Life Is Not An All-You-Can-Eat Buffet… Stop Treating It Like One

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

When you start getting really into self-development content, something very interesting starts to happen.

You start to hear the same message everywhere.

Across different podcasts, books, articles, posts… even if they’re from wildly different fields.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts over the past few weeks, and today it suddenly hit me that I’ve been hearing the same idea over and over again, just said in different words. The best way I can find to describe the idea is this: life is not an all-you-can-eat buffet.

As abundant as we can make our lives, we can’t have it all. Not by a long shot. Life is a sequence of choices, some harder than others, but constant choices nonetheless. Even when you are driving to work or walking to meet a friend, you are choosing which way to go. Each choice you make has two main repercussions for you: you are saying yes to one option, and at the same time, saying no to all the others.

You might have heard the phrase, “when one door closes, another one opens,” but perhaps you haven’t yet thought about how this also works the other way round. If you open one door, you are inevitably leaving a whole bunch of others closed. Life always has limitations. Even an all-you-can-eat buffet does. If you choose to fill up on sushi, you won’t have space left for noodles. Along the same lines, if you pursue one hobby, you are simultaneously saying no to the myriad of others you could have pursued instead. If you choose to spend time with your family, you might have less time to dedicate to your work, or vice versa. If you are saving up for a house, you might have to forgo a vacation, or a certain level of luxury during your vacation. Even if you are a billionaire who has money to splurge all around, everyone is limited when it comes to time and energy.

For me, this means two things.

First, we can finally (finally!) stop feeling guilty about all the things we’re not doing or the things we don’t have. The podcast hosts who inspired this post have said so themselves. Instead of focusing on the dozens of doors we’ve closed, we should be thankful for the special few that we have walked through. Instead of saying, “Oh no, I haven’t been studying French / writing my book / working hard enough at work / spending enough time with friends / working out enough / *fill in the blank*”, we should be saying, “I am SO thankful that I’ve been able to…”. If we really can’t bring ourselves to make this mental shift, then perhaps we need to choose a different door.

Second, we need to really prioritize what’s MOST important to us. The word “most” is key here. You might have 10 things that are “important” to you, but if you can’t have them all (and the sad news is, you can’t), what are the ones that you are absolutely not willing to let go of? In my experience, aside from work, you can have two goals that you really properly dedicate yourself to, and perhaps a small number of little ones in which you make slower progress.

A book I read a while back has an interesting application of this concept to our love lives, and I find it also offers a great perspective for understanding the concept in general. In fact, this book is where I took the all-you-can-eat buffet comparison from. Here is the relevant passage, from The Science of Happily Ever After by Ty Tashiro:

“The problem with modern love is essentially that couples want to have their cake and eat it, too. Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies investigating what people want in an ideal romantic partner and how these ideals influence the traits they wish for. Some of the laboratory methods used to study partner selection resemble a game, a sort of choose your own adventure in lab selection. Norman Li and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin developed a particularly interesting mate selection measure, which can easily be played by following the instructions below.

“The table below shows five traits that might be attractive in a potential mate. The numbers on the right are “mate dollars,” which correspond to the percentile where your ideal mate would fall in the general population, such that circling an eighty for creativity would mean that your mate would be in the eightieth percentile on creativity, or more creative than eighty out of one hundred people. Imagine that you have only three hundred mate dollars to spend across all five traits, so spending eighty mate dollars on creativity would leave you with 220 mate dollars to spend on the four remaining traits. Circle the number you desire for each of the five traits, while being careful not to go over three hundred mate dollars.

“Now do the mate dollar game one more time, but for this round you are limited to one hundred mate dollars to spend across all five traits, instead of three hundred mate dollars.

“If you’re like most people, then the way you went about constructing an ideal partner under the three-hundred-dollar condition felt much different than constructing a partner under the one-hundred-dollar condition. Under the three-hundred-dollar condition, if you spent the same amount on all five traits, you would have a partner in the sixtieth percentile for each trait. Being guaranteed a partner who is above average on each trait would add up to a good partner, which obviously makes the game much easier. Guaranteeing someone a partner who is above average on five different traits is also unrealistic.

“Assuring singles that they can get more than enough of every desirable trait is like taking a hungry person to dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. At a buffet, patrons are guaranteed to get everything they want, and so they are not forced to think about what they put on their plates. Even if someone really wants to eat as much chicken-fried steak, Tater Tots and chocolate cake as possible, they might go to the salad bar first, even if they have little intent to ever eat their salad. Why? Because putting healthy food on your plate gives the socially desirable appearance that you are health conscious and perhaps provides you with the false satisfaction that you are. However, we all know that no one goes to the Golden Corral buffet to stuff themselves with lettuce and quinoa.

“Similarly, research participants in attractiveness studies were typically asked to rank order a large number of traits on paper-and-pencil measures, instead of being forced to prioritize a small number of wishes for traits. In an all-you-can-eat scenario, men rate physical attractiveness fourth, and women rank it fifth. Socioeconomic status (resources) ranks near the bottom of both men’s and women’s list of top ten desired traits. Agreeableness and intelligence, the salad and quinoa of the partner selection world, are among the first three wishes for an idea mate.

“However, real-world mate selection is not all you can eat, and there are hard choices to make.”

If you’re interested in knowing more, make sure to read The Science of Happily Ever After by Ty Tashiro, it is an incredibly intelligent read.

And if you’d like to further explore this concept in general, of choosing and being grateful for what you choose, I’d recommend you to check out the You’re Welcome podcast by Hilary Rushford. She’s a brilliant young entrepreneur who has a lot of wise things to say about style and entrepreneurship, including being thankful for the choices we make. She herself references another book that expands further on this concept, which is Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

I imagine that’s enough philosophy for one day. I’d love to hear your own thoughts about this topic: if you have something you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment below!

