08/04/2010 06:14 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are You Planning Your Life or Living It?

David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist and commentator on PBS' News Hour, has an interesting column in today's Times, called "The Summoned Self."

In a nutshell, Brooks is discussing Clayton Christensen's Harvard Business Review essay on the Well Planned Life, in which Christensen advises students to, early on in life, invest a lot time discovering their life's purpose and then learn how to effectively direct their time, energy and talents towards that end.

For Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, a well planned life is plotted out much like a business strategy, using metrics and methodologies that take into account risks vs. rewards. The end "product" is a life that unfolds like a well designed project: carefully thought out and crafted in the beginning, fine-tuned as needed along the way, and brought to a fruitful harvest.

The downside however, as Christensen points out, is that people who are high achievers often direct their energies towards those activities that will render the highest short-term rewards, like closing a sale or finishing a paper, and end up giving insufficient energy and attention to things like family and relationships, which don't readily produce an instant harvest.

Twenty years down the road, these people often belatedly discover their planning didn't include time for the things that ended up mattering most and their energies were misdirected. A classical example of living from the head and ignoring the heart.

Brooks contrast this with what he calls "The Summoned Life":

This mode of thinking starts from an entirely different perspective. Life isn't a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can't sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose. That young person -- or any person -- can't see into the future to know what wars, loves, diseases and chances may loom. She may know concepts, like parenthood or old age, but she doesn't really understand their meanings until she is engaged in them.

For Brooks, the "summoned life" is one in which the context determines the content. The questions one asks are not "what is my purpose?" but rather "what is life asking of me, given my circumstances?"

A summoned life is created from one's heartfelt commitments to the things that matter most and where commitments to family, faith, nation or various causes are not made from balancing a ledger sheet. They emanate from the heart and often defy logic and cannot be quantified by traditional measures.

You might wonder, are these approaches mutually exclusive? Can't I plan my life and live it from my heart? The answer is of course, as long as you understand; life doesn't always go according to plan or on our timeline or render the results we intended. There is no greater example of that than the times in which we currently live.

Due to the severe economic conditions we have today, many people now find themselves working far longer than they ever thought they would, have fewer retirement resources than they thought they'd have or planned for, or find themselves out of work with dwindling opportunities to begin again. Many people today are not living the life they'd planned and are at the point where there isn't enough time to fine tune and start over.

So much for the well laid plan. Don't get me wrong; I'm not against planning. Planning is good. Just don't mistake the plan for the real thing. Or as Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, said: "A map is not the territory it represents." Or as this line in the Swedish army manual says, "If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain".

Follow the terrain. This is the "stuff" of what Brooks calls "the summoned life." The terrain, which is context, will tell you what comes next. If you're currently in a deep valley, bisected by a river with a strong flowing current, something different is being asked of you than if you find yourself at the top of a mountain, or floating down a lazy stream in a pontoon boat.

How we get from one terrain to another is the journey of life. You can make and execute well-crafted plans and they may get you where you want to go. But if you get blown off course, your plans will need to be modified or thrown out completely and a new course charted. As long as we use a plan more as a blueprint than a Bible, we have the freedom and flexibility to be innovative when the plan stops working.

I'm reminded of a friend, who at age 59, finds himself in a far different place than he planned to be at this point in his life. Having worked hard for over 20 years building a business and saving for retirement, he now finds himself having lost the business due to the economy and having to file for bankruptcy. His retirement is gone and he's left with an uncertain future, not knowing what is next. On top of this, his second marriage of three years appears to be over.

This is a man who planned his life out in great detail, but nothing today looks like the plan. After going through considerable breakdowns and upsets, today he is still looking at an uncertain future. He still doesn't know what is next. However, his attitude has shifted about where he is and what's possible.

He had to grieve what he'd lost before he could be free to look ahead; and today, he is free to explore the dreams he'd set aside 20 years ago in favor of building the business he thought would give him financial security.

If you don't listen to your heart, if you don't read what's written on it, the best laid plans will often deliver you to the wrong doorstep. How many people do you know who prepared for a career because they thought it would be the quickest way to riches and ended up leaving their chosen field because it wasn't compatible with who they were?

If you're not living the life you've planned, instead of being panicked, consider this could be a blessing in disguise. You may discover that by losing what you thought you wanted, instead you find freedom. Upon closer examination, many people recognize their life plan wasn't their's at all, but something they took on in order to live up to someone else's expectations. Whose life are you living?

You might think you don't have the luxury to look to your heart for guidance, but if you're one of the over fourteen million people who are without work, your circumstances are inviting you to re-invent yourself. So why not be inspired to create whatever's next based on the dreams you put away or set aside to pursue what now no longer exists?

If life has taken you down a path you never intended to travel, take a look around this new territory and check out the forest and the trees. Assume you're not here by accident find yourself here for a reason. Look to see what's possible, given what's so. Your life has brought you to this moment, so now what?

I love this quote from Joseph Campbell:

"We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us."

Are you living the life you planned or have you gotten off track? What efforts are you taking now to turn it around? What have you learned in the process? Do you dare to live from your heart?

I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or on my personal blog and website: Rx For The Soul, where we're discussing this and other issues relative to our times.

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Many blessings, til next time.