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Most lives are lived by default

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Jamie lives in a large city in the midwest. He’s a copywriter for an advertising firm, and he’s good at it.

He’s also good at thinking of reasons why he ought to be happy with his life. He has health insurance, and now savings. A lot of his friends have neither. His girlfriend is pretty. They never fight. His boss has a sense of humor, doesn’t micromanage, and lets him go early most Fridays.

On most of those Fridays, including this one, instead of taking the train back to his suburban side-by-side, he walks to a downtown pub to meet his friends. He will have four beers. His friends always stay longer.

Jamie’s girlfriend Linda typically arrives on his third beer. She greets them all with polite hugs, Jamie with a kiss. He orders his final beer when she orders her only one. They take a taxi home, make dinner together, and watch a movie on Netflix. When it’s over they start a second one and don’t finish it. They have sex, then she goes to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she returns, he goes.

There was never a day Jamie sat down and decided to be a copywriter living in the midwest. A pair of lawyers at his ex-girlfriend’s firm took him out one night when he was freshly laid-off from writing for a tech magazine, bought him a hundred dollars worth of drinks and gave him the business card of his current boss. It was a great night. That was nine years ago.

His friends are from his old job. White collar, artsy and smart. If one of the five of them is missing at the pub on Friday, they’ll have lunch during the week.

Jamie isn’t unhappy. He’s bored, but doesn’t quite realize it. As he gets older his boredom is turning to fear. He has no health problems but he thinks about them all the time. Cancer. Arthritis. Alzheimer’s. He’s thirty-eight, fit, has no plans for children, and when he really thinks about the course of his life he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, except on Fridays.

In two months he and Linda are going to Cuba for ten days. He’s looking forward to that right now.


A few weeks ago I asked everyone reading to share their biggest problem in life in the comment section. I’ve done this before — ask about what’s going on with you — and every time I do I notice two things.

The first thing is that everyone has considerable problems. Not simply occasional tough spots, but the type of issue that persists for years or decades. The kind that becomes a theme in life, that feels like part of your identity. By the sounds of it, it’s typical among human beings to feel like something huge is missing.

The other thing is that they tend to be one of the same few problems: lack of human connection, lack of personal freedom (due to money or family situations), lack of confidence or self-esteem, or lack of self-control.

The day-to-day feel and quality of each of our lives sits on a few major structures: where we live, what we do for a living, what we do with ourselves when we’re not at work, and which people we spend most of our time with. 

Making a major change in just one of these areas will necessarily make a major change in the feel and quality of your day-to-day life. It simply can’t stay the same.

Stay in the same city, but start hanging out with a completely different crowd, and life will change significantly. You will change. Stay in the same career but move cities, and your life also will change in a major way.

It might get better, or it might get worse. You don’t know until the change is made. This uncertainty is enough to keep most people from bothering.

But they should bother, as a rule. Day to day life is more likely to get better than worse, because a deliberate change gives you a chance to see if your new situation resonates with you or not, and gives you a second angle of the old one. If the new situation does resonate, then you’re closer to finding what’s right for you, what’s optimal for your sense of well-being.

If it doesn’t resonate with you, then you have more perspective about what it is that you already do that you like so much. Your values become clearer, and you gravitate toward them more strongly. If you leave the countryside for the city and hate it, then you’ve definitely learned more about what it is about the countryside that really does something for you. That’s progress. That’s getting closer to what you want.

Living with the die roll

For Jamie, and for most of us, those four major structures were not decided consciously. The career you end up working in depends chiefly on what you saw as options when you were just starting to enter the workforce. That was a very narrow period of time, during which you were only aware of a limited number of options. You went with whatever made sense at that time. The result — what you do today — is more or less happenstance.

Friends too, are mostly in our lives as defaults. Most of us have found some incredible and inspiring people just by letting happenstance deliver them, but once we have some stable friendships we become complacent and stop actively looking for friends that really resonate with our values and interests, if we ever did at all.

Where you live is even more random, more difficult to change, and it may have the greatest effect of all the structures, because it determines the rest. You were born somewhere. If you moved, it was probably for work or for a relationship. A minority of people do move to a particular city because they think they’ll be happier there than anywhere else. They are seeking the optimum place to live for their values, or at least close to it. But most of us become too established in one place to seriously consider moving once we hit 30.

Friends, location and career tend to define the other one: what you do with your time. Your habits and your hobbies. Your routines, your typical saturday night activities, your wardrobe, your pursuits and personal projects are all suggested by (and constrained by) what your defaults are in the other categories. If you happened to grow up in Nebraska, you probably don’t surf. But surfing might just be the thing that really would turn your crank like nothing else, if you were lucky enough to discover that.

So much of our lives consists of conditions we’ve fallen into. We gravitate unwittingly to what works in the short term, in terms of what to do for work and what crowd to run with. There’s nothing wrong with living from defaults, necessarily, but think about it: what are the odds that the defaults delivered to you by happenstance are anywhere close to what’s really optimal for you?

In other words, we seldom consciously decide how we’re going to live our lives. We just end up living certain ways.

In all likelihood, what you’ve inherited is nowhere near what’s best for you. Chances are very slight that there isn’t a drastically better neighborhood for you out there, a more kindred circle of peers, a much better line of work, and a much more rewarding way to go about your day than the way you do. Your level of fulfillment and sense of peace with the world depend on how well-matched your values are to the life you’re actually living. There’s no reason to believe they’ll match well by accident.

The most natural-feeling course for your life is to do what you’re accustomed to doing, live where you’re accustomed to living, seek what you’re accustomed to seeking. So be careful. I’m convinced that all of my major problems — and many of the problems in the comment section of the What’s your problem post — are due to going with the defaults, either too afraid or too oblivious to make major changes to them.

As a culture, we do a whole lot of maintaining, rationalizing, procrastinating and reinforcing, and not very much thinking about what’s really best for us and the drastic changes we might need to make to get there.

So what does this mean? It means if you’re a normal person you can expect that a lot of categories of your life are set up in highly inefficient ways, by default. Certain areas of life could be all wrong for you and you have no idea how good it could be on other side of the fence. It also means that wherever you recognize a persistent source of grief in your life, there is probably a different way to set up your life that could eliminate it or greatly reduce it. It could be a major change, like ending your marriage, or it could just be moving to a different neighborhood in the same city.

Major changes are intimidating, but think about it — most of the time when you hear somebody talk about making a major change in their life, like changing cities or careers, a year later they’ll say it put them in a far better place. They tell you they don’t know how they lived before.

That’s a feeling worth seeking out. That specific feeling — which comes in the wake of a major change — of wondering how you ever got along before.

The bottom lines, if I haven’t been clear:

It is typical in human lives to feel like something huge is missing or unsettled.

It is typical for the major aspects of a human life (career, friends, habits and home) to be decided by happenstance, and not consciously.

The feeling of something huge being missing is probably often due to a serious mismatch between what you currently have in one of those aspects, and what is best for you in one of those aspects.

Making conscious changes to the aspects of life you’ve accepted by default can result in dramatic and immediate changes to quality of life.

Few people do this. Few people make a deliberate quest out of finding their perfect city or neighborhood, of seeking out their truly like-minded. Most of us live seventy or eighty years defending what we’ve been given, because we think it’s who we are.

At any given time, the prospect of a major change will tend to seem out of the question. This is because you believe you are what you’ve been doing this whole time. From the other side of a major change, the thought of continuing  with the way things were will seem absurd.

But identity is fluid. You’ve been becoming a different person this whole time, and after making a dramatic change, you might find you’re more yourself than you’ve ever been.


Photo by Fabio Bruna

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Karen July 16, 2012 at 2:32 am

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. Mark Twain.

Rodspeed April 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I will explore, dream and discover. But how exactly do I mark twain???

Jane May 5, 2013 at 11:45 am

“But how exactly do I mark twain???”

haha thx for the few chuckles first thing this morning.

Her Every Cent Counts July 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm

You write Twain down. Everyday.

soumya bhatt May 21, 2013 at 11:27 pm

Karen- totally agree, Rodspeed- hahahahahahahaha thats so funny man!!

Phil November 1, 2013 at 8:44 am

Actually one can “mark twain” – ensure your Mississippi steamboat is in at least twelve feet of water – then use a weighted line marked in fathoms (of 6 feet each) to verify (mark) that you have at two (twain) of them beneath you. You are now have enough water to set sail. This is where Samuel Clemens got the name.

