Getting Unstuck

Designing Your Life

The Stanford University in the USA has a course called “Designing your life.” It seems to have come from asking student what they planned to do next in their life and getting too many “I really don’t know” answers. So they set about trying to apply design thinking to the problem.

Retirement Problems

Many blokes face the same question in their retirement years. After a few months of it feeling like a holiday, they wake up one morning and discover they have absolutely nothing to do that day. Next day – same story. When this goes on for a while they sometimes fall into depression or worse.

The Problem of Not Working

It seems to me that doing things that matter is pretty important to our self identity. I struggle with the question people ask me “what do you do with your time?” I usually pass it off with a joke – “I do whatever I want.” or something like that. Of course, that just hides the truth that I don’t have a lot to do and feel there is something missing in my life as a result.

It seems to me, we were designed by God to work. In fact the first instruction God gave Adam was to work – to tend the Garden of Eden. Now whether you think it happened exactly as the bible says, or not, I think it’s significant that the story of creation has this command as the very first thing that was said to man.

Unfortunately, over the centuries, the term work has gained some negative connotations. We sometimes see work as a difficulty or unpleasant activity we have to do. But, work is simply engaging in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result. 

Do the Right Thing

And here’s the key. Whatever you do – it has to have a purpose or result. The Stanford course tells you there are three things that have to line up for a meaningful life. You have to connect; your own beliefs, who you are and what you do. For you to live the best life possible there has to be correspondence between all three. 

Unlike the animals, which are motivated by instinct and physical need, human beings operate from different motivations. In addition to our survival requirements, we crave meaning in our lives. We need a reason to get up in the mornings. We need to know why we are here and whether life has purpose. Work was designed to be a partial fulfilment of those needs.

Dysfunctional thinking

Now often we get stuck because our beliefs lead us down the wrong track. One of the common dysfunctional beliefs comes from believing we understand the problem we have and so never asking the “Why” question – for students the question is why do you want to be an engineer / anthropologist / solicitor. For retired blokes the question might be “why do you want to go to the mens shed, build wooden toys or take photographs of everything that moves or whatever else you think retired blokes do”. This is a key question and it should be asked whenever you are wondering about taking on something in retirement.

Another dysfunctional idea is that “you should do whatever you feel like doing or whatever you are passion about.” Unfortunately their research says 8 out of 10 people don’t have any passion or have so many they don’t know where to start. It’s good to know I’m in the majority!

It seems, sooner or later, we all get stuck somewhere and our thinking means we don’t change the things we ought to. And we build our lives, one day at a time, one choice at a time. We build it, on purpose, or by accident, for better or for worse. We build it, every one of us, every day, by how we spend our time, by the words we speak and the words we hear, by the people we love or the people we ignore, and especially the thoughts we allow to occupy our minds.

I am building my life, and when I cut corners, when I compromise my integrity, when I build, as I do sometimes, with resentment or ego or pettiness or self, I am creating a future that will become my destiny. You are building your life too. How is your life design going?

Sometimes being stuck relates to issues we can’t change. The Stanford course calls them “gravity” issues. But there are other issues we can do something about. Things like family issues, sometimes health or money or our volunteering or any combination of these things. The problem is, unless we make changes in our lives, our problems become our story and we risk being stuck for years.

The Next Step.

So how do you proceed? The book written by the authors of the Stanford course says, among other things that you should try and write down three options. The first is what the future looks like without change. The next one is about what you would do if something dramatic happened and you can’t do what you wrote down as the first thing. Finally, you should write down what you would do if you had enough money to do almost anything. By the way there is a limit to how much travel you can do and sooner or later you get sick of eating chips and get desperate to go home!

When you have written down those three things, you are in a better position to choose a future based on all or some of them. But do make sure it has some connection with your beliefs about who you are.

The next step is to prototype an idea. So you try out some of the things on your list or you find people who are doing what you have on your list and talk to them. Do some research – or a lot of research. Some things will work and many others won’t work for you. So you need to repeat this step until you have a clear idea of what will work for you in the next few years. Then you just do it!

I have summarised what the book says in two paragraphs so its probably not overly helpful to you, but you can buy the eBook for about $15 on Apple Books or from Amazon and it will help you much more. You can buy a paperback version for around the same price. It’s particularly helpful for people looking for jobs and like most things ignores retirement activities but getting your thinking right is helpful for people of all ages. It has a series of exercises for you to do and charts to fill in. Unfortunately, if you buy it from Apple Books or Amazon, you can’t fill in the details because they won’t let you enter stuff into their program or to copy stuff from their book to paste into something else. They say you have only purchased the right to read a book. Obviously you don’t have the same rights as people who buy the paper version!


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