How to craft a life (before it's too late)
If you don’t prune often, big changes become harder and harder.
A few weeks ago, my friend Devon reached out from Costa Rica—between surfing the breaks on the wide open beach he and his family live on and running the marketing agency he founded with his wife, Devon had been catching up on my recent posts. Specifically, he’d been mulling over the idea of crafting a life.
We chatted on the phone one Sunday morning, and he told me he’d been turning the idea over in his head—what would it really look like to craft? Not plan a life, or change your life, but craft your life.
“It’s kind of like pruning a tree,” he said, summoning a metaphor off the top of his head. “If you don’t do it often enough, it just gets harder and harder.”
I immediately thought of the apple tree in the front of my New Hampshire house, and how I’d neglected to prune it this Spring. But Devon had in mind certain friends who he’d invited to visit him in Costa Rica (for Devon’s full story, see our podcast episode). He’d offered his friends a free place to stay, and a pickup from the airport—everything to make it easy to come visit.
But their lives were just too busy, too crowded, he said. Even for a week.
It’s not that they lacked the desire to come—it’s that they hadn’t pruned the tree of their life for so long that it was now simply too hard. They hadn’t taken the care to craft a life that would allow a trip, even for a week.
Of course, we all know people who are constrained by work in this way. They squeeze a brief beach vacation into the nine days they are able to cobble together, but only at a time of year that works for their employer. Others are constrained by family, especially when they have young kids (I always think of the time as a young man when I landed in Kathmandu, thinking I was somewhere at the edge of the world, only for the truly intrepid, only to turn around and meet a hip Dutch couple traveling with a 1-year-old, the young lad strapped to the dad’s back in a carrier). Still, others feel constrained once their kids get older, moving to the place with the schools they feel will set up the kids for the best opportunities as they grow into adulthood.
Devon and I started riffing on the metaphor: if you don’t prune enough, or often enough, the thing starts to get overgrown, the branches get thicker, it becomes harder to cut back, harder to get the tree you want.
I told him about my apple tree, the one I’d neglected this Spring. It now had a branch that had grown out over the driveway, effectively blocking off one of the parking spaces that a guest would use. It was a big pain in the ass and kind of annoying. I now had to duck under the branch every time I walked from the front door across the street. But also, I couldn’t take the branch down now—it had too many apples growing on it!
See, that’s the thing with an unpruned life. A lot of the things in it feel really good. A big house, a nice car, a career that confers status and money, a relationship, a marriage. Some of these are life goals that are worth it. I have a mortgage on the New Hampshire house, and it has a monthly payment that is a little larger than I’d want. Still, as I wrote in May, I could retire tomorrow: live footloose and fancy-free, vagabond around the country in a van, going from one climbing area to the next and down to Mexico for the winter—if I were to sell that house and pocket all that cash. But I don’t want to do that. I’m more interested in community now than vagabonding, more interested in building things than abandoning them.
The point of the pruning metaphor isn’t necessarily to start cutting things out of your life, but rather to craft a life with intention, and to understand that as an ongoing process, or at least a periodic one. Not a year should go by that I neglect to prune the apple tree, and not a year should go by where you don’t engage in some kind of a process of shaping.
For me, that shaping looks a lot like wiping my mental slate clean in order to resist path dependency. I wrote about this in But beware of looking for goals:
In order to truly… figure out which path you want to take and what way of life you want to live, you have to mentally wipe the slate clean. You have to think in terms of first principles and break out of path dependency.
For me, I need to be alone for a while: no inputs from my partner, family, or friends, ideally for a few days, or maybe a few weeks.
I make a point of periodically traveling by myself, but you could just as well do this on a long walk. The point is to be alone. Take a break from the news, Netflix, or whatever else you usually use to fill your time.
Be alone with your thoughts and do it in focused contemplation on this question: removing all the current circumstances of your life, how would you then build a new one from scratch? What would this life look like, from the moment you wake until you go to sleep? What would it look like for a day? A month? A year? Where would you be, what would you do, and who would you do it with?
Once you’ve done this, you can come back to reality and think about how you might prune in order to get yourself closer to the way of life you really want.
The pruning metaphor is helpful because it suggests you don’t necessarily have to cut down the whole tree of life and plant another—you don’t have to sell the house, or get a divorce, or quit your job (although, feel free to do any of those if you want to and you can!). But the point of making the most of our short time on this rock is to recognize that large constraints need not prevent us from taking any action at all. There is always a choice to make, even if it’s a small one. Take the small steps that lead you in the direction you want to be headed, and then take more. Don’t float with the tide—swim for a destination.
If we don’t start pruning, or if we haven’t pruned in years, everything just gets harder and harder to change until eventually, it all feels hopeless. The branches are too big, too entrenched. Or, their fruits are too addictive. I’m reminded of the great mass men of leading lives of quiet desperation that Thoreau warned me about. I first read him in College, and I vowed then that I would never be such a man.
It was a vow I have not always been able to keep. But, for the most part, I can say I have kept it fairly well. Certainly, for now: I am a fairly happy man. Pruning is ongoing. And, I have some loose dates in mind to go visit Devon in Costa Rica.