Designing Your Life

When designing things to be understandable, coherence is an important goal. Perhaps it’s the ultimate goal. It is for me. I aspire to coherence in (and between) all aspects of my life: work, teaching, writing, family. Every day I ask myself: how can they come closer together? How can one inform the other? How can I generate the most value with the least waste?

I’m currently working on the systems studio class I’ll start teaching in a few weeks. I have several other projects going in parallel: a keynote speech I’ll deliver in February, client work, this blog. They all connect somehow. Invariably, there’s tremendous energy at the connection points. Themes emerge. I press into these themes, dig deeper. (“Emerge” is the right word — this is not a top-down process. Instead, the interests lead the way. I discover them by doing, by trying out new ways of being in the world.)

The last chapter of Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 is titled “Design Your Life.” The following paragraphs from this chapter speak to me:

My opening line to my students, and a recurring theme in my classes, was that the big design problem isn’t designing a house for your parents or yourself, a museum, or a toaster, or a book, or whatever. The big design problem is designing your life. It’s by the design of your life that you create the backboard off which you bounce all your thoughts and ideas and creativity. You have to decided what it is you want to do each day.

There’s an Eddie Murphy movie in which he plays a soothsayer, and he makes the comment that you only have about 75 summers, 75 falls, 75 winters, and 75 springs. You only have 75 of everything, so you better make good use of them. Time is your only commodity — what else do you have?

If we are able to design our lives, wouldn’t the best result — the best measure of success, ultimately — be that every day is interesting? Most people don’t have enough interesting things in their lives, so in place of interest they try to accumulate money and power. But I think you’re going to be a better businessperson if you look at your life as a collection of hobbies, a collection of interests, not a matter of things you do during the day and things you do in the evening — or what you do during the day and what you do during the weekend. Think of everything you do as driven by and connected to your real interests, and it will affect everything you do.

Thinking about it as a design problem, as Wurman suggests, gives us agency. There are variables at play; our lives are ongoing prototypes of different configurations. Resistance — fear — manifests as habits we must overcome. Sometimes the work is a slog. The converse — joy, flow — is a clue to being on the right track.