ESL Notes (13 words / expressions)

to get into (doing) something: if you get really into doing something, it means you become very interested in it. For example, you could get really into basketball, which means you start really liking basketball. If you use a verb with this expression, remember to put it into the gerund (-ing) form (for example, “I got really into playing basketball”). (Back to the text)

wildly different: this means extremely different. These two words go very nicely together. (Back to the text)

it hit me that: this means it suddenly occurred to me, or I suddenly realized something. This expression is always used with “it.” (Back to the text)

not by a long shot: this is an expression which means “not at all.” (Back to the text)

to fill up on (a type of food): this means you eat until you are full, and you don’t have any more space in your stomach to eat any more. (Back to the text)

along the same lines: this means similar, or similarly. If your friend gives her partner a photoalbum for Christmas and you want to “do something along the same lines,” it means you want to do something similar. In this post, it is “similarly” since it’s being used as an adverb. (Back to the text)

a myriad of: this means a very large number of something. (Back to the text)

to forgo (something): this means to not have or do something enjoyable. If you forgo dinner, it means you don’t have dinner. (Back to the text)

to splurge (on something): if you splurge on something, it means you spend a lot of money on it. Usually it’s something that’s quite expensive. Many people splurge on expensive wine, or brand-name watches, or first class flights, or the newest phones, for example. (Back to the text)

to not be able to bring yourself to do something: if you can’t bring yourself to do something, it means you are not able to force yourself to do something that you think is unpleasant. For example, if you are at a restaurant and you order food, and when you receive the food it looks disgusting, you might not be able to bring yourself to actually eat it. (Back to the text)

a while back: usually when we talk about the past, we use the word “ago”: a few days ago, a year ago, a couple of months ago. “A while” can also be used with ago: a while ago. However, it’s also common to say “a while back,” which means the same thing. We don’t usually hear “back” with other expressions such as days or months, most commonly just with “a while.” Note that “a while” can mean even several months or years, it is not necessarily a very short time. (Back to the text)

from: you might be wondering why this preposition is at the end of the sentence. Isn’t it illegal to end sentences with prepositions? Yes, technically it is. However, this ends up sounding rather formal, and in informal writing it’s accepted to use prepositions at the end. You will definitely want to avoid doing this in formal writing such as academic papers, though. (Back to the text)

read: I’m sure you know this word as a verb, but perhaps you haven’t yet seen it used as a noun. “A read” is essentially a book, article, or post: basically, something that you can read. An interesting read can thus mean an interesting book, an interesting article, an interesting post, etc. depending on what is being referred to. In my case, it means interesting book. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • What hobbies have you gotten into this year? When did you first get into your greatest hobbies?
  • What culture would you say is wildly different from yours? Are there any cities within your country that are wildly different, despite being part of the same nation? Are any of your close friends wildly different from you, or do you all have a lot in common? Do you know any twins who are wildly different from each other? Practice making more comparisons.
  • Think of a time when you were very confused at first, and then you suddenly realized something. Describe what happened and use the expression “it hit me that…”.
  • Do you know anyone who would not make a good manager — not by a long shot? How about someone who would not make a good chef? A good public speaker? Someone who is not a good singer, not by a long shot? What are you not good at? Practice with the expression “not by a long shot.”
  • When you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, what do you usually fill up on? Do you ever fill up on salad and then don’t have enough room for the main meal, or for dessert? Do you ever fill up on snacks before dinner and ruin your appetite?
  • Have you ever taken inspiration from someone else for a gift, and gotten something for a loved one along the same lines as your friend did? Has your friend done anything that you’d love to do something similar to? Use the phrase “along the same lines.
  • Can you think of a decision for which you had a myriad of good reasons? Have you ever visited a city that had a myriad of touristic sights to visit? Do you know any woman who has a myriad of purses and shoes in her closet?
  • If you have tickets to a concert you were looking forward to (let’s suppose the tickets were cheap), but you feel exhausted on the day of the concert, would you forgo the concert and stay home to relax? If not, what is something that you would forgo?
  • What do you like to splurge on when you have some extra money? Do you tend to splurge when you go shopping? Do you try to shop as cheaply as possible, or do you prefer to splurge on high quality products?
  • Do you know anyone who hates getting injections at the doctor’s so much, they can’t bring themselves to look at the needle? What is something you can’t bring yourself to do?
  • Is there any hobby you last did a while back? (The last time I watched a movie/read a good book was a while back… ). Talk about something interesting you did earlier this year, using the expression “a while back.”
  • What’s something you would consider a good read? (it can be a book, article, short story, poem, etc.)

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

One Comment Add yours

  1. llorenzo87 says:

    What hit me is that you’ve written about something I’ve been struggling with for the past few months. I’m also reading a famous book titled “The one thing “ by G.Keller, in which needles to say the author spreads the same core concepts
    Here some “ take away “ from him :

    “A balanced life is a lie … Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.”
    “Big thoughts go nowhere without bold action.”
    And the most quoted:
    “Success is about doing the right thing.
    Not about doing everything right.”

    As you can see it’s along the same lines to the one you’ve mentioned above.
    Those patterns ( the same ideas shared from different authors) are actually the answers to my questions. From them I can go about trying a new method and, when I get the hang of it, adjust course in order to work the new habit into my routine and remain stick to it.

    I actually have two questions.
    First I found interesting the connection with the relationship topic, I didn’t get the conclusion of the author though. It means we should prioritize the one thing we really think is important or we have to lower our expectations on the quality of the desired traits ?

    Second, what about willpower then? Do you think, as they say, the willpower is limited and we should do the most important things or the most annoying one before we run out of it ?

    I’m looking forward to reading new articles and getting new idioms to use.



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