What did you want to be when you grew up? Ask a classroom full of kids these days, and you’ll hear from wannabe doctors, teachers and astronauts, aspiring bakers, scientists and vets, pro-athletes and even video game designers. What you won’t hear is any of those fresh-faced and vertically-challenged little optimists proudly declaring their desire to be a retail salesperson or a cashier. Yet statistically, those are the most likely jobs their adult selves would hold.
What went wrong? Where did all our astronauts go?
Well if you’re an adult human reading this post, you’ll know full well where your childhood dreams went. They were bruised, battered and eventually clubbed to death by an onslaught of soul-destroying advice such as “be sensible” “grow up” or (my very least favourite) “that’s not realistic.”
This advice is often well-meaning, and given by people genuinely concerned about your future success (after all, there are only so many astronaut jobs out there). But the consequence of it is that we have huge swathes of people who have been herded into jobs and lifestyles that don’t suit their true nature.
Night owls who need to fight with their body clock every single day to rise at 6am and commute to work.
Nature lovers who are forced to spent 8-10 hours breathing recycled air without even a glimpse of sky from their desk.
Creative souls who spend so much of their day within the restrictive confines of their desk job that they’re too tired and exhausted when they get home to pursue what they really love.
These people are unhappy. And they’re faced with a working life of 30 or 40 or even 50 years to wallow in this unhappiness.
Friends, this is depressing as hell.
…the future is not all doom and gloom. Already, we’re seeing an increasing number of people seize back control and consciously design a lifestyle that works for them.
You can see it in the growing trend of “portfolio careers”, where instead of working in a full time position for a single employer, workers choose to spend their time either in a series of short-term contracts (with different employers), or by working several part-time jobs at once. (Amusingly – to me at least – these are also sometimes called “slash” careers; as in “I’m a digital marketer slash copywriter slash underwear model”).
For those who crave variety and flexibility, the portfolio career is a thousand times more suitable to their true nature than the traditional job model could ever be.
This same desire for freedom and flexibility has led an ever-increasing number of people to pack their bags and head out to explore the world while running their business from a laptop. This “digital nomad” scene is getting more and more popular, and there are already a huge variety of resources and communities available for people taking advantage of this trend. There are city guides, a dedicated #Slack community to help meet other digital nomads wherever you are, at least two competing annual conferences (DNX and Nomad Summit), and even a digital nomad-specific transatlantic cruise.
Life design doesn’t always have to be as dramatic as selling all your belongings and squishing your life into a 40 litre backpack, though. It’s available to anyone, even those who have spent their entire working life in a traditional 9-5 job.
The yearning to design a life that suits your needs and interests has seen more and more people in their 50s, 60s and beyond choose to have “encore careers.” This trend has people eschew the traditional gardening-and-golf model of retirement and instead use their time to engage in personally meaningful work.
Beyond the benefit of receiving an ongoing income, an encore career provides the chance for people in the second half of their life to “give back” and to make a difference. You’ll see them in public service, education, health and environmental organisations, as well as a bunch of other non-profits. Whatever cause takes their fancy. Encore careerists, a term I totally just made up to describe actual real people, tend to be drawn to fields that deliver social impact, even when their professional career was in a completely different industry.
Sounds fun, right? Which then begs the question…
How can I design my life?
The good news is that life design doesn’t have to be a complicated process involving project management software, highly-paid life coaches and binders full of cost/benefit analyses. You don’t need to sell your car and quit your job and spend 6 months meditating in an ashram in India to craft a life that you love living.
If you follow the simple process below, you’ll be well on your way to designing a life that makes you happy.
1. Understand that you are the architect of your life
If you feel powerless, like life is just something that happens to you without you having any say in the matter, then guess what? Nothing’s going to change. Once you understand that everything you do is a result of your own choice, then you take back control and the ability to design a life that looks the way you want it to.
2. Be clear on what you value
When we’re young, our parents do their best to instil in us the values they believe will help us live successful lives. Some of us might be taught that hard work is needed to get good results, or that stability and security are the ultimate goals of building a family and a life. As a result, many of us spend our entire lives trying to act in accordance with our parents’ values rather than our own.
We burn ourselves out in careers, because we believe that without working hard we don’t deserve to have success. Or we choose a stable, financially-lucrative job over one that offers the thrill of more freedom and risk. Not only does this make us unhappy, but we also feel guilty about feeling unhappy, because we have a ‘great’ job that other people (with other values) would kill for.
To create a life you love, you need to be living in accordance with your own values. And they may or may not be the same as those of your friends and family.
3. Test it out first
It’s easy to get so busy dreaming about what your ideal life would look like and creating vision boards and chanting mantras that you don’t actually get stuck in and start doing something about it. Aside from the obvious flaw in this tactic (changing nothing = nothing changes), it’s entirely possible that the life you’ve dreamed up for yourself might not actually make you happy at all.
Dream of the digital nomad life? Travelling the world and working from a laptop might sound wonderful in theory, but your image of it as a permanent extension of your last holiday to Barbados may not (ahem…won’t…) match the realities of that style of life. As a digital nomad, you’re more likely to spend your days in dark coffee shops battling with almost non-existent internet than on a beach being served mojitos by a handsome waiter half your age. Or sleeping all day because you have to work 8pm-4am shifts so you’re online at the same time as your clients.
That’s not to say it isn’t an amazing lifestyle for the right type of person, but would it really be right for you? If your dream is to quit the cubicle and work in a garden centre, do you know for sure that you won’t miss the excitement, camaraderie, and lack-of-stinky-fertiliser smell that your office job provided? The point is, you should test out your dream lifestyle before you burn any bridges and go all in. Only by doing this, will you know what works and what doesn’t work for you.
4. Don’t be scared to change the plan
Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, gave some great advice in a 2013 interview with Forbes. He recommended that entrepreneurs be stubborn on the vision and strategy, and flexible on the details and tactics. The same goes for those of us working to design our lives.
If something doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped it would, don’t push it. Find another way to live out your values and bring your most important lifestyle elements into your newly-designed life.
5. Know that it’s never over
Life design is a process that goes on as long as our life does. It’s easy to fall in to thinking that once you’ve successfully designed your dream life you’ll live happily ever after. But I’m sure you know already that that’s just not how it works.
Your idea of what an ideal lifestyle looks like will change as you change and grow over time. But the good news is that the skills and processes and mindset that let you take control and proactively design your life remain. You can constantly change and refocus and do whatever you need to create a life that supports your values and objectives, even as they change over time.
Designing your life is a way to stack the odds for happiness in your favour. And by living your ideal life and being the best version of yourself, you might just be inspiring others to break away from the norm and live more authentically to their own values too.
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