Last updated on January 31st, 2024
You have probably heard a lot about “life design” but what does that actually mean?
Life design is about matching your external environment and experiences with your internal desires, values, and needs. It’s about feeling vitalized and liking your life, being alive and not simply existing. It goes without saying that this is highly personal and it is not based on anything that you “should” be doing.
Life design is about not “shoulding” all over yourself
Think of all the things you think you “should” do because you’re “supposed to”.
One of the most dangerous and damning words in your vocabulary is “should”. I “should” probably go because so and so will be upset if I don’t.
I “should” probably get a real job. I “should” be further in my career by now. I “should” probably settle down and think about (insert some other super serious sign of maturity here), since I have now turned (insert your scary age here).
It is my personal belief that we’d all be better off if we did away with the word “should” altogether. This single word is ever so confining, further serving to program us toward certain behaviors and ideologies.
So many people are educated, healthy, and economically comfortable, yet living lives of hushed anguish because those lives aren’t theirs and they’re simply doing what they “should”.
Life design is about your value system
Your values are essentially your why and your how; your personal rules that you choose to live life according to. They affect your behavior and help inform your choices.
At the root of claiming or reclaiming your life is defining what your life means.
Defining your values simply means outlining what’s genuinely important for you. What is your personal code of conduct? What do you stand for? What’s important to you? What motivates you? What core beliefs represent your individual essence? What is your life about? What brings you fulfillment? Is it community, adventure, personal growth, perseverance, or positivity?
Values are stable but not static. Whereas you might start off your career being motivated by making money, along the way your focus might switch to something else like giving back or work-life balance.
Our satisfaction levels are significantly impacted by the absence and presence of aspects that are in line with our beliefs.
Life design is creating your own definition of success
To an extent, the society we live in does offer stipulations that we are encouraged to meet at different stages of our lives; there are age-based predictable stages.
You may not even be aware of them; the inferences are often very subtle and tend to pop up around certain age milestones – 20, 30, and 40.
At one point or another, you may have come across one of those amusingly stern lists along the lines of “30 things to do before you’re 30”.
But why precisely “should” you have to do anything before the age of 30? Presumably, 60 days later give or take you’d be expired, a moldy fruit, and of no use to society.
Many of us are guilty of boxed thinking whereby there is an accepted notion of what our lives “should” look, feel, and taste like, a notion that we follow blindly without question.
You could also call this “the yellow brick road”. The lines were dotted and paved long before we came along, and we wouldn’t dream of veering off course.
When we are plagued by boxed thinking, our actions are dictated by how things are “supposed to” be as opposed to how we need them to be.
It means we are looking outside of ourselves, viewing our lives relative to the lives of others, and paying heed to things that may be incongruent with what we covet.
If we don’t define success on our own terms, society will happily step up to the plate, meaning that we will always remain lagging behind.
We’ll stay stuck in a cycle of want, comparison, and competition, a never-ending pursuit of the next best thing, the shinier toy.
Photo by Bronwyn Knight
Being who people want you to be (or who you think they want you to be) ultimately serves nobody, certainly not little old you. Living by someone else’s definition of success means running nowhere fast.
The guy packing it all up and going backpacking on a one-way ticket, think he’s immature? He’s chasing fun when he “should” be chasing success. But perhaps success for him is doing just that. He’s painted his very own picture of what happiness, achievement and wellbeing look and feel like.
You don’t have to enter the family business. You don’t have to choose a field of study that will guarantee you the most money. You don’t have to want to get rich. You don’t have to own lots of things to be happy. You don’t have to get married or have kids. You don’t have to be religious to be a good person. You don’t have to love going to the gym.
There is great comfort to be found in the fact that we don’t “have to” anything at all.
At the end of the day, who really benefits from you living someone else’s life?
Life design is not getting stuck on stories of who you think you are
Here’s a fact: many of the things you believe about yourself simply aren’t true. These myths may have been cooked up by you or purported by others.
