A Comprehensive Approach to Personal Growth
Modern life is a pretty complicated bagful of kittens.
On the one hand, we’ve come to believe that there’s more to life than making money, having fun, raising a family, and staying out of trouble (or getting into trouble, if that’s what you prefer).
But on the other hand, there’s so much going on in life that we hardly know where to begin.
We might want to get every part of our lives running happily along and playing nicely together… but there just seems to be so much to consider. We have noble dreams of balance and fulfilment and harmony, but how can we keep track of it all?
That’s where five-element theory comes in. It’s a system I use to ensure that my days are meaningfully spent, and it works, too.
Basically, this is an old concept which uses the five classical elements as shorthand for the various aspects of life: Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Void (or as I prefer to call it, Whitespace). Put together, these five cover just about every aspect of human growth and personal development.
If you’re anything like me, this approach will give you a framework that can help you shape your life more wisely and effectively than you ever thought possible.
Let’s get to it.
The Five Elements of Life
- Earth: Work and Health
Earth is the element that refers to the financial and physical aspects of life.
This means work: projects, targets, income, investment, lead generation, customer service, and everything else related to making more money.
It also means health: sleep, nutrition, fitness. And also cleanliness and hygiene, for myself and my physical environment.
Most of my time is spent dealing with Earth, and I’ll wager yours is too. I track work, sleep, and fitness obsessively: How many hours today did I work? What exactly did I do during my working hours? Were they the most effective activities I could do? How many hours last night did I sleep? What exercise did I engage in? How many pull-ups? How many pistol squats? And on and on. All of this gets logged.
If we effectively manage our money and health, we have a stable base on which to build everything else in life. Work of course shouldn’t take over our lives, but it’s still an important thing!
- Water: Friendship and Love
Water is the sphere of the emotions. This is where we should think about the quality of our relationships and interactions with friends and loved ones.
I’m a firm believer in quality time. I am an introvert, which is a fancy way of saying that solitude recharges my energy while social contact drains it. So, unlike the previous section, I pay attention to the quality of my interactions instead of thinking in terms of total hours spent. And I try to make those interactions as positive and engaged as I can.
I personally need much less human contact than most. A few thoughtful, affectionate texts from a friend or partner are enough to keep me going all day, and I try to repay them in kind. And as long as I’ve had one or two such interactions over the course of a day, I’m satisfied.
That said, I do also make time for a slow shared meal or activity, once or twice a week.
Your own mileage may vary.
- Air: Knowledge and Skills
Air is the intellectual aspect of life. If I’m not learning, I’m not happy. I need mental stimulation to thrive.
Some people spend their money on things. Others spend money on experiences. But my personal preference is to spend my money on skills: on classes or resources that make me better at the things I love doing.
I generally keep one or two slots open in my life for non-work-related learning. Usually I fill these with dance or language study: I could, for example, fill one slot with Cuban salsa and the other with Ancient Greek. Just 2–4 hours, twice a week. What’s important is that I’m learning something and steadily becoming more skilled at it.
On top of that I try to read on my commutes. I take the train, or the bus, and I try to read new books or listen to music that I haven’t heard before.
- Fire: Creativity and Vision
Fire is the place of my internal artist and CEO.
I am a writer. At the end of every day I ask myself: Apart from client work, did I create anything today? Did I work on a poem, a play, a blog post? What have I tried to bring into the world that wasn’t there before?
After years of long reflection, I also have a pretty clear idea of the life I want to build and of what I want to achieve. And so I also ask: Did my actions today move my life in the direction I want it to go? Were my choices in line with my values? Am I bringing my vision into being? And if not, what can I do tomorrow to get myself back on track?
I find these questions very useful in helping me to build the life I want to live. Like many of us today, I can be rather susceptible to Shiny Distractions. Or at least I would be, if not for the next element:
- Whitespace: Context and Perspective
Finally: Void, which I prefer to call Whitespace. The fifth element.
The other four elements are like paint on a canvas, but Whitespace is the canvas itself. Focusing on this helps me to see everything else in its proper perspective.
You could think of this as the spiritual part of life. I am a secular man, and I don’t pray to any gods or subscribe to any religions. But I do make time to meditate.
Meditation is valuable to me because of the very real effects it has on my life. It makes my thoughts clearer and my emotions more stable. It is a bulwark against distractibility: meditation helps me keep my attention fixed wherever I choose to place it, allowing me to stay focused on the task at hand. And it helps me to respond to the storms of life in a wiser and more resilient way.
Briefly: meditation makes me better at life. It offers superb returns on investment, and to me it’s as essential as breathing.
Putting Them All Together
I set yearly targets and cultivate my life in each of these five areas, reviewing them daily before bed. I also review them more comprehensively in a journal every 7-10 days. (This is how I decide on my New Year’s resolutions.)
I don’t give all five areas the same amount of time; that’s probably not a realistic option for anyone who has to earn a living. But I try to give all five areas at least some attention over the course of each day, or over the course of each week. Using the five-element framework as a checklist ensures that I never leave any part of my life neglected for too long, and helps me to stay in balance.
Perhaps you might choose not to incorporate all five aspects into your life, or you might address them in different proportions. But the five-element framework can still help you to track and organize your growth, however you choose to deploy it.