The simplest exercises are often the most transformative. Several years ago I took a blank sheet of paper and scribbled, What do I want my life to be like? in the middle of the page.1 What do I define as ‘success’ in life? I began doodling and sketching.
Many of my fantasies and visions for the future were the typical sort of highfalutin nonsense one might expect: big accomplishments intended to push me over the imaginary precipice of ‘success’ in life. Basically, I wanted to be a rockstar. Or at least a social media sensation. But such dreams are a dime a dozen.
As continued jotting ideas in the notebook, the question became more granular: what would success practically mean in terms of daily living? Supposing I ‘won’ the game of life, what would I actually do when I got up the morning? What would a successful day look like?
When I frame the ‘what is success?’ question in this way, I begin to come up with very different set of ideas from those of fame and stardom: 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 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. Stop and smell the roses, etc.
The ingredients for an ‘ideal day’ are remarkably different than the grandiose definitions of a ‘successful life.’ The two idealized visions are not necessarily incompatible, but some points are certainly in contention. 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.
There is nothing keeping me from living an ideal day…today. There is no barrier except myself. My curse is my 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. What if a successful life is simply comprised of ideal days? Instead of ruthlessly abusing each weekday as if it is some blunt, utilitarian instrument, what if I let each day stand for itself? After all, what if our lives are only 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.
For me, the exercise was inspired by productivity guru and author David Allen. See Allen, David. (2009). Making it All Work. Penguin Books; Reprint edition. p. 244 ↩