S-R June 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Oh My Word. I have never laughed so hard from a series of comments on any post before in my life.

I will definitely endeavour to “mark twain”.


malena November 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm

mark twain your blues away x)

Maia July 16, 2012 at 3:47 am

Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. ~ Rumi

I love this quote, from Rumi, but yes it is easier said then done.
From my own experience whenever I have got bored and decided to make a massive change, it definitely enriched my life in the fact that it was something new and exciting it made me learn more about myself and the new project I was pursuing, even if it went wrong I still grew from it. Eventually that crazy change I made became the norm again and I got bored again and so I guess we have to keep making changes because eventually everything will become normal and as you say David we have to keep challenging ourselves constantly, seeking out new things to do, hobbies, friends, projects, moving jobs and even changing careers.

David July 16, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I love that two of the first three comments to this post contained Rumi quotes. I love Rumi quotes.

I guess it does amount to perpetually challenging yourself. I spent my first 28 years avoiding everything challenging.

C.J July 17, 2012 at 6:16 am

oh.. I thought we were supposed to be quoting Rumi? haha just kidding. They are just so perfect.

After reading the comments in your last post about ‘what were our problems?’ I asked myself, what would I be doing if I wasn’t so fearful of everything? So I finally stopped thinking about starting my own business to actually doing it in the last couple of weeks. Feels so good. It’s a good question to ask yourself when you hesitate doing anything. “If you weren’t scared, what would you do?” Cheers David

josh December 6, 2012 at 8:48 pm


What business are you starting? Congrats on taking the first step. Things will happen faster than you ever imagined if you keep focused and work hard. Best of luck. Hard smart work will pay off.

C.J July 16, 2012 at 3:57 am

Why do you stay in prison
When the door is so wide open?” Rumi

Vilx- July 16, 2012 at 4:13 am

And what if you recognize that the “big change” you’d like to make would actually be very painful to someone you love? It’s not all that hard to figure out what you would like best for yourself. That’s egoism. It comes naturally, if we let it to. But it tends to hurt people around you. The hard part is to arrange it all so that not only *you* are happier, but also the people whom you care about.

David July 16, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Can you give an example?

Vilx- July 17, 2012 at 8:54 am

You already gave a good one yourself – “getting rid of your spouse”. I can hardly imagine a way to hurt someone more, if they really loved you. OK, so if you want to dump her, I guess that means you don’t love her anymore, but unless you’ve both gotten into a feud with each other, most of the time you will still care for her and won’t want to hurt her.

But there are smaller examples as well. Spending weekends with your friends and ignoring your wife’s pleas for a day together. Buying a cat even though you know that your mother is horribly allergic and won’t be able to visit you anymore (and hence saddening her greatly). Constantly breaking promises to your child because it’s easier for you. Starting your own little company and spending all your spare time for it, leaving none for your family. Etc.

All these are cases which seem to be pretty normal rational choices at the time, but only later do you realize how much you have actually hurt someone, because you were so focused on things that YOU wanted, that you didn’t hear what they were telling you.

Steve Jobs hired an autobiographer to write his life story, so that his children would get to know their father. He pursued his dreams as successfully as anyone could wish for, but somehow, it makes me cry every time I think about it.

Generic Male December 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Had two friends, X and Y. They were a nice couple. They seemed to be growing apart but it was obvious to me that they still cared deeply about each other (more than I ever have for any of my previous partners).

When a breakup seemed imminent Y was forced to move to another city for work. The X followed, not expecting the relationship to last much longer. X figured that helping Y set up in a new city would be the right thing to do and didn’t expect much past that.

I saw both of them a few weeks after the move. X and Y were telling me about the great restaurants in the new city and some of the new people they had met in their building. They seemed happy, really happy.

Something was different. The distance I’d seen slowly growing between them in the previous months was gone. It felt to me almost as if these two people had only met a few weeks ago.

In any case, you can see what I’m getting at. There was nothing wrong with them at all. They both needed a life changing experience, on in which they shared.

By this, I’m not suggesting that this is true in all cases. Simply that sometimes the answer isn’t obvious until you make a change.

TL;DR: Two people in love, about to breakup, unexpectedly renewed relationship by moving city.

Sri December 7, 2012 at 8:05 am

This is exactly what was going through my mind when i read this article. Getting rid of your spouse is not a reversible chnage like moving from the countryside to the city.

The smaller examples you have mentioned are all reversible. you can make a conscious effort and spend your weekend with your family or get rid of your cat. But how is it alright to abandon the loved ones (spouse and kids) and seek your own happiness? And is it even possible to be happy after that no matter what you do?

Vilx- July 19, 2012 at 7:38 am

Either I said something stupid/trollish or something smart. :/ Neither was intended though. Would it be much to ask for your thoughts on this?

David July 20, 2012 at 7:04 am

Obviously whatever you choose to do would be done with intelligence and compassion. “Getting rid of your spouse” is a flippant way of saying to get a divorce if you know it’s the right thing to do. For many people it is.

I think a lot of people get stuck because they are afraid to hurt their families by doing what they really want. If your family would never accept you being an actor, but acting is the thing that really makes you feel alive, what is the right thing to do? To me it’s obvious.

Vilx- July 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Well… I guess that’s one way to look at it. But I also find it difficult to accept that for myself. Everybody’s unique, just like everyone else. :P Anyways, got some more food for thought. Thanks for that! :)

P.S. Are you open for discussions of questions such as this? In email, of course. I’m often thinking that I’d like to bounce my thoughts off of someone, and you’d be a good person to do that, I think. But then you probably get a lot of mail already, and I don’t know if it’s interesting for you at all.

Eddy December 7, 2012 at 8:55 am

>>To me it’s obvious.
You are selfish here. It’s human nature to be selfish.

But a human can go beyond his nature.
He/she can understand that there is more to life than being happy yourself. You can make other people happy.

To give and example, most action movies are about saving an animal, a loved one, the world. Giving your life for someone or something.

Enough said.

Mark December 10, 2012 at 10:57 am

My goodness. I’m shocked by your selfishness David.

Mark December 10, 2012 at 10:59 am

And your tagline is ‘getting better at being human.’ Ironic

Hawk December 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I feel like the discussion around Ayn Rand’s work might be informative.

Also, zero sum games.

Jeannette November 5, 2013 at 11:54 am

Those were also my thoughts as I read this article but you expressed perfectly. My husband had what most people would call a ‘midlife crisis’ and up and left one day, out of the blue, after a seemingly wonderful marriage. From what I gather he’d had felt this ‘unsettled’ feeling for a while and kept wanting to find the ‘reason’ – which he concluded was his marriage. He will keep running and will likely never find ‘happiness’ as this feeling comes from within, not from surfboards, shiny cars, another woman, moving to another home, etc. I could go on forever…

Trisha Rainsford July 16, 2012 at 4:20 am

I think the source of most of our discontent – which oddly is more widespread in affluent countries – is because we look inward instead of out. We are taught to believe that serving ourselves will make us happy and that really isn’t true – as Mahatma Gandhi said – ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ Even your character, Jamie, as he assesses his life only looks at what he can get and not what he can give – and he is a pretty nice, undemanding guy. But to me that would explain his feelings of discontent and boredom.
But I do think if we engage our brains in the processes of our lives as you suggest and not just go with our adaptive, instinctual ways of living we will also discover that part of developing ourselves, becoming truly who we are and getting fulfillment is finding ways to be of service – even in small ways – to others.
The other issue that creates our discontent is our deeply rooted adaptive fear of change. It stands to reason that survival will seem to be best served by staying in familiar surroundings. This may not be true but our poor old unconscious is just trying to keep us alive – which is why we need to do a bit of thinking.
This lack of willingness to accept change has created in us an illusion of control We think we can stop change and the truth is – we can’t. Even if we never move anywhere or change our careers or lives everything about us is actually changing all the time.
I hate to self refer but this comment is long enough (!) so –
Thanks for the provoking of thought.

Mersaul4 April 17, 2013 at 9:38 am

Liked your comment, Trisha. I think you suggest something totally different then what most comments discuss here. I also believe in diverting your attention away from yourself. Most of the comments seem quite self-centerred. I wonder if people are searching in the wrong place by constantly thinking about themselves and trying to figure out how THEY can become HAPPY.

