Sacrificing "Good" at the Altar of "Great"

You sit back in your chair and stare at the list:

  • visit Paris 
  • write a book 
  • rescue a dog from the shelter
  • build up a $15,000 emergency fund
  • own my own business
  • start a family
  • plant a garden
  • learn how to dance
  • ...

The list keeps going, packed with everything you've ever wanted to do in life. But the longer you stare at it, the more overwhelming it becomes as the realities of time, money, relationships and risk begin to present you with an even longer list of why you shouldn’t do these things.

Surely you've found yourself in a similar situation before, mapping out your goals and eagerly anticipating what the future holds only to be brought back down to earth by the sheer volume of dreams. Perhaps you’ve even thought, “maybe they aren’t as amazing as I’ve made them out to be” and “maybe an average life isn't all that bad after all.” Don't worry, we're not judging - we can empathize. It's far too common for us to look at the avalanche of things we would love to do and shrink back down the mountain to take refuge. After all, where do you even start on a list of such proportions?

Warren Buffett, hailed as the most successful investor of the 20th century, lives by a philosophy known as the 25/5 Rule. Legend has it that, one day, Buffett approached his pilot (let's call him Steve) and told him, “The fact that you’re still working for me, tells me I’m not doing my job. You should be out going after more of your goals and dreams.”

The pair sat down as Buffett began to instruct Steve to write down the top 25 things that he wanted out of life that were not currently a part of it. After watching him scribble out his list, Buffett then asked him to circle his top five. With some hesitation and second guessing, Steve pared the list down to five and handed the it back to Buffett adding with assurance that these were his highest priorities.

Buffett scanned the list and then looked back up at Steve and asked, "what about these other twenty things on your list that you didn’t circle?” Steve quickly replied, “well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I am getting through my top five.”

Surprising the pilot, Buffett responded, “No. You’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘Avoid-At-All-Cost-List’. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

Why do you think he told him these twenty important items were suddenly to be avoided? Why didn't he praise him for remaining dedicated to his dreams? The reason isn't that they were unimportant — on the contrary! They were also important and thus could easily become a distraction from Steve's top five. If he is to succeed at his top five, his energy and resources must go toward those five first rather than being spread thin across twenty-five.

It's easy to ignore something that isn't important to you, but it isn't so easy to ignore that which comes in sixth or seventh place on your list of priorities. They still hold your attention and are more prone to distract you than move you forward.

Go back to your list – it’s a rather nice one isn’t it? Lots of good ideas and worthwhile pursuits. No grab your pen and one by one, begin eliminating your least “worthy” until you are left with only five. Don’t think of it as a funeral for your ideas, think of it as cutting away the webs that tangled up your most important ones! Now… does that list seem more manageable? When we pair down our priorities, we’re giving them our full attention. We’re telling the world and ourselves that these few are worth our time, our money and our energy.

A few years ago, I may have encouraged you to "not give up" and "you can do it all if you really want it bad enough." Today, I know better. Today, I realize that a life of more doesn't necessarily equal a life of fulfillment and joy. Rather, some things — even some good things — have to be sacrificed so that the best things can be gained.

Don't take my word for it, take the word of a man who has built an empire — simplicity facilitates success.