I admit that I’ve tended to view the phrase “life design” with suspicion. Isn’t this just another by-product of our hyper-individualistic postmodern culture — this idea that we should design our lives? At its face, it seems self-absorbed and elitist. Surely, only people who have the privilege of ample leisure time and ample choices can sit around thinking about their lives as a design project? Many people on the planet today cannot, and just about everyone in the past could not.
But I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve come to believe this:
It is not only necessary, but inevitable, that we design our lives.
As someone who is gravitating to the phrase “grounded life design” to describe my work, I should probably explain.
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I write this in the wake of reading Designs for the Pluriverse by Arturo Escobar — a brilliant and erudite book to which I can’t possibly do justice here; I will simply pull out one strand from the book that’s relevant to the topic at hand.
We often think about “design” as the domain of the experts — the architect, the urban planner, the engineer, the fashion designer. But as Escobar reminds his reader, design can actually be thought of more broadly as something we all do every day. Design is basically any process where we try to deliberately change existing conditions into preferred ones. We solve problems. We make decisions about certain goals and how to get there. We make plans. We tweak what we can — our physical surroundings, our budgets, our own attitudes — to reach those goals. As Escobar writes, “Modern lives are thoroughly designed lives.” (2)
Unfortunately, much of the time, somebody else is doing the designing on our behalf. Our lives are being designed for us, often in ways that we are utterly unaware of. I’m not into conspiracy theories; this is much more basic. Think about the barrage of information and stimuli that floods our brain every day from outside — messages we don’t even get to process or selectively edit. Consider the way consumers’ purchasing decisions (and the desires and wants that drive them) are created, in deliberate and calculated ways, by marketing experts. Consider how much more targeted and precise such social engineering of consumers’ choices has become in the era of the Internet.
Our world is designed, and so it designs us back. Or, as Escobar puts it, “Design is ontological in that all design-led objects, tools, and even services bring about particular ways of being, knowing, and doing.” (x) They shape our identities and what’s possible for us.
If we don’t practice awareness and deliberateness around our choices, if we just go along and conform to expectations dictated by society or market forces, we’ll end up becoming the kinds of persons that those forces benefit from: most likely bored and insecure enough to try to fill that void with mindless consumption and digital distraction. If, on the other hand, we try to remain deliberate and ask questions — “What problems and/or potential do I perceive? What actions would best align with what I want to see in my own life and in the world?” — we are making those all-important incremental design decisions, and stand a chance at creating the conditions of flourishing both for ourselves and for our world.
How you spend your time is a design decision.
What you think you need, or don’t need, in your daily life is a design decision.
How you sleep and eat, whom you surround yourself with, how and whether you vote, whether you hold on to anger or self-pity or let them go, are design decisions.
Every time you pick up a tool and engage with it — say, a computer or a smartphone — you are most certainly making a design decision about the kind of life you live.
It’s not that one choice is right or wrong. It’s that we should be aware of the cumulative power of these seemingly mundane material and habitual choices to shape us into certain kinds of being. It doesn’t mean that we always get what we want, or that life won’t throw curve balls. But it means we’re being deliberate and aware.
To become a better designer of your life, you might try integrating more habits and practices that put you in touch with your truest self — a weekly check-in, an annual Solstice reflection, a regular coffee date with our closest friend. Those moments provide opportunities to ask yourself whether your life feels aligned with who you want to be and the world you want to see.
P.S. Planting a garden is almost never a design mistake!