Welcome back to Experimenting on Purpose
7. Designing Your Life on Purpose
How to plan out your life with clarity and purpose in mind
One of the most popular articles in this series has been Designing with Purpose. It was also one of the most fun for me to write, because it gave me a chance to explore the world of design. And the biggest takeaway for me is that design is just the art of putting strategic thinking to action.
As someone obsessed with strategic thinking, but someone also often paralyzed with fear of action…I loved this marriage. It made something that had previously seemed difficult to me, possible.
And then I realized, there is one thing that I’ve designed with near perfection — my life.
I love my life. I love where I live, I love my partner and our kid, I love my career (finally), I have more photos in my computer and experiences in my memory than I do shoes in my closet or junk in any drawer. I have been fortunate enough to be born into privilege (white, rich, smart, able bodied, in a free country, and on), and I have taken full advantage of it all. And with a bit of luck, I’m here, living the good life.
How did I get here? I meticulously planned out every aspect of my life from as young as I can imagine possible. I did not do it on accident. I was not living on ‘default’ mode. I did it all on purpose…to the extent that life is willing to be controlled. I designed my life on purpose…let me explain how…
WHEN I FIRST DISCOVERED LIFE PLANNING
I can vividly remember being in a middle school English class with a special topic for the day: life planning. The goal was to give us the skills, for the first time, to think about what career we might want, what that would mean in terms of income, where we could afford to live, what we could afford to drive, etc. It was Intro to Adulting for 13 year olds.
I can remember looking around and seeing the same bored faces that always appeared in this class, but myself for once being fully engaged. FINALLY! I was stoked. But looking through apartment listings in Cincinnati (where I lived at the time) was depressing. The limited options presented to us were the first sign I’d have to try a bit harder than everyone else around me to be happy with me life. I needed to figure out how to get the hell out of there.
A bit of backstory: my parents moved us from Southern California to the suburbs of Cincinnati, OH when I was in third grade. And I’ve hated them ever since. I NEVER felt at ‘home’ in Ohio, in the midwest. It wasn’t me. Worse still was living in the suburbs. It never bothered me in southern California because I was really little, and I had a pool, and we could still drive to the beach AND the mountains. But in Ohio. No. I felt trapped.
I vowed I would NEVER become one of those stay-at-home midwestern moms in the suburbs (like my mom, sound familiar?). I saw no appeal what.so.ever. I wanted a life of travel, of adventure, of the road less traveled. But how?
It only took one hour during that eighth grade english class to discover the lesson I needed: plan it out. You end up living in the town you grew up in by default. If you want something different, you have to first figure out what you want, make a plan to leave, then do it.
From then on, I became a lifelong planner. Still to this day I have a folder in my google drive with all my life plans, decade by decade, what I hope to accomplish, when to focus on what, how to live the life I’ve always dreamed of. I’m an obsessive planner, I can’t help it.
And honestly, most of it has come true. Not all, of course. And certainly not on the original timeline. But I can confidently say that I’ve been able to achieve everything I’ve hoped to achieve at this point in my life, so far.
Obviously that wouldn’t be possible without my white privilege and my upper-middle class upbringing and support from my parents (thank you!). I’m not naive enough to think this is something everyone can do. And I’ve had more than my fair share of good luck. No major illnesses, deaths or unexpected challenges to hold me back. But I can guarantee most of the kids I was sitting with in that classroom that day, most of which had a similar upbringing to me, are living by default in that very same suburb today. Some very satisfied with that result which is wonderful for them, others, not so much.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLANNING
I plan because it helps me to reduce the anxiety about the future. I’m a visual person and planning helps me ‘see’ the future…or at least a version of the future that I want to dream about.
Planning helps build my confidence. If I can figure out at least one path to get there, then it must be possible. And that thought of possibility plants a seed of belief in myself that I can do it.
Planning helps me do things ON PURPOSE.
I didn’t end up traveling the world with my husband on accident. It wasn’t a serendipitous surprise. I’m sure that has happened to some people before. But I can’t imagine it’s that common.
Of course, I’ve also NEVER had a plan go exactly as intended. Who has? But I still plan. Because most of the time, I eventually get there or I get to where I was supposed to be, and without a plan, who knows where I’d be?
Making a plan involves setting some sort of intention. It’s about agreeing on a focus. It’s a way to organize your thoughts and minds and get it all on paper in a way that makes at least some sense, at least for right now.
It gives you hope. It lets you know that what you want to do CAN BE possible..there is a way!
