On Designing the Life You Want to Live

Note: My friend Michael Hyatt has a new video series on designing the best year of your life ever. Check it out here.

“What’s happened to you is rare,” my friend Mark told me over the phone one December afternoon. It was late in the day, but the weather was still warm, which isn’t uncommon for Nashville that time of year.

On Designing the Life You Want to Live

I was on one of my walks, talking to an elder who had mentored me through some of life’s toughest moments. This was an important decision. I was about to decide whether or not I would become a full-time writer.

Before you step off a cliff

At first, Mark thought he needed to talk me off a ledge. “You know,” he said, “there are times in life when you need to pursue money and times when you don’t. I remember working four jobs at one point just to make ends meet.”

“I guess,” I said, “I’m worried about greed.”

The past year had been a blur: I’d self-published an eBook, traditionally published a trade paperback book, sold tens of thousands of copies, launched an online course teaching other writers, and tripled my income.

Oh yeah, and my wife and I had our first kid. It had been a crazy year, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. All my friends were telling me to quit my marketing job at a nonprofit, but I wasn’t sure. That’s why I was talking to Mark.

“I don’t know, Jeff,” my fifty-something friend told me. “you need to be careful with money. It can grab a hold of you and not let go. I wouldn’t do it for the money.”

We were talking about quitting my job. We were talking about chasing my dream. We were talking about change. And it was terrifying.

“Well, it’s not about that,” I said out loud for the first time. “I mean, I like my job. But I dunno. The passion is there, the money is there, the family support is there.”

I breathed deep into the phone as I began to walk up a hill, rounding the first revolution of my block.

“Hang on,” Mark said. “You know, I thought we were talking about one thing, but now I realized it’s something else. Look, what’s happened to you is rare. Nobody saw it coming. I know you, and I didn’t see it coming. You need to consider the possibility that not doing this might be an act of disobedience to God. This might be your calling.”

I hadn’t considered that. The whole time, I had been focused on what I might lose if I chased my dream, if I pursued my passion for writing and quit my job. Would my boss be disappointed in me? Would I fail? Was all the success so far just dumb luck that would eventually wear out?

I never considered what might not happen, what I might lose, if I didn’t at least try.

Making the leap

Three weeks later, I met my boss Seth in Atlanta and told him it was time for me to move on. My only hesitation, I told him, was the fear that I might disappoint him.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “I’m proud. I’ve been waiting for this conversation. I think it’s time.”

Three months later, I left my position and began a whole new career that I never could have imagined only a few years before. Since then, I’ve taught thousands of students in an online course, published four books, one of which was a best-seller, and spoken to tens of thousands of people. My award-winning blog is read by millions of people every year.

Not only is this surreal; it’s a surprise. But, I’ve come to find, after talking to hundreds of others who have found their calling, discovering your purpose in life often is.

Listen to your life

Author and activist Parker Palmer wrote in his fantastic book on vocation, Let Your Life Speak, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

When we consider whether we ought to stay at this job or stick with this career track just a little longer, I think we would do well to ignore the traditional advice of “following your passion.”

Passion, if you’re not careful, can get you into serious trouble. Not only that, it can lead to all kinds of temporary thrills that have no long-term satisfaction or success. A wiser strategy is to heed the counsel of Parker Palmer—to listen to your life.

Look past your current situation and whether you like it or not. Dig deep into who you really are. And then ask yourself, is what I’m doing for a living a reflection of my identity, or a distraction from it?

More dangerous than failure

So many of us hide from our true selves and settle for what Trappist monk Thomas Merton calls the false self. This, he says, is a shadow of the real thing. Like a shadow, it may appear authentic, even resemble the same shape of our true self.

But in the end, it’s just a mirage. And we are in real danger of living through the false self. Because after a while, Merton says, we begin to believe it’s the real thing.

The most dangerous thing you can do in this life is succeed at the wrong thing. To win accolades and affirmations of something you know you are not.

Because when that happens, you are stuck. What can you do, but disappoint everyone and risk failure, to become your true self? And yet, if we find ourselves in this situation, that is exactly what we must do.

The most dangerous thing you can do in this life is succeed at the wrong thing.

Jeff Goins

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Designing your life

My friend Michael Hyatt has just about the best framework I know for how to address this. He teaches that for most people, they either follow the “drifting” path or the “determined” one. But in between those two extremes is an alternative: the designed life.

