In the past couple of years, since leaving my corporate consulting job to become a lifestyle entrepreneur/coach, I’ve seen the value of using life design to create and live a more unique and fulfilling life.
Although there is still a ways to go, I feel that I’ve come far enough with my own life design experiment, enjoyed sufficient “small victories” and setbacks, to believe there is value in sharing some thoughts for those considering their own next move in work and life.
What is an uncommon life?
The cornerstone of an uncommon life, is living towards what Michael Gerber calls your unique primary aim. Most people don’t do what they really want to do, they do what they think they should do, or what they believe they have to do. The primary aim is your overarching life goal. Any work you do, or business you run, should support your overall life goal. That way, you’ll be working to live, not living to work.
If your primary aim is authentic and challenging enough then you might wonder how you’ll reach it by continuing to live and work in the same way you always have. Enter design! Design is problem solving, including reframing the problem itself, and questioning assumptions in order to develop an optimal solution.
Before we get too far down the track, let me share what this looks and feels like for me in a typical week.
As I started to write the first draft of this article (Monday morning), I’d just come back from a long bike ride around White Rock Lake in Dallas. I rode from 9am to 11am, then grabbed a couple of tacos and chatted to my buddy before returning for a shower and then to sit down at my desk.
That is pretty much my normal Monday routine when I’m in Dallas. I use the time on the bike to plan out my week, and let me mind wander across the various projects I’m working on, and beyond. I don’t hate Mondays (or have that feeling of dread on Sunday) because I love what I’m doing, and I’ve found the work style that works for me, and arranged my week to suit that.
Last Sunday afternoon I went to a beginner’s filmmaking course (though weekends are usually exclusively family time), and this Friday I have my first singing lesson at 10am. The desk I'm working at is at GoodWork, one of new breed of co-working spaces popping up in Dallas and in major cities around the world. Their focus is not only on work, but also on wellness and collaboration. Since moving in here a few days ago, I’ve already serendipitously found several collaborators among my new deskmates. So far so good.
At this moment, the rest of the week is planned to be spent in production of the next wave of content I’m working on, planning a day festival in Dallas, and coaching other entrepreneurs and individuals.
Although I’m busy, and produce as much as I ever did in my consulting days, I don’t find myself rushing around continuously. The thing I miss least about corporate are the endless pointless meetings that meant I had to work late to catch up.
I’ve made a habit of taking the time to talk to people I meet, and get beyond small talk if possible. Listening and empathy are not just touchy-feely “soft skills”, they are a practical way to make your life better, while reminding us all that we’re human and in this together. Although I don’t talk to people primarily for this reason, I’m constantly surprised how often a genuine conversation leads on to a useful idea, referral or customer.
What you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things:
the people you meet and the books you read - Twyla Tharp
Later in The Creative Habit, Twyla (I feel like I know her since I quote her book a lot) says “you double your intensity with skill”.
Both of these quotes I’ve taken to heart. For example, my attitude to skill building has changed, I “take on board” skills without stopping, just as a rider in the Tour de France might take on fluids. As a natural and necessary and just-in-time process to get to the next stage. I read books differently, with constant underlining and highlighting. I make the author's knowledge my own. I feel I’ve learned more in the last two years, than the 10 preceding.
I’m trying to blend my professional skills with my life goals to create a lifestyle that at least means my minimum income needs, and is not dependent on the number of hours I spend working at a physical location or, indeed, the number of hours invested period.
At 45, I’m no millennial, but even this old dog can learn new tricks. Beside my desk is my video setup, I’ve jumped in the deep end of video production, realising that video is an effective way for me to communicate, wherever I am in the world. Yes, I still work late sometimes (did I mention that I have two young kids also), and I choose to come home at 5 to be with the kids for meal and bedtimes, then continue later on if required. Unfortunately this approach means that I’m way behind on all the mindless TV I would have otherwise watched.
For me, an uncommon life is about getting better results from life (as measured in whatever terms are personally meaningful), by challenging the assumptions and norms of how I work and live.
One of the key assumptions to challenge is around postponement i.e. the idea that you should focus on whatever type of work you're doing now (even if you don't like it), in the hope of doing what you really want to do later on (e.g. after retirement).
As I’ll explain below, by doing what you really want to do now (part of every day/week) something unexpected happens – you get luckier. As Robert Frost said in The Road Not Taken “way leads on to way”. Your field of possibilities expands. That’s exciting, and that’s growth.
Why live an uncommon life?
There are several benefit and risk mitigation reasons to want to try to design your life. Benefits involve getting more out of life sooner, as I described above. You also get to direct your life towards what you want i.e. your primary aim (I’ll explain how in the next section). Small changes now, snowball throughout life, leading you to a place that you literally couldn’t have imagined at the start.
Risk mitigation benefits of life design involve building up your flexibility and responsiveness to changes in the work and economic environment. We’ve all heard how Digital, Automation, AI and evolving global labour markets and other factors will continue to affect all jobs, including professional jobs.
