I decided to write this because I haven’t been able to find an explanation elsewhere of what life design is that is close enough to the way I see it myself. I would consider this to be a general approach, but of course I have my own biases that I can’t keep from sneaking in. For example, inherent in my explanation is the idea that your own life experience should be the thing that’s most important to you. But is that necessarily true? Who knows! You have been warned! :)
Q: What is Life Design?
A: Taking responsibility for your life experience.
That’s what it comes down to. In fact, you could stop reading here, but you might be wondering what that involves exactly, how you do it, or why you would even want to.
So that means what, exactly?
Instead of designing some type of external object – like a poster, or a game, or an event – you are directing your attention to the thing that is (or, should be!) the MOST IMPORTANT thing for you to get right: your own life.
Think about what’s at stake. It’s how you spend every moment of every day, for as long as you’re around. At the end of the road, don’t you want to be satisfied that you gave it your best shot? You might only get one! It’s not necessarily about achievement – for me, it is about maximizing enjoyment and playing with what’s possible.
Once you accept that you are responsible for your experience (or at least, a major portion of it) and stop blaming others/the world/your luck, only then can you start to make changes to your life that matter.
I have a creative/design background, so I’m explaining this in terms of design, but there are countless other ways to approach it. I like the sense of deliberate choosing and iterative process that the word ‘design’ lends. I also like ‘life design’ over ‘self improvement/personal development’ because sometimes it’s not yourself you want to change, but you want to set up your environment to support you. It depends on the situation. While I can’t control every little thing, I want to take responsibility for as much of what enters my bubble as possible! If something’s not working for you, and you can’t change it, you can at least eject it from your reality.
Everyone designs their life to some degree (such as choosing which career to pursue, whether or not to take out a second mortgage, whether to have the Big Mac or the McChicken), but life designers are a bit different. Because they’re dedicated to designing all aspects of their lives consciously, their knowledge and experience and choices accumulate over time to propel them miles ahead of everybody else.
What does a designer do?
Great designers (not just life designers, but in traditional disciplines such as graphic design or architecture) look at what has been done before, question it and ask ‘does it have to be that way?’ They know how to use all of the helpful guidelines but aren’t afraid to break rules for the sake of experimentation or creating a greater impact. Though they don’t always know exactly where they’ll end up with a project, they have an idea of the direction they want to take it, and what values they want the project to embody. It usually takes a LOT of experimentation and refinement to get to a high level of quality, and it’s never really done, but through this process something emerges that is much more beautiful, clever and infused with meaning than if they had not been designing at all and had just been on autopilot. Most importantly, everything they do is a deliberate choice.
I don’t claim to be the best designer or life designer – I’m constantly learning! But this is an ideal I strive towards.
Life design explores questions to do with living as a human, such as – what do you believe about yourself? How do you see the world/reality and your relationship to it? How are you choosing to spend your time? How do you make money? Do you even need money? What makes you feel happy and fulfilled? How will you choose to appear to others? Where will you live? Who will you be with? What do you want to work towards? What kinds of experiences do you want to have? What are your values? What is your purpose? What is your personal idea of success? What do you want? How will you get it? What standards have you set for how you’re willing to feel? And where did all of these thoughts and beliefs come from, anyway?
For example, when choosing a career, instead of just saying “well, being a dentist doesn’t sound like it would be too hard and they make a lot of money. And I can’t really think of anything else I could do, so I’ll go with that.” Life designers would then stop and ask, “Waaaait, hold on just a minute. Is that what I really want to spend my life doing? How much money do I actually need to be comfortable? Is that job in alignment with my values? Will I be happy in that job? Do I want to work in an office environment? Does this fit into what my ideal day would be? Do I actually want to be a dentist, or do I just think I want to be a dentist? Is this actually what my parents want? Is it because I think that other people will see me as successful? Do I even want to go to post secondary or am I doing it because I just always assumed I would? Do I think that post secondary education is necessary for success? Is that even true? Did I go with ‘dentist’ because I don’t have confidence in my ability to pursue the career that I really want? What does that say about how I see myself? Is that the kind of person that I want to be? Do I want to care what other people think?” And so on. Lots of thinking, reflection, analysis!
