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Rashi Goel

Solutions to Personal Trilemmas are Personal

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Newsletter #24 12.08.2021

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US President Harry Truman once said “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say ‘on the one hand… [and then] on the other.

In this second edition on trilemmas, I look at two personal trilemmas and [at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all], attempt to give a one-handed approach.

In case you missed it, read the edition on three business trilemmas here.


In our youth, we have time and energy but no money. In our middle age, we have energy and money but no time. In our old age, we have leisure time and money but no energy.

This trilemma is easy to solve if we change our lens from scarcity (I don’t have enough of time-energy-money) to enablement (I have less time-energy-money because I am deploying them to gain something).

In fact, time-energy-money is like the operating system of a computer. The operating system by itself is not as important as where we want to deploy it. One person might use it for gaming, another to write a Nobel prize-winning book, and a third to mine cryptocurrency.

Making any of these three the only and ultimate goal would mean we are living a narrow life that has not met its full potential.

Puru the Guru, is one of the fittest and most self actualized people I know. He gave me the tools to live a healthier life. Puru left a successful career as an investment banker in London to live a more fulfilling life, with time to pursue other passions. He says, (I am paraphrasing), “if on the day you die, you have Rs.5 in your bank account, the time and energy you would have spent to earn those Rs.5/- would have been wasted”.’

The Vedas from ancient India define a scientific (and religion-agnostic) system of life – the four ashrams. The model guides us on where to deploy our operating system.

The Four Ashrams model assumes a life span of 100 and divides it into four stages of 25 years each:

1. Brahmacharya (Student): Deploy ample time and energy to absorb and learn – values, education, and skills. Make mistakes, build a foundation, self-reflect, and build good habits. There is no actual use for money because parents/society support us.

2. Grihastha (Householder): Spend time and energy to build a family, run a household, develop relationships and accumulate wealth. The Vedas do not frown upon materialism, but in fact, encourage wealth creation – as an enabler, not as The penultimate goal.

The 4 Stages of Life | Better Body, Better Midlife with Alexandra Epple
  1. Vanaprastha (forest life): half our life is over, we are in ‘early’ old age. This is the only stage when we have enough money, time and energy; which we can apply towards fulfilling all desires. Think about it this way – if we only Netflixed day in and day out… there will come a time when we will have had enough.

I admire my best friend and wise mentor Nikki. She is a Stanford Sloan Fellow and in her 50s. After a very successful career in leadership roles with some of the best engineering companies in the US, she has walked away from the rat race and chosen the Vanaprastha life. She lives with her spouse, enjoys her coffee, runs, cooks, and reads. She is the happiest she has ever been. She enjoys and thrives in the simple joys life has to offer.

  1. Sanyasa (liberation): last quartile of our life. If we have maximized our Vanaprastha years, we would have no desires left. We will voluntarily walk away from the daily hustle, go within, and try to become one with a higher power.

My father is 78, active and energetic. His way of going within is to study Astrology. He has applied his engineering mind to develop a scientific approach to Astrology. He has written 26 books that have been translated into Hindi and Russian. He shares his knowledgre freely through webinars and classes. This way, he is living his passion and is also using it as a vehicle to give back.

This is possibly what the four stages look like at a very broad level, w.r.t. time-energy-money.

[Side bar: I have not figured out how this model applies to people dealing with extreme circumstances like ill health, poverty, tragedy etc.]

An aside

This is exactly how life should be. The opposite of this trilemma does not play out well.

Youth: If we have all the money we ever need, it might be because we are ‘trust fund babies’. Kids from wealthy families have a huge head start. But facts prove that trust fund babies rarely build upon their inherited legacy. Wealth-X studied the global ultra-rich, and found that –

  • 67.7% of the world’s high-net-worth individuals are self-made,
  • 23.7% have a combination of inherited and self-created wealth, and
  • only 8.5% have inherited their wealth.

We are biologically wired to be strivers, so ‘a lack’ fuels us. When there is no ‘lack’, we lose our drive. So when we are born to wealth, our only motivation is to manage the expectations of Mom & Dad Bank Inc. instead of building our skills.