The World Economic Forum report on skills (LINK) says that Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking and Creativity will be the top skills for all jobs by 2020. I agree, and these skills are instrumental in designing your life too.
By taking on the skills required to chase down your life goals, you’ll be better prepared for the future of work. At best, you might even completely redefine “end-to-end” what work looks like for you.
By designing and implementing small changes to your life and seeing the benefits, you’ll increase your confidence and ability to solve ANY problem that comes your way. You’ll realise that most things are, as Marie Forleo says “figureoutable”. What Tom and David Kelley describe as “Creative Confidence” (in their book by the same name) is like a superpower that you can direct any place you choose to, and that will inevitably be directed towards your life goals, and helping others in some shape or form.
Perhaps the most important reason to try to design your life (part of the approach I suggest below) is to live a more authentic and present life, to remain humble and to be able to manage your Ego. These benefits might not be the type of sizzling marketing slogan you might find on a billboard, but they are real and they matter.
Steve Pressfield says in The War of Art:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live,
and the unlived life within us.
Between the two stands Resistance.”
We might try to live an uncommon life (or unlived life) to beat our own fears and hang-ups. To become the person in Roosevelt’s Arena. Or to be to sing Sinatra’s My Way not in an aspirational sense, but as a life history.
How to live an uncommon life.
What I’m about to describe is not theoretical. It might not yet be optimal or universal, but it’s the way I went through things, and it’s a framework I use with my business, creative and personal clients. I hope this is of some use in shaping your thinking around if and how to tackle an uncommon life journey.
There are three broad focus areas and buckets of activity that I call Authenticity, Vitalityand Performance. Do these in sequential order the first time around, and once you are up and running you’ll return to each in increasing levels of detail/clarity and you’ll find these three areas are highly interdependent.
You’ve heard me talk about primary aim a few times already (that’s what Michael Gerber calls it in The E-Myth Revisited). In The Good Life Book I call it your "life vision". Napoleon Hill calls it “A definite chief aim” in The Law of Success.
The primary aim is your overarching life goal, what you want your life and work to be, and be like and why. There is a tendency to only set goals at work and leave life goals as kind of implicit from those. Don’t do that!
You will write down your primary aim in around ½ page, but no more than one page. To construct it begin by writing down the answers to the following questions:
- What do you really care about?
- What do you love doing?
- What skills do people know you for?
- What skills do you have that most people don’t know about (e.g. related to hobbies)
- What were you doing, with who, and where, when you felt on top of the world, or at the bottom of the world. Look back over the last 10 years, or more or less depending on what feels right. Understand which situations you thrive in, and which you don't.
Now, looking forward, think about how and where do you want to live and work, particularly around what you’d like to do or learn, and who is around you (family, friends, collaborators etc.). In his book The Purpose Economy, Aaron Hurst describes three broad sources of life purpose that I’ll paraphrase as: growth, community and contribution. How will these sources of purpose be integrated into your life?
Invest the time to write a primary aim that really resonates with you. There is no point in writing stuff that just sounds good, or your feel you should write. Write down what moves you. Try to focus on what and why first, then later (and in later stages) think about how.
For example, I have friends and family all around the world, and like travel. I also want to spread the message around getting more out of work and life to as many people as possible. So the type of life I’m trying to create involves flexible travel. This requirement, along with the requirement to spend quality time with family suggests the need to be able to work location independently, and the ability to communicate via video to let me balance travel and stability (how exactly to do this is a problem discussed in the next section).
The road to writing and publishing my book was filled with ups and quite a few downs to say the least and I think that comes across in the manuscript. My primary aim, overall life goal/vision statement is “fluffless”. When I say “help others” it is not to sound good, it is because I know from personal experience that, at times, things can seem helpless, and you powerless. Life gets in the way of living a good life, so the first pass of your life vision should be the stuff you most care about… all your must-haves, and all your dreams as if “it might all end tomorrow”.
Another quote from The War of Art:
“Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal
we imagine we ought to be, but to find out
who we already are and become it.”
In my case, it was certainly humbling to give up a flashy corporate job and start over. But without that reset I wouldn’t have reached bedrock and be building on solid foundations. It helps to know the things that you really need, and those that are optional extras or just distractions. Most of us can survive and even thrive on less money than we think we need. Anyone that has been on an extended trip overseas can attest to that. It feels good to give away or throw away all the stuff you don’t use regularly. It simplifies life, and brings clarity of purpose.
I understood the virtue of simple pleasures and not living in the future. If feels good to live in the present, just to enjoy a beautiful day or interesting conversation. It also feels “bad” to live in the present, since you know that you’re the one that got you to where you are now (good or bad) and you’re the one responsible for creating your future (including recruiting the allies to help you). There is nowhere to hide, personal responsibility is key.
Another practical reason to begin with, and keep returning to, authenticity is that it helps you to understand what is unique about you, where you should focus and not focus.