But it doesn’t end there. When life designers are done considering all of these questions, they actually use their conclusions to shape their decisions which in turn shapes their life, hopefully for the better. Sometimes their decisions involve taking a lot of action. Sometimes it’s just a different way of seeing the world. It depends. And maybe it takes them a lot of tries and adjustments to get it right, but asking these types of questions is the catalyst which starts everything in motion.
Life designers continuously broaden their perspective and keep on a lookout for new ideas and ways to improve themselves. They keep asking themselves, “What do I want?” They question things that most people wouldn’t even think to question, and this leads them to pursue paths that many people would be afraid to pursue. They don’t just apply this project to the big milestones like what career to pursue or whether to get married, but they apply it to every area of their life, in every moment if they can.
It can take a long time to get to this point, however. For many people, it starts with a general sense of dissatisfaction. Maybe you wish you had more time, or you feel tired, or your relationship isn’t working out and you just want to find some quick tips on how to deal with that. Eventually it can turn into a lifelong path of self discovery.
Where do you start?
While some aspects of life design can be approached scientifically (for example, diet and exercise), a lot of it has a lot to do with your own values and subjective experience – no one can really tell you what to do. But figuring it out for yourself is part of the fun (and the challenge).
You could just start randomly trying things on your own, or you could start by analyzing someone who has already tried things and is a bit further down the path than you. I think it’s probably a good idea to read things from a number of different teachers to get an idea of what’s out there. They might come in many forms – neighbors, parents, spiritual masters, health gurus, business people, artists, talk show hosts, even fictional characters from stories. A lot of the teachers I keep up with are bloggers and/or authors, but you can probably apply lessons learned from almost any field to your life design practice.
Different teachers have different methods and entry points for approaching life design. Here is a quick summary of a few teachers who have influenced me at some point, in no particular order. Many of them don’t even use the term “life design” (though a couple do), but I think all of them are relevant because they offer a method for taking responsibility and improving your life. Of course, I’ve vastly oversimplified huge bodies of work here, and these individuals may disagree with what I have written here as their core principle/jumping off point (in fact, if you disagree, tell me!), but here is how I see them:
- Leo Babauta – First, make small changes and simplify.
- Ev Bogue – First, throw out all of your stuff.
- Jessica Mullen – First, start lifestreaming.
- Gala Darling – First, love yourself.
- Tim Ferriss – First, start a small business that runs on autopilot.
- Steve Pavlina – First, optimize your physical body (based on this article). (Or, try anything for 30 days. Or, realize that you’re dreaming. … Steve has such a huge and diverse body of work it’s hard to pick.)
- Abraham-Hicks – First, realize that we are all part of the same source energy.
- John Halcyon Styn – First, be yourself.
- David Allen – First, get organized.
They all have something valuable you can learn from them (and it’s nowhere near an exhaustive list), but I don’t give all of these teachers equal weight at all times. For instance, I first read Allen’s Getting Things Done either in grade 11 or 12, when I was more into productivity. At the time it was a great system, and it met me where I was, but lately I’ve been more into pursuing task management from a point of view of enjoyment, inspiration and simplicity. Just choose a teacher (or source of wisdom – it doesn’t have to be a specific person) that makes sense to you and experiment with it, see if it helps you or improves your experience. Don’t be afraid to replace things you learn early on with better things you learn later.
So, it’s possible to start on the life design path from perspectives of business/income generation, owning your time, perception of self, perception of the world, spirituality, or specific methodologies (starting small, lifestreaming, 30 day trials), but I don’t think it matters exactly what way you start. I really think it comes down to taking responsibility to direct your own life and going from there.
After you take responsibility, you can deliberately shape your life to be more like what you want, trying out lots of different perspectives and methods. You might start out with trying to “get more work done” or “lose weight”, and then later once you have your life basically under control you might move on to questioning deeper things like “wait, is this the kind of work I want to do? Should I care about how much I weigh?” And then perhaps deeper questions. “Considering my place in the universe, are those things really important anyway?”
Be careful, because once you get started, it never ends. It’s a hard rabbit hole to get out of – there is no substitute for the high you get from feeling like you’ve cracked the code to life!
Do you have any favourite teachers or life design resources that I didn’t list above? Tell me about them in the comments!