The designed life is a way of looking at your life not as simply a goal to achieve, but as an adventure to live, one in which you have more control than you realize.

One of the things that I’m learning about life is that we don’t always have control over our circumstances. But we do have control over who we become, and he’s taught me more about that than just about anyone else.

If that resonates with you, you’re not going to want to miss this new video series from Michael. Check it out and watch the first video for free here.

What does designing your ideal life look like? Where would you start? Share in the comments.

39 thoughts on “On Designing the Life You Want to Live

  1. Thank you for sharing this Jeff! This can be so murky, so your direction is greatly appreciated. I’m looking forward to checking out Michael’s new video series.

  2. Good stuff Jeff. Been enjoying a lot of what you’re doing lately. One thing that’s unique to me that everyone doesn’t do is creating live comedy shows. I run a group of comedy writers and we produce a brand new show every month. We even invite a new cast of writers each month and teach them the process and help them reach their comedy goals. Lots of collaboration and creativity.

    1. Jason – I read this comment and am interested to know more about your comedy show…how do you obtain your new writers? I have a son who is a Senior in Media and Communications at Temple University that would be so interested in your work…but not sure what your requirements are.

      1. Hi Beth! We are currently just local, in St. Louis, MO. But, the hope is by next year we are offering some online courses/extended studies available. We are about a year and a half old and have been fortunate to utilize the comedy community that already existed. It’s all been word of mouth so far, really. I started it by simply asking people if they were interested – they were. Some came back, some left after one month and came back 3, 4 months later to do it again. It’s a nice rotation.

        Over the last 5 months shows I haven’t had to ask for people at all, because word has spread so well about us. In fact, we are usually booked up a month in advance now of people who want to participate. My advice to your son would be to go into it headfirst! I had zero experience when I first started out. Just did it. It’s been very rewarding. If you are interested in more you can check out our website at stlsketchpad.com – we have a subscriber list that provides a bit of content as well. As we add more value, you’ll get that stuff for free as well.

        Hope that helps Beth and I hope your son is able to find support in writing/producing comedy. 🙂

          1. Awesome! Thanks Beth. 🙂 I guess that’s a good sign that we are going in the right direction and maybe online courses IS the way to go. Thank you for your interest and this insight.

  3. “You need to consider the possibility that not doing this might be an act of disobedience to God. This might be your calling.”

    When I read this I began crying and I don’t even believe in God, at least, not in the traditional sense. Through taking the Master Key Experience I know exactly what I want, my ideal life, if you want to call it that. But I never looked at the whole thing in this way: these things up on my vision board / movie of my life poster (my ideal life, my purpose in life) are things which I am being asked to do by a power much greater than myself. If I don’t do them I am letting more than myself down – perhaps the whole of creation.

    Which is a terrifying yet empowering thought.

  4. Life can be filled with so much uncertainty. I am grateful that you wrote about designing a life that is beyond the trophies or accolades. Achievement is being able to pursue a life that honors passion and purpose. This is so helpful for me! Thanks!

  5. I love the idea that “designing” falls in between drifting and determination. That makes writing feel more like a mission and less like a performance or sheer luck. As a stay-at-home mom of 3, this is a hard concept because I spend most of my time helping my husband and kids pursue their dreams. I have limited time to devote to my own. I think I’ll check out the video series just the same.

  6. I tried doing things the way I thought I should do them – getting a freelance writing career going and THEN working on the writing I was called to do. It didn’t work. I spent over a year floundering around. When I finally gave myself permission to write what I was called to write, I finished 5 first drafts of children’s books in less than a month, and I am outlining a non-fiction book and designing a blog series to go along with that nonfiction book. I work the equivalent of a part time job to help pay the bills, but I wasted a lot of time striving to do what I thought I “should” do. I was so frustrated because I felt like I never got anything done and I never had any forward momentum. Now, I can’t wait to sit down to write, and if I have a free evening with nobody at home, I find myself writing away. It’s amazing what the difference is between pursuing your passion and pursuing the “ought to” path.

