Light Bulb Dilemma

I’ve been listening to CGP Grey’s podcast Hello Internet, and his light bulb metaphor in Episode 3, “Four Light Bulbs,” caught my attention. The topic is work-life balance, and the metaphor, roughly, works this way:

Say you are a human being who, like a power supply, has a measurable energy total of 100 watts. You have four categories of important things in your life, friendship, family, health and work. Each of them is a light bulb. You can distribute your limited wattage to power up the light bulbs however you like—for example, 70 watts for your work, and 10 watts each for friendship, family and health. In reality, the wattage can represent time, physical or mental energy, “head space,” etc. It is clear, in this metaphor, that those described as someone who has a poor work-life balance is favoring the work bulb at the sake of other light bulbs, and suffer from deteriorating health or relationships. The alternative solution, however, is not quite satisfactory, either. If one distribute their total energy evenly among light bulbs, giving 25 watts each, they risk becoming mediocre in all departments of life.

The problem of the light bulbs, then, almost becomes a dilemma between cold-hearted success and mediocrity. As Brady Haran points out, favoring the light bulb of work while ignoring the other ones may cause irreversible damage. Being a workaholic isn’t just about being selfish—it isn’t an issue of morality. If one chose to abandon personal health for, say, five years, they could foreseeably end up in dire medical conditions. The urge for success in one’s work, for self-preservation in the sense of financial independence and personal achievements, wound up in self-destruction. Mediocrity, similarly, is also not acceptable for many. It is hard to become exceptional in any aspect of life; it is, at the same time, agonizing to be unexceptional in all aspects of life. If one who devotes 100% energy into, say, becoming a full-time YouTuber, and still cannot claim to be successful, what kind of success might one expect if they only contribute 25%?

I find this metaphor really interesting, not only because it quite accurately captures our thought process when balancing work and life, but also because it exposes the premises, the logical “jumps” we make in our arguments. Of course, I’m not claiming that CGP Grey is wrong—a popular mindset is beyond right or wrong. What I really hope is that perhaps a discussion of these premises can help us resolve the dilemma of the various light bulbs in our lives. So—here are three possible premises for the light bulb metaphor:

  1. Every human being has a limited, or finite, total energy.
  2. The rate of success in one department is positively correlated to the amount of energy spent in that department.
  3. There are individual light bulbs.

And below are my rudimentary thoughts on each.

For (1), I must be pedantic and make a distinction between “limited” and “finite.” It might be true that our energy is finite—we are, after all, mortal, and our existence, our time on earth, obviously has an ending. It is, however, becoming less true that our energy is limited, constricted, or in a state of scarecity. We often talk about technology, saying that it extends our physical body: wheels let us run faster, telescopes let us see further, writings let us remember better, etc. If we believe that technology can liberate human beings from gruesome labor, and can propell us into a state of abundance, we should no longer feel limited by the finiteness of our energy.

For (2), I’ll point out that “success” is a wishy-washy term, whose definition fluctuates with historical and economic conditions. Maybe (2) is true for our current society, and I by no means want to dispute the value of work, and, for that matter, the value of working hard. But it is quite possible that if we define “success” in a different way, mediocrity might be more acceptable, even desirable for some. To put it even more simply, if we consider an even distribution of energy across light bulbs to be a perfectly fine way of life, then mediocrity itself is some kind of success, and (2) is no longer relevant for this new kind of value system.

It is not immediately clear what (3) means, so I should explain. I find it somewhat arbitrary that life is divided into different light bulbs, however many of them. I’ve always find different aspects of life reinforcing each other, bleeding into the borders, and sometimes even transcending boundaries altogether. I would, for example, “stop working” and go to see a movie. As CGP Grey mentions, the work light bulb is not fully off; but instead of seeing work as an impediment, I find it quite enjoyable that my personal life, or the time I spend with families and friends, informs my work in surprising and inspiring ways. What I want to object to is that I really don’t want to make a choice between work and personal life, because the distinction is often blurry anyways. It is I who work, it is I who live, and it is the same “I” across all my activities. (Hello, Kant!) If the light bulbs enter into a competition for my energy, I would be, in effect, competing against myself, and that would be quite a nasty situation indeed. I would much prefer to be nice to myself, to let all the light bulbs exist in harmony, in cooperation—which is to say that there aren’t individual light bulbs, and they all kind of mesh together to form one source of light. There is only one me.