Michael Porter says that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”. I believe that the first filter of what not to do is that which is unauthentic for you. What is authentic and unique to you, is an endlessly mineable source of “competitive advantage” in achieving your primary aim.
Vitality is about building your energy levels, and problem solving ability and focusing that on how to reach your primary aim. The good news is that working to a clear primary aim is a strong motivator, so long as you also believe in your ability to (do the things necessary to) reach that goal.
This is where creativity and imagination come in. Everyone is creative and everyone can increase her or his level of creativity. The academic literature says so, and I’ve seen it again and again through interviewing creative people, and teaching/coaching creativity with individuals and groups.
The quickest way to boost creativity is to find a clear problem that you are motivated to solve. Guess what, by comparing your primary aim to where you are in life and work right now you find a problem! You’re not where you want to be yet, and there is a gap.
In my particular case (though I’m hardly alone) distributed friends and family are a motivator for having more flexibility in when and where I work. I think flexibility will be a defining characteristic of those living an uncommon life, a group that Tim Ferris calls the “New Rich” in his book The 4-Hour Workweek. More time and energy become higher priorities than more money. With flexibility comes some risk too, but at least that risk is visible, and you know that you're the one that has to manage it (and of course there is risk in corporate work too, you can get let go at any time).
Almost certainly if you want to dramatically increase the flexibility in your life, you’ll want to explore creating passive income, and imagination and iteration will be a part of finding viable options for that.
I make passive income from my book, for example. It’s not enough to live on and I could have been quicker and more effective knowing what I know now (perhaps the subject of another post) but that’s life. It’s a magical feeling to get an email saying that money is being deposited into your bank account, for doing "nothing". It is like alchemy being proven real. Once you've experienced alchemy, you become naturally curious about where else it might be applied.
So, given the digital era we’re living in, I inevitably suggest to anyone that will listen (and even those that won’t), to try to convert your passion and professional experience into a piece of content that others can purchase.
Even that simple step is often blocked by a person’s belief that they are not creative. Most often this means that a person is not confident in their ability to solve problems.
I recommend starting with the Kelley’s book Creative Confidence. Set yourself small creative challenges and complete them, then scale up. In my case I already had developed quite a swagger from solving problems in the corporate arena, but needed to transfer and evolve that problem solving ability to focus on the right problems i.e. my life goals! Life, and life design, problems don't always come neatly defined. Part of your ingenuity will need to be directed to framing up the problem you're trying to solve.
The passion that comes with being Authentic (Step 1), carries through as source of social vitality. Your passion is infectious and helps connect you to your tribe, wherever in the world they are. Create content about what you’re passionate about, and your tribe will find you. It has happened to me again and again. People are listening.
What stops most people dead in their tracks on the way to their audacious life goals is a combination of fear and perfectionism. I know, as a professional, that you can get to the place where you won’t do anything that you’re not good at. It’s kind of sad to let that stop you, and I hope it won’t. It’s also no time to be smug if you’re in a corporate job. You might reach a point where you begin to question the meaning in your own success, and sacrifices you’ve made to get there. Examining the gap between your primary aim and where you are today is the way to identify which problem areas to work on first.
I think of the three stages of Authenticity, Vitality and Performance in visual terms like a diamond shape on its side.
Authenticity is about essence, Vitality is about creating and exploring possibilities, and Performance is about the focus to execute on those possibilities.
Before we get into metrics, check your desire and level of focus.
You need to plan around the top 2-3 things that will accelerate you towards your goals, then pick 1 thing to focus on, and play that game relentlessly to get that thing done. “[E]xtraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.” as Gary Keller says in The ONE Thing.
One of the goals that comes up surprisingly often at my creativity presentations is to “cook food that my spouse/friends/kids want to eat”. I pick this seemingly simple example to highlight the point that it’s never the perfect time to do anything worthwhile. Download some recipes and start. Do it on Monday! Send me a picture of what you cooked! Make that your one thing for the day or week and do it.
In business, the one thing is finding the product or service that appeals to your target audience. Another common need for my clients is to become more creative in their entrepreneurial business. I say “listen to and know your clients deeply, then come back to me and you’ll have limitless ideas”.
The final part of performance is to set goals and metrics, then measure and improve your performance against those metrics. There is a bit of art and science in setting good metrics, but make sure you try to find at least 2-3 metrics that represent your primary aim. Get creative!
Your uncommon life doesn’t have to be grand, but it does need to be unique to you. You don't have to quit your job to begin to live an uncommon life, and in most ways it is probably best if you don't.
Not having a rapidly diminishing bank account means one less thing to worry about. Do the steps suggested above and you might well find creative solutions at work that take you where you want to go, because the steps will change who you think you are, and what is possible.
I hope that this initial post has given you some ideas on where to start in your own life design journey! I'll be back in coming weeks with some more videos and other content that I hope will help! All the best!
Let me know what you think, and what has worked or not worked for you.