Designing A Good Life

My good friend Brian sent me this interesting read on how to design a meaningful life for yourself.

It takes learnings from the book Principles by Ray Dalio, and in my opinion humbly extrapolates on top of them, adding ideas that weren’t in the book (after spending the $17 on the ebook I found only a half-page talking about “achievement vs presence nature”).

The two key things from the post that sparked my interest were:

  1. Some people are innately achievement driven, while others are presence driven.
  2. First identify your “nature”, then design a life to fulfil it.

Why this matters?

The first point is interesting to me because the past couple of years of my life have been about finding my balance between being a “successful entrepreneur” and being content with a simple happy life.

I’ve had many conversations with friends about this balance, some who are more driven, others who are more contentful. Trying to find what is “right” has always eluded me.

So over the last couple of days, I’ve read and explored this idea a bit more. This post is putting everything together that I’ve learnt.

Background on my original opinion

In my book Living Happiness, I had a chapter discussing the balance between drive and contentment. The basic premise was:

  • Contentment is for the present. Appreciate where you are right now.
  • Drive is for the future. Plan for where you want to be.

What’s changed?

While the original model still holds true when looking to balance your life, it doesn’t serve as a way to identify what your “nature” is, and hence how to design your life better.

Before I present a new model, a few misconceptions that I’ve resolved in my thinking:

  • Drive and contentment are not mutually exclusive. They are not even on the same spectrum. In fact, drive is a confusing word which really just means intrinsic motivation.
  • Achievement is not synonymous with growth. I have achieved big things without growing and have grown dramatically without achieving anything (notwithstanding the growth itself 🙄).

New mental model

To oversimplify the human brain, you could say that everything we do is fueled by some sort of motivation, and reinforced with a reward. This is how our habits are forged.

Hence understanding our “nature” when it comes to goal setting, should be about aligning ourselves with what motivates and rewards us.

Here’s where I’m currently at with the mental model for this:

Motivation axis – why you do what you do

Extrinsic (impact/achievement/status)

  • You want to leave a mark on the world.
  • You want to be recognized for your achievements.
  • You care about how you are perceived by people.
  • Status symbols ARE important because they signal your worth.

Intrinsic (principles/morals)

  • Your own opinion is the most important measure of yourself.
  • You judge yourself based on personal principles.
  • You are happy to live your quite unimportant existence.
  • Status symbols don’t mean much to you.

Reward axis – the payoffs that reinforce your habits

Growth

  • You are excited about growing.
  • Pain does not scare you.
  • You seek out difficulties that force you to grow.
  • The unknown excites you.

Comfort

  • You think appreciating the small joys of life is most important.
  • You enjoy staying within your comfort zone.
  • You avoid uncomfortable situations.
  • You prefer the known route to the unknown.

What is right?

There is no right and wrong. It’s about understanding where you lie. Each in excess is detrimental. For example:

  • Extrinsic motivation: You end up making life decisions that appease other people, but not yourself. You lose touch of what is meaningful to you.
  • Intrinsic motivation: You become lost within your own world; disconnected from the realities of life.
  • Comfort: In excess is laziness and stagnation. Life without progress is prison.
  • Growth: “Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.” You forget why you were growing. You become addicted to change, and pursue it even when detrimental.

Where’s the balance?

Coming back go Dalio, one of the things I have gotten from his Principles is a focus on being a “hyperrealist”.

  • Hyperrealist: ruthlessly searching for the truth about reality, despite how painful it may be.
  • Identifying your place on these spectrums is not about right or wrong, it’s about better understanding reality.
  • You are what you are. Understanding and accepting that is the first step.
  • Only then can you pick better goals and more effectively plan how to meet them.

How this applies to me personally

Using myself as an example, here is where I fit on the spectrum and how that influences my life.

  • I’m highly intrinsically motivated.
  • While I love growth, it’s not as an end in-and-of-itself for me.
  • I’m naturally growth-oriented, being fortunate to have these habits instilled in me from a young age.
  • To balance that out I focus myself on being a bit more intrinsically comfortable.

Paradoxically, my mini-retirements are periods of “comfortable growth”. I get to spend time reading, thinking, and writing, but not be overly stretched past too far out of my comfort zone. While I could be growing faster if I was stretching myself more, I would be compensating on comfort.

In closing

I think where we sit on the spectrum is extremely fluid. As life goes on our motivations and rewards change, and with that our goals will change too.

The only thing that is important is that we never delude ourselves about where we are at each point so that we can make better-aligned goals and reach them more consistently.

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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