Live with intention.
About 5 years ago, I wrote about the idea of looking at life as a design problem. As a designer, solving problems, or creating approaches to nebulous situations fascinates me. I enjoy balancing a mix of contradictory ideas to find a workable whole. The mindset and toolkits of the designer are uniquely positioned for innovation. They allow those who use them to create something remarkable.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about ‘life by design’ – the idea that you can intentionally design the kind of life you want to live. Not a new concept at all, it’s the core idea of personal development. But I’m wondering what happens when you apply design techniques and thinking to life and growth.
I think that is my personal theme for the New Year. 2016 was a good year for me, despite the shit storm it was out there. I spent more than half of it pulling back, learning, digging deep and setting up foundation for the things I want to do next. It has shown me glimpses to the great power of planning; of strategy and letting your actions build on one another.
Sometimes we find ourselves in tough places, where external conditions are so strong that it seems near impossible to live the life we want. But still, there is some sort of way out. Being a designer means looking at what we want and taking stock of the situation at hand, and fighting until we find some way to make it work. There is a loophole to exploit; there is a different way of reframing the problem. The solution may have to be hard earned, but we will find it.
On a long enough timeline, you can innovate your way out of any problem.
Which means that no matter how bad things are today, something can be done, you can move from point A to point B. You can take action such that over time, you will grow into and live the life that you desire.
It starts with intention. To design anything, you need a brief, something to focus your efforts. Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? What do you want to have? What do you want to give? What obstacles do you face? Take a honest look in the mirror and take stock of yourself, your desires and your present situation.
Sometimes the solutions are obvious and simple. It’s getting ourselves to take action that is the tough part. You can design change into your life by transforming your environment to suit your new goals. You can set up your routine in such a way that it supports you and propels you forward. The company you keep, the media you consume, the habits you develop all drive your outcomes in seemingly innocuous but powerful ways.
More often than not, the solutions are not obvious. You will have to explore and experiment and endure the process. The more you ask, answer and tinker, the more you will learn and the answer will emerge.
It’s a proactive way of looking at the world. You acknowledging that though there is a lot we don’t control in the world, we are ultimately responsible for what we choose and what we do. Life is not a linear path, it meanders. It’s full of ups and downs, back and forths. It’s messy. But we are up to the task. We will live by design.
A few months ago, I looked over my life and decided I was nowhere near my potential. So I made the decision that even though I may not be the most intelligent, the most creative or the most street smart, I could commit to growing, and I could commit to growing fast. If I couldn’t be number 1, I could definitely be the most improved. I was going to grow so fast and consistently that if you only bumped into me every 6 months, you would see a marked difference in my life. I made a commitment to growth.
The commitment to growth understands the power of the growth mindset – the idea that success comes from work and effort and not just innate ability. It is similar to the idea of kaizen – of continual improvement. It allows time to work for you, so even as you work and get things done, you are receiving the compound benefits of consistent action.
It’s a powerful idea because it allows you to start where you are. Committing to growth brings you to peace with the fact that right now, you are probably fucked up. You are not doing enough, you are not where you should be, and you are inadequate. There are things you don’t know; your ocean of ignorance is vast. But that doesn’t matter, because from here on out, your trajectory is on the up and up. You are not worried about looking good or preserving your ego, you are too focused on learning.
A commitment to growth is a commitment to yourself. It is a firm grasping of your potential. It is taking responsibility and knowing that at the end of the day, the life you live and impact you have, boils down to your execution.
It is a process driven mindset. It understands patience and taking the long view. You are less concerned with the finish line and more focused on doing the daily steps better than you did them yesterday.
This growth can be slow or fast, depending on how much of yourself you can lay on the line. But as long as the commitment is there, even if you are only taking a tiny step every day, it builds the habit of continual improvement. As it becomes second nature, you can push hard on the pedal and shoot for a 10x or hockey stick growth curve. But the commitment is the foundation.
Commitment to growth means:
- Owning yourself. Own who you are. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Know what you bring to the table and double down on the value that’s unique to you. Bring your true self, your unique energy to every situation unapologetically.
- Being goal focused. Be stubborn about outcome, be flexible on the tactics. Know what’s most important to you and the goal you are working towards. Keep it in mind always, let it be a north star, tie yourself to its masts before you are dragged off the calls of the sirens of society.
- Playing at your edge consistently. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Do the things that frighten you. Stretch yourself. Its not a nice feeling, it can be exhausting over time, but you will keep moving, you will get better, you will get stronger.
- Learning all the time. Read books, listen to the podcasts, observe your heroes, build relationships with mentors. Be curious, seek to absorb as much as you can all the time.
- Experimenting and executing. Try new things, explore new things, increase your skills and your mental toolset. Actually do things and make sure to learn from your feedback.
Make this commitment and you will become more effective, happier and fulfilled. Soon enough, you won’t even be able to recognize yourself. It’s a foundational concept for success.
Last night, I painted for the fuck of it. I’ve had these art supplies from my short stint at design school, many of them practically unopened in years. They’ve just been sitting there.
I’ve always wanted to paint. I have this fantasy of making all this money and being rich enough to effectively ignore the world, shut myself in and just paint and break stuff and make stuff and explore. Last night, I thought, ‘fuck it, why not give myself that luxury for one night at least. No thoughts of the outside world, no worries of judgment, no stressing about deadlines. Just sit and feel and create.
And so I did. And it was nice.
Not everything has to have a reason. Not everything has to make sense. There is beauty and purpose in the absurd and meaningless. I think it helps us understand how ‘not in control’ we are, and how much there is that we don’t know.
