We can basically design our own life. This is challenging, but well within our capabilities. In more than one way our life is our greatest creation, and it deserves our respect. It is definitely not science, and in may fail, not unlike the greatest culinary creations. In this article, I invite you to my “kitchen” and explain the basics. More information here, here, here, here, here, and here. I will write about some of these subjects more focused articles.
Choosing the paradigm
Any design starts from the basics. We can create sweat or sour, meat or vegetable, cold or hot dishes in our kitchen. It’s not like one sort of food is fundamentally superior. We need to choose our style and direction.
When choosing a dish, we choose the elements we are familiar with, the elements we can easily find, things that combine well and that will fit the event. Our life is an event. We do not choose which era and family we are born into. These things are given. We can choose how we use them to our advantage.
In a similar way, we can choose the main theme of our intellectual training. It is almost impossible to be equally good at everything. Instead, it makes sense to focus… But how? I will mention some options a bit later.
Fake it with others
Whatever you want to do with your life, you are free to do that. The methodology is quite simple: we act as if we already achieved what we want. Do that moderately, with 10% extra each time. Let’s call it “faking”.
To make the “faking” more credible most of us need social support. If other people “fake” with us, we are more successful. Think of startups claiming to have the technology that will be available 90 days after the claim, or a couple using a new communication strategy they just learned. The team tries “faking” together, and the belief of the other team members makes the effort more credible.
Do not overfake. Overconfidence can be dangerous. Fake something you are about to achieve or to learn very soon. Work hard to make this happen. Faking alone will not take you far.
Pass the regret test
Any change may and likely will offer tradeoffs. We will regret the change and miss the good old days. Certain changes may be hard for us, others may do harsh things to others. For example, if you decide you want to learn something new, you will probably need to give up some activity you like, or become less available for your loved ones. Maybe both. There will be consequences. You might regret the change.
Consider the situation from a long-term perspective. Does the change make your life better? Do you make the world a better place? Will your loved ones eventually overcome the initial discomfort? For example, if you ask your spouse to take care of the home and the kids so you can write a new book, you might be asked to return the favor after the book is written. Are you fine with that? Does the benefit overweigh the regret?
From my experience, usually, people are fine with their choices and do not allow regret to change them. There are some huge exceptions I know: selfish and lazy people tend to regret their life choices…
Natural vs arbitrary
Most of our lives are organic. One thing follows another, without any need to make conscious choices. Actually, this is fine. This is the natural order.
If you want a higher level of order and elegance, have a specific request or constraint, or simply want more that the organic growth can offer, you make arbitrary decisions. These decisions may have hidden costs well beyond the natural growth. Yet, they may offer more advantages than natural growth ever can.
You will probably want to make some arbitrary decisions to shape your life and control it. The arbitrary decisions make us the people we are. Yet, making too many of those can be disastrous.
Below are some examples of common decisions most people make or do not make. After all, organic growth may decide things for you.
To make or to sell
People who build things and people who sell things are rarely the same people. Clearly, some of my friends [lke Anthony] can combine both, but they are strange outliers. Simply the skills required to build and to market are very different.
Marketers focus on features, networking, and dealmaking. Typically they need to move and meet people, spend a lot of time online, sometimes during nights and weekends. The reward is very substantial: a combination of fame and fortune.
People who build things need their space, low-stress environment, and complete focus on hard challenges. When they spend time with their families, they usually are truly there, and a work-life separation is a viable option.
When I go to the office, I do not think about my home or my students. And when I finally arrive home, I could not care less about software bugs. Low risks, low stress, and higher satisfaction are not a bad tradeoff for staying in the shadows.
Be an expert or a leader
Experts are usually great in something relatively narrow, typically not really caring about anything else. Leaders have a wide range of interests, but they pay for it by more shallow understanding and less impressive efficiency. Almost every team has both kinds of people.
This is mainly a question of focus and flexibility. A leader should not become obsessive. He should be flexible, and typically he should see the big picture. An expert should not interfere with the job of the management. He should get a task and see it to completion, carefully fixing all little issues. An expert ideally should be obsessed with his subject and every little change in it.
Most of us can choose different roles in different stages of our lives. Sometimes it is more rewarding to be an expert, especially working for a large company. Other times it is more fun to be a leader, especially in a very dynamic environment. We kind of need both qualities, just not at the same time in equal proportions.
Trading figures for the initiative
A chess master may occasionally trade a pawn for a more favorable position with better attack options. In fact, there are many chess openings built around this step. When we talk about real life, the figures we care about are salary and revenues. The initiative is any kind of growth: career, education, reputation, expertise… You name it…
Typically a wise person should balance between growth and revenues on every level of his existence. Too little of anything can be detrimental. Think of companies with a great product and cache flow issues. They constantly need to pitch investors and increase their gamble. This may eventually pay off big time, provided the company may survive that long.
If you are a star in a growing market, you might be lucky enough to be in three to five such companies during your entire career. I was very lucky. Most people do not work even once in such a place.
On the other hand, carefully selling a viable product for decent money is a less risky proposition. After all, we are used to selling our and knowledge time for money. However, if there is no change, growth, and learning, the market will eventually shift somewhere else.
Procrastinate before you act upon your decision
Whatever decisions you make, it is a good idea to procrastinate a bit before executing it. Good planning will allow enough time for such procrastination. As people often say “Do not sign now. Sleep on it.”
Productive procrastination is not an idle process. We get curious, learn more about options and people who choose those options. Quite possibly we meet friends and discuss some ideas. Occasionally we try stuff just to get a feel. And we often tell our life story or imaginary life story to see how it feels and get the best narrative.
We create our lives. We narrate them in hindsight. It is only natural to see that any decision we make is potentially a good story.
Pleasure and purpose
We make similar decisions throughout our lives for pleasure and for purpose. Choosing a hobby and becoming good at it is not so different from choosing a career. Honestly, in my own life, I do not know which is which. Be a pleasure machine or a purpose engine, or whatever other metaphor you choose. You choose your values, your strengths, and your destiny. Both the future one and the past one narrated by you. And if you do not choose, it is also an important choice. You will need to adapt. Parishing is not a viable choice. Learning can be a viable solution. In fact, learning is the only thing nobody regrets…