Part One — What is the ‘Law of Two-Thirds’?
The “Law of Two-Thirds” is a concept in the world of business that exists to give criteria to business decisions about what will define a product or organization. Essentially, you can’t do everything — so what should you do? What are you going to focus on? In a culture that tends towards the myth of no limits, acknowledging that you can’t do everything seems restrictive. Our industrial naïveté proudly proclaims that we have unlimited time, unlimited resources, and unlimited capacity. Our enlightened progress that emerged in modernism has told us that supply is infinite, demand is infinite, and we, too, are infinite.
The desire to escape death seems to have produced a culture that mythologically posits immortality.
But those who are honest about death, who have the humility to understand and to embrace our finitude, are those who just might live rightly in the world as it actually is.
Despite our desire to be like gods, we might do better if we are accepting of reality — that you have limits, that you can’t do everything, and, therefore, that you have to make decisions about how you are going to fill the only hands you have.
The business concept, when approached with an honesty about our limitedness, adheres to the Law of Two-Thirds which says that there are three primary categories of interest that are instrumental in your success as a business.
Three different elements that can be focused on in who you are as a company.
And, as the law goes, you must consider all three, but you can only choose two.
A restaurant wants to have quality & they want to be fast? Then it is going to be more expensive.
A business wants low prices, but wants to maintain quality? Their speed is going to be reduced.
You want something that is fast and cheap? Quality will certainly be effected.
You can only focus on two — so which one are you going to compromise?
Essentially, you determine what you are going to say “yes” to and, consequently, you have now also determined what you are going to say “no” to. Because it is simply not possible to do all three equally well and, if you attempt to be everything, do everything, and choose all the options, you will, in effect, fail to be or do any of them.
Part Two — Two Metaphors & Being Busy
Our propagation of infinitude is often blindly accepted because it exists in the realm of the abstract and doesn’t carry any immediately confrontational meaning. So let’s make this tactile through a physical example:
Your body is limited.
Your body not only can’t do anything and everything you want, your body takes up a limited amount of space and has a limited amount of parts. A common juggler, then, usually only has two hands (though I have seen a person juggle with less hands and have seen juggling happen with just feet). The concept of juggling requires a person to use those limited parts to carry many things at once. If using the hands, while multiple objects may float in the control of your throws, only a certain number of objects will be held and, therefore, focused on during a given moment.
The correlation of how we live may be compared to juggling. We believe that by learning to juggle a seemingly infinite number of objects we are therefore unlimited in our capacity. But the reality is that what you are holding, what you are paying attention to, and what you are able to give your physical and mental focus on is limited. We praise a culture of jugglers, but we fail to acknowledge that while objects are flying around in the air, you are only really holding what your limited body is capable of holding.
The real concern, though, is that in pursuit of juggling more and more, we allow ourselves to never really hold anything. An object, a relationship, a focus, or a commitment sits in your palm for only a brief second before it evaporates from your care and is replaced by the next thing. You may be in control of all the objects, but in trying to hold them all, you never actually focus on any of them.
Second, agriculture. Or, more technically, gardening.
Because if you are growing a plant from seed, the cautious approach that increases your chances of a plant ensuing from the germination process is to plant multiple seeds together. Based on the success rate of most seeds, once you do plant them, the chances are high that at least a couple will sprout and you will end up with this:
Now, the conservationist in you might definitively rebel against getting rid of one of these precious sprouts. Those seedlings have the potential to grow and produce a result that could nourish your body. I, too, have the propensity to try and save both seedlings in the fear of wasting something with potential. I am also known for trying to uproot a new seedling from a patched up bunch such as this and transplant it to its own, isolated area. These attempts have a failure rate of 100%, so far.
Because the problem we face, in the reality of the physical limits of a plant, is that if you try to grow multiple seedlings crammed next to each other, none of them will grow to their potential. They will fight for space, nutrients, light, and water and, instead of a fully functioning and healthy plant, you will have both plants, but they will both be diminished, malnourished, and stunted.
In trying to have it all, you actually end up with nothing.
In trying to be unlimited, you fail to have what you set out to get from the seeds in the first place.
The human propensity to try and be everything and do everything actually circumvents our desire because we end up not fully doing anything.
If you want that plant to grow, then, you need to get rid of the other seedlings.
You have to choose your priorities.
Part Three — A Note On Standards
In order to discern priorities, it might be helpful to first discern what determines your priorities — the standard that informs how you choose what you choose.
Essentially, what do you want to die with?
Now, there is a whole conversation here on materialism and success. The reality is that, in our youth, we tend to pursue things that, in our aging, we might regret. Yes, we could converse on the almost cliche wisdom that you only have one life and you only get to do this once, but, despite its cliche, it is wisdom that ought to be considered. Quotable cliches become memorable for a reason.
What I’ve found is that naming your standard, naming that which you want your identity to be grounded in, immediately makes some things irrelevant. If your standard is cultural success and the heroism of our modern achievement and fame, then that will determine what you are going to say yes to. If your standard is health and love and meaningful relationships, then a certain set of priorities will be non-negotiable. But by not be aware of any standard, you will default to the most accessible — and we usually don’t drift towards our actual desires, we only fulfill them by intentionally being aware of them.
