The Ultimate Lifestyle Planning Guide and Map

Occasionally I get in a silly mood and make things like this. I’ve used the phrase getting ahead, getting along, getting away before as a shorthand description of the basic challenge of living life (an overload of a 2-pronged phrase from personality psychologist Robert Hogan: getting along and getting aheadand I like to use it to frame any writing in this general department.

I’ll do my annual round-up next week and then take the week after off, so consider this my holiday gift to you (festive colors, don’t you think?). If you have trouble unwrapping this (hehe!) some hints after the image.

You need some basic Venn diagram and yin-yang diagram literacy to read this. The colors have less symbolism, so you can get away without knowing color science 101. For more notes, read on.

Symbolizing and Bad-Ass

For a canvas, I started with work/life as an overall yin-yang (I’ve done this before, but less cleverly), and then used additive (RGB) and subtractive (CMY) primaries to represent further decomposition of the white and black bits (I can never remember which is yin and which is yang) into useful pieces, in a pleasantly dualistic way.

The specific colors don’t mean anything in particular. Not everything in life represents something. In life there are some arbitrary things you just have to live with. So the arbitrary color assignments in this diagram represents the arbitrariness of life (wait…, what?).

My partner in many design and analytics crimes Adam Hogan (we’ve gone p-value fishing together), likes to say that design always has two parts: a symbolizing part that does some work representing something, and a bad-ass part that hangs around doing no useful work, and trying to look cool.

Something to that.

In this case, the specific arbitrary assignments of RGB/CMY are the bad-ass part. They represent nothing. They’re just there, because.

The Semantics

In terms of semantics, it struck me that each of the three drives could be broken down into more basic drives that combine in interesting ways depending on how strong they are. How you break them down is a matter of taste to some extent, but I broke them down as follows.

  • Getting away breaks down into 3 drives: curiosity, risk-taking and self-expression.
  • Getting along breaks down into 2 drives: empathy and comfort seeking.
  • Getting ahead stays atomic as seeking alpha

I suppose the coarseness/fineness of my decomposition reflects my own priorities.

Incidentally I should thank Seb Paquet for unwittingly helping me see that I needed two diagrams. Initially I only had one (the top one). Trying to classify Seb on it as a test case proved to be difficult, and I realized I needed the complementary one, and a yin-yang connection between the two.

An almost-equivalent (but less social) phrase that you may prefer to getting ahead, getting along, getting away is avoiding pain, saving energy, seeking pleasure. We climb hierarchies because being at the bottom is painful. We try to get get along because that is more efficient for a social species. We try to get away because most forms of pleasure involve an element of getting away from oppressive social contexts, either alone or with select company.  

So as a social species, the more specific phrase works better for humans I think.  But pain, pleasure and energy are more fundamental and can be applied to non-social species as well (I remember watching an interesting RSA animate pleasure/pain/energy talk with an animated shark that I can’t seem to find again).

My suspicion is that you’ll find one or the other diagram easier to use for self-classification. This is your home diagram. The other one is your away diagram.

If your home is the getting away diagram, you are a nomad at heart, seeking your own true self. If your home is the getting ahead and getting along diagram, you are fundamentally a settler, seeking belonging. Naturally, since the universe has a mean sense of humor, the more you try to do the one, the more you end up doing the other.

Which brings us to the yin-yang part of the semantics.

The Yin-Yang Angle

The yin-yang worked out pretty nicely and unexpectedly.

The most complete expression of getting away is founding something entirely new, but that contains the seed of destruction of the ultimate “getting away” motive. So founders either have to turn into leaders (flippety-flop discontinuously into the other diagram; in the case of founding a start up, that means reinventing yourself after product-market fit into a growth-CEO), or retreat into one of the less demanding 2-way intersections. Many reluctant new leaders retreat at the first opportunity into either tribalism on the getting away diagram (CTO, CSO, CMO), or volunteerism (mentor/board chairperson) on the getting ahead and along diagram

On the other side, leadership is the natural culmination of getting along and getting ahead. But once you make alpha, you find yourself in one of the loneliest places on the planet. You either flippety-flop into founding — doing something that will become the unique legacy of your time at the top — or you retreat. I am not as familiar with the leader-ly patterns of retreat. I suspect it would be high-end lifestyle design on the getting away diagram, or Al Gore/Jimmy Carter style volunteerism/activism.

