About three years ago I wrote a detailed essay envisioning what I would like my life to look like in three years. I included details about where I would be living, what my house and working spaces would look like, what I would be doing during the day, who I would be spending time with, and so on. I included details about career, health, relationships, home improvement, spirituality, finances, my various businesses, and what I wanted to be doing for fun/entertainment. It came out to about 2500 words.
For the next few months, I allowed myself to make minor edits. Sometimes I would add a short section about a part of my life I had yet to consider in detail. Sometimes I would change something that just didn’t feel right. Some of the hopes and dreams I thought I had for my own life turned out to just be baggage from an earlier me. I no longer wanted those things, but it took writing them down to realize that. So I deleted those sections.
Then I saved the essay to a folder on my hard drive and went on living my life.
I enjoyed the first part of the exercise (writing the essay), but I realize that many people don’t like to think about their future life in detail. It stresses them out. My wife likes to talk about future plans, but in a more free associative way. Either that, or she wants to take immediate action (ok, let’s buy the tickets now, or lets go buy a giant boulder for our garden because we just talked about it for two minutes). She’s less comfortable with picking an abstract, distant, difficult goal and then logically working out the steps to get there.
It’s probably good to have multiple planning/action styles in any given relationship or business partnership. Ultimately taking action is more important. It’s impossible to accurately predict the future, and sometimes it’s just as effective to ignore detailed long-term planning and just start doing stuff and solve problems as they come up. A group or organization consisting of only detailed long-term planners is in danger of coming up with a detailed plan and then doing nothing.
Still, there’s a role for those of us who actually enjoy projecting our hopes and intentions well into the future. While we’re wrong most of the time and fail a great deal, we still tend to influence future outcomes more than other people.
The Power of Intention
Let’s just get this out of the way. The power of intention is not some magical force that attracts money and hot underwear models into your life like some sort of enchanted honeypot.
The power of intention is more simple and mundane. If you have invested some time and energy into actually considering what you want in life, and what your ideal life would look like, then when you wake up in the morning you will have a compass arrow pointing you in more-or-less the right direction. Sometimes the compass arrow will still be spinning in wild circles, but more often than not you’ll at least have a vague idea of which direction you should start walking.
When opportunities present themselves, it will be somewhat more obvious that an opportunity is actually occurring. You will be less likely fold your cards when dealt pocket aces. You will be less likely to say no thank you when a random stranger offers you an introduction or piece of knowledge that could radically alter your life for the better.
The power of intention keeps you walking/working in the right direction, and it will also make you luckier. While that can feel like magic, it’s simply a result of being a bit more awake and aware.
I started the essay in November of 2009, so the three years aren’t up yet. I decided it was time to re-read what I wrote and start analyzing my progress before the full three years had elapsed. This is partly because I was curious and didn’t want to wait, and partly because there was “still time” to make progress towards certain goals and milestones mentioned in the essay.
The first read was awkward and demoralizing. I only noticed the parts of my life vision that hadn’t materialized.
At the time I wrote the essay, I was hoping to have published the novels I was working on at the time. Instead, I chose to stop revising them, and not send them out beyond my circle of trusted readers.
I don’t regret this decision — both novels had major problems that I wasn’t up for fixing. Still, I have mixed feelings about fiction writing that I haven’t yet resolved, and reading the section of the essay where I described in detail what I wanted my writing life and career to look like was difficult.
This experience formed my overall first impression of the experiment — that I had failed in reaching my primary goal, and that possibly the experiment itself was a failure (in that it hadn’t effectively propelled me towards completing my main goal).
A few days later, I read the essay again, this time making inserting notes and comments after each section. The second read was a much different experience. Many of the things that I had intended/hoped for/planned in November of ’09 had materialized. By a rough count, about 70% of had come true, either exactly or approximately.
For example, in the home improvement area, the following items actually came together as I had written/envisioned/hoped:
- music studio reorganized/remodeled
- house painted (interior and exterior)
- walkway repaired
- garage converted into home office with skylight, cork floor
- bedroom used as home office converted into room for our daughter
On the other hand, all the ferns I planted died, and my moss garden plan didn’t succeed either (obviously we need a more drought-resistant garden plan).