If you’ve told yourself that you’re always “the strong one”, you may struggle to let yourself be taken care of. If you’ve always been the one who excelled at everything, failures might hit your self-esteem harder than the next person because you’re so firmly tied to that notion of yourself as victorious.
Ask yourself now, what stories have you told that may be keeping you stuck?
Another set of stories we tell involves our relationship with money and success. We tell ourselves that only when we attain/ buy/ win/ gain something else will we be happy.
We strive and strive for monetary and professional success and never think about what happens once we get it. We imagine that our wholeness is inextricably linked to this eventual occurrence, forgetting that even the most “successful” people are just as capable of being unhappy. Wealth too has its burdens.
Many people are happy despite their success and not because of it.
We may also inherit stories; ideas that are passed down to us by existing comrades of a group we belong to regarding what it means to be a member of that said unit, leaving little perceived wiggle room for individuality.
This includes prescriptions on what it means to be a member of our gender, religion, race or socioeconomic group. In these cases, one may feel that they do not own their story, and they’re simply out on the bench looking in wistfully along with all the other spectators.
We also fabricate truths to arm ourselves with valid excuses that prevent us from going forth with plans that scare and intimidate us. Self-handicapping protects us from truly discovering our limitations because we never make the attempts needed to do so.
We tell ourselves that something needs to happen before we can be happy at some future date because it absolves us from blame if we don’t feel happy right now.
We tell damning tales about our capabilities that cause over-familiarity with phrases such as “I cannot”, “I will never be able to”, “maybe one day”, and “I’m too old for that”. Self-imposed limitations based on age certainly fall into this category. How old we are becomes a crutch because society says we can’t do that anymore.
If you had a penny for every time you’ve heard someone say, “if I was younger I would do XYZ”, how much money would you have today? Have you said it yourself?
I encourage you to pay attention to the stories you choose to formulate about your life because the most powerful words are the ones you use to speak to yourself.
The stories we tell ourselves about our lives store a hotbed of information; they have the power to reveal a) what we fear the most and b) what we truly desire.
If you’ve always told yourself that you’re “the strong one” and that everything will collapse if you don’t keep it together, you may be harboring a fear of actually not being needed at all, feeling powerless (a) and seeking control to mitigate these feelings of helplessness (b).
Experimenting with new stories and identities is thoroughly possible and absolutely encouraged. You don’t have to be exactly who you were last year or even the year before that. If you were captain of the football team, you can decide to pick up the clarinet and be all about that now.
Sticking to the story of who you once were or are “supposed to” be is tantamount to keeping yourself stuck; condemning yourself as a member of a group to which you may actually be overqualified to belong to.
Life design is about differentiating between your wants and needs
Wants are fleeting and can be augmented by the way the wind blows. The things you need are the ones that are essential for your survival and happiness.
If you categorize the wants as simply nice-to-haves, then you can better focus on your needs. You might want chocolate right now, but you need food to survive.
You may want a beach house with a balcony, but you need a roof over your head to shelter from the storm.
You could want to be slim and muscular, but you need a healthy body.
You want people around you, but you need good, loyal friends.
You want a drone but you just need a camera to preserve your travel memories.
Categorizing your wants and needs helps you put things into perspective.
Life design is about setting goals and taking action
Life design is working towards goals that are based on your values and deep desires and are consistent with your identity.
The question of what your goals are is a loaded and broad one. Sometimes the scariest part isn’t working towards your goal, but admitting that it’s an objective of yours in the first place.
Taking action requires clarity, choice, and control. When you have clarity regarding your position, you can choose between many paths and aim to control the route your life goes along. There are many things you have zero control over in life, but your direction is not one of them.
If you keep thinking about things but never doing anything about them, life will feel complicated. Nothing will happen and you won’t know why. Only action can initiate the changes you seek. Even starting off small is better than doing nothing at all.
If you don’t like where you are in life, move on. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant. If you like it, stay. Bon appétit!
Excerpted from my book Escape to Self: Realize, Accept and Pursue What You Desire.
Did you enjoy this post? Check out the rest of the book here.