The 5 Elements of a Great Life

The Narrative Recipe

Recently I read an excellent article about the author Ursula K. Leguin. She spoke of “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing.

Image of Ursula Leguin courtesy of K. Kimball
Ursula K. Leguin,


  • The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  • The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  • The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  • The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  • The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Since we’ve already talked quite a bit about narrative life and writing your own tale (in fact, I’ve just started a company with the motto “Let’s tell your story.) it seems natural that these five elements might map to a larger picture.

To me, the parallels went something like this:

The Five Principal Elements of a Great Life
  • The patterns of your character: the way your values and beliefs have developed over your life; the conditioned responses that you may or may not be aware of.
  • The patterns of your environment: — Everything from the climate where you live (geologic, political, diverse) to your clothes, your desk, your vehicle, your kitchen, your favorite pen, whatever. These are the raw ingredients that your character has either acquired (or kept) in order to make up the story of your life, with all the sensory characteristics that go along with them.
  • The patterns of your view: the way character and environment combine to shape how you see the world. Do you cope with a starvation mentality or embrace a philosophy of abundance? Is everyone out to get you, are you trapped in a job, if it weren’t for bad luck would you have no luck at all? Or are you a fortunate soul filled with gratitude for the wonder of the world around you?
  • The patterns of the ideas: The kinds of ideas that your environment, your viewpoint, and your character combine to create. For example, “I need the new Xbox!” or “Wow, I could build a website…” or “I wish I had a better job, but I don’t know how to get one.” That last may seem to be a lack of an idea, but actually it’s an idea about a lack of ideas, and it’s definitely a product of the other principal elements. 
  • The patterns of the feelings: What we experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

In the article, Ms. LeGuin went on to explain:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story.

Trickle-Up Economics

One of the reasons this concept appeals to me is because it validates attention and awareness in all levels, from the arc of a life down to the choice of shoelaces, because it’s all part of the “Great Life.” When I’m surfing the IKEA website looking at desks, it’s not a waste of time – it’s my character wanting to shape the environment, because at a base level I know that it will trickle upward to my views, inspire new ideas, and that will make me feel good. It explains why there was one thing my ex-father-in-law said that has always turned out to be true: Buy quality and you never regret it.

None of it is trivial; instead, it is essential that all these parts be there working in harmony with each other with the goal of feeling- what? Ah, now there’s the question! What do you want to feel? Happy. Successful. Loved. Valued. Beautiful. Strong. There’s all kinds of answers to that. The real question should probably be: How well are the principal elements in your life helping you feel that way?

And the follow up is, of course: What are you gonna do about that?

Another reason the idea of writing as an analogy to life appeals to me is because it helps us understand some of life’s unfairness and variability.  There are extremely well-educated writers who produce dreadfully dull work as well as authors who break all the rules yet produce masterpieces (Ulysses, anyone?). You can have someone who is celebrated as a fantastic writer with every award possible – but you, particularly, don’t like their work. Likewise, you can look at someone who everyone idolizes as being the epitome of a Great Life yet it doesn’t appeal to you.

That’s ok. The world is large enough to contain both Madhuri Blaylock and Irvine Welsh and even produce an Emily Dickinson every once in a while.

The Valuable Experience of Failing

In the article, LeGuin also adds:

Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

…which is a long-known but oft-overlooked fact when we’re looking at Great Lives. The greatest are pretty much always built on failures, often tragic failures. Often it’s because someone is trying something unusual, something different, and it fails. What is different about the Great Lives is that failure is not the stopping point. It’s not “Oh, well, that’s that.” Instead it’s “Huh. That didn’t work so well. Why? Did any part of it work? Did it teach me anything about what might work better?

One of the people often used as an example of a Great Life is Steve Jobs. Co-founder of the most successful company in the world, a man who changed our language and our environment throughout the 1st World. But, as an article in the Huffington Post reminds us:

Image courtesy Toby Thain
Remember this? Yeah, hardly anyone else does either…

Jobs developed the first computer with a graphical user interface, the Lisa, named after his daughter. It was way too costly and bombed. By that time former PepsiCo CEO John Sculley was in charge at Apple, and he fired Jobs because of the Lisa debacle…Having failed on a huge scale — the Lisa cost tens of millions of dollars to develop — he was now unemployed.

In order to prove he was still relevant in the computer world, Jobs started a new computer company, NeXT. Again, he failed. The NeXT computer barely sold. And worse, while he was gone, Apple had success with the Macintosh, which became the first successful computer with a graphical user interface.

Now, of course, we know how the story ends, at least in terms of Apple. But put yourself in his shoes back then – say, on a day when he sees the lousy sales reports for NeXT at the same time as an article about the wild success of the Mac? The times are no less dark. But you can be sure that he took what did work with NeXT (and having used them in college, I can tell you, they were pretty neat) and turned it into even more success.

One More Thing…

All of them are affected by one other element that is the same for all of us: Time. It’s moving in the same direction and at the same pace for everybody.It’s like the water that’s added to the seeds that are our principal elements. Put it all together, something will grow. Spend some time looking at the principal elements of your life, and remember that what Greatness grows is up to you.


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