Life Design

Do you lead your life or does your life lead you?

When I moved to Madison eight summers ago, I was going through a breakup, starting a new relationship, trying to keep my balance while bull-riding a growing business and watching my father die. It was a lot.

I was also trying to furnish my new apartment. I arrived in Madison with a bed, a dresser and a couch. To keep costs low, I planned to buy my dinnerware at a nearby thrift store. That’s when my friend Jan intervened. “No,” she said. “You should buy plates that delight you!” She was right. In the midst of so much turmoil, at least I could eat my dinner off matching plates, fun plates.

It was great advice, and it kick-started a new mantra: Life is too short for bad design.

Of course, this mantra is also a curse, because bad design is everywhere. Take airport restrooms. The dryers and paper towels are intentionally put on the wall opposite the sinks. The intention is to help with traffic flow—get people away from the sinks as quickly as possible so others can wash up. But as those wet hands cross the floor to reach the dryers, they drip, resulting in slippery, dangerous floors.

This month’s issue is about design, and I’d like to focus on life design. Many of us think about “design” as applying only to physical objects, like architecture or electronics. But how we assemble and organize our lives is a design process, too. One that each of us gets to do for ourselves.

Authoring your own life

Do you lead your life, or does your life lead you?

This is a fundamental question. And it can be sobering. If you’ve ever been caught in the vortex of someone else’s warped reality (a boss, maybe?) or had intense personal responsibilities (elderly parents or special-needs children come to mind), you know that there are moments when you don’t lead your own life. Your experiences choose you. They force your hand.

But on the whole, we have options in life. We are blessed with free will, and we get to choose. Will we lead our lives, or let the turns and surprises of life dictate for us?

This question of who leads—you or your life—has a seesaw dynamic to it. You might choose a career you love (you are leading your life) and then get a promotion that requires you to do a lot of stuff you don’t love (your work starts leading you).

This happened to me. I launched my own business fifteen years ago because I was miserable working for others. Becoming an entrepreneur was a good life design choice for me. But as the business grew, it took control. We grew from four people in two locations to ten people in four locations, and I eventually found myself whiling away my hours in internal meetings and doing less of the stuff I loved.

It’s insidious how quickly your life can get away from you. And “conventional wisdom” doesn’t help. I thought that growing my business was what I was supposed to do. But it turns out, that’s not life design; that’s just what Wall Street wants you to think you’re supposed to do. 

And conventional wisdom is just that—conventional. A mass-produced replica of what a society sees as “success.” But life design requires the opposite of mass production. It requires one-of-a-kind authenticity. Want a life that works for you? Ask yourself three things:

1. What gives me pleasure?

2. What gives my life meaning?

3. What engages me so completely that I lose myself in it?

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, says these three things make people happiest. Seems like a good place to start for designing a great life.

But don’t mistake any of these things for fun. In experiments, Seligman gave participants the option of doing something fun or doing something philanthropic. Afterward, each scored their happiness. Time and again, participants got more happy vibes from doing something nice for others.

One final note about life design. Life shouldn’t be cluttered. A well-designed life is not about more, more, more. Great design is often about removing, taking away everything that is nonessential to a “just right” state. And I’m not just talking about material things, although that’s a good place to start. You need some breathing room—in your savings account, in your schedule, in your relationships. A well-designed life has room enough for new joy.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits the bookshelves this year.

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