The big design problem? Designing your life.

I’m deep in the throes of reading two books by one of my favorite authors. Before I tell you who it is, I want to include an excerpt from one of the books:

“I’m a welter of insecurities. I’m insecure about not understanding what the next person does, about not being as smart os the people listening to me, about teaching in schools that I could never get into, about running conferences where everybody is sharper and faster than I am.

When I was a child, I once saw someone in a wheelchair. My mother told me that the person in the wheelchair had been in an accident and would recover, but would need to learn to walk again. That was a revelation to me because it seemd that once we’d learned to walk, that we’d always know how to walk.

The notion of learning to walk has lingered in my mind, and I’ve contemplated the process of teaching someone to walk again.  I realized that this process has a lot to do with thrusting a leg out into the terror of losing your balance, then regaining your equilibrium, moving you forward, then repeating with your other leg.  Failure as loss of balance, the success of equilibrium, and you move forward. Terror of falling, confidence, regaining your balance–it’s a fascinating metaphor for life.  Risk is half of the process of moving forward.  The risk of failing is inherent in achieving a goal.  

My life has been marked by a continual series of failures, interspersed with successes. I am grateful for my failures–because of them I had nothing to lose, and could indulge my interests with occasional crucial successes, as well as more failures so I was able to design my life.  By designing my life, I have been able to choose the projects I have worked on for my entire life.”

This quote is from Richard Saul Wurman, an architect, designer, author, teacher, and project “do-er.” His work lies in the field of understanding; of making information readily understandable to others. You may recognize some of his accomplishments: he wrote the books Information Anxiety and Information Architects and founded the term “information architect.” In 1996, he created and chaired the first TED conferences (Technology/Entertainment/Design), and he chaired the conferences from 1996-2002. He has written 81 different books and he has taught at several schools, from Cambridge University to Princeton to UCLA.  When remarking on his teaching, he notes:

“My opening line to my students, and a recurring theme in my classes, was that the big design problem isn’t designing a house for your parents or yourself, a museum, or a toaster, or a book, or whatever.  The big design problem is designing your life. It’s by the design of your life that you create the backboard off which you bounce all your thoughts and ideas and creativity.  You have to decide what it is that you want to do each day.”

– Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety 2, Published 2000. 

 This is a great reminder, worth posting. The books are worth reading, too.

You have to decide what it is that you want to do each day. 

13 Responses to The big design problem? Designing your life.

  1. Srinivas says:

    This is probably my favorite thing I’ve read today. WE don’t spend nearly enough time designing our lives as we do just going through the motions. The only thing I’ll say is this. You can’t paint a masterpiece on a cluttered canvas (which coincidentally is going to be the title for my next blog post. )

    • Sarah says:

      Srini, I love your comments!! You make me such a happy blogger. I have a whole bunch of stuff I’ve been reading that I want to share – such good stuff.

  2. eliza says:

    From my dance and yoga teachers: Walking is falling. Falling forward and catching yourself.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, yes! Love this. Ahhh I wish I had studied dance. I feel like I inadvertently studied movement through swimming and other activities. I am going to dance more, though :) — you inspire me.

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  6. thatguylam says:

    Thanks for posting this, I came across it as the top of your top picks to read when I subscribed. The life-design concept is so instantly Tweet-able… Writer Don Miller (donmilleris.com) calls it brainstorming your life, or something like that.

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