Kennon-Green & Co. Global Asset Management, Wealth Management, Investment Advisory, and Value Investing

Mental Model: Using the Primary Mission of Your Life to Determine the Hierarchy of Priorities Between Task and Relationship

One of my mentors from early in my career shared a mental model that has been a fantastic guideline and framework through which I’ve conducted my life.  It involves determining the hierarchy between personal relationships and what you want to accomplish, and how to weigh the interaction between both for the most optimal outcome.  I’m going to be digging even more of these old essays of mine from out of the file cabinet in the coming weeks since they were so instrumental when I was younger and figuring out how I wanted to conduct my life.  It is very similar to the cost/impact analysis model we already discussed.

Every decision requires a trade-off between task (what you want to accomplish) and relationship (the effects of that decision on the relationships in your life).  Whenever you make a decision, you need to internally, explicitly acknowledge what you are willing to sacrifice on that scale to achieve what you want.  This can be represented by a grid, with positive or negative effects laid on the x axis and achieving or failing at your desired task on the y axis.

Task Versus Relationship Model GridThe most negative outcome for you is the area shaded in red (you didn’t achieve your desired task and damaged a relationship), with the most positive being the area shaded in green (you achieved your desired outcome and had a positive influence on the relationship).

Two very important variables that set the chart parameters but that do not show up within it are:

  • Your personality
  • The personality of the people involved in your life

As I explained in Letter to a Young College Student – 10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Younger, trying to live for other peoples’ happiness isn’t a responsibility or duty.  You should only surround yourself with people who are supportive, who care about you, and who do not conflict with the primary mission of your life.

You Must Know and Be Able to State the Primary Mission of Your Life

Only you can determine what that primary mission is.  For some people, it is raising children and having a family.  For others it is making partner at a white-shoe law firm.  For still others, it is exploring the world by constantly traveling.  You cannot let other people determine your primary mission.  Furthermore, you should focus on what you actually want, not what you think you should want.

[mainbodyad]In my case, I decided very early that the primary mission was first to get married, have kids, and live a life full of rich joy with my spouse and children, followed very closely by building an investment vehicle to which I devoted my career; a sort of tangible body of work that serves as a didactic exercise in applied wisdom, proving that you can start with nothing, as I did, and through good choices, build a fortune, make the world a better place, and then give it all away in the end.

Every choice and relationship in my life has been weighed against, considered in comparison to, and tested for compatibility with that primary mission.  As a result, I’m 28 years old but I’m about to celebrate my 10 year anniversary, I have a fantastic collection of growing businesses churning out investment capital, and I get to do what I love every day.  I’m not where I want to be, yet (my standards are ridiculously high), but every night, I’m closer than I was in the morning.

By establishing that the family would always win before the business, and the business would always win before other relationships or obligations, I was able to navigate my life without any of the inter-personal stress that other people experience.  If someone attempts to rise themselves up above what I’m willing to give on the task line and they refuse to understand I’m not willing to compromise, I remove them from my life; this is a rare thing, though, on the order of once every 7 to 10 years because most people recognize when they are overstepping boundaries you’ve established.  This is consistent with what I explained in the essay, “What Is Morality?”, when I stated that I believe the purpose of life is the maximization of individual happiness, while minimizing damage or pain to other people.

That does not mean other relationships don’t matter to me.  There are some friends that are essentially extended family for whom I would do nearly anything (and I am certain they feel the same way).  It just means that you have to internally have a very clear line in the sand as to what your priorities are so you are proactive, rather than reactive, in your life.

Even then, I remain flexible.  I once had a relatively new friend come into my office and say, “Joshua, I have an event that is incredibly important to me.  I know it is a waste of your time.  I know that you don’t care about it.  I know that you have something to do for the company that day.  But it matters to me and our relationship that you are there.  In fact, I will have a very difficult time if you don’t show up.  So I am giving you fair warning that I need this from you.  Please consider it.”

The fact that this was so important to my friend shifted my calculation.  The work was put down and I spent hours in the stands at this event, supporting the person who asked.  (It actually turned out to be a lot of fun.)

This was based upon my own hierarchy relative to my primary life mission.  For other people, they need or require acceptance from large amounts of superficial relationships.  It is going to be a virtual certainty that such a person would conflict with me in a significant way, so I would avoid anything other than a casual acquaintance with them, no matter how much I liked them.  Someone else might have very little need for any relationships and care only about their freedom, wanting to maintain the time and ability to fly around the world to help preserve wildlife.  This is a very personal, intimiate calculation.

Avoid Spending Time on Things That Conflict With Your Primary Mission of Life

The model works so well because it avoids the common mistake of spending time on the things that matter least.  It is a common fallacy for people to devote emotional energy and thought to things that are going wrong – clients they don’t like, acquaintances with whom they’ve had a fight, a boss that is incompetent, or any other host of distractions.  They then ignore and neglect the things that they say matter to them (the primary mission of their life).  By using this hierarchy, you can avoid those outcomes; that is, if you care about helping kids, you won’t be as likely to find yourself working 85 hours a week for a terrible boss, or if you care primarily about your legal career, you won’t have kids until later in life, if at all.

You can also tell how much people value you by how much they respect whatever it is that you call the primary mission of your life.  If you want to stay at home and build a great marriage but you have a single friend who is constantly complaining that you don’t go out to bars with them any more, it’s clear they disdain your priorities.  With that, you no longer have any responsibility to consider their feelings.  Don’t be cruel, mind you.  But they are no longer compatible with what you have decided is the primary, motivating factor in the time you have been given.

It has been a little more than nine years since I began actively utilizing the framework of identifying priorities relative to the primary mission of my life and, as a result, I have experienced virtually zero relationship turmoil.  That doesn’t mean other people haven’t been upset with me, it’s simply that relative to my own priority list, if I believe they are unreasonable, I just don’t give a damn.  I really, truly, just don’t care.  If, upon further reflection, my actions were misguided or unjustified, my policy is to immediately apologize, as should be the case.  That behavioral system allows me to go through life without losing a minute of sleep or experiencing any anxiety; it’s a fantastic thing.