs all of the others.

Keep in mind that health includes physical and mental health; and that work includes all vocation, whether in pursuit of profit or pursuit of a cause.  Meaningful and lasting friendships are a critical contributor to lifelong health.  Pursuit of your true calling in work should be both emotionally enriching and intellectually revitalizing.

So maximizing your pursuit of family and health, to the exclusion of full effort with friends and work, can limit your achievement in the areas you would want to advance the most.  Would you have given all that you could to your life partner and your children if you never tested your mettle with the greatest challenges at work, or failed to develop rich friendships outside of your family?

Some will try to argue for picking work and family, or friends and family, or health and friends.  Some would claim that the limitation to two outstanding areas is false.  But in my experience and observation, the Iron Quadrangle is pitiless and brooks very few exceptions – and what exceptions I have seen are more a result of extremely fortuitous circumstances than the result of thought and effort.

This isn’t a pessimistic message, but rather a reflection on avoiding regret.  Many high-achieving people in every area look upon their accomplishments with regret for the areas in which they did not excel.  I think regret is only appropriate where people made choices while lying to themselves about the consequences for the other areas.

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