Fix the lifestyle you want, then work backwards

Author and blogger Cal Newport recently sent the highlights from an old post of his on career advice. It is a goodie.


Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there. 

The problem with career planning, I argued, is that most people focus on the wrong properties when making professional decisions. They either ask vague questions about the nature of the work — “is this my passion?”; “is this what I want to do with my life?” — or they sidestep this ambiguity by optimizing ego metrics — “what pays the most?”; “what would be most impressive to my aunt in Ohio?”

Neither of these strategies work well.

The problem with the first approach is that most knowledge sector jobs are essentially the same. Whether you work in the front office of a major league baseball team, an investment bank, or your own one-person company: you’re going to spend most days in front of a computer, sending emails, and attending meetings. No amount of self-reflection is likely to determine that one such option among many similar options is clearly your true passion.

The problem with only optimizing ego metrics, on the other hand, is that many prestigious jobs pay a lot of money in part because they’re so awful people would otherwise quit. The number of big city lawyers I know could fill a bus. The number of happy big city lawyers I know could fit comfortably in my Honda Fit.

Which brings me back to my advice.

The real goal in career planning is to build a life you enjoy. So instead of focusing on tangential factors that may or may not make your life better, why not cut straight to chase and ask: What do I want my life to be like and what sequence of career steps will best get me there?

If you crave a Musk/Jobs style, big-vision, manic drive to build something big lifestyle, then this should lead to a different set of decisions than if you instead crave a Feynman style  thinking big thoughts in scenic locations lifestyle. If you’re instead attracted to a Frugal Woods style retreat to a homestead in Vermont, then your choices should be even different still.

Notice, however, that issues like “passion” and “job match” don’t play a huge role in this scenario. The specifics of the work are less important than the impact of the work on your daily life.


I don’t agree with every piece (e.g. the similarity of knowledge sector jobs) but, I think this is very good advice because it suggests we just reverse the sequence of questions we normally ask. Instead of starting with – “what career do I want?” and then moving to “Given this career, what is the realistic life style?,” Cal suggests beginning with figuring out what kind of life you’d like to live.

It doesn’t make the task all that much easier, in my opinion, as the lifestyle question is pretty hard to answer.

But, at least we’re focused on a better question..

lifestyle, careerImage Source

9 thoughts on “Fix the lifestyle you want, then work backwards

  1. It’s an interesting post. Is it aimed toward people who might not have chosen well in a first career or early job and need guidance on adjusting their professional (and life’s) parabola? And does that happen often under the impetus of an online article? Otherwise, I wonder if it could use buttressing with contemplation of the common scenarios where developing options (or keeping them open) must begin with smart decisions in middle and high school, often continuing on into early college years? Failure to apply yourself there, it might be argued, limit your options later without the will to take oneself back to school.

    A point “lifestyle coaching” articles can easily gloss over is that young adults often do not have the experience or knowledge to know (or even imagine) what kind of life they might want as adults. They may have very limited perspectives into what might even be available (let alone realistic), or what interdependencies should be considered. Effective, compelling guidance into that process, targeted at the young, would be world-changing.

    Strange that there is little room in public or private curricula for instructing those are far from having gained the kind of exposure that illuminates the choices that might be made in early adult life. Without that groundwork, there’s a long bridge between high-level coaching articles and developing implementable courses of action, isn’t there?

    1. I agree with the point I think you are making.

      I don’t think figuring out the lifestyle you want is easy by ANY means.. I do think it is a better question though.

      But, yes, there will always be a bridge between high-level coaching articles and implementable courses of action.. simply because tactical advice is a very personal thing.

  2. Listening to “So Good They Can’t Ignore” currently on Audible. I’ve used poor criteria in the past and I am tending to agree with Cal’s theory.

      1. And also got on Cal’s email list! Thanks for the great recommendations!!!

  3. Totally agree with you, I been thinking about this approach for a long time, but your words help me clarify why it’s been in mind for the last couple of years, now it totally makes sense.

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