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The Quadrants of Life: Learning, Earning, Returning, Renouncing

By | 11/6/2022

Let me add a fourth phase to the frequently cited – learning, earning, returning – cycle amongst the entrepreneurial world and also thus connect this analog to a concept popular in defining the optimal lifespan in the traditional context of living a life that comes full circle.

Regardless of how long one may expect to live, I find it helpful to think of life in these four (somewhat sequential) phases. It is easy to follow a good chunk of our initial life into early adulthood is spent in imbibing learnings, whether in a classroom setting or in the crucible on one’s real-world experiences. It is then but natural to turn towards acquiring, whether it is more knowledge, wealth, prestige, power, or relationships during the earning state of life.

It is easy and tempting to stay focused on this aspect and try to stretch this out to however long one can in craving greater amounts or quality of these outward achievements. It is important to realize that turning one’s focus inwards is what brings purpose and ever greater joy in life than any external or material pursuit. In fact, adding that inner development will likely lead you to another important aspect of devoting time in service of others in the form of returning. In an unexpected validation of the traditional quadrants of life, I now see the value of devoting the second half (however long or short that might be) to returning and renouncing and see this as an essential aspect to leading a fulfilling life.

That life is non-linear is not lost on me so I accept the counter-argument of trying to view these as quadrants of a pie and not necessarily as quadrants of a timeline which can all be cultivated proportionally at any time during our lifespan. And yet, I see the wisdom in thinking of them as phases, which some overlap because they line up nicely with how the human body develops, flourishes, produces, and then deteriorates, decays and eventually dies.

These phases also match up nicely with societal and familial roles we are required to play during our lifespan to be a contributory member in our communities. We have greatest capacity to learn and grow during our early years as a child and young adult. Having had the benefit of this acquired knowledge or capabilities, we can apply ourselves in service of society to yield output for others and earnings for one’s household.

It is also easiest to start and raise a family during these years given the natural biological, emotional, and financial capacity one possesses in this phase of life. And when one’s responsibilities towards progeny and family start to diminish, while still having adequate physical strength, one can start the process of returning to society in the form of service and charity and also begin turning oneself towards inner development. This then leads us smoothly to the stage where we can begin to renounce most worldly trappings and focus entirely towards a life of meditation and in service of others seeking to journey on the path.

All in all, enabling a fulfilling and balanced life.

Naturally, the sooner one can inculcate aspects of inner purification and service even while being committed to learning and earning as dictated by life context, the better it will be. In my own case, starting on this journey while squarely in my earning years, has enabled me to be firmer and more confident in my commitment to devote the second half to returning and renouncing.

As I progress in the returning aspects, I find that the idea of eventually renouncing starts to feel more and more tractable. I feel increasingly comfortable that step-by-step my needs diminish and I am able to live off less, and more importantly be less attached to what I possess or presently hold dear in a material context.

While there is no set prescription to the duration of each quadrant, I find it easiest to think of it in approximately 25-year increments if one generously assumes a lifespan of a 100 years and also to keep the math simple! And knowing that will likely not be the case for me or for most, I am further encouraged to progress sooner towards the returning and renouncing aspects as I close in on the mid-way point or by increasingly dialing up these aspects even sooner in how I currently spend my time.

I am grateful to be able (and have been fortunate to acquire the means) to overcome the insecurity of whether I will have sufficient financial independence when I am ready to turn the tilt further in the inward direction. What I have concluded is that whatever amount we desire is necessary to feel comfortable, it will never be enough to give us that peace of mind unless we don’t inherently possess (or cultivate) a mindset of contentment. What’s more, the greater any volition to live a life in alignment with the time-tested principles of human existence, I have every confidence that the universe will provide for my every need without me worrying over it.

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