Look at the difference between my friends S and A, both in their late 20s. S comes from a priviledged background, and has several options. He can pursue an MBA abroad, start his own company, or join the family business and get married. He is in agony because he feels pressurized by his family and is not able to commit to any one option. He spends his days cogitating over what he should do, instead of actualt getting down to real work.

On the other hand, A’s coaching business was impacted by the pandemic and he could no longer afford to live in Mumbai. He moved back to his village where he is teaching kids and plans to start a school. He’s found his purpose – he realizes he loves working with young minds. And his only regret is that he did not do this sooner.

Middle Age: If in our middle age, we have all the time in the world, there is a high probability that we are unemployed or unemployable. Do we want such a life?

If in our old age, we are full of energy and vitality, then we started good habits early. This is the only scenario that is desirable. It might also be within reach, as a result of health innovations and better lifestyles.


If we agree that time, energy and money are enablers, then what should these enable? That is where the second trilemma comes in. Should we pursue our passion, or get a job? And what is our real purpose?

This trilemma can be solved by introducing a fourth element – Skill.

I think passion and purpose are overrated and skills are underrated. I also think that we seek fulfilment too early in life.

If we delay gratification and commit to excelling at a skill, we set an upward spiral in motion. This is how it would work.

We start by learning a skill. We hold an apprentice mindset and work hard. Hard work begets small successes. Early small successes motivate us and ignite our passion. We work harder, stay committed and acquire mastery. Mastery leads to bigger successes. We feel accomplished and start feeling generous. We want to give back. And that becomes our purpose and we feel fulfilled.

Any other route is a waste of time.

When I started my career, I had no clue what my purpose was, I was not working for money, nor did I feel fulfilled. I plodded on for 10+ hours, weekdays and weekends in sales and marketing operations. I was picking up skills. My peers (who were plodding along with me) and occasional pats on the back from managers kept me going . I started tasting success only after 4+ years. And this success came from the skills I had learnt early on. After that, it was all about compounding – committing to learning, growing and accepting whatever challenge was given to me. Fulfillment and a sense of purpose has come in only in the last few years!

Another lens

Another way to look at this trilemma is by listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s video in which she draws a distinction between Job, Career, Hobby, and Vocation.

She says,

A Job is when we perform tasks in return for financial security. A job is necessary for survival today, like hunting and foraging was for cavemen and cavewomen. If a job pays our bills, it does not need to be fulfilling. 

A Career is a job we are passionate about. We are willing to make personal sacrifices and invest in our careers.

A Hobby is something we do purely for personal pleasure. With no intention to earn money or fame. Stakes with hobbies are zero. We don’t even have to be good at them.

A Vocation is a calling. It is our life’s purpose. Vocation is when we are in flow. It is something we are good at, we enjoy doing, and the more we do, the better we get at it.

We are truly blessed when our vocation also becomes our career. Beyonce, Sachin Tendulkar, Elizabeth Gilbert and J.K Rowling all managed to build a career from their vocation. Whereas Einstein’s vocation ran parallel to his day job as a clerk in a Swiss patent office.  

My friend Baryona is one of the top marketing executives in the US pharma industry. She is also a gifted photographer and has a keen eye for art. She has launched her passion project – www.art-tete.com alongside her career. Check it out, her work is beautiful.

To conclude:

  1. Acceptance: this is the circle of life. Knowing that we are all in this together makes it easier to navigate.
  2. Time: There is a time for everything. Delay gratification and have a long-term view of these trilemmas. We can have them all but at different times. Think of life in phases, maximize each phase and move on.
  3. Actively calibrate: How much money is enough? What price are we willing to pay for it? Operate between the tightrope of scarcity and greed. Don’t make any one thing the whole and sole goal for all your life.
  4. Guilt is not a good strategy: It’s ok to have desires. All we need is to make sure we fulfil them when we have enough time, money and energy left.

There are 7 billion ways to answer these trilemmas. I would love to hear your recipe.