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By accident or by design

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An interesting question I occasionally ask of clients I coach is this: Are you living your life by design or by accident? For many years now I’ve often repeated a story about a senior executive who came into my office asking for guidance and advice. I asked him what the problem was. His response? ‘I’m not where I want to be.’ My next question was, ‘Well, what are you aiming for?’ To which he replied, ‘Well, nothing.’ My next statement was pretty inevitable, ‘Well done then, you’ve arrived.’ The story often gets a laugh but it has a serious message. In no way do most of us aim at nothing but we tend to have days we wonder whether or not we’re working on our own best day, in a way that suits us, on projects we enjoy, with people we want to work with, with an outcome that makes a difference to us and adds value beyond simply making money, getting through the day, or paying bills.

Sometimes we confuse having goals with embracing a vision. Goals are fantastic and they give us a target to measure progress in both our personal and professional lives. We need to be careful, however, to ensure our goals are not mass-fabricated, in other words taken from a list of ‘safe’ options deemed appropriate and normal by our peers. A bigger house, a nicer car, a holiday overseas, school fees for our children, a great social event, personal health, financial security and so on. All these are wonderful and admirable goals and meet some fundamental needs – belonging, security, fun, satisfaction at achievement. But, do they always inspire us?

Living a life by design is taking those goals and adding a layer of meaningfulness to who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to live. Naturally these will change based on personal circumstances and experience. My own experience of living in a city devastated by a major earthquake, for example, hasn’t changed my desire for a beautiful home. It has certainly, however, reduced my need for one and the importance I place on bricks and mortar. Everyone is different and there is safety in wanting what others want. After all we can’t be wrong if what we want is also shared by others.

If we want a safe life then this is a good path to follow. But if we want a good life, achieving that by following that safe path only occurs by accident and not design. Some good friends of mine are building a new house. Their perspective? Their house will not be designed as a box to contain their family, but as a vehicle to express how they live their life. They are choosing to design their project in a way that suits them. In doing so they will be different from the norm.

Without exception every individual I have spoken with, coached, and advised in this area shares a common thread. They have confused setting goals with living life, if they have goals at all. Setting goals is just one component. Do those goals resonate with who you are and what you aspire to be, do and become? Do they remain relevant to who you are, your experiences and the people important to you? Are those goals being fed by inertia and a desire to not disappoint others or somehow look good, and by simply acquiring more stuff? Don’t get me wrong, I’m as materialistic as the next person but if we define happiness as getting what we want then by definition happiness will always be elusive because we’ll always want more. The key to happiness is wanting what you have.

What do you want to have? Time, possessions, skills, knowledge, understanding, people, experiences? Are you living your life by your design or by someone else’s? Surely you owe it to yourself and those you love and share life with to sit down and think. And if you’re not living your life in a way you choose to design it perhaps it’s time to do something about it. The first step is giving yourself permission to do so.