Lifestyle Design for Wild Minds

Though it has been in circulation in different forms for many years, the notion of lifestyle design gained popular currency when entrepreneur Tim Ferriss wrote about it in his 2007 book The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. In this book, Ferriss urges readers to reject the logic of working 40 years in a perpetual state of misery in anticipation of the rest, happiness, and relaxation that await in retirement. As social security and other social protections disintegrate, he presents a framework intended to help readers experience this rest, happiness, and flexibility in the present rather than deferring it to an indeterminate future date. Though the book’s assertion that westerners simply outsource their lives to workers in poorer nations has been repugnant to a great many readers (myself included), the emergence of the idea of lifestyle design has nevertheless enabled a host of people to begin reshaping it to align with their own values, needs, and aspirations. For me, lifestyle design is about discerning our unique values, needs, and abilities with the aim of crafting custom delivery systems for our work. From my perspective, the promise of this orientation is the opportunity to enjoy a life of service that is deliberately crafted to promote the doer’s long-term health, well-being, and sense of fulfillment.

I understand that for many academicians, the notion of lifestyle design as I have described it may seem sacrilegious. Words that might come to mind include self-indulgent, ungrateful, and egotistical. After all, many are sold on the idea that committing to the life of the mind requires a series of necessary sacrifices and that anyone who cannot or will not make them is simply lazy or incapable. It is as though one is not permitted to define their own goals, needs, and values in relation to how they spend the days, months, and years of their life. The notion that one defers happiness and contentment to an unknowable (and potentially imaginary) future is not unlike the notion that all of one’s precarity, unhappiness, and disquietude will miraculously dissipate upon receipt of tenure. As we know, however, that day never comes for a great many scholars and has the propensity to come and go for those with the audacity to share their most vital ideas. Furthermore, we know that there have been countless brave people who have reached the tenured mountaintop only to seek greener pastures below entirely of their own volition. This suggests that the veneer of security and reduced work pressure that may await are irrelevant if your values, needs, and aspirations are misaligned with the context, culture, and delivery systems inherent in a traditional academic career.

I don’t fancy myself an expert on lifestyle design for inspired intellectuals, but as I navigate this rocky terrain myself, I hope that we will be able to generate some actionable learnings collectively. I am eager to hear what all of you have discovered as you navigate this process, but I will start by sharing about some of my own discoveries.

After it became clear that I would not make it to the other side of the doctoral training process as the public intellectual and entrepreneur of my imagination, I was forced to ask myself a few key questions. Maybe some of these questions will resonate with your own experience and inklings about what you need:

  1. What do I actually like about the academic world?
  2. When am I most in my element?
  3. What doesn’t bring me alive? What feels dreadful?
  4. What do I find inexhaustibly fascinating/maddening/beautiful?
  5. When have I been most happy?
  6. Who are the people I want to work with?
  7. Who do I want to serve as the audience for my work?
  8. Do I actually care about what everyone in my discipline thinks?
  9. What do I need to be physically well?
  10. How much money do I need to meet my needs and is my current approach the best one?

Once I allowed myself the seeming indulgence of chewing on these questions, I was able to encounter a number of basic truths about myself. I found that I actually don’t like conducting research that’s bound by disciplinary dictates and not being able to write in the first person, ever. The prospect of losing the equivalent of weeks at a time to grading papers and behavior modification in the classroom literally nauseates me. The idea of launching into a hamster wheel in which my life revolves around publishing (diluted, 2-dimensional versions of my work) until I perish feels morbid at best. The prospect of engaging in academic fora almost exclusively with disingenuous, status-seeking people who avoid vulnerable modes of contribution leaves me feeling emotionally exhausted and bored beyond belief. Given my clear aversion to so many central components of this profession in which I had immersed myself, what then did I enjoy?

  • Speaking publicly when it is content that I have crafted independently
  • Writing in a hybrid academic, journalistic, and poetic style
  • Facilitating stimulating conversations with people within and beyond academe
  • Reading and discussing work with an emphasis on critical reflection, curiosity, and opennness to being transformed
  • Expressing exactly what I’m thinking and feeling rather than bottling it up for some indeterminate tomorrow
  • Interacting with others who demonstrate a genuine zest for life and ideas rather than certainty and expertise
  • Listening to and partnering with my body as a precondition for sharing ideas
  • Honoring my desires for personal relationships and family regardless of how they are perceived in industry
  • Eschewing demands for endless relocations and peak productivity at all times in favor of my own chosen flow

As much as I have romanticized the idea of standing before my students and delivering a lecture, I have found that this and other fantasies are not reason enough to withstand all of the accompanying assaults on my well-being, energy, and my enjoyment of ideas. If we believe that we do have something to offer to others, we must also believe that we have just as much to lose if our default delivery system inhibits the expression of what we most want to give. What could happen collectively if we began crafting our delivery systems by design rather than relying on the default? Though my attempts to translate these personal learnings into a strategy is an ongoing process in my life, I believe that finding the courage to pose the questions and act upon the answers from day to day are necessary first steps.

If this post resonated with you, I am eager to hear your thoughts and what your experiences have been like. Share them in the comments or in our private Facebook community where the conversation continues!

Podcast update: I am currently recording season one of a podcast intended to highlight stories of people within our community who are devising creative responses to these issues and embracing the challenge of living and working by design. Make sure you don’t miss the launch by joining my mailing list.

Much more to come,


Kaitlin Smith is creator of Wild Mind Collective — a community dedicated to helping inspired intellectuals craft authentic bodies of work and make empowered decisions about their lives within and beyond academia.

Kaitlin is also a freelance writer and editor for hire at BOLD INK Creative Services.