  7. “The Ideal Life”… that thought process tends to make my head spin! I’ve run a relatively popular (by some standards) fatherhood website for several years and creating a lucrative vocation writing has always been on the wish list. However, I sometimes wonder if I’m in love with the thought of writing as opposed to the actual act and discipline of it. Although I’m trying to discover the truth of that statement, my ideal life up to this point would be spent writing and teaching… especially on the topic of fatherhood. As is the case for many, I just need to figure out now to scale, monetize and provide for a family of five in the process. Easy peasy, right? Thanks for your thoughts Jeff… they always resonate with me.

  8. Oh the power of this quote…”You need to consider the possibility that not doing this might be an act of disobedience to God. This might be your calling.” Thanks so much for this post, timed perfectly in my world of when to go ft with photography while balancing family/career etc. Looking forward to hearing you speak during the RT Summit this week!

  9. The idea of not doing something being disobedience is so poignant. Having lived most of my life in fear when I came to the realization that I was actually disobeying it changed everything. I’m loving the video series from Michael, and pretty much everything he does.

  10. Jeff, I am pleased to see that you put a like to another blogger in yours. Great maturity and confidence is demonstrated by doing so at this point in you your career. (At least it seems that way to me, ask your wife if you want to know for sure, lol)

  11. This is something that I have been thinking about for the last few weeks. I don’t really know what type of life I really want. There was a time I knew what I really wanted to live. This is a good reminder of really where people want to go and what their looking for in the future. Thanks Jeff.

  12. Great post, Jeff. You know, all creative people face this. When you know what your calling is, but . . . And funny thing, we rarely face it only once! But I love your litmus test: “The most dangerous thing you can do in this life is succeed at the wrong thing. To win accolades and affirmations of something you know you are not.” Ah, that is brilliant. And I know exactly what you mean . . .
    Thank you!

  13. I liked this line – is what I’m doing for a living a reflection of my identity, or a distraction from it? – and thought it could even be ….is what I’m doing for a living a reflection of my identity, or an attempt to create it?” So many people use work as an ‘i am’ statement rather than an ‘I do but I am’…its hard. I this is true not just of creatives seeking to write, but anything. It is great to learn and start to believe that control is possibly, even in a hectic life with uncontrollable aspects like children, school bake sales and the like.
    Really enjoy reading your posts Jeff, even more i can see your own ‘formula’ behind them so i learn about two things at once.

  14. Really appreciated this post, Jeff. I definitely feel compelled to pursue God’s creative calling on my life. Just not entirely sure that I’ll eventually earn a full-time income doing it. I’m taking action toward my dreams as God leads by Divine Impulse, but I’m also being faithful in the role he’s called me to play in the lives of my clients who I support as a Personal Assistant. Right now, that is how God is providing for me, as a single mother, and my son.

    Ultimately EVERYTHING God calls me to falls under my meta-purpose to Live in Service to Love. Whether I’m balancing my client’s checkbook or creating content at WingedHeartCrusade.com, I can be confident that I’m living ON PURPOSE.

    It’s ALL part of the adventure!

    Thank you for everything you share of your life, your mission, your experience, your creative journey, your heart, and your faith. I’m right there with ya : )

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have never thought of it that way. It’s amazing what a shift in perspective can do – it’s like the lights coming on.

  16. Thanks for the sharing!

    We all share the same feeling of fears and worries when we have to make a big decision. But I can see the difference is what our decision has been made. We all know that we have a dream is not fulfilled yet but we keep searching for a “right reason” to make a move, and then we never move.

    You take your lead and I would like to thank you for your action.

  17. I enjoy your writing and appreciate your message. And from cues I’ve picked up, I think I may personally know your former boss Seth! I’ve had one purpose in life since about age 20–to love and serve God–and I’ve been learning how to do that ever since then, in the school of life, under his tutelage. Life paths make twists and turns, as well, giving us surprising new callings and opportunities to fulfill our purpose. Life is an adventure! Thanks for doing what you do.

  18. Hmmm….this is good. This is only the second time I’ve visited your blog, but it came to mind this morning as I am preparing to build a new website in hopes of gaining more readers and defining who I am as a writer more. I think for me, the starting place is asking people for help and also looking for people (like you!) who are doing what i want to do. This was encouraging read in a way that feels like steps forward – not just a whimsical “live the life you always wanted!” rally cry. Thanks for the resources and for the insight into your own journey!

