Life as a prototype
Do people design their lives? I would argue some do.
There are people who let life happen to them. They are the slaves of context, making life decisions through what is available and within reach to them. I call these people acquiescents. Acquiescents may conjure images of lazy couch potatoes delivering pizzas for a living but I would argue that acquiescents exist in all walks of life. Successful business owners who inherited the position from their parents are acquiescents. People who become doctors because their parents told them to are acquiescents. It’s not about working hard through school or jobs but not making the tough life decisions to break out of ones context. Acquiescents swim downstream.
Then there are those who set specific goals in life and focus their entire energy in accomplishing those goals. They know exactly where they want to be and will make all the seemingly right decisions to get there. I call these people engineers of life, not to be confused with engineers, the profession. Entrepreneurs who decided long time ago that they wanted to be their own boss, no matter what the business is, are engineers. Immigrants who leave their poverty-stricken war-torn country no matter what job exists on the other side are engineers. Engineers don’t play around. They set a target and take the shortest possible path. Engineers swim upstream.
In the middle are the third type of people, those who don’t know exactly where they want to go but don’t accept the nearest path either. They are the journeymen of life actively seeking new places to go both physically and metaphorically. I call these people designers of life, again not to be confused with the profession of design. Designers quit their perfectly good jobs and move on to find new adventures. They are the ones whose job has nothing to do with what they studied in graduate school, which had nothing to do with what they studied in undergrad. Designers believe that there is always a better life somewhere, even if they don’t know what it looks like. Designers swim across the stream.
For a designer, every stage of life is a prototype, an experience of a lifestyle. Every prototype can be improved, and no prototype is sacred. The past does not determine what the future has to be, and continuous improvement is the norm.
What I propose above is not an exclusive categorization but a spectrum of the ways we live life. I also believe that people are capable of, and do change from one to the other. The middle aged man who suddenly realizes there is more to life than the job he stumbled onto twenty years ago and makes a drastic career change shifted from being an acquiescent to a designer. The med student who one day comes to an epiphany that he doesn’t have to try so hard to enjoy life shifted from being an engineer to an acquiescent. Designers who finally discover their true calling in life or finally yield to the allures of stability switch to being an engineer or acquiescent.
My father was an acquiescent, although I think he yearned to be something else. As the oldest son in the family, he was raised to inherit the family business. After graduating from highschool, instead of going to college, he went to work for a different company in the same industry to gain experience (common practice in Japan forty years ago). When his father passed away, he returned to inherit the business which he ran for the next twenty-five years. Those that knew my dad tell me that sometimes he would mention that he wanted to go to college and work in a technical field. He was born in a time and culture where being something other than an acquiescent was a big social taboo.
I could easily have been an acquiescent, being raised in Japan and continuing the family business. Instead, from what I can tell, my dad raised me in a way that made me unfit for working in Japan by sending me to international school and then the US. Even in the late 80s and early 90s, such things were unheard of and surely to have caused plenty of criticism. My dad sold the family business couple years before he passed away, freeing me from the easiest of life choices to make.
I would now consider myself a designer of life, not knowing where to go but actively working on and seeking what interests me. I’m passionate about what I do, and I will move on someday. I don’t know what’s next, and I’m sure I will find it sooner or later.
A classmate once coined he phrase: “Design is never done, it’s just due.” I think it’s the same with life. It’s a a continuous iterations of prototypes, and if I had to give my current prototype a name, I would call it dark horse.