Designing your life

By Philip Brewer on 27 February 2008 (Updated 6 June 2010) 2 comments
Photo: stop.down

Key decisions that you make—especially when you're young, but also later—have implications that ripple through the whole rest of your life. People treat these early decisions—decisions like whether to go to college and what degree to get—as if they were unchangeable. They put them in the back of their mind and look to the future. It's true that what's past is past, but there are good reasons to keep these decisions clearly in mind when you make future decisions. It's never too late to design your life.

Most people don't feel like they designed their own life. That's where mid-life crises come from—people hit 40 and wonder how they got where they are.

There's no way around this:

  • If you're young, all the most critical decisions about your life were made by your parents.
  • If you're older, all the most critical decisions about your life were made by some kid (i.e. you, when you were younger--less wise, less experienced, and less aware of what's really important than you are now).

How can you pull a design out of that?

Be aware

First, be conscious of the implications of your decisions. They all have ripple effects, and it's worth tracing those ripples back to their source.

Take, for example, deciding to live so far from your job that you need a car. There are first-order effects from that decision—it locks in thousands of dollars a year in expenses (the capital investment, fuel, insurance, taxes, etc.), it exposes you to risks from traffic accidents, it makes it harder to get enough exercise. It also enables all sorts of other options—you can take classes in the evening, your spouse can join a club, your kids can participate in sports, you can all go on a vacation road trip.

These things all interlock in a way that makes changing the big decisions seem impossible. It isn't, though. Changing the big decision—living closer to where you work or working closer to where you live—opens up at least as many options as it closes down.

I just ran into the term "design snowball" to refer to the way any design change snowballs into dozens of changes that affect everything. I tend to think of it as a web—you can't pull out just one thread. That doesn't mean you can't change the web, though. Yes, one big change will snowball in a way that requires dozens of other changes—but making those decisions is what designing is all about.

If you don't like where you are, you can make fresh decisions that will take you someplace else. It just takes an open mind—a willingness to consider the whole range of possibilities. If you want to end up in a particular place, it also takes a keen understanding of how your decisions so far add up to the circumstance you've got now. That's why it's wrong to take these past decisions as over and done.

Not unchangeable

With the exception of the decision to have children, none of your decisions are really fixed and immutable. It's possible to go back to school (although it may entail living like a student for a few years). It's possible to live elsewhere or work elsewhere. It's possible to spend your time doing things that are important. It's possible to take charge of your life.

Some of these changes may require a long lead time. Some may be expensive. Some may require the help of other people. None of that means that it's too late to design your life.

Your life up to now may have been designed by some young kid. It doesn't have to stay that way.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

Inspirational as always!

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Shelvia

Awesome article!