  19. I have been in a wheelchair for nearly 40 years as a result of a gunshot wound. A few years ago I had a leg amputated as a result of a freak accident. Just recently I had a huge reconstructive operation done on my bum and a colostomy. Been lying on my stomach for 11 weeks now. The point I want to make is this: live today like no other, don’t delay procrastinating. When I am up and about I am involved in a small intensive farming operation. Please never stop driving forward, so much can be achieved. Wishing you all the best of luck.

  20. I love the idea that we have a choice between being so focused on goals that we forget to actually live and drifting through life not accomplishing what God designed us to do. I think listening to our lives will help us find the more fulfilling middle ground.

  21. You told this story very well. It’s a parable – always a good way to learn. Interesting how you infuse new age concepts into your narrative. Normally I call it ‘self absorbed navel gazing’, but the way you do it makes it quite seductive.

  22. I really like the quote about succeeding at the wrong thing being dangerous. It really resonated with me. I recently quit a job teaching. Now, I enjoyed it, was good at it, but circumstances arose that prompted me to leave. I don’t like drama politics, and got sucked down into some.

    A burden I didn’t realise I carried was lifted when I quit. It wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. It vied for my writing time, and my job as an innkeeper. Since then, I’ve invested that extra time in my writing. I found a publisher interested in my work. They are small, but they are mine, and have been wonderful. I’ve also begun review work for San Francisco Book Review and for Reader’s Favourite, which has been wonderful as well.

    I’m taking baby steps, I guess, along a path that just *feels* right. Chronic heath concerns make it slower going. Expending mental energy is just as exhausting as expending physical energy in its own way. My spoons must be carefully rationed still, but they are less grudgingly paid out when it is for something that makes my heart soar.

    (paying spoons is from spoon theory, with regards to those suffering g from chronic illness)
    (Both my sister and I now collect souvenir spoons jokingly. ?)

  23. 3:30am and I couldn’t sleep, been following you for sometime now and read this blog. I’ll say it hit my like a ton of bricks. I’ve been struggling with thoughts about a career change. I’ve been doing the same thing for 34 years and writing has always been a passion. I’m taking a leap of faith towards what I want and need. I’m not one for drastic changes or decision making but planning, working on that plan to make something happen works for me. Reading On Designing Your Life I’m encouraged that its never too late to follow your dreams. So thank you! Your words are motivational, please keep writing. You’re where you’re supposed to be! Thanks for answering your calling!

  24. Jeff, this is such a worthwhile read. I have a friend who’s been struggling on her career on whether she should pursue her current job. She may end up resigning from it, because the work tends to become monotonous that it sucks.

    It’s true that you need to listen to your life and seek deep within yourself and hear those voices which can ultimately help you get the happiness you’ve always wanted. Questions we should always ask ourselves, “am I happy of what I have become?” “Is this something I want to do my whole life?” Understanding these answers is the first step in helping us learn the value of chasing our dreams and to keep on pushing with that passion! Honestly, I admire you for taking all these risks just to be able to be the person who you really wanted to be. 🙂

  25. “The designed life is a way of looking at your life not as simply a goal to achieve, but as an adventure to live, one in which you have more control than you realize.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am struggling with liking my job and doing well, but being bored out of my mind and not getting the mental and educational stimulation I so very much crave. This perspective gives me more courage to listen to myself, and quiet the distraction(s).

  26. This is perfect. My husband needed to spread his wings and try starting his own company. That was 29 years ago. We took the leap of faith, knowing we could always try something else if it didn’t work. It worked. 15 years later we were able to retire well and early. Now we can bless others through our time and money. We pushed through the question of what if. We instead looked at how can we? We learned, we worked, we connected. God blessed our work. We thrived. Designing your life. That’s what we did even when it was time to sell, we prayed and designed the next step.
    Thanks for your great words of wisdom!

  27. Great Post Jeff!

    I’m glad you made the leap, your work has certainly made a difference for me. I’m also a huge Michael Hyatt fan and loved this video series! I even made my own worksheet to reflect on the questions.

    Good stuff, Jeff, good stuff.

  28. Excellent post! I loved Michael’s videos. So insightful and inspiring! Thanks so much for sharing your story and challenging others to be brave enough to choose the designed life.

  29. Great insight! Designing my life would definitely be taking the leap out of my current career, and into a full-time writing and speaking career!

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