The things that “came true” didn’t necessarily happen because I wrote them down — there were other forces at play. In fact, I can’t think of a way to test for causality, in regards to intention. If you don’t spend the time and energy to define what you want your life to be like, using detailed and concrete language, then there’s no way to measure how close you came to fulfilling that vision.
In other words, even if I could “run myself in parallel” to attempt a controlled test, the version of me who had not written the essay in November of 2009 would not know what kinds of things to count in order to come up with a number to compare to the 70% success rate.
So I’m left with my subjective, intuitive evaluation of the test. Did the exercise feel “worth it”? Will I do it again?
Yes to both questions.
Why Was It Worth It?
I’ll definitely do this experiment again, with a few tweaks next time. Here are some of the reasons why the experiment was worth the effort.
One effect of examining each area of my life, and what changes or growth I wanted to see in that area, was that it reaffirmed the activities and relationships that were going well.
For example, I’ve been co-running Loöq Records for 14 years, but I still get a thrill from discovering innovative unsigned music. My heart still beats faster the day we release a new single or album. I love it when something takes off and we can pay out a big royalty to an artist (or to ourselves, if it’s one of our releases).
I still love that moment when I’m working on a track and a disparate mess of parts gels together into an irresistible groove.
Writing about these areas was just a matter of considering the direction of growth, or in some cases just resolving to keep doing it. If it ain’t broke …
2) Lifestyle design
One thing that become clearer to me in the past few years is that my overall happiness has more to do with what I do (and don’t do) in any given day than with any external marker of success.
For me, social activity, exercise, and creative output all figure pretty heavily into the happiness equation.
Ultimately, career and earnings matter primarily to the extent that they allow me to socialize, work out, buy expensive cheese for my friends, and have time to write blog posts and produce music. I also enjoy having huge swaths of free time to read novels, explore new music, see movies, and play videogames (I’m about 90 hours into Skyrim).
Imagining in detail what an ideal “day in the life” of a future me would look like helped me prioritize those activities, so that they have become more and more habitual (not rote or mechanical, just easier to do than not do).
For example, I prioritize creative work (writing and music), because I know from experience and tracking that I’m happier on days when I do that kind of work. While I always hope that the work itself will go into the world and do some good (entertaining and/or inspiring other people), just doing the work is also an end, not just a means.
3) Getting real/self-confrontation
One of the first posts on the blog was about my decision to not pursue being a touring dance music DJ as a career. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to try it out, and I didn’t really enjoy it. When it came down to it, I didn’t want to swallow the bitter with the sweet.
There are other work areas where I don’t mind swallowing the bitter. Even though it’s difficult, time-consuming, and extremely complicated, I don’t mind compiling detailed royalty statements for over 100 artists twice a year. It’s not as fun as discovering or releasing new music, but it’s part of the job of running a label, and I don’t mind doing it.
I also don’t mind having half a dozen or more discarded false starts for every track that ends up getting produced. I don’t mind doing five or ten or twenty revisions to get it sounding right.
One thing about setting goals and outlining a detailed vision that pushes your life in a new direction is that it gives you a chance to consider if you’re willing to take the bitter with the sweet. Are you willing to suffer through the grind, absorb the rejection, learn from the mistakes, and generally take the pain that every rewarding activity in life comes with?
I haven’t yet completed a novel that I would want published. It turns out that I’m not ready to absorb the particular type of pain that a career in fiction writing demands, particularly around numerous revisions. It may be that the solution is to learn how to write better first drafts, or better outlines. I know I’m capable of getting up every morning and writing for an hour or two (because I did it, for over a year), but it turns out that’s not enough.
I don’t yet know the answer to this particular question.
While there were some cringe-inducing moments while reading my “life vision” essay from November 2009 (some of the projections were wildly optimistic, others turned out not to be line with my actual desires), a surprising number of goals were reached/things accomplished/lifestyle details actualized.
What do you want your life to look like in three years? More of the same? (Nothing wrong with that if things are going well.) Or would you like to see some radical changes? Or just a few tweaks?
So what’s it going to take to get you there? And are you willing to take the bitter with the sweet? Maybe it’s worth writing your own 3-year life vision essay to explore some of these questions.