Life is Directional, NOT Destinational.
We’ve been learning how to do life all wrong, that is, if we’ve been taught at all. Most people I talk to express the sensation that everyone got a handbook to life, except them. Or, if they do feel like they got the memo, they find themselves at 30, or 50, or 70, feeling desperately unfulfilled, disconnected from their lives and themselves and wondering how if they did everything “right” and were ostensibly “successful”, did it feel so wrong. The “midlife crisis” has basically become a cliched institution in our culture, and the stuff of all the best stories. Now, we’ve sped up the seemingly inevitable breakdown moment, and the “quarter-life crisis” has even become the norm.
If you think about what we tell our children: “you can do anything you set your mind to”, and asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, we can begin to see how we end up so confused. We are schooled to pick an occupational destination–classically, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher etc–and then trained to execute upon that vision. How are we supposed to know what to “set our minds to”?
We could do anything…if we only knew what that was.
Of course, I am certainly not the first person to express this sentiment. “Life is a journey, not a destination” is plastered on inspirational quotation posters all over dorm rooms and on Pinterest boards.
We all know there’s something to that, and we want it, badly, whatever it is, but what does that actually mean? As in, how does one actually accomplish that, and where does one begin? What would that even look like? Today, in the 21st Century?
What is Directional Living?
“Directional Living” is a lifestyle and philosophy that facilitates creating a life of maximum fulfillment, joy, intimacy, and authenticity; in other words, a life that you actually love living, and feels distinctly like your life.
The easiest way to understand what directional living is, is to understand what it is not: destinational living. Destinational living is what I call the primary way people navigate through life currently. Destinational living says “Decide what you want your life to look like, and what you want to do with your life, come up with a 10-year plan, and then work backwards to figure out where to start.” It may sound like this: “By 30, I will be married, and have bought a home, and be a partner at my law firm. At 40, I will…” You get the point.
Turns out you cannot reverse engineer your life.
Or at least not with any measure of authenticity and fulfillment. You perhaps can reverse engineer someone else’s life, but the result is the oh-so-popularly termed “imposter syndrome”.
Destinational living supposes that the self, and the world, are static. In other words, that who we will be in 10, or 20, or 50 years, what the world will be like in the future, is knowable and fixed. Never has this been less true of the world in the digital age, and contemporary psychology continues to affirm and embrace a growth mindset and “layers of the onion” approach as well. (Not to mention that fact that I think most of us would like to live in a world where we are allowed to grow and evolve!).
In directional living, we work forwards, not backwards.
We seek to build our particular life, not a generic life.
Without intending to, one of the best articulations of directional living is from E.L. Doctorow, as he talks about his writing process:
“[It’s] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
If destinational living is like a cross-country roadtrip where you have a full itinerary, that someone else wrote for you, and you follow to a “T”, directional living is like taking this trip but only deciding if you are going to Canada, Florida, New York, or California, and then as you get closer, deciding if you will go to Southern California, or the Pacific Northwest, and then San Diego, or LA.
In the destinational approach, your only job is logistics and execution. There is nothing creative, or individual, about it. In some ways, it is even akin to a sort of “life plagiarism”. Sure, it might still feel good at first. And it may feel safer and more secure, but it isn’t yours, and you will always be left with a sense of dis-ease.
In the directional approach, you are co-creating the itinerary in real time, you are an active participant in your trip, and you are responsive to your internal and external changing environment. You get to engage in real time with your individualism, with your changing desires and moods, and the weather or road conditions. There is more uncertainty, perhaps, at the outset, but the result will be uniquely well-suited to you.
In the digital world, this is commonly known as the, “launch and iterate” approach.
This is the Scientific Method, applied to life.
We all know what this approach looks like. We have just decided, collectively, that our lives are too precious, that we are too untrustworthy, to be allowed, to be deserving of, the same sense of unfolding, while at the same time, we are so hubristic to believe that we have enough control over outcomes to make such predeterminations about our lives, or worse, that others do.
In career, where this is often most easily understood, this looks like aligned achievement, instead of blind ambition; that is, we achieve according to the work that we are uniquely well-suited to do in the world, and steering from the present moment in a way of warmer-colder, as opposed to selecting our ambition, or goal, and putting our heads down and blindly following a 10-year plan.
Sounds simple, right?!
Actually, it is. That’s sort of the whole point. Living directionally, building a career directionally, feels like freedom, like a tremendous relief. And really, really want that for each of you.
The hardest part is the mindset shift from the deeply ingrained “destinational” approach we’ve been raised on (and most of our institutions and systems support) to the “directional” approach. It won’t happen in one fell swoop–it is a practice.
But, there are also tools and frameworks to support you in making that shift.
Start with learning how to build a career you love consciously with these 10 tips.
If you’re stuck in a job you hate, but feel like you can’t afford to quit, check out this advice “Dear Megan” advice column.
And if you’re struggling with how money and meaning work with each other, or paralyzed by financial fear, we address all of that in “Making Money Doesn’t Have to Mean Selling Out”