How to avoid living somebody else’s dream — Four key principles of life design

How to design a life? I recently lectured a whole course on this topic in Aalto University, Finland, trying to help twenty-something undergraduate students to find motivation, direction, and meaning to their lives. While preparing the last lecture, I thought what general advice could I give them — or anybody else for that matter. I believe that engaging in life designing is something we all should regularly do no matter our age.

Finally, I distilled my advice into these four key principles:

1) Choose your aspirations and write them down

As active beings we humans are constantly gravitating towards certain goals and destinations. If we don’t choose our direction ourselves, somebody else does it for us. We end up doing things that please others, that look cool in advertisements, and that would make our parents proud. We live somebody else’s dream.

This is not a recipe for authentic and good life.

Yet surprisingly few of us have truly taken the time to think about our values and goals in life. So reserve time for this in your calendar. Do some exercises where you have to write down your interests, goals and values. By writing your values and goals down you make them more tangible. By making a conscious choice about them you ensure that they guide you towards your kind of life.

2) Choose goals that inspire you, and where you also enjoy the process

A good aspiration is autonomously motivating: You are enthusiastic about it and see high value in it. So choose goals you yearn to do with your whole heart.

Remember also that the peaks are few and far between. Most of life is about the journey.

So choose goals where you enjoy the journey itself and where you are willing to accept the sacrifices involved. Who wouldn’t want to be an Olympic gold medalist? But very few are willing to commit to the extremely disciplined training and lifestyle that getting to the podium requires. So in choosing your goal, ask also what pain do you want in your life, and accept the pains as part of your choice.

3) Life design is not house building

First you design a house. When the plan is ready, you build the house. Life is not a house.

Life is dancing along to a constantly changing music. You can make plans. But then life happens. You change. The world around you changes. Suddenly your inspiring goal has become an anchor that drags you down. So don’t choose your values and goals only once. You have to regularly re-choose them. At least once a year it is wise to take a critical look at your life goals and update them to correspond with your current life situation.

4) Life is not a project

Clarifying your values and goals is essential, as they are the only counterforce to drifting and reactive fulfillment of other’s expectations. Yet they are only a tool.

Goodness of your life is independent from you ever achieving your goals. When you are too attached to your goals, life flows past you while your gaze is only fixed at the future.

This is the key paradox of life design: Best attitude to your life goals is simultaneously extremely heavy and extremely light. The goals give you direction and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But often enough you have to push them aside to awaken to the present moment and take in the rich tapestry of happenings, meetings and sensations that life offers us every day, if only we are open to experiencing them.

This is your unique life. Now put in the work to design it.

The original Finnish-language version of this post was published by Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper. Translated and published with permission.

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