DiscoveredJoys July 16, 2012 at 4:35 am

A very powerful piece of writing.

I think there are two psychological quirks which influence people, some people more than others:
1) The Concord Fallacy: Because you have spent so much (time/money/emotion) so far on producing something you are reluctant to stop ‘investing’ even though the end product is no longer desirable.
2) The aversion to losing what you already have is much stronger than passing up the opportunity to have something of equal value that you don’t yet possess.

To be fair there is much more perceived pressure to stick with the comfortable and avoid risk when you have a family to support. But once the children have grown up and left…

David July 20, 2012 at 7:04 am

Thanks for articulating these quirks. Glad to know they have names — they seem to pop up in my head a lot.

Cap-Scarlet July 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Very interesting.

“2) The aversion to losing what you already have is much stronger than passing up the opportunity to have something of equal value that you don’t yet possess.” is very close to matching my situation.

I wonder how many people are in my position which is in a very highly paid job but feeling somehow helpless and shackled.

There are two urges:

1. Throw it all in and go and do something interesting for much less money; and
2. Continue to slug it out until thereis enough money (…and how much is enough?) to quit.

So the thinking then focuses on the “equal value”. when I first read the statement I (like probably many others) interpreted that as money value. But thinking it through I now have the feeling that actually its equivalent value i.e. the comparison of time versus cash value. I feel the scale slowly tipping towards that which I do not have.

michael July 16, 2012 at 7:22 am


Goddam good piece of writing.

Colleen July 16, 2012 at 7:40 am

Wow David, have you been lurking in my brain??!!

David July 16, 2012 at 9:37 pm


Da Young July 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

David, your articles are so liberating. I have a question, though: do you think that there is a point in someone’s life when the searching is over? When life is just right and all aspects of life are at their optimum? I feel that searching for and working towards the optimum, rather than the optimal state itself, is the best part. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us once again!

Vilx- July 16, 2012 at 10:06 am

Indeed, this resonates with a question I’ve been thinking about for some time already, but only now did I fully verbalize it. It seems that there is a lot of advice around on how to “get out the door” and “get going” and “find your path”, etc. But has anyone ever asked the question – “so, what’s my destination?” Because without a destination in mind, any “going” is really just aimlessly wandering around. Sure, you might come across some neat places while at it, but if you don’t settle, if you never stop wandering – what’s the point of it? And will you really be happy, never having found your place?

Chris Walter July 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm

This is something I think about a lot as well. And all I’ve come up with is that there must be a sort of dichotomy we have to live. On one side we have to love and accept who we are right now and on the other we have to constantly be changing, critiquing and suffering.

But by accepting that dichotomy of life we can be happier now and in the future.

Saul July 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

There are two ways of navigating: one is to choose a good destination and plot a course to get there, and the other is to choose a good direction and start heading that way.

When I choose a destination, somewhere along the way I almost always realize that the destination isn’t what I thought it would be, or isn’t what I actually want after all. But when I choose a direction, I’m happier with wherever I stop along the way, because the direction itself was a good choice given the information I had at the time. And along the way, I can steer more effectively than if I’m beholden to a destination some past-self of mine chose for me.

Sri December 7, 2012 at 8:20 am

but isn’t this ‘going’ the important part? in the process you discover and rediscover ……. what do you think?

David July 16, 2012 at 9:39 pm

I’d say no. Reaching optimum isn’t really the point… “optimum” is more of a theoretical direction than an actual possibility. If somebody does reach a state in which they feel nothing missing, they probably ought to stay there ;)

Marie July 16, 2012 at 8:58 am

I don’t think it’s that I get bored. I mean, yes, everyone gets bored but I think it goes beyond that.

When looking from the outside in, many people remark at what an exciting life I have. I agree, I do have an exciting life. I used to think I was bored; I’m not, I just always want more. It’s not that what I have isn’t enough, it’s just that there’s so much to learn. I appreciate most moments I have, and whatever I’m doing I’m usually right there in the moment remarking, “Can you believe this?” or “This is fantastic”.

I appreciate who I am right now and who I’m becoming. I appreciate my friends and family. But I want more. Sometimes I think I’m being selfish, especially when people (particularly people at the office, acquaintances or family) say – “wow I wish my life was that exiting”, “I wish I had time for that”, “I wish I could be young and irresponsible again”, or “where/what are you off/up to now?”. Sometimes the comments are genuine, most of the time I feel looked down on. Going for what you want or anywhere remotely against the grain is hard enough. What you don’t need is people making you feel crazy when you already feel like you’re out on a limb and a little nuts yourself.

I realize that a lot of the comments I receive are people projecting their negative feelings on me. Demeaning someone else’s lifestyle helps them to justify their own. From the time we were born onto this Earth until the time we die, there are certain social norms that we are force fed. Shedding them off is liberating but also very scary. You can’t help but hear this tiny voice in the back of your head saying, “Maybe you should settle down”. or “Is it ever going to be enough?”

No, it’s not ever going to be enough. And I think I’m almost OK with that. I crave new experiences; they help me grow. It doesn’t always have to be earth shattering and sometimes it does. It could be as simple as going on a weekend trip away or as complex as switching careers, moving or starting a new romance. That’s what makes me, me – a collection of experiences. They teach me, humble me, inspire me, scare me, change me.

The older you get the harder it is to leave the life you’ve built…but it will only get harder with more time. Welcome change, large and small.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marie July 16, 2012 at 10:08 am

Wow. Thank you to those who quoted Rumi and prompted me to look him up.

“Two there are who are never satisfied — the lover of the world and the lover of knowledge.”

David July 16, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Rumi is solid gold, through and through. Also see Hafiz.

Yazoo July 26, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Hey Marie,

That was a great comment. Thanks for the insight on a life well-lived!

And sometimes I question people’s sanity when they project negative feelings onto you for being happy. How do they not have self-awareness?

I’m impressed at your ability to disregard how others view you, and live your life your own way.

Joy July 16, 2012 at 9:33 am

This stands out to me: “So much of our lives consists of conditions we’ve fallen into.” I continue to make a conscious effort to be most present in the moment and allow the practice of unfolding to guide me to new and different experiences daily. For a while, I shunned routine, thinking it would lead to auto-pilot, but I like the structure that a “loose routine” brings to my life, so I integrated it back in.

I think your last sentence is the “answer” so many people are looking for, and a wonderful affirmation of life: “You’ve been becoming a different person this whole time, and after making a dramatic change, you might find you’re more yourself than you’ve ever been.”

Thank you :)

Penny July 16, 2012 at 10:13 am

I didn’t respond publicly to your question asking what our/my biggest problem is. It seemed like it would take too much space to figure it all out and write it succinctly! I did read the article several times, reflecting on my own thoughts as well as those who wrote here and felt a kinship, a one-ness with those who managed to get it all down in a million words or less!

Recently I read another story of a man who, while on a journey where he bacame hungry and thirsty, purchased what he thought was a basket of juicy fruit. Later in his journey he bit into one and discovered he had mistakenly bought a basket of hot peppers which he began to eat anyway. Someone saw him eating the peppers, tears streaming down his face, and he answered that he was eating his money…he had too much invested to back out of it.

I make a practice of reminding myself that, when I invest (money, time, energy) in something, I am also paying for the priviledge of backing out, changing my mind, tossing the item, and to count that as an investment towards the lesson learned. There is a lot of freedom gained with the ability to be able to say, “Oops!, wtf was I thinking!?”, have a good laugh or two (OK, maybe after the tears and a glass of wine…) and carry on.

I hope that I can recognize when I begin to identify with my fears or circumstances is such a way that I give up my freedom. A meditation practice helps with this. With the practice I learn to watch my thougths, perhaps recognizing patterns and taking a look at them. There is an opportunity with every breath to re-evaluate what I am doing, what I am thinking, and change it if I need to, or live with it consciously.

Thank you for this and all the opportunities you give us to stop and think. Thank you for facilitating the “community” which has grown up around your blog. You are a good and thoughtful person, David, curious…We could use more like you.