I can see some vague connections here to the Jung/Myers-Briggs “true belief” chart I made with help from Greg Rader (slides 41-42 in this deck). Seems to me that each of the regions of the Venn diagram is a natural home for a particular Myers-Briggs type, but there are only 14 regions, so any mapping would leave 2 Myers-Briggs types out in the cold, or sharing with another type. So the mapping has to be more complex. I am not yet comfortable enough with Jungian stuff to figure it out.

And then there’s the Eastern route: the yin-yang is an I Ching symbol I believe, and I have it on good authority that there is some connection there to Jung, but I don’t know enough about all that to say more. I’ll leave that to the dedicated crypto-mystics here. I only dabble in that stuff on occasion for fun, during Festivus season.

Okay, some of that is already a stretch, so I won’t share my convoluted interpretation of “additive” and “subtractive” in self/shadow terms, lest I get rotten tomatoes thrown at me.

Connection to Work/Life

The connection to my old yin-yang work-life diagram is also straightforward. I map getting away to “life” and getting along, getting ahead to “work.”

This has the interesting effect of grouping all sociable behaviors except for tribalism into “work.” So the only fun thing to do with other people is some sort of adventurous, exploratory, tribal activity.  This is true at least for me, which makes sense, since my home diagram is the “getting away” diagram.

Everything else social feels like work. Some of you will undoubtedly be “working” over the holidays in the sense of social obligations.

Geometry for Metaphysicians

My usual go-to diagramming tool for pondering metaphysical imponderables is the trusty 2×2 which I probably overuse. There is nothing quite like a pair of orthogonal dichotomies to draw and quarter an ambiguous living  idea into more manageable dead pieces (I am on a punning roll here).

But my next most favored tool is any sort of roughly triangular construct. Triangles are tricky beasts for visualization. Here is an early take on using them, and a more recent application.

The basic non-trivial Venn diagram with 3 regions though, has been a big surprise for me in terms of its effectiveness. Each time I try it, the intersections lend themselves to very natural labeling. I always think I am going to have to force or massage things more, but I am always surprised by how easily the categories fall out. It’s slightly magical.

I first encountered this sort of use in Drew Conway’s definition of data science. Another interesting, but more superficial one, is the Nerd-Geek-Dork-Dweeb diagram.

I am not quite sure why this diagramming technique seems to work unexpectedly well, but my suspicion is that it has to do with the fact that any two coupled variables with a non-subsumption relationship represent a trade-off space. These trade-offs are easier/harder to break in different contexts, and the intersection label generally represents a best-case context where the individual variables are more context-independent.

So careerism and institutionalism find their freest joint expression in the narrower context of life known as “politics” (whether in formal politics, or being a political careerist in business). Becoming a bureaucrat is also a way to make that trade off, but it is a less complete expression of the intersection of drives.

An intersection of three related variables basically traps you into a very sharply defined and relatively rare archetype.

But three is the limit, since it gives you a manageable factorization into 3 primaries, 3 two-way intersections, and 1 three-way intersection. Four sets create too much of a combinatorial explosion to be useful.

The yin-yang diagram is the hardest of commonplace metaphysical diagramming constructs to use, since it is a static symbol of a dynamic model of things flowing and transforming into their duals, of one dichotomy battling another eternally to the death. I have never been able to figure out a systematic approach to using it. Good candidate yin-yang pairs typically just pop into my head fully formed, without the need for explicit construction. It is more like poetry, whereas 2x2s and triangular things are more like prose.

Anyway, that’s enough of all that. Happy holidays to all.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Myers-Briggs: INTJ

    StrengthsFinder 2.0:
    1 Ideation
    2 Intellection
    3 Deliberative
    4 Maximizer
    5 Relator

    RibbonFarm “True Belief” archetype: Hacker/Outside Contractor

    I’m checking in here under “Invention” and “Lifestyle Design”, with some attempts at “Founding” but never “winning!!!” ;) through to “Getting Ahead, Getting Along”/”Leader”.

