In Making it All Work, David Allen describes a time in his life when he sat down with a blank sheet of paper began brainstorming: what do I want my life to be like? “At that time it seemed to me that it would be useful to sit myself down and just imagine what I’d like my ideal and lifestyle to include, so I gave myself permission to fantasize and capture whatever occurred to me.” (Allen 2009:244).
Inspired in part by Allen’s story, I undertook the same exercise several years ago.
When I began sketching, many of my “fantasies” were the typical sort of highfalutin nonsense one might expect: big accomplishments intended to push me over the imaginary precipice of “success” in life. But such dreams are a dime a dozen. The “breakthrough” for me occured when I took the question to a granular level: what would success practically mean in terms of my daily lived experience? Supposing I won the game of life, what would I actually do when I got up the morning?
What would is a successful day look like?
When I framed the “what-is-success?” question in this way, I began to come up with very different kinds of ideas: Wake up refreshed. Enjoy some quiet reflection time. Be fully present with coworkers and clients. Learn something challenging, provocative, and mentally rejuvenating — disrupt a personal bias or two. Play with ideas. Enjoy ample margin between commitments to chat with family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers along the way. Contribute to something meaningful to my community. Exercise. Relax. Sit on the front porch in the evening with a glass of wine and chat about life with my partner.
The ingredients for my “ideal day” sounded remarkably different than my grandiose list of designs for a “successful life.” They weren’t necessarily incompatible, but some points were certainly in contention with each other. I realized that I often sacrifice the practices and routines that bestow daily life with value in order to achieve majestic, overarching goals. But these lofty ambitions are merely theoretical: they may or may not truly bring any quotient of contentment.
Most shocking was the realization that there was nothing keeping me from living an ideal day…today. There was no barrier except myself. My curse was my own obsessive-compulsive drive to displace my present self in a conceptually “successful” future, at the cost of living the life I truly want to live right now.
I wondered: what if a successful life is simply comprised of ideal days? What if we have drawn up the front lines in the wrong place, as if we are attacking our “plans for success” in a theatre of war that does not even need to be fought?
Instead of ruthlessly abusing each weekday as if it is some blunt utilitarian instrument, what if we leveraged everything we had to make each day stand for itself?
What if our lives really are the sum total of our days?
What if we considered life by the metric of “purposeful days” instead of surrendering these days to the tyrannous pursuit of a “purposeful life” that perpetually eludes definition anyway?
What if the only way to really account for the meaning of our lives was simply to count the number of days we lived without regret?
Today — it is the single most valuable thing we will ever have.
To quip that ‘life is a journey’ is cliché, but nonetheless we can be sure that life is ultimately a sequence of individual days that are connected to each other. The choices we make and the attitudes we have about each day in turn compose the very narrative of our lives. Our choices and attitudes, as lived and expressed today, are the ink that write our stories.
In summation, today is of utmost importance.
(An earlier version of this post appeared in Caesura Letters Volume I: Beginning Today)