Without a plan, we feel lost, aimless, unsure of what we’re doing and where we’re going. We go into default mode.
If you don’t plan out your life, life will do it for you…and you’ll most likely accidentally turn into your parents. And I don’t think this applies if your parents are wildly successful. Because the truth is, you don’t become wildly successful by entering default mode. Wild success takes careful planning, a LOT of focused hard work, and a shit ton of luck or good fortune.
HOW TO DESIGN YOUR LIFE ON PURPOSE
The more you know about your true self, and what matters most to you, the better you’ll be at planning out your life on purpose. Ideally you would already know your life’s purpose, but that can take a lifetime, so start with your priorities and what you value.
STEP 1: Take inventory | Figure out what’s most important to you
- What passions do you have that you can’t live without? How much time/money do you need to focus on them? Can they be something you do on the side or should it be your vocation? I love to travel and I’ve ensured that every job I’ve ever had provided ample time off (and I used every single day!)
- What are your non-negotiables? I can’t live far from a major airport. I also have to live somewhere liberal-leaning. I’ve lived in conservative cities and it’s not for me. I need my politicians to be representing my values and I need to be able to make friends :)
- How much are you currently making vs. spending vs. saving? What can you cut out, how can you add more? What are your financial goals?
For many of us, the first major decision we get to make in designing our life, is where to go to university, or where to work or live once we graduate high school.
As for me, I didn’t just apply to the obvious schools around me or where all my friends were going…I started my research early in Freshmen year and I hit the books HARD. I knew I wanted to get out of Ohio, and most likely go somewhere far, so I started my list of criteria:
- Near the beach (but somewhere warm most of the school year) — limiting 90% of schools in the US
- A good enough school to validate the increased tuition of going out of state (and I was relatively smart so I had to at least moderately challenge myself) — limiting another half of my list
- A school with a strong campus culture, as opposed to a ‘commuter’ school where most kids lived off campus…since I’d arrive with virtually no friends — which cut out a couple more
- A fun school with a good party reputation…come on…it was college!
That basically left me with a handful of colleges in southern California to check out so I flew out with my mom, fell instantly in love with UCSB, and then prayed every day, for a year, till the day I learned I got accepted. It was the ONLY school that hit all my boxes and if you’ve never been, don’t go, you’ll INSTANTLY be jealous you didn’t go too.
I spent so much time researching that decision (and stressing over the acceptance waiting period) because I knew how important of a decision it would be. My first major life decision. One that I assumed (and it did) would shape me into the person I am today.
STEP 2: Establish long term vision | Figure out what you hope to achieve in life
After college I learned a few important things about myself. I learned that what I hated about Ohio wasn’t the weather (which was bad, but manageable), it wasn’t the people (they were different, but very friendly and kind), it was the culture. I need to live in a liberal environment. I prefer to be surrounded by natural beauty. I also learned that I’m a thinker and that I’ll be best suited in a career that allows me the cognitive space to explore, research and fuel my curiosity.
With that in mind. It was time to starting plotting out my future. This is when I first started thinking about the long term vision I wanted to design for my life:
- Start with the basics. For me this was to get a masters (check), find a partner (check), have kids (check, check), start my own business (check), travel A LOT (check), live abroad OFTEN (check), live by the beach (check and in progress), live in diverse and interesting cities (check) and design and build my own dream home (more of a wish than a need, but still a goal, TBD)
- Consider every phase of your life, but don’t leave any ‘must haves’ till the end…because you might to get there. Don’t put off the really important stuff.
- Imagine what you might say if you were at the end of your life, reflecting back on the long life you lived. What would you regret not doing? What would you be most proud of? What advice would you give yourself today that could help you plan a better life?
I knew that this next ‘phase’ of my life was going to have a heavy focus on moving around (in particular places I wouldn’t probably want to live with a family), traveling (again, the more remote, the better), and focusing on my career.
So I studied abroad in Europe, took on a few too many internships, moved to NYC after college, realized quickly I was in the wrong career, then made the drastic decision to quit and move to rural Uganda to work for a social enterprise. That’s where I first discovered my passion: entrepreneurship with a focus on impact over profit (what I now call mindful entrepreneurship).
That led to me deciding on an MBA in Australia which took me to the next phase of my life — love and adventure.
Somewhere between Africa and Australia I fell in love with an old friend from high school (which was NOT part of the plan). I was supposed to fall in love in Australia, thus earning me the coveted dual-citizenship I always wanted. But remember, life absolutely does NOT go according to plan all the time.