Sheila July 16, 2012 at 10:31 am

David, I have no words! Thanks, thanks, thanks!!

a. julie July 16, 2012 at 10:38 am

I’m starting over all at once, for the second time in two years, and the starting over sucks. New people, new place, new degree, hopefully a new career to follow (but it’s an MFA in visual arts, so let’s be realistic). Applying was based on a good fit with the program. Choosing the one to attend was based on the people. At least I have that going for me.

Already I have a good sense of how to create balance in my life, and have a few specific things that I especially enjoy. So hopefully this all works out. My biggest concern, once the degree is over, is finding work that I truly enjoy. But starting over is really, really hard. And it’ll be three new starts in four years.

Louise@The Intentional Workplace July 16, 2012 at 10:53 am


My first time commenting inspired by an excellent post. It would be interesting to know what inspired you to write it. I think it touches on so many deep questions – that too few are willing to ask as they live “life.”

To Trisha’s comment I think it is true that our “angst” often as to do with a cultural focus on the I instead of the We. Certainly, the way we have structured life, particularly in the last generation, leaves too many people isolated and disconnected from the very thing we need as social beings – to belong. But listening to what’s “missing” can also be an inner calling that moves us to a greater sense of satisfaction with our being in the world.
On the other hand, that longing can also be our inability to be in the present moment – fully – with all our feelings.

To Da Young’s point: the “search” is never over. There is a great paradox of living fully in the moment, being present to whatever is – and staying open to our intuitive sense of what is next for us – that requires a fine tuned inner awareness.

At the bottom of it all is fear. Fear’s the great driver. Boredom, complacency, distraction, dissatisfaction, aversion to change – fear’s always holding everything in place, maintaining its grip. Changing our relationship to fear’s the key.

Thanks for a rich piece of writing that many people will appreciate.

Ani July 16, 2012 at 12:39 pm

On one hand change (good or bad) will undoubtedly bring upon growth. I suppose I take this to be a theorum. And I suppose it would be reasonable to assume that growth can only lead to self-betterment. Then again, there is that saying that ignorance is bliss, but let’s suspend that for now. In essence change leads to growth, which leads to more knowing, which leads to a more authentic self. Moral of the equation, seek out change!

One question that arises is: Does your physical environment have to actively and consciously change or can your inward perspective constantly change which leads to continual renewel or tweaking of an established environment? I think the latter is more realistic and certainly helps to maintain security which is an important psychological need. A life in which security is constantly pitted against exciting change (or possibility of) seems awfully stressful and only temporarily gratifying.

I think if you are deeply dissatisfied with an aspect of your life in which you feel like your authentic self is being pommeled or oppressed, instead of challenged, then maybe a big super-duper conscious change is called for.

I refer to an established environment because I do think that at some point it is desirable to lay down roots, and reach a point of “settling”. To reach a point of contentment is to settle, and to be happy I think one must set their bar and strive and grasp beyond it by using their personal bar as a stable rung from which to pivot. How you decide to pivot is personal and can happen in an endless number of ways. I consider reading this blog and thinking and replying to its entries pivoting.

I am not sure how to respond to the notion that most of our lives have been cobbled together by happenstance. I think things happen to us, and opportunities that present themselves can be limiting or limitless depending on our exposure and environments, but to who and to what we gravitate and how much we get from any experiences will always reflect our level of naivety. I guess it would be like swimming in a pool versus in an ocean. The satisfaction of swimming is easily achieved in both, even if one seems way more exciting and complex, it is merely a distraction from the goal. If change/growth/happiness is our mandate, then it is as omnipresent as our will to seek it out…any place, any time.

I now must reflect about this entry again and my response to it, as I may revise or entirely diasgree with everything I’ve said in about 5 minutes.

GoodGravyBoat July 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Change is challenege, and challenge is exciting…even when we don’t conquer the quest. I love the notion of identity being fluid, thank you for that seed.

Ben Banks July 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Great insight on this post. The fact you narrowed down four areas where we derive our contentment or listlessness from is spot on. Any change in those areas can create the momentum to do more with your life.

Julie July 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Thank you.

Steph in Berkeley July 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm

there’s a lot of merit in this argument for essentially living on purpose. the drastic changes, for some like myself, however, have been so numerous throughout our lives that it has become a default pattern in itself…the changes have sometimes been brave ones made for the right reasons, but at times i was merely running away, though i didn’t realize it at the time. so increasingly i find myself confused about whether to continue in a situation or relationship or locale, etc; or whether to make another change…because i have had to fight to develop some semblance of stability.

so it can be more complicated for some, this business about effecting change…i agree that the fulfillment we long for is more likely to be found through conscious effort and a willingness to incite change where and when it counts. it just can be difficult to know when it’s best.

kitschculture July 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm

A friend of mine told me that I was running away when I moved cross-country and later to Europe. And you know, maybe I was running away. In my case though, I came back. I realized that the many of the things that I wasn’t confronting were the things I should have just cut out of my life to begin with. And the things that I should have confronted but couldn’t at the time were now much easier for me to deal with.

It’s true that you can’t run away indefinitely, but just realizing that there was something you were running from is the begging of the trek towards confronting that issue. I’d also add that choosing change in a conscious manner is also a step towards moving from running away to choosing a different path.

I don’t know you at all, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you weren’t sure what to do when you were running away at the time, but would know instinctively what to do in that same situation now. Maybe I guessed right, maybe not? However, I would at least examine the positive aspects of your choices – you might gain a lot of insight into yourself than looking at it from the singular negative perspective that you just did.

David July 17, 2012 at 7:07 am

There is a difference between running away from something and moving towards something. It’s really all about identifying the incentives. I think a lot of the time when we do something we aren’t necessarily clear on what exactly we’re trying to change.

kitschculture July 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Great job Dave. Another instant classic to add to Essential Raptitude.

This got me to thinking about why people are so afraid of change. One of the reasons I think is nostalgia that we have about going back to the way things were before changes were instituted. However, I think another more fundamental reason is the fact that we’ve all been through changes we didn’t want to happen.

I think we can all relate to a time when we were fundamentally shaken by an event we had no control over. I think we’re afraid of change for this very reason – there have been many instances of it being for the worse.

What we really need to remember is that we have much more better chance of being happy with change when we make the choice. It’s fundamentally different when we’re making that choice than when somebody makes it for us. When put into that perspective, I don’t think change is nearly as scary.

eliotlake July 16, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Holy Christmas this font is small. How in the name of Samsonite am I supposed to read it?!

David July 17, 2012 at 7:09 am

You can adjust the settings in your browser. You may have accidentally zoomed out if you’re on a laptop with a touchpad.

manishabhise July 17, 2012 at 12:03 am

I took the usual train, strap-hanged my way to work and did a mental victory hoop when I managed to swipe my card at 930am sharp as I eased myself behind my desktop..I opened my office mail and my personal inbox simultaneously (this is not always the order of events on a typical work day). I saw this link sent by my sister..again this was a detour from the routine..I generally don’t open links then and there..I save extra-curricular reading for a slightly less hurried time of the work day or during the lunch hour (like all consentious employees :) well..so I opened this link and started reading..and couldn’t hold back my tears..it was so spontaneous..so beautifully articulated..so much of me out there…It is heartening to know that there are scores of us out there all over the world trying to deal with self-created ‘problems’, trying to sort ourselves out all the time and getting stressed by the exercise to the point of burn-out…guess we need to be pro-active in ‘tuning-up’ our lives by hitting the right chords and orchestrate our own inner fulfilment..why would anyone stop us from getting there other than our ownself..? honestly, who else would be as interested or even care a damn?

David July 17, 2012 at 7:14 am

>guess we need to be pro-active in ‘tuning-up’ our lives by hitting the right chords and orchestrate our own inner fulfilment..why would anyone stop us from getting there other than our ownself..? honestly, who else would be as interested or even care a damn?

This is worth repeating. Our own lives are so huge to us, so much bigger than they are to anyone else. Nobody else really gets a look inside, and so we need to be our own caretakers.

RJ Hill July 17, 2012 at 8:30 am

Thank you for the thought-provoking post! We’re creatures surrounded and bombarded by constant change yet terrified of how it threatens our illusion of control and our addiction to insulated comfort.