There are things we feel compelled to create even though we don’t know why. There are things we really want to do that we don’t give ourselves permission to do…Talents and gifts left unexpressed. I think we should make time to do those things. If not for others, we can at least do it for ourselves. It is important, it is part of our human journey, it is part of discovering and creating our selves.
Or the recipe for expanding your options and growing your life.
We know that growth and being deeply engaged in providing service to the world is what makes us truly happy. We all have to wrestle with our lives, listening to our inner voice, figuring out our deep inclinations and placing that at the highest service.
Many times we can feel stifled. We want to go to the next level, but have no idea how to. We want to grow in our career but we do not know where to even start. We feel the desire to have more impact, live with more purpose, but even defining that purpose remains so elusive. How do we navigate these waters? How do we approach this design problem of life to end up at this nebulous end.
I’ve been thinking along these lines as I navigate issues of career and figuring out where I want to go next. The above three words crystalized as a compelling strategy. Lets break it down.
You cannot expect to get different results if you keep doing the same thing. The chains of habit are too weak to be felt, until they are too strong to be broken. The routine of daily life and our circumstance keep us locked in patterns that keep us stagnant if we do not actively work to break free of them.
The first thing you must do is to explore. We live in a world of infinite options, and multiple opportunities for life, for love, for career. While this can be very overwhelming, it is very true that you do not have to settle for what you have. You can settle for less or you can opt for more. You can stay on the safety of the land or you can choose to embrace the open seas and lose sight of the shore. You can keep napping under the tree or you can take the leap of faith off the cliff.
Explore. Do some research. What options are out there? How many other ways could you make income? Could you tap into something you have neglected? Could you resurrect old ideas? Maybe you need to check out another country for a while. Maybe you need to quit your job? Maybe you could learn a new skill, perhaps you could write a book. Your options are many, explore them. The answers to your ‘stuckness’ are right there under the surface. If only you would stir the waters a little.
Talk to people and seek out ideas from them. Contrary to what you might think, the answers are not within. Well, not all of them. Read books, look for mentors, study the greats. Study those doing the things you would like to do.
Tai Lopez talks about the need to be a mad scientist – always trying out new things and optimizing for better. You have explored your options, now it’s time to try on things for size. Try different things, and evaluate the results.
It doesn’t have to be huge incredible commitments. It can be small and bite sized. And don’t take them too seriously. The point of experiments is not to be perfect or succeed. The point of experiments is to test hypothesis and perhaps pose new questions. Experiments provide useful feedback.
So try new things. Take an impromptu trip. Try vagabonding for a while. Make a new dish. Play around with a new language. Take a class. Approach the pretty girl at the bar. Offer a new service. Try the gym out once a week for a month. Make small little experiments based off the things you explored and see what feedback you get.
When you find something that works. Double down on it, optimize it and commit to it fully, making it a new part of your life. Now you have a whole new experience and framework you didn’t have before.
Notice this last step is not something satisfying like ‘walk into the sunset and enjoy your new life’. Nah, for me, the last step is ‘Endure’. Why endure? Because all I’ve written about above is hard, and harder for some than others. It takes a certain strength of mind and slight delusion to be comfortable with the ambiguity and uncertainty of a new path.
You will be scared. You might be lonely because you have to leave people, your friends and family. Things might take longer than expected. You will certainly meet with your fair share of failure if you lucky, with ridicule and scorn if you less fortunate. So endure. Endure the days nothing seems to be working. Endure the days the answers seem elusive. Endure the discomfort of trying new things and breaking old habits.
Endure the days you are almost broken and crushed by a darkness and depression that seems to come out of nowhere. Endure being misunderstood. Endure missing out on the opportunity cost of your decisions.
It will make you stronger, it will make you more fulfilled. You will grow tremendously. You will discover strengths you never knew you had. You will experience life even deeper. You might even find great success and fame.
So Explore, Experiment, Endure.
Then do it all again.
‘My best students have always been the ones who failed some other course of study or life choice – because they carry with them the fire of that experience’ – James Victore
Circa 2010 – 2013, I discovered and jumped in head first into the world of Zen and Buddhism. As a philosophy and way of life, I’ve found it to be the most useful in dealing with and resolving pain and suffering. The common perception of Zen is that of a monk sitting in the lotus position with an expression of pure calm or bliss. While it is important to be healthy in your inner world, and live from a place of contentment and passion, I have come to appreciate usefulness of the chip on the shoulder.
We are vastly more motivated by pain than we are by pleasure. The pain, the insecurity, the fear, all of that can become intense motivation to keep pushing, to prove a point to the world, to the naysayers, to ourselves. It keeps us running down the street, frantically stealing glances back to see if we have finally outrun it.
And that’s okay, that kind of motivation is priceless. Let it be the fuel that blasts your ship into the stratosphere. Use it.
Or ‘Don’t choke at the finish line’
I noticed something interesting a few weeks ago. Lets say you’ve been chasing something you really want – just putting in the hours and ploughing right through in pursuit of this goal you must achieve. Sure the days are long and hard, but you really really want it, so you push as hard as you can. Long enough that you catch a glimpse of it, you finally see your target ahead of you.
Somehow in that last stretch, the temptation to give up creeps up a bit harder than it has this entire time. You almost want to sabotage yourself, because the only experience you’ve had is ‘wanting’ that thing. You are almost to finally have it, because you will lose the comfort of the struggle. Wanting it is more familiar and safer than actually having it. Because once you have it, you have to adjust, you have to seek out the next thing, the next struggle.
In this stretch, be even more vigilant, resist the temptation to fold, to make careless mistakes, to lose the opportunity, to snatch defeat out of the jaws of defeat. Keep running, keep pushing, cross the finish line, dare to win.