He came with me to Australia, we traveled extensively, and then eventually I graduated and we moved back to the US. One of the things that brought us so close together, so quickly, was our shared long term vision for the future. I’m a control freak who married someone with OCD so when an idea gets in our head, we can’t let it go.
We knew pretty instantly we’d be together forever, that we’d eventually want kids, and that we had a small window to save a ton of money and travel our butts off before we became tied down with a mortgage and ankle biters. So we started planning out the short term to achieve this new goal…
STEP 3: Determine short term focus | what are your goals? What actions will help you get there
- Long term planning is fun, but realistically, no one can know what will happen beyond 1–3, up to 5 years from now…so start there
- What do you hope to achieve in the next 3 years that will help you tick off a couple more items on your long term vision?
- What preparation needs to happen NOW to achieve what you want LATER? How can you plan for that?
- Set an intention for 1 year, and another for the next 3–5 years. This should be the thing you prioritize, that you focus on the most
We were given the ‘cash option’ from my dad to either have a wedding, or get the money my dad saved for my wedding. Done. Deal. Neither of us were big on the idea of $40k party so we took the money (and our savings from the past 3 years), and traveled the world for 2.5 years.
Eventually, we did get tired. And we did want kids. So we thoughtfully considered the best place for us to buy a house and have a family and Denver was the easy winner.
This is when we first REALLY started thinking about money. We had lived very frugally up to this point. When we first started dating I was in grad school full time, then we were saving for our big trip, then we were living on $50/day (and making it work). At the end of our trip, I was lucky enough to get some work in Australia and I actually managed to earn everything that we had spent traveling, back. So when we landed in Denver we actually could afford to still buy a house.
Figuring out how much we needed to live a ‘normal’ life was easy. Because personal finance is a hobby of mine (who says that?). But most people probably need a bit more help.
STEP 4: RESOURCES | What do you need?
- This is a big important step that most people miss. Personal finance planning can be difficult, stressful and anxiety-inducing (I get it), but it is so so soooo necessary.
- First you need to figure out what you’re currently spending and making each year so you can better assess how much is possible to SAVE each year. The less accounts you use (checking, savings, credit cards, debit cards, etc.), the easier this should be. Mint is a good, free app you can use if you’re single, but I find a good spreadsheet system is better for dual account households as keeping track of transfers between accounts can get complicated. If this world is really foreign to you, hire a financial advisor.
- Next you need to account for future increases in expenses, future raises, any windfalls coming your way (inheritance, investments, equity from a start-up, etc.), etc. You don’t have to create a crazy complicated model, and there are lots of free and basic tools out there that can help you, but you do need some rough calculations to figure out how much you’ll need, by when, keeping inflation and interest in mind.
- Outside of finances, also consider what skills you might need to acquire along the road. Will you have to go back to school? Do you want to learn a new language? What else do you need to successfully complete your plan?
We ended up buying a small house in a more urban walkable neighborhood which was VERY important to us. I HATE driving. hate it. I also HATE going to the gym. Exercise for me is increasing the amount of movement in my daily routine, mostly by walking, everywhere, all the time.
Roger (my husband) and I are also from the same midwestern suburban area I ranted about above. In all honesty, he was probably in that middle school English class where I first discovered life planning. Life is crazy. But the point I’m trying to make is that neither of us wanted the life we grew up with. Roger loves the city, he loves the energy, so being close was important to both of us.
We also choose Denver because it matched our most important criteria for a place to live: affordable(ish), the right lifestyle (west coast mixed with friendly midwesterns, all whom love nature and adventure), and a great airport with cheap, non stop flights both domestically and internationally.
STEP 5: Check for alignment | The reality check
Our life is, and has been, in alignment with our priorities for a long time. Because we designed it that way. The good news is, you can do it too, here’s how:
- Go back to step 1 where you thought about what really matters most and make sure that your plan fits those early intentions.
- Do the intentions of your short term plans ladder up to your long term vision?
- Do the financials make sense? Will you REASONABLY be able to achieve your goals in the time you were thinking, if not, adjust the timeline
- Move some things around if you need to, but be honest to yourself about what matters most
Given that we’re now in our mid-30s, we’re nearly half way through our lives (if we’re blessed with a long one). And I can say with confidence that (before having kids, things have since changed), I can die happy and content even if I don’t live to my 90s.
I’ve lived life without regret, taken advantage of as many opportunities as I needed to, and can frankly overwhelm myself when I think about how much I’ve seen and done, already.
