How to Build Your Life in These Uncertain Times
You don’t have to wait for brighter days
If you’re like me, 2020 found you in a year of transition. Maybe you were graduating, starting something new, or looking to make a change.
It’s been a challenging year. But I’ve felt like this before. A few years back, I found myself in a job I no longer wanted to be in, but it felt like the stakes were too high to leave. And so I stayed and burned out.
Burning out ushered me into a year of unknown. At first, I didn’t know what to do other than wait — which is what I’ve often found myself doing in difficult situations.
But after a little while, I became fed up with the status quo of my life in the unknown, and I discovered that there are always things we can do to move forward, no matter how uncertain our circumstances.
I stopped waiting around for better, brighter days. Instead, I went out and created them.
Here’s how you can do the same.
Throw Away the Rule Book
Cultural expectations that describe the age at which we need to achieve things are bogus and unhelpful. If this year slows down your plan, who cares?
Once you find your dream job, it won’t matter much to you whether you found it when you were 22 or 32. The past will be the past, and if you’re healthy, you’ll be living in the moment and just happy that you are where you are.
Circumstances like a pandemic or an economic crash can limit our options, but a lot of our stuckness comes from ourselves. Sometimes we’re the ones who wrote the rule book that we’re blindly following. And we need to let go of it.
That was me.
No one was forcing me to stay in a job that was making me unhappy. Since I had become the leader of an organization and given my twenties to a career, the prospect of leaving scared me. I’d disappoint too many people. I’d be a failure.
No one told me these things. No one said I couldn’t change my career. I just hesitated and felt frozen in the face of my desires because I thought it was too late to start over. But you know what? It’s not. There are no rules for stuff like this.
So if you’ve got a rule book like the one I had, throw it away, and embrace the reality of right now.
Control What You Can Control
When life feels out of control, it’s helpful to double down on the things we can control.
This is the time to be building routines, forming habits, and investing in yourself. It’s all the stuff you already know: clean your room, keep a schedule, eat well, exercise, take care of your mental health, spend time with loved ones, and learn and grow.
In times like these, it’ll help you feel grounded and at peace regardless of what’s happening out there.
When I burned out and left my job, everything felt out of control for me. But thankfully, I started going to the gym. I had never exercised regularly, but that year started a habit that I continue today. It helped me get into shape and inspired me to be more active in moving forward in every other area of my life. Most of the good habits I practice today started during that hellish, uncertain year.
Use Design Thinking to Prototype Your Future
When I felt like I was drifting in a sea of unknown, I bumped into design thinking. Most people know design thinking as a tool that’s used to solve problems in businesses and organizations. But we can also use it to help identify our ideal life and the potential paths toward it.
And that’s what I did.
Working through the design thinking process clarified that I enjoyed leading teams to solve problems that improve everyone’s quality of life. And this led me to change my career and apply for MBA programs.
It’s a simple process. The first step of using design thinking is to throw away the idea that there is only one possible life that will make us happy. We can’t know this.
In their book, Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write;
“Nobody knows what he or she wants to be. What people need is a process — a design process — for figuring out what they want, whom they want to grow into, and how to create a life they love.”
Although Designing Your Life includes a whole framework for doing this, I’m just giving you two key items that you can use immediately. Here they are:
- Write out descriptions of three different 5-year plans that you believe could make for a meaningful life.
- Prototype your way toward them.
When we’re prototyping, we’re doing small experiments to gather information about our potential plans. Apple doesn’t go from idea to full-functioning iPhone in one day. No, they build a cheap prototype first — a test to see how the idea feels and functions. From there, they gather information, make improvements, or change the thing completely. We should do the same.
In his summary of Bill and Dave’s book, Jawwad Siddiqui describes two ways to prototype:
- Prototype Conversations — Have conversations with other people (their life story or life design) who have travelled a similar plan.
- Prototype Experiences — Have experiences that will make you learn through direct encounters. These can include unpaid internships, volunteering, personal projects, etc.
From here, you adjust and refine your plans with the information gathered. Over time, prototyping will lead you to a life that you love, with little stress and without the need for a crystal ball.
These design thinking practices brought me clarity in my time of unknown. They clarified my desire to lead teams that solve problems for everyone, and they led me to start an MBA program to grow as a leader and make connections for my next career adventure.
2020 might be full of uncertainty, but it doesn’t mean we have to wait for better days. If we don’t want to be stuck, we don’t have to be. That’s what I learned after burning out and feeling adrift in a sea of unknown. We can use this year’s circumstances to our advantage and build our futures in these uncertain times.
Here’s how to do it:
- Throw away the rule book: There is no universal guide to life that correctly describes by what age you should do x, y, or z.
- Control what you can control: Cultivate a sense of peace and stability by building routines, forming habits, and investing in yourself.
- Use design thinking to prototype your future: Throw away the idea that there is only one possible life that will make you happy. Brainstorm potential futures. And experiment with prototype conversations and prototype experiences.
Don’t count on 2020 being the last time things feel out of control.
Embrace it, adapt, learn its lessons, and keep moving forward.