The Three Buckets


The Three Buckets is like a slot machine.

The first bucket (“slot”) is composed of inorganic systems – physics, chemistry, science, geology, etc. It is the oldest at 13.7 billion years and has the largest relevant data set.

The second bucket is 3.5 billion years old and is composed of the biological universe – evolution, natural selection, etc.

The third bucket, while having the smallest sample size, is also the most relevant to us. It is composed of 20,000 years of recorded human history.

Because of the large sample size and relevance of these three buckets, when they all yield the same answer, it is the functional equivalent of getting cherries straight across on a slot machine – you’ve got a winner! 1Maybe there’s even a fourth bucket that interweaves the three main buckets we’ve discussed? What if technology/information is this fourth bucket? Like Brian Arthur, Kevin Kelly, and others have argued with what has become known as the Technium, where technology behaves similar to biological organisms and wants to be “free,” this additional bucket might add granularity to our world, allowing us to inch ever closer towards truth…



Reciprocation is an excellent example of The Three Bucket framework in action.

In the first bucket, reciprocation captured by Newton’s Third Law of Motion – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you push down on a table with force ‘x,’ the table, perhaps counterintuitively, pushes back on you with equal force ‘x.’ If you double the force, the table will also push back twice as hard.

Reciprocation is also found in nature, our second bucket. When you pet a kitten nicely and give it a calm environment, it will react in kind by being nice to you. But, grab it by its tail, and don’t be surprised when it scratches your face off.

Yerlin Matu

In bucket number three, the human system, you find the same. If you treat people well, trust them, and add more value than you take, they will reciprocate in kind. However, treat them poorly, spread rumors, micromanage them, and you’ll get the functional equivalent of your face scratched off. This is mirrored reciprocation.2In a related example, your reaction should be in proportion to the situation at hand. An overblown reaction is a waste of energy and a reaction that doesn’t meet the gravity of a situation can be harmful. As Adlai Stevenson said, “You can tell the size of a man by the size of the thing that makes him mad.” You should also consider the frequency, duration, and magnitude.

You see, the bats recognize one another and know exactly which of their acquaintances are generous and which are not. Those that exhibit especially altruistic traits are the first to be looked after if they themselves ever run into a string of bad luck. Does that mean that altruism is selfish? In evolutionary terms, certainly, because the individuals that show these traits have a higher chance of survival in the long term.
– Peter Wohlleben, The Inner Life of Animals

This is a simple but powerful example. In the case of reciprocation, The Three Buckets align perfectly, which gives us confidence that this is how the world works and that we can bank on the reciprocation mental model. 3Another example of something which passes The Three Bucket framework may be the path of least resistance. Notice how light bends when it hits water? Path of least resistance. Ever come across a desire path that animals have made? Path of least resistance. Humans, as all biological organisms are, are energy minimizing machines, obeying the Path of Least Resistance.

Tangent: Karin’s Overflowing Cup

I grew up hearing my mom tell me about the importance of “filling my cup.” Her point was that if I wasn’t “full” – if I didn’t have sufficient self-love, self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-confidence – that I would hoard these things rather than give them abundantly to others.

Simply, I had to first take care of myself before I could help those around me. This may sound selfish and counterintuitive – maybe similar to how we’re told on airplanes that we should put on our own oxygen mask before we help those around us – but we must first fill our own cups before we can truly help others. 

This allows us to gain a mentality of abundance – one which, when adopted, takes on a life of its own and becomes self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. Once you’re “full,” you can spend your time and energy filling other’s cups with praise, love, happiness, joy, compliments, and respect. 

The beautiful part is that the more we give, the more we receive. However, it takes some faith as the time, magnitude, and place of reciprocation is yet unknown.

There is a wonderful, almost mystical law of nature that says three of the things we want most – happiness, freedom and peace of mind – are always attained when we give them to others. – John Wooden

You can’t offer love or happiness until you have it for yourself. – Thich Nhat Hanh

Plain English

The Three Buckets model was derived by a hugely influential mentor of mine, and he explains it beautifully:

“So, this is how I use ideas that no one else in the world uses, and yet I can be comfortable that they’re right. A statistician’s best friend is what? A large and relevant sample size. And why? Because a principle derived from a large, relevant sample size can’t be wrong can it? The only way it could be wrong is if the sample size is too small or the sample itself is not relevant. So, I want to tell you what my three buckets are where I derive my multidisciplinary models.

#1 is 13.7 Billion years in science. Is that a large sample? It’s the largest one in the whole universe. There is no larger sample. Because what is it? It’s the inorganic universe. Physics. Geology. Is it relevant? It’s where we live!

Bucket #2 is 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. It too is big. And relevant – we are biological creatures ourselves!

And bucket #3 is human history. Pick your own number. I picked 20,000 years of recorded human history. It’s big, and the most relevant of all in terms of understanding ourselves.

Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant. This approach provides a framework of general laws that have stood the test of time-invariant, unchanging lenses that we can use to focus and arrive at workable answers. As time discovers truth, when the three buckets align, the joint probability of error drops towards zero. A multidisciplinary framework helps shift the human paradigm to one of an empathetic perspective, as if we were looking from the outside in.

Technical Description

The Three Buckets is a framework that uses enormous expanses of time and large and relevant sample sizes to find ideas that have proven reliable over time, space, and disciplines. If you discover ideas that align with these three buckets, you should gain confidence that you can count on them to remain true in the future.

By its very construction, the Three Buckets approach avoids prime reasons for bad decision-making in the first place:

  • Drawing assumptions from too small a sample size
  • Drawing assumptions from too narrow an area of specialization
  • Wanting the world to work the way we’d like it to behave rather than how it actually does
  • Caving to social pressure to conform to group behavior
  • Seeing patterns where no patterns really exist
  • Being blind to patterns present in massive time scales that dwarf our tiny life spans


Nothing can be more incorrect than the assumption that one sometimes meets with, that physics has one method, chemistry another, and biology a third.

Thomas Huxley

The three filters operate through these particular questions: Literacy: What are the words? Numeracy: What are the numbers? Ecolacy: And then what?

– Garrett Hardin, Filters Against Folly

Interconnected Ideas

Recommended Books & Resources

Bucket #1 – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Etc.

Full transcripts of the lectures, rather than video, can be found here

Bucket #2 – Biology

Bucket #3 – Human Systems

Worldly Wisdom ToC-Worldly Wisdom
Worldly Wisdom ToC-The latticework – No Intro/Foreword