I’m always terrified before I make a big change (and sometimes with the tiny ones), but I never regret it-and usually feel a surge or relief and personal power as soon as I do. Just like water, we’ve got to keep flowing-it feels so much better than stagnating.

michael platania July 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I read on another blog about a book (http://fullyalivebook.com/) that comes from the premise the only way to be fully alive is to do the things that are challenging and painful. It is only in this way we truly learn and grow.

I know what I want to do with my life – but I will only get there by walking through the fear. It will be worth it, because I do not want to live my life by default.

Tobi July 18, 2012 at 2:52 am

I was so excited when I read the title. A lot of the things you write about I think people know in some way through their feelings, but they don’t understand because they can’t put it into words. You have a gift of being able to understand why you’re feeling this way, not everyone can do that, I believe that’s why we choose these ‘defaults’.

But as soon as I read the title I got very excited because instantly these feelings I couldn’t quite put into words came up. I knew you were going to clarify it for me, and I was right. People go with the opportunities in front of them, instead of choosing their own. See! Now that you’ve given me this understand I can use words too ^.^

Geets July 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Scariest stuff you have ever written on Raptitude is this David:

“But identity is fluid. You’ve been becoming a different person this whole time, and after making a dramatic change, you might find you’re more yourself than you’ve ever been.”

It’s creeped the hell out of me!

U July 19, 2012 at 7:08 am

Same reason I just stared playing roller derby. I’m more in shape and happier than I’ve ever been.

claudia July 19, 2012 at 9:53 pm

dear david
a few lines sparkled my braincells when reading the post and some comments –
when hearing about people being bored … how is that possible?
being alive and bored? in this world, on this planet?
i seem to be missing the bored-gene … since i can’t even fathom how anyone can be bored in the midst of this beauty and mystery and horrid awfulness life can present (or with-hold).
the other note is on the apparently need to change due to perhaps restlessness? or something else?
a quote (not rumi this time, but some ol’ greek) came to mind:
“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little”.
Voila’ ….
good night and sweet dreams …
and thanks for writing:
“Nulla dies sine linea”
(not a day without a line)

David July 20, 2012 at 6:59 am

Boredom is strange… It’s not really a lack of things to do, it’s a sweeping fear that there is nothing left to do that is worthwhile or won’t be regrettable somehow. That fear becomes an attachment to doing the inconsequential only. The things that matter become the most difficult things to do. That’s how it breaks down for me.

Chelsea July 20, 2012 at 10:09 pm


I quit reading all blogs for a few months and took a break from the internet aside from work related things, and returning to read your blog again was refreshing, inspiring and just wonderful. I’ve met some great people through it in the past and I’m looking forward to meeting more incredible people. I can’t tell you how many times your blog has helped me, has made a significant difference in my life, and this post was GREAT. Every time I think you couldn’t possibly write a better article, you do.

David July 21, 2012 at 10:08 am

Well shucks :)

Teri July 21, 2012 at 1:43 am

I am a 50 year old high school English teacher who lives in Georgia. My dad was career military until I was 21 and we moved.. a lot. I have felt stifled since I moved here in 1983.

I divorced in 1996, raised my children, and then remarried four years ago.

Three months ago I accepted a job offer to teach in Abu Dhabi.

My husband is not going with me due to his obligations here at home, but he is supportive of my decision.

I will fly home Xmas and summers, and my husband will come visit me in the UAE during spring break.

I leave behind grandchildren, a father who is entering the latter stages of Alzheimer’s,and a mother who is increasingly stressed in her caretaker role of my father. I leave behind friends, a comfortable house, a flower garden, and my nine-year-old dog companion. For the next two years I will simply be a transient visitor in my own house.

I am a little scared of taking this leap, but I shall leap and I shall find out what is on the other side of the leap. I refuse to die knowing I never tried to make my dream of teaching overseas come true. I will not live by “default”.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead….

Yazoo July 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Hi Teri!

That’s QUITE the decision, congratulations on being brave enough to go through with it, stepping far out of the comfort zone!

Being in a foreign country on your own is a scary prospect, and is inevitably going to bring some difficulty, but in your toughest hours, remember you can always go back and live in America, with your family, for the rest of your life! Two years is going to fly…

This experience is going to be AMAZING!
Wishing you all the best! ;)
What an inspiration

Joel July 21, 2012 at 5:40 am

David, quick question.

How does one reconcile a message of “live outside the defaults” with something like “introspect and make the most of what you have”? Especially because the later seems to me to be a recurring theme of this blog.

Thanks. :)

David July 21, 2012 at 10:04 am

“Making the most of what you have,” to me, has not meant deciding not to change anything, but rather deciding to make use of my talents and opportunities. Introspection has led me to realize I had gotten complacent with the way my life had become by default. So now it drives me to follow whatever really does move my heart, and that means making conscious changes that often defy the “default” direction my life would otherwise be heading in.

a. July 25, 2012 at 2:39 am

I love the thing about spending thousands at Starbucks. It’s one of those things I do. Maybe I’ll try to change that.

Ruben Nila July 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Excellent article, thank you for iinstruction :D

Aris August 18, 2012 at 2:21 am

I like the blog, and never comment, but am writing because in fact I disagreed with this one. Three things: 1. The lives you describe are really comfortable, and therefore seem boring. But the disatisfaction is a level of the comfort, not the fact of default choices. Taking an active choice in something does not necessarily make you happier – the friends out there, are not necessarily better than the ones you have – relationships will be what you make them. I am a persons who likes change and in some senses has lived a little like this blog recommends. But my husband is not. As I am not prepared to leave him (and my kids) and go to Abu Dhabi, I have to reconcile this. In talking about it, he said to me once, you really like change, you get bored with normality. But his father had become terminally ill when he was 10, died when he was 14, when his mother went into meltdown. His childhood had not been very normal, he associated change with bad things. He really valued ‘boring normal life’ with his kids, because it was the life he had not had.
2. I dont think that having a sense of something missing is really to do with default choices. I dont want to get into a discussion on religion, but it seems to me that a fundamental thing that gives us meaning is a sense of being part of something that is bigger than ourselves. I dont think looking for a new house, job or set of friends – taking on our default choices, will meet that need.
3. It seemed like the blog of a young person. Having kids does not change everything and people can definitely become bored in life with them but it is different in nature. Your three big structures did not include immediate family which are the main reasons that people dont change those structures, rather than being stuck with the default.

alex December 4, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I find this post really interesting. Partly because I agree entirely, but partly because what I see more is the opposite: people always changing their lives expecting that they’ll finally get to where they need to be, and in doing so always looking forward and never appreciating what they have in front of them. I have multiple friends that really struggle with this. They transfered from one college to another expecting that the second would be best and then being horribly disappointed; moved from one city to a next, again disappointment; found new friends, disappointment. There’s this perpetual idea that “If I do this my life will be better” and consequently, they don’t try to ever shift their perspectives about their present situation and be grateful for what they have. I don’t think we needs to seek what works best for us outside of our present life (at least not all the time) – I think what’s more important is to seek what’s good and exciting with what we already have. If not, we’re running through life always wanting more and never stopping to be grateful. What you said about moving from countryside to city really stuck – but once you move, realize that the country was better for you, the most important thing is to go back to the country and learn to appreciate it the same way (and more than) you did when you were away. Maybe what’s missing isn’t something tangible, but a sense of unconditional gratitude.

jastibral January 14, 2013 at 8:20 pm

yes! yes! yes!

Mike December 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

I like your idea and I agree with some aspects of it. However, people who chase the best city to live in, the best job/career to have, the coolest lifestyle are happier than other people.
You are suggesting people don’t settle. Happiness doesn’t come from chasing dreams and living life to the limit. It comes internally. Before you make a change externally, make a conscious effort to become internally happy. That is living the good life.

jastibral January 14, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Exactly agreed! Finding a new or better job, town (city, country side,or whatever), a new friend, a new cool trilling activity, lifestyle: these are all fine and good in there place. But real contentment, excitement, fulfillment, peace and satisfaction come from within; not from the external things.

Colin Morgan December 6, 2012 at 9:22 am

I plan on testing this theory in 2013. I’ll let you know the results ;)

Name * December 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm

That missing feeling or hole in your heart is for YHWH.

