My Rule of the 6 Spheres
Like most people, I'm reluctant to discuss personal matters, but I need to tell you about this rule—it's at the center of my life and guides my work here
I recently asked seven heretical questions about progress—which stirred up a lot of discussion.
Here’s a passage that many readers latched onto:
Progress should be about improving the quality of life and human flourishing. We make a grave error when we assume this is the same as new tech and economic cost-squeezing.
But some asked: What kind of vague nonsense is human flourishing? How dare I pretend to measure quality of life?
In the aftermath, I realized that I need to share more of my private worldview here. This is stuff I rarely discuss—it’s awkward to talk about personal matters in this way—but it’s a key part of who I am, and underpins a lot of what I write at The Honest Broker.
So let’s plunge in.
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Some people mock any discussion of a worldview as just empty words. But it’s not for me.
For me, it’s a matter of life and death.
Almost everything good that’s happened in my life came out of my efforts to develop a constructive worldview, and put it into practice. By the same token, when I make mistakes, it’s because I’ve failed to live up to what it told me.
Early in life, I operated without a coherent worldview. That led me into all sorts of problems. It’s like driving without a map—or an app, I guess I should say nowadays. You travel, you expend energy, but never make progress.
At a later date, I will write about other aspects of my worldview (for example, as a scholar and writer). But today I want to share the personal side of my worldview, and how it shapes my private life.
I call this my rule of the six spheres.
But before proceeding, I need to emphasize I am not sharing this as a recommendation.
Everybody has their own path—and it’s not the same for each person. But sometimes seeing how another traveler makes the journey can provide motivation or inspiration.
MY RULE OF THE 6 SPHERES
There are six spheres to life.
Most of us focus on just one or two of them—and even that can be difficult. Each one of the spheres involves huge obstacles.
You can devote your entire life to just one sphere. Many people do exactly that. Sometimes they feel they have no choice—but they really do. And it’s a mistake to put too much of yourself into just one of the six spheres.
You might even get rewarded by society for ignoring five, and putting all your bets on one. But no matter how much money or acclaim you gain, there’s a painful imbalance in your life.
I suspect that many successful people are deeply troubled by the spheres they have neglected. I’m convinced this is what Thoreau meant when he talked about “lives of quiet desperation.”
But Thoreau left out the most important part. It’s possible to lead a seemingly successful and triumphant life—and still feel the pain of that quiet desperation.
And it’s always due to the law of the six spheres.
You could turn this into a tragedy—Shakespeare actually did that on occasion (see King Lear). But this conflict is rarely put on public display. Sometimes a person’s success in one sphere is so huge that outsiders never see what’s missing in the other ones.
Here are the six spheres:
I live at the center of their gravitational pull. So it feels like this (with some help from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man).
Each of these comes with a simple rule. Well, it’s simple to say—maybe not so simple to live.
Maybe you’re already seeing how hard it is to achieve balance. None of us is equally skilled at each of these—we’ve all made trade-offs.
That’s not always a bad thing. All goals are not created equal. Living well requires us to make choices and assert priorities.
But if you totally neglect even just one of the spheres, you pay a price. And if you ignore three or four of them, you ‘re now living dangerously off-kilter.
My next point may be the single most important thing I say today, so I will put it in bold face type: People are often destroyed by their greateast strength, because they are tempted to overplay it—retreating more and more into just one of the six spheres.
Do NOT lock yourself into any one of them. It will take a heavy toll, and may even kill you.
I’ve seen that in the music world more times than I care to remember.
Heidegger said it best: “To give yourself a code of laws is the highest form of freedom.”
On a smaller scale, I’ve seen it in my own life. My wife Tara has achieved better balance than me in the six spheres. I would like to operate at her level, and I put in constant effort—but I realize I will never catch up.
As a dancer and choreographer, she ranks much higher than me in the BODY sphere—she is tremendously fit, and most of what I know about healthy living I’ve learned from her. But she’s also more involved in the community and in spiritual disciplines than me, and does so much on the family sphere too—not just at our home, but for her disabled brother and our extended family. And she’s done all this while also enriching her mind (getting a PhD in her fifties!), and pursuing her vocation.
So I learn from my wife.
I’ve made progress by identifying the areas in which I’m weakest, and allocating time against them. So even if I never match my wife in healthy living, I’ve definitely gotten better at exercise, nutrition, and other aspects. I’ll never be as active in the community, mostly because I’m more introverted than my wife and more of a stay-at-home type—but I try to find other ways of reaching out to people (emails, messages, and here on Substack, for example).