Along with finitude informing our standards, this is what the Law of Two-Thirds has the potential to teach us. The business world has named three helpful standards in speed, quality, and price. A business has to therefore make decisions on those standards which then become priorities. For them, it imparts a responsibility for what they will be known for; the standard determines the ensuing identity. While quality, speed, & price might not be relevant to our livelihoods, we can still ask, “What do you want to die with?” What should inform the limited time and limited capacity that you have?
This is an important question to ask because it will determine your “yes.”
And in determining what you say yes to, it will automatically imply, in your finite limits, what you say no to.
Enough of this morbid talk (for now) — let’s move on.
Part Four — So What Are You Going To Do?
What the Law of Two-Thirds is actually about in reference to your life is being busy.
Because the same that is true of businesses and growing plants and juggling is true of our schedules and priorities. Our culture runs on the treadmill of the constant expectation of being productive and busy — we praise the efficient worker and the person who, in apparent humility, talks about how overwhelmed they are. The fast, chaotic, burnt out, full schedule is noble in our progressed society — but I’m here to say that what is normal might actually be insane. What happens in this way of life is the same that happens to a business — in trying to do multiple things, you never actually do any of them.
Being busy, then, might just mean a lack of priorities.
It takes humility, strength, and fortitude to acknowledge your limits and compromise good things that are simply not possible with only two hands.
But weak, naive, and disingenuous is the person who wants to appear as if they can do all while not actually having to fully engage and invest in any.
When you are a part of eighteen organizations and you work two jobs and you have endless responsibilities at those jobs, but then you also are an avid duck racing enthusiast on the side, but it is also important to you that you volunteer your time to a local charity while also wanting to read a book a week and make it a priority to be available for your friends when they need help with a project — not to mention the potential that parenting and your marriage are a part of the equation as well — you will only be able to get so far with your extended options and will, as a result, not be able to do any of them fully. There is room to say that some people will have to take on more to, say, provide for their family as a single parent. But the necessity of honesty is still true:
You have lots of options.
But a limited amount of hours and a limited amount of energy.
The question, then, isn’t “How am I going to do all of these things?” — because then you will never fully do any of them.
The question is, “Which ones are you actually going to do?”
When nothing is enough, then you give yourself permission to feel as if you are accomplishing much. You get to enjoy the highlight film of life that our culture promotes as the successful soul. But it might actually be giving yourself permission to never having to do any of it. I wonder if the Christian tradition was right in claiming that the achievement of gaining the whole world will cause you to lose your life. Maybe it could be said that in choosing to have it all you are choosing to never actually live. I also wonder if some of us would prefer this — being a cultural hero without any of the dredging requirements of investing in anything deeply; where we get to feel as if we have defied death and postured a sense of immortality. Maybe the seemingly heroic decision is actually the cheap, easy option. I have yet to meet someone who was wildly successful by our rampant cultural standards and felt satisfied. I have yet to meet someone who accomplished and juggled everything under the sun and proudly proclaimed it was worth it.
I have met folks who did these things and accomplished the heroic feat of growing both the seedlings and mourned that they never enjoyed the fruit.
I have met folks who experienced everything under the sun and concluded that it was all akin to vapor extinguishing the meaning from their lives.
I have met people who walked away burnt out, empty, and yearning to have it all back.
And I’ve also met the wise, apparent provincial simpleton who was content with enough — who held the objects they chose well, who grew one plant and enjoyed its produce, and who embraced their finitude and, therefore, their life.
When we try to be so many places at once, we aren’t actually anywhere. When we try to hold everything, we end up never holding anything. When we try to do it all, despite what our societal norms and our cultural ideals tell us, we might be failing to do anything.
And we just might be buried with a full schedule, a list of accomplishments, and a futile attempt at immortality.
So what do we do?
We do the equivalent of a business wrestling with the Law of Two-Thirds.
What is the one thing, or the several things, that you can do well and give your time to fully? What are the few things that you can excel at because you selectively impart your focus to them? And what are you willing to compromise that would spread you too thin otherwise and not allow you to thrive & flourish in your chosen priorities? I find it empowering that Jesus who, independent of your religious convictions, seemed to do some pretty good things. Often, though, Jesus is confronted by crowds or Israel’s authorities who are questioning what Jesus does, how it isn’t right, or how it isn’t enough according to their expectations. And how does Jesus respond? He moves on. He lets some things go. He has a few things to do and he does them.
A few things.
So what are the few things you do?
In respect to your limited capabilities, what do you want? What standard is important to you? What goals do you want to be buried with and known for? Before your life that is vapor extinguishes into the universe and the water rushes the shore to devour whatever it is you built in the sand, or, as the Jewish book of Ecclesiastes says, “Before the bowl of your life breaks…” — what will you have held in that bowl?
We may want to heed the ancient voices of wisdom that encouraged the meager life of a few things held poignantly in love.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have hobbies or extra curricular activities that might aid rest and enjoyment and growth and experience or that you can’t, after determining what is necessary, take on a role to make life & health possible for those you love, but it is imperative that we name our intentional priorities and be content with them — and be willing to let go of what might not only be failing to aid those priorities, but that might be diminishing their results, too.
What do you want to hold in your hands? What is the plant you want to grow?
And what seedlings might need to be pulled as a direct result of that decision?
If your time and energy and resources are limited, what can you realistically invest that in and be fully present with? If you had to be great at only 3 things that would reflect the standard you hope to take your last breath with, what would they be?
Say yes to those things.
And realize that it will mean saying no to other things.
Or, as Derek Sivers has made popular,
“If it’s not a hell yes, its a no.”