Programmer December 6, 2012 at 12:39 pm

It’s been almost one year since I decided to change something. I am working on my own projects and dreaming on my own dreams. But it’s not easy…

Anon December 6, 2012 at 12:39 pm

About a year ago, I found myself struggling with suicidal thoughts. It was because I ended up without friends, no girlfriend and because it was my 3rd year being unemployed. I was 31 years old. My country is still in turmoil. The unemployment rates keep rising, salaries drop like dizzy flies and there are people in this planet who would tell me with a straight face “your happiness is internal”.

I would gladly post a response to them. A year ago.

level09 December 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I totally agree with David, it is actually funny that I have decided to leave to a new city next year, then I get this article that confirms my thoughts ..

Sam December 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Sure, being for ever unsatisfied is a constant of human existence, but does it really signal something is wrong?

If this feeling is truly an inevitable part of life, then changing your work, friends, location or hair color are all as meaningless as our never ending attempts at immortality (giving up smoking, going to the gym, that extra round of chemo they say might buy you a couple of years at best, those extra nights in the lab so that you might do something that people will remember after you are too dead to care).

If we can’t solve this problem, we should focus on the problems we can solve. This restlessness is not the opposite of happiness, and happiness is not the same as fulfillment. I’d argue that you should seek both, sometimes by making changes, but often by knowing when to stick.

So for a decade, you live a life full of change. I know I have – I’ve moved every year for the last ten. Been a grad student, a programmer, a biologist, a sales, and even an unemployed person living in a project. Every time I moved city, job, I lost and made a set of friends. All of these were very rich and different experiences.
And right now, I wish more than anything, that I had stayed with that girl I loved so dearly back at college. That I’d put up with her crap, made it work, made a life with her. We are simple creatures, and beyond this facade of signs and simulacra, medicine and machines, our brains reward us with happiness and full fulfillment when we live in small, tight groups, for a long time, and have children.

You talk about values, and urge us to seek a life that better fulfills them. Maybe there is a happiness in that. But our lives also shape our values. Our friends, the roles we fill, shape what we think good is.
So by choosing the components of our lives, we are also choosing the components of our values. Perhaps we should shape values that are achievable, that are not too abstract or too brief.

Anyway, don’t drop the bird in your hand to scratch a phantom limb.

jastibral January 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Good. Very good!

Lou February 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm

hmm, meaninglessness… sounds like you have had a time of your life being happy and in love. and you’ve faced a lot of change and complexity over the ensuing years, realizing the preciousness of what you once had, wanting to simplify things. Don’t give up! Look for the inspired people around you who desire the same things and have a similar level of experience in life, is one of the main messages of this article.

Erik Johnson December 6, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Interesting thoughts. Inertia is very powerful. Newton’s first law, right? It controls most people’s destinies. I’m working on a project of passion over here: http://www.lifegrid.co. The goal is to stir people up – to visualize their lifetime. Let me know your thoughts!

Voochuk December 6, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Tomorrow is an illusion – there is no change, there is no destination, there is nothing missing – everything that has and will ever be exists in this very moment. Are you living this and every moment to its fullest ? Unlikely, if you are preoccupied with thoughts of what/where I should have been in the past or where/what I should be tomorrow.
Ernest Hemingway –
“So if your life trades seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it.”

jastibral January 14, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Interesting. So whats wrong with being happy, content and excited with what you have and where you are? Nothing. Make things better, or different than they are if and when you can. But don’t lose out on the good that you have now.

Jason December 7, 2012 at 12:35 am

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

That pretty much sums it up for me. Thank God for God, man.

Pete R. December 7, 2012 at 12:43 am

Holy crap, this article is deep! You’ve perfectly illustrated the root of the problem divided it into categories and explained how it all related.

This is one of those article that I will recommend to all human I know to read. Since I live in Asia (Bangkok, Thailand to be precise), these problems can be resonated very quickly for me. Most people here are very conservative. They usually complained about their lives, their work etc. and yet they did nothing to change it. Hopefully this article will encourage them to do something about it. :)

Keep up the great work, David!

Peter December 7, 2012 at 3:46 am

So, basically you are pushing people into the gaping abyss of the uncertainty changes usually imply. Don’t do that. People really like consistency.

Nick Knudson December 7, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Reminds me exactly of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech.

“This is Water” Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8
“This is Water” Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAzbSQqals

Great article.

Tomek October 14, 2013 at 10:03 am

One of my favorite speeches ^_^. The whole thing is available on youtube, though, in one part, if you search “This is Water David wallace”

Steve December 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm

I can’t believe no one has mentioned the concept of “satisfying”. Satisficers choose the first thing that meets their decision making criteria. Satisficers tend to be more happy about their decisions. David didn’t mention that there can be a very high searching cost to find the optimal choice and it is often better to stick with something near optimal.

For example he mentions: “Chances are very slight that there isn’t a drastically better neighborhood for you out there”. That may be true, but my current apartment/neighborhood is pretty good: reasonable rent, biking distance to work, decent space, and quiet neighbors. I’m not willing to go through the huge hassle of moving to a different neighborhood and risk a worse place for a small incremental improvement.

The same thing is true with spouses. In a world of 6 billion people is it likely that there is someone that you would get along better with than your current spouse? Yes. Does that mean you should break up with the one you love to try to find it? No!

Happiness Myth No. 4: You’ll Be Happier If You Insist on “The Best.”

Maximizing is a very NYC attitude:

Celarent December 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I must respectfully disagree with the central premise of this article (and I daresay a lot of cutting edge research into the psychology of happiness and fulfilment backs me up on this score). Unhappiness generally feels as though something is missing. But what is missing is happiness and its not to be found by randomly upending your life and going somewhere unknown (at best that gives you a 50/50 chance the place you end up will be better and not worse than the place you left behind and in any case there is a 100% chance your happiness issues will go with you. There is certainly a good case to be made that we should live more deliberately and not just accept the vicissitudes of fate as our lot, but living deliberately means making choices based on evidence. So to be really happy, one has to first be open to the idea that happiness is possible where and when you find yourself right now (because it is and lots of research can back that up that happiness is in fact a state of mind and not a state of material existence) then find the things that make you most happy in your current life (generally this will be things like spending time with friends and family, spirituality, pursuing passions etc) and then follow those consciously wherever they may lead you. That, I think, is a better prescription for happiness. Change, in and of itself, is not going to make you happier or more fulfilled if it is not directed by real insight into what it is that makes you happy and more fulfilled (and contrary to what we think and believe, happiness and fulfillment are always most inherent in the here and now, they don’t exist in the future or ‘out there somewhere’. I’m paraphrasing, if not directly channeling the Dalai Lama here, his book on the subject ‘The Art of Happiness’ is well worth a read. Forgive me for going on and on.

Wesley December 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I enjoyed the article and I agree that a lot of lives are lived by default but I had the same feeling as @Celarent after reading the article. You shouldn’t have to make drastic external changes to acquire inner fulfilment, self-esteem, etc. Change your mind, change your reality.

Loic Antoine-Gombeaud December 8, 2012 at 12:47 am

To hell with living by default. Love your article. Thanks for voicing it out in words.

Srinivas December 9, 2012 at 9:55 am

“If you happened to grow up in Nebraska, you probably don’t surf. But surfing might just be the thing that really would turn your crank like nothing else, if you were lucky enough to discover that.”

You know there is no way you could write about that and not expect me to comment on that. I went to bschool in Malibu and it took living in Brazil for me to become a surfer. We take so much of the world around us for granted. Many of of the choices because we weren’t given other options. In my manifesto I even said “the lives we lead are the byproduct of prescriptions and formulas that we’ve been force fed.” As far as surfing goes, to say it changed my life would be an understatement. It reignited my ambition, spirit and zest for life. I could write about it for days. I do :)

kt December 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm

i feel lucky, i did manage to consciously decide where to live and what to do. i chose a small, walkable city with most things i want (library, big park, train station, some independent stores), found a flat within walking distance of the key points in my life. and my job came directly from my favourite lectures at uni. but most of this is because i had three months between uni and starting an internship and what felt like real adult life, during which time i realised that i had the ability, now, to chose what ‘real adult life’ as opposed to ‘student lift’ looked like for me. so i did and currently, i’m very happy with it.