At 36 I’ve lived in 5 countries, 4 states, 14 cities and more houses and rentals than I care to think about. I’ve traveled to dozens of countries, trekked the Himalaya, seen gorillas and leopards in the wild, visited pristine and remote beaches, and many of the world’s most iconic landmarks. I have my education. I have the love of my life, and together we’ve made 1.5 amazing humans (#2 will be here in September, hence the 0.5).
I am VERY fortunate. I know that. Every day I feel grateful for the live I’ve had and the live I’ve lived.
But I also know I’m not done yet. There’s still more on my bucket list.
STEP 6: Plan it out | Figure out your timeline and action plan
Obviously you don’t have a LOT of control over many things in your life (i.e. when and where you’ll meet your life partner, if when and how you have kids etc.) but you can sort things into 10-year periods and be mindful of what your focus is for each period of life.
- Know when you want to go all in on your career, and what points in life it’ll take a backseat to other priorities like raising young kids, traveling or partying…whatever you may value
- Assume there will be challenges, setbacks and changes along the way. So if you think you can get a business up and running and profitable in 3 years, double that. If you think you can retire in 10, make it 15, etc.
As a family, I still want to live abroad again, at least once. Probably Europe (coastal Spain!), when our kids are old enough to enjoy it, and we’ll top it off with another (shorter) trip around the world.
And we don’t want to work forever. We want to retire as soon as possible, on the beach, in a modern beach house of our dreams.
STEP 7: Live, review, rinse, repeat | Hold yourself accountable to action
We’re still working on the plans for those, but they’re in the works. And every year we go back to see if we’re on track, if our dreams have changed at all, if our timeline is off, etc. I think part of the reason we’re so good at sticking to our plan, is because we can hold each other accountable.
- Share you plan with someone: a partner, a best friend, a trusted family member and help them keep you accountable. This is the scariest part, especially if you don’t have an obvious partner-in-crime here…but it’s also the most important. Because when shit hits the fan, you’ll abandon your plan if there is no one to help you stay accountable
- Live each day with your plan in mind and make decisions that will help you achieve your goals
- Review it every year or so and change it as needed
The entire purpose of the business I’m building is to provide some additional, more passive income for our family that I can run it from anywhere in the world. So even if I have to work 20hrs / week till I’m 65, my husband can just work 60hr weeks now, and retire sooner. The beach is calling!
LETS TALK ABOUT TRADEOFFS
We would never have done any of this without some serious planning…and as a result…acceptance of trade-offs.
Living away from friends and family is hard. Full stop. Yes, you can make new friends, but the older you get, the harder that it is, and there is no replacement for friends you’ve had since childhood.
Now that we have kids I fully understand why people move back home. GRANDPARENTS! Free or reduced cost childcare would be HUGE! If we want to go somewhere for a night…it’ll cost us $250 for one kid. Um, no thanks.
I get and respect why most people never move away from home. However for me, and my husband, the pros far outweighed the cons.
What else don’t we have because of decisions we made?
- We never had a fancy wedding, and we don’t have the memories that go with that
- We’ve never had nice cars, our furniture is mostly from our parents or Craigslist (still, in our mid-30s)
- our retirement savings are not where they should be, despite our plans :)
- we’ve missed a lot of important family milestones (while we were traveling we had 5 nieces and nephews born in 5 months!)
But for us, it was worth it. Our wedding album is our travel blog, our memories and experiences we shared are our treasures. The decisions we’ve made are not for everyone, but they were very carefully thought out, and in retrospect, were the right ones for us.
WHY NOTHING EVER GOES ACCORDING TO PLAN, AND WHY THAT’S OK
Life is unpredictable, change is certain. You can not predict or control most things that have a profound effect on your life, such as:
- The state of the economy
- Global affairs
- War, crime, accidents, outbreaks, etc.
- The weather
- Often, you own attitude
The only thing you CAN control (to a point) are the decisions you make every day. You get to decide what you do each day. It doesn’t always feel that way, especially because some of the options are simply not viable in your mind, but they are your decisions to make.
Know that you’ll have unforeseen challenges. That life will happen. That setbacks will occur. That your plan is to serve only as a basic guide of what’s possible, not what will be.
And then, when you hit an unexpected bump in the road, go back to your plan and figure out an alternative route. Don’t just give up. Fix the problem, and keep moving.
And be thankful you had that map with you. Because when shit happens and you don’t have a plan, that’s when you really loose it. So plan, do, falter, keep moving, and eventually, with a bit of luck and a shit ton of hard work, you can get to where you want to be. Or at least pretty close :)