Each of these spheres covers a lot of ground.
Even when I fall short, these six spheres provide a useful checklist. I go through each one, and assign myself a grade. It’s like a tune-up for my life.
(I originally planned to share my self-assigned grades here—but that was too embarrassing. So I will limit myself to providing a rubric for each sphere.)
I need to develop job skills, but even before that I need to understand where I’m heading in my vocation. Without the right direction, skill acquisition is useless. And skills alone are never enough—I’ve seen very talented people fail because of a bad attitude. I refuse to let that happen to me. These variables are all within my control, but only if I put effort into controlling them.
Every individual is a potential member of my community—I refuse to be limited by national or tribal loyalties. But the building blocks are how I deal with those closest to me: my friends, my colleagues, and my neighbors. They give me a constant opportunity to put my values into practice, and give back in return for what I’ve been given.
I take a long view—making sacrifices to support a positive future for my family. And I don’t just consider the span of my lifetime but also try to make decisions now that may help them after my death. My soulmate and partner in this longterm vision is my spouse, and my relationship with her is foundational to everything.
Tara and I made vows to each other 32 years ago, and I think about them everyday. I realize they will probably get more difficult to fulfill as we age and our responsibilities towards one another get more demanding—even as our own energy diminishes. This is scary, but it’s also inspiring. That’s because fulfilling our responsibilities to others is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life (although Hollywood won’t make movies about it).
I strive to lead a mind-expanding life. I achieve this by pursuing lifelong learning and seeking out opportunities to feed my creativity and imagination. This has been an area of special focus for me (maybe even to an excessive degree).
My body is the foundation for everything above. I’ve known too many supremely talented people who never found a way to live the good life because they didn’t take care of their body. Some aspects of this (my genetic inheritance, for example) are out of my control. But there are many variables I can address. So I will take care of my body. The foundations for this are physical fitness, lifestyle choices, and nutrition.
We live in soul-starved times. But I have faith in a force that’s bigger than my own whims and desires. I remain hopeful that I can align my own life more closely with this higher power. The single best way I have of realizing this is by treating others charitably as fellow sojourners in this larger creation.
In fact, that’s what I’m trying to do right now.
As you might guess, I find it awkward to write about these things, which deal with such private matters. But I have a hunch that a few people will be helped by this—so I push forward despite my reticence and reservations.
I suspect that some readers are unhappy about this—maybe the six spheres seem too demanding, or too New Age-ish, or too judgemental, or too whatever. So let me repeat what I said above:
I’m not recommending anything to anybody.
I’m simply showing how one person constructs a worldview—and how that worldview can provide constant guidance each and every day.
Even more to the point, you flourish in a worldview only if it’s truly your own. Not something borrowed from another person.
Heidegger said it best: “To give yourself a code of laws is the highest form of freedom.”
That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I set out the laws I want to live by. It doesn’t mean I always succeed—in fact, I frequently fall short. But, when that happens, I need to be the sheriff of my six spheres. I’m the only person who can fix things, and return to the right course.
I need to make one last point on why you should take responsibility for constructing your own worldview:
The most salient fact about contemporary life is that values and virtues are so murky.
Talking about right and wrong is like walking through a field of landmines. And, more often than not, it’s fools not angels who rush into this terrain where the rest of us fear to tread. That means that the in-your-face advice you get most often is worthless, or even outright dangerous.
But a far more common situation today is that people are too polite, and will never point out your shortcomings. My suit might be on fire, but nobody will say a word.
That’s why each of us has to take on responsibility as our own judge, our own jury, our own sheriff. That’s the reality of our troubled age. Almost everybody else will give you a pass—but the big problems begin when you give yourself a pass.
Don’t do that. But make sure the worldview you pursue is one you’ve chosen—not something imposed from outside.
By the way, when you do find wisdom from others along the way, don’t hesitate to make it your own. That’s the one time stealing is not just allowed, but absolutely required.
I can finally return to my essay on progress, cited at the top of this article. At the close of that essay, I made this prediction:
Over the next decade, the epicenter for meaningful progress will be the private lives of individuals and small communities. It will be driven by their wisdom, their core values, and the courage of their convictions—none of which will be supplied via virtual reality headsets or apps on their smartphones.
I’ve shared my rule of the six spheres as an example of one way that this can be done. But there are other pathways (although they will inevitably overlap in many regards).
No gadget or Silicon Valley business plan can come close to matching this kind of progress.
Try it for yourself and see.