Milan December 10, 2012 at 2:17 am

Thanks man =)

opyate December 10, 2012 at 7:41 am

David Foster Wallace also mentioned the default setting of our lives in his Kenyon address: http://moreintelligentlife.co.uk/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

Adam December 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

It’s easy to keep on living life by “default”. In a way we get addicted to our jobs and our lives. There are things we may not like but it generally either takes a lot of courage or a total bottoming out to make any real changes. It’s much easier to stay the course and be mildly unhappy than to wander off into the unknown. After all the unknown could be worse than what we are clinging to.

It seems like when we are mildly (or even majorly unhappy) we do things that tend to keep us right where we are. We’ll drink more than we should at happy hour, eat more and exercise less, buy a bunch of stuff we don’t need because we “deserve it” and get a momentary high from the purchase while adding clutter to our lives and draining out bank accounts. We might even buy a bigger house or get a bigger apartment for all that stuff.

I wandered down that road for quite along time but managed to control those impulses, live on a little more than a shoestring for about 10 years while siting in a cubicle staring and at a computer screen until I could barely drag myself in there each morning. When I turned 36 I quit. It was time for a break. The plan was to go out to Utah and ski for two months. Almost 3 years later I’m still wandering the country, camera in hand exploring the most amazing sights the US, Canada and a few other places have to offer.

I generally get by on between $700 to $1,500 a month, sleep in my car more often than not and wake up in places like Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Zion, The Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park and many other places “in between the airports”. The first time I slept in my car it was when I just started out and I got caught in a snowstorm. I freaked out. Then I discovered if I slept in the car more often than not, I could see and experience a lot more so I got used to it.

By the end of next year, the journey will have gone through all the US National Parks (many multiple times), and most everything in between. The first step is getting your finances under control and making more or spending less. Once you do that you can begin to dream and then go live the dream.

I’m not sure when exactly or where it will end but I’ve already seen and done more in the last three years than most people will in a lifetime. Soon, the hardest thing will be to come up with a bucket list. I’ve already worked my way through a few of them and wandered into places I never knew existed.

There is a (slightly behind) blog that details it all – http://www.SkiAnything.com/ When there is time to take a break from the road, the latest sights and adventures will continue to be posted.

pepa December 25, 2012 at 9:05 am

I dont believe this is true, for me it sounds like a first world problem. Which I believe is true is this saying “grasp all, lose all”. Sorry enjoyed the text but perhaps Jamie would be more fulfilled if he just signed to help others.

Godfrey Wilson January 14, 2013 at 5:10 am

In the deep heart of man is a shrine where none but God is worthy to come. Our woes began when God was forced out of His central shrine and “things” were allowed to enter. Within the human heart “things” have taken over. Men have now by nature no peace within their hearts, for God is crowned there no longer. Jesus referred to this tyranny of things when He said to His disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” – A W Tozer

Palmina March 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm

I liked this piece but I have a little problem with it. I’ve thought a lot about how life is just a random series of happenstances based on where you live, so that much is completely true. Yet, at the risk of sounding like a Marxist, life is also so heavily based on the socioeconomic status you were born into that I can’t help but point out that this article applies to a very specific group of people — that is, people who have the financial freedom to change their situation when they’re unhappy. I’m beginning to think the amount of people who can do that is greatly decreasing all over the world, so, an inspiring article for us economically disadvantaged people would be so much more meaningful.

Lena March 14, 2013 at 2:13 am

Wow. I’ve had these suspicions my whole life. Except I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt out of place in my home town, with my family & the friends I grew up with. A few years ago I moved to a big city & went back to school to study design. My new city felt like home instantly. I have a new circle of like minded friends & a boyfriend who shares my liberal values & passions. When I think about my home town, I get anxious. Like this new life is just a dream & any day now I’ll wake up and have never left.

promovare online March 19, 2013 at 6:03 am

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Victor March 19, 2013 at 10:45 am

As somebody who has moved 9 times in the past 7 years and 12 times in my entire life (I’m currently 27) I’ll have to say that this article does not dig deep enough in terms of human psychology and offers only a surface solution to a set of otherwise obscure, underlying issues. It posits bravery and an appetite for willfulness and change as an antidote for restlessness and fear. Although this sounds good at first, it really turns out to be a case of the grass being greener on the other side, and once the luster of novelty runs out, the grass becomes greener somewhere else.

I find that on a deeper lever, our burning desire for change is simply a desire to escape ourselves. It’s a constant tendency to run away from who we truly are, from the wounds that the past has inflicted on us and from our deep, dark, subconscious selves. I feel that the only way to understand the true nature of this subconsciously lurking wanderlust is through real meditation, self-honesty, self-discovery and introspection. That, or seeing a psychologist.


david teng March 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Its great,and i learned lot! thanks!

Allea April 8, 2013 at 7:01 pm

I recently went through that major change. I was planning on becoming a novelist and artist, what I’d planned on since I was little, What I didn’t realize was that it was my intense curiosity that drove everything I wrote and created. However I SUCKED at math in high-school, but I’d hit a dead-end.

So I tried math and physics and LOVED it!

Now I’m working on huge levels of anxiety that I found hidden around that corner, but I’m happier than I have ever, even if it drives me nuts and makes me angry, it keeps me thinking and growing as a person. I’ve been endlessly out of my comfort zone all year, have cried what seems like a millions times, feel like I’m going to leap out of my skin from panic attacks….

But, believe it or not… I’m happy. :)

Genevieve Hawkins April 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

“Aggressively, we all defend the role we play” The Killers. I liked the quotes by Rumi too…great food for thought in the article and the comments section.
Been there, done that, for change. My life is not lived by default–I couldn’t be more random. Born in Ohio, currently living in Thailand. Got married last year ( a first for me), my husband has never been to America (Something I’d like to change soon). I have a newborn daughter, my second child, after leaving a seven year relationship with my first baby daddy, a man who kept me just comfortable enough to stay in the relationship for so long. He wasn’t abusive in an obvious way, but used what psychologists call gaslighting on a very regular basis–a tactic to keep me off balance and question my own sanity. Enough about that.
Many people do stay in their comfort zone well beyond its usefullness. On the side before the change, there are all sorts of justifications for staying there, almost all based on fear (guilt about doing something to hurt someone else is also a fear based emotion). On the other side of a long term, meaningful change, you look back and can’t believe you stayed in that old life for as long as you did. But there are a lot of points between A and B….the destination should always be the same, which is happiness in this life, in this moment, doing whatever you’re doing, with whomever you’re doing it with, wherever you are. The direction will be different for everyone. A few lucky people (my best friend in Ohio is like this) will travel a bit and realize their happiness is right back in their hometown. But the vast majority will talk about how if they had (money, a girlfriend, a husband, a baby, a big boat) then they would be happy. There’s nothing more annoying than hearing that same old story year after year.
Regarding leaving a spouse for your own happiness but then causing them hurt…it depends on the situation. For me I realized at some point that the personal growth and happiness of me, my baby daddy, and my child was stunted by staying in the relationship. Sometimes when you’re locked into a negative pattern in a relationship, it is bringing you both down, with only one party realizing it. Sometimes that negative can be fixed by a change which both of you go through together, sometimes it can’t. A change of scenery or job might not be enough to change your mind.
These are first world problems, really. Many people in developing nations are much closer to the reality of death, for both better and worse. For better because they are more willing embrace change and see life as a constant flow.For worse because they lack the resources to make meaningful change. Or at least that’s how I see it.
At the end of the day, you can’t take your stuff with you. Your experiences will provide more richness than things. What will provide the most enduring happiness is giving freely to others (time, energy, positive thoughts, encouragment, money, whatever is most needed). That can have a legacy that lasts beyond your life, especially if its given for children. But you have to have it to give it…so in a way, your happiness has to come first. Worrying about anyone else’s is your own thoughts projecting anyways!

Doolittle April 25, 2013 at 3:19 am

Wow, thanks Genevieve. I really needed to see your perspective. It balanced the thought-meal for me.

My mind is satiated.

Jason March 6, 2014 at 5:04 pm

This whole thing is a top first world discussion- really a top half of the first world discussion. The idea that you can just change jobs or cities or relationships without disaster striking implies that you have slack in your life—that if something goes wrong with your change, you can recover. This is simply not true for the vast majority of humans. They’re locked into their lives because of poverty, not fear.

