The Principles of Life Design: Creating Conditions to Thrive

Recently, I've been binge-watching Netflix's new series, Abstract and pseudo-religiously listening to NPR's How I Built This. This has been a great exercise in growing my confidence, and blind faith in follow-through. Each episode of either show focuses on an industry leader in design and/or enterprise, walks you through their creative process, and recounts the trials they faced time and time again as novices, eventually landing them at the top of the heap becoming household names. Often the leaders we look up to start off as no different than you and I - but something happened.  They decided to keep going, as if it was the only way, and as if they already were great, and often in spite of their feelings of incompetence.  

I've come to believe our sense of self and sense of purpose are connected, sort of like the left arm and the right arm - it is hard to feel whole without both working together. It's possible to have a purpose without a self; there are any number of examples of people who have achieved incredible success by being technically skilled who are still empty inside or exhibit signs of emotional shallowness. However, it's far more likely for a vast majority of the all-too self-aware Western population that the purpose comes after the self is already built enough to respond readily to the call to adventure and enter into their greatness. It's the classic Hero's Journey.

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I have found it hard to call myself an 'artist' or 'designer' for most of my adult life, even though these are titles I've always felt drawn to. My discomfort had something to do with my perceived lack of expertise in the creative arts - I had potential, but I hadn't found my format/discipline, and wasn't yet recognized by my peer group or credible institution/authority as being part of (what I considered to be) this elite group of ingenious individuals.  I separated myself from them, as if they were on a pedestal that I'd always have to ask permission to step onto myself.

Over the past 3 years, one of the things I've been training myself to do is to feel at home in my body, and in the world by extension. That means, starting from the inside out to understand the things that I want, the things that I excel at, the things I need to work on, and removing the limiting patterns of thought that do not serve the person I am becoming.  This is a huge project with many interconnecting threads that I couldn't possibly do justice in a single article (maybe a book, one day), but for our purposes I will focus on the high level strategies I've found incredibly valuable in my own self-development.  

People in-between identities (young & old, black & white, straight & gay, traditional & innovative, logical & emotional, corporate & creative, etc.) often find it hard to choose which side of the fence to sit on for the following reasons:

(1) it is hard to commit to anything, especially when it appears that our decision will forever change the course of our lives

(2) we are afraid to let go of a quantifiable past identity, for a new one that is unknown - even if we feel that the new identity will be better for us

(3) we don't have the internal resources yet to push through the perceived obstacles in between were we are (point A) and where we would like to be (point B) 

We are often many things at once, and life loses it's luster when we have all this potential without yet having accumulated the expertise to call ourselves the thing that we want to be, and lack the faith in ourselves to overcome the hopeless feeling that it might be too late for us. I've found it most helpful to stop expecting myself and others to be everything all of a sudden, and instead embrace the incremental process of becoming.

It's taken me a while to answer my personal call to adventure, but now that things are looking a little more clear, the principles of design seem like the holistic guide to thriving that was staring all of us in the face the entire time. I've adapted the definitions to serve life more generally than design proper.  I hope they help on your Hero's Journey!

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  1. BALANCE

    Try not to be too far left or right, too self-indulgent or too selfless, too rigid or too random. It doesn't mean always being in the middle of two things, but making sure to satisfy all the parts of yourself, not just some parts. In design, a large object in the center can be balanced by a small object on the edge. Balance provides stability and structure to a design and grounds a life.
     
  2. PROXIMITY

    Create relationships between the important things in your life. When objects are disconnected in design it doesn't flow - there's no continuity.  The people and passions you have in your life don't have to be close together, but they should be related in some way that tells the story of who you are.  The more related they are, the stronger the focal point becomes. You (and your purpose) is the focal point.
     
  3. ALIGNMENT

    To show relationship and connection, the objects should be aligned in a way that tells the story.  Organizing elements in relation to each other makes the connection between them clear, and clarifies the order in which we should absorb each element. This is, in essence, getting clear on your priorities.
     
  4. REPETITION

    Repetition strengthens a design by tying together individual elements. It helps to create association and consistency. Repetition can create rhythm (a feeling of organized movement). In life, the only way we build new frames of reference, thought patterns and technical skills is through the process of repetition. In fact, the person you are today is a product of repetition. If you need to change, the only way is by repeating a new way until it becomes second nature - a new mental shortcut. Our mind is nothing more than a computer - you can teach it a new code by repeating a pattern until it strengthens into muscle memory. This is sort of like going to the gym, and literally doing reps. You gotta lift if you want the gainz, bruh.
     
  5.  CONTRAST

    Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposing elements (opposite colours on the colour wheel, or value light / dark, or direction – horizontal / vertical). Contrast allows us to emphasize or highlight key elements in your design. In life, there is often no reason for being one way or another. We discussed before that people are often many things at once. The most interesting, inspiring, lovable, successful people I know, vibrantly display their contrasts with confidence (sometimes audacity). They aren't trying to hide, fade, blend, or justify a linear progression from element A to B - they just show up and let their audience figure it out.
     
  6. SPACE

    Space in art refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within elements. Both positive and negative space are important factors to be considered in every design. In my experience, it took space in the form of time and proximity from the things competing for my attention in order to make sense of things. Many of my friends know me as a ball of seemingly boundless energy. This is an incredible blessing, but also very easy to waste that energy in the wrong relationships, activities and environments. When I wasn't out indulging in attractive vices and distractions, I was often burnt out, unhappy, unfulfilled and frustrated with myself behind the scenes. By giving myself time to recover - (i) moving into my own physical space, (ii) not pursuing any new relationships to replace old ones, (iii) meditating and prioritizing quiet time to myself - I finally feel like my energy is active and used efficiently in positive space, supported by the negative space I'm giving myself.