    Everything in “Getting Ahead, Getting Along” is unappealing to me as an introvert, since they’re the definition of extroverted. (I laughed at “Getting Ahead, Getting Along” and “Getting Away”. Such an apt slogans.) But when I do find myself in that foreign territory and “Getting Away” hasn’t worked (e.g., I’m stuck in a “social situation”) I aspire to “Empathy”, fail at that, then do as much “Leading” as my introvert batteries can take (I’m forcing it). Then I retreat back through the wormhole into silently observing and noting (most often environmental) elements as pulp for my “Lifestyle Design”. Worst-case: I shut down/numb out, but that happens less because I know anything “social” dissipates my energy like a heating element.

    Now that I write this it occurs to me that the chronological progression was roughly: “Invention”, attempts at “Founding”, then “Lifestyle Design”. And, looking back, I only ever tried “Founding” as a means to support “Lifestyle Design”, perhaps as a means to support “Invention”.

    Curious if you have any embellishments or finer points, Venkat?

  2. 陰陽 is the rendering of yin-yang. First character is shade/negative/black, and the second light/positive/white. So you can remember based on the common English phrasing of “Black and white” for the order.

  3. I don’t know if it’s useful to point this out. Or if it’s commonly known already. But I remember learning from my Chinese history professor in college that the yin-yang symbol represents motion. The dots of opposing color are in each larger segment. This is showing how the two are always becoming the other, until they switch places. And it cycles this way forever.

  4. Tom Fitzpatrick says

    You should give Emergenetics a look:

    It is basically the Myers-Briggs test, but it uses statists to check the types against reality and has a different results –

    The four innate personality groups are:
    Conceptual, Social, Structural, and Analytical. You can be 0 to 100 on any of these.

    The 3 principles are:
    Assertiveness, Flexibility, and Expressiveness – these can be 0 to 100 as well.

    I think these three map pretty well to getting ahead, getting away, and getting along. These groups may fit your pattern better, considering you can be a composition of any of these.

  5. Curiosity + Adventurism = Tribalism?

    To my eyes that looks totally broken, but I’m sure there are some nice intuitions anchoring it for you and stopping it itching!

    • It is the lack of self-expression as a strong motive that distinguishes the tribal mindset from the creative ones. Think startup employee #5 or the 100th person to climb Everest rock climbing was an example of a tribe in Godin’s book). Attraction to a relatively informally structured social environment that has been mapped roughly, but with lots of room for risky novelty for those who want that, but aren’t driven by inner impulses to create novelty.

      • Interesting, that almost makes “tribalism” equivalent to “student”; someone who wishes to explore, but in the absence of any requirement to be unique, is happy to explore where others have already trod, and build off them if possible.

        In fact, this reminds me of the armies of students that various experimental low tech/alt tech/permaculture communities thrive off of, doing a bit of labour here and there to pick up from the existing best practices.

  6. There are quite a few great points here, and overall the diagram can be a very useful “snapshot” thinking tool. The one area where I see minor room for improvement is the “Tribalism” part (and you already point out the slight dissonance yourself). Of course it all depends on your definition and understanding of ‘tribalism’, but I for one would say that the entire bottom half is the tribalist half, while the top is the individualist half.

    This solves not only your “Getting Ahead/Getting Along” dichotomy, because in a tribe the entire process is one of position (“getting ahead” of the *others*) AND cooperation, but it also aligns rather neatly with Grave’s Values Levels that you may have heard of before, which alternate from (odd numbered) levels of: “Express Self Now” to the (even numbered) levels of “Sacrifice Self Now – for the tribe”.

    It is true as you point out that at the Alpha end the Yin/Yang dynamic almost turns into its opposite, i.e. the alpha leader turns nearly into an individualist again (Graves sees this as Values Level 3s – “the Outlaw/Rambo” type ending up in control of the VL 2s tribals; compare the process for the Mafia or similar organizations), while there can also be a strongly individualist pursuit landing you in a “tribal” situation once again: You don’t start out with confederates in mind, but you find each other at the destination?!

    So maybe the “Tribalism” you had in mind could be replaced with “(Nomad) BAND”? Because such a band eschews most if not all of the mechanisms of tribes, not asking the individual to subsume themselves into a tribal process, submit, etc. Which is not to say that this could not also happen at this end of the spectrum, probably especially once the number goes beyond a small handful (7 +-2 (?), but certainly far less than Dunbar Number).