Yuna May 10, 2013 at 12:59 am

“…a deliberate change gives you a chance to see if your new situation resonates with you or not, and gives you a second angle of the old one. If the new situation does resonate, then you’re closer to finding what’s right for you, what’s optimal for your sense of well-being…”

The concept of deliberately changing your life to find if a new situation is better for you, or to get a new angle of the old situation sounds like an ideal, but I just want to warn people that it doesn’t often work out like that.
I speak from my own experience. I was still 17 when I made the decision to leave my small town, and my country to go to college in America. I jumped at the chance of studying and travelling across Europe. I worked in London. And I tried dating different men throughout.

At 22, I was lonelier and unhappier than ever before. I then made the decision to move back to my home country. And now I am dating the same high school boyfriend I had loved deeply, but broken up with so that I could experience the world, to see what else is out there. Needless to say, the relationship is very fragmented and probably past the point of repair.

People describe me as brave and admire me for having traveled so much of the world on my own. But these days, I often think that I would probably have been a happier, and more content had I chosen to stay in my country, continue dating my high school boyfriend, and probably be happily married to him in the coming few years. However, I burned too many bridges during my quest for self discovery.

An itch to figure out what else is out there doesn’t mean what you have is not already the best for you.

Ellen May 31, 2013 at 6:10 am

Fantastic post David! Lately I’ve been starting each day reading one of your posts…I find them inspiring, challenging and validating…and they percolate through me as I go about my day. I had been feeling a little stagnant in my growth when I stumbled across your site (I had recently become vegan and was googling something related to that transition and found your post on becoming vegan for 30 days…so awesome!). Now I feel like I’m really moving again…your ideas and insights are really resonating deeply. It’s interesting because few of your ideas are entirely new to me…over time I’ve arrived at many similar insights…but there’s just something almost magical…some kind of ‘chemistry’ that happens when my mind encounters the way that you articulate your ideas and insights. It causes me to re-visit these ideas and insights on a deeper level; to essentially kick me into another layer of growth, and strip away more layers of the bullshit that ultimately doesn’t matter. I think that few of us know the real impact that we have on others…and I’d like you to know how much who you are and what you do is impacting my life…and I’m very very grateful.:)

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Wojtek Krzyzosiak June 19, 2013 at 2:25 am

Do Maths. Nothing can compare to it.

Michael September 7, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Very interesting read. But I really couldn’t disagree more about its conclusions.

The first two bottom lines, are true from observation:
– It is typical in human lives to feel like something huge is missing or unsettled.

– It is typical for the major aspects of a human life (career, friends, habits and home) to be decided by happenstance, and not consciously.

But the resulting conclusion:
“The feeling of something huge being missing is probably often due to a serious mismatch between what you currently have in one of those aspects, and what is best for you in one of those aspects.”

Is missing the point, in my opinion and knowledge. The feeling of something “is missing”, “incomplete”, “imperfect”, and that general “not there yet” is driven by the fantasy that “only if I change this and that” then I’ll be happy. That is merely a state of mind, and illusion. It might, for a very real and very short period of time make a positive impact on your life. You will make that big change, feel satisfied that you were brave enough to break out of the box of society, but then you just sink back into routine or just keep making changes, never finding that thing that you’re looking for.
Unhappiness is not because you are here and not there, Unhappiness is the idea that there is something better. That’s what keeps you from being unhappy.

Also, you assume that if a life choice was made by coincidence then it is is in high probability will fit someone less than a consciously-made one. Why? You gave an example of someone living in Nebraska that might love surfing. Someone living in Nebraska deciding to learn to surf seems just plain *random* and has nothing to do with seriously thought of and weighted choice.

I agree that we should experiment with our lives to, do different things, why not. But if that doing is always accompanied with the notion of “something different will make me happy”, then it will simply always be true.
No matter what you do, no matter where or who you are, you will think that something different will make you happy. Therefore, you will not be happy.

My inspiration for this point of view is derived a lot from Buddhism, obviously, but I would refer anyone reading my comment to The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle as a good starting point to realising why they are unhappy and what they can really do to change it.

All that said, I’m not advocating staying in miserable situations. If you’re in a bad relationship, end it. If you absolutely hate your job, you should probably quit it (if improving the situation is not possible/didn’t work). If you can find a more interesting job for you, what the heck, go for it. But the “perfect” thing might and might not exist, but is certainly can be found right here, right now.

Krista October 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm

This is exactly what I try to express to people, but never really knew quite how to. This is GREAT! I love what you write about, and how you write about it… It is so clear and in depth. Thank you so much!!!

Jack October 13, 2013 at 1:35 am

Love this post! I made a reference to it in my latest: http://jackassanalysis.com/how-to-feel-fantastic-and-improve-your-health/ It’s amazing how we’re never taught to optimize our lives, even just the simple trick of trying something new every once in a while would lead to huge benefits for most of the population. The bit on friends especially, you generally become who you spend the most time with, I think it’s a consequence of genetics, the book The Blank Slate by a guy studying the brain at MIT has a good chapter on it regarding kids and how they adapt to their environments by absorbing local cultures and losing their parents cultures when moving to a new country, it’s a fundamental adaptation for survival, and you can use it to your advantage if you deliberately find the circles of friends that you admire and want to be like.

Nikriosity October 25, 2013 at 11:19 am

Brilliant thoughts David. I echo with your ideas completely.

Amanda November 5, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I agree with this too actually. I was in a relationship for 5 years when I moved to the next state over for grad school. We were only 4.5 hours apart though so it wasn’t a big deal. I actually thought it made the relationship stronger because when we did get to see each other, we appreciated it that much more and had so much fun instead of just being stuck in a boring routine. But there was a big problem we had at that time too…it had been something that was a problem for 2 years already. When I moved for school, the issue came up but it wasn’t as prevalent probably because we didn’t see each other every day like before. I got accepted for a commission in the Air Force literally 2 weeks after I started grad school…this was the problem. I say it was a problem for 2 years because during that time, I was talking to recruiters and taking all sorts of tests. He didn’t want me to join (that’s another story but the root of the problem). I knew it was something I really wanted to do though so I went for it. Another year passed and we ultimately broke up and I left for the AF. I don’t regret any of it. Looking back on that relationship, I should have left sooner. I reflected back on conversations I had with friends when I was still with him and alot of what I said about him to them was fairly negative. Not that he abused me (he didn’t) but he hated everything and was just a downer and I didn’t realize how much he brought me down with him until I left. I think that’s why our relationship got better when I moved for school…because I didn’t have to deal with that everyday and when we did see each other, we both were really happy. You’re so right that when there’s a drastic change of some sort, you can compare how things were vs how they are now. But with new change does come a new set of problems (which you also mentioned). So I left my ex, now I’m single and come home to an empty apartment everyday (which is where I am right now) and it can be very depressing. I guess it seems like there will always be something missing. Who knows though, I’ll be leaving to a new base soon so I look forward to the change and hopefully I’ll meet someone awesome and we can share the adventure together :)

Kaushik December 22, 2013 at 12:47 am

In my experience, it hasn’t been about finding the perfect city for me, or in general about changing my external circumstances.

It’s been about awakening–facing up to delusions and fears and moving towards consciousness and clarity.

Thanks, your articles are very thought-provoking.

Peter December 25, 2013 at 10:18 am

I want to promote Meeup.com here. This is a Web site idea that builds community and freindship. Sign up for your interests, then go out an meetu like-minded people at the venues. It can be anything, which can include anything under the sun. If you can’t find your interest, start one. I currently have a French conversation group and a coffee lover shop group in Brighton, UK. I moved to Brighton from the USA, and Meetup has been a strong component of my making new friends.

kerri May 22, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Awesome article D!! But imo there needs to be clarification on taking care of yourself and what some are calling selfish. I think if you truly take care of yourself, meaning not just pandering to the ego (selfish), you are at the same time taking care of others. Honestly almost never does anyone win in a situation where someone does something or doesn’t to not “hurt” someone.If it’s true that ideally everyone is responsible for their own happiness, then who are you really hurting if you neglect your own? We you could say have actually a responsibility as part of the larger group of humans to take care of ourselves. Then we can be in a position to give of ourselves to others and help them and inspire them to do the same. The motive is love, not fear.

David July 21, 2012 at 10:07 am

I’m afraid I can’t really volunteer to engage in email-back-and-forths. I have been behind on my email for years now, it’s really not something I manage well.

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