Most Lives Are Lived By Default


Jamie lives in a large city in the midwest. He’s a copywriter for an advertising firm, and he’s good at it.

He’s also good at thinking of reasons why he ought to be happy with his life. He has health insurance, and now savings. A lot of his friends have neither. His girlfriend is pretty. They never fight. His boss has a sense of humor, doesn’t micromanage, and lets him go early most Fridays.

On most of those Fridays, including this one, instead of taking the train back to his suburban side-by-side, he walks to a downtown pub to meet his friends. He will have four beers. His friends always stay longer.

Jamie’s girlfriend Linda typically arrives on his third beer. She greets them all with polite hugs, Jamie with a kiss. He orders his final beer when she orders her only one. They take a taxi home, make dinner together, and watch a movie on Netflix. When it’s over they start a second one and don’t finish it. They have sex, then she goes to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she returns, he goes.

There was never a day Jamie sat down and decided to be a copywriter living in the midwest. A pair of lawyers at his ex-girlfriend’s firm took him out one night when he was freshly laid-off from writing for a tech magazine, bought him a hundred dollars worth of drinks and gave him the business card of his current boss. It was a great night. That was nine years ago.

His friends are from his old job. White collar, artsy and smart. If one of the five of them is missing at the pub on Friday, they’ll have lunch during the week.

Jamie isn’t unhappy. He’s bored, but doesn’t quite realize it. As he gets older his boredom is turning to fear. He has no health problems but he thinks about them all the time. Cancer. Arthritis. Alzheimer’s. He’s thirty-eight, fit, has no plans for children, and when he really thinks about the course of his life he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, except on Fridays.

In two months he and Linda are going to Cuba for ten days. He’s looking forward to that right now.


A few weeks ago I asked everyone reading to share their biggest problem in life in the comment section. I’ve done this before — ask about what’s going on with you — and every time I do I notice two things.

The first thing is that everyone has considerable problems. Not simply occasional tough spots, but the type of issue that persists for years or decades. The kind that becomes a theme in life, that feels like part of your identity. By the sounds of it, it’s typical among human beings to feel like something huge is missing.

The other thing is that they tend to be one of the same few problems: lack of human connection, lack of personal freedom (due to money or family situations), lack of confidence or self-esteem, or lack of self-control.

The day-to-day feel and quality of each of our lives sits on a few major structures: where we live, what we do for a living, what we do with ourselves when we’re not at work, and which people we spend most of our time with.

Making a major change in just one of these areas will necessarily make a major change in the feel and quality of your day-to-day life. It simply can’t stay the same.

Stay in the same city, but start hanging out with a completely different crowd, and life will change significantly. You will change. Stay in the same career but move cities, and your life also will change in a major way.

It might get better, or it might get worse. You don’t know until the change is made. This uncertainty is enough to keep most people from bothering.

But they should bother, as a rule. Day to day life is more likely to get better than worse, because a deliberate change gives you a chance to see if your new situation resonates with you or not, and gives you a second angle of the old one. If the new situation does resonate, then you’re closer to finding what’s right for you, what’s optimal for your sense of well-being.

If it doesn’t resonate with you, then you have more perspective about what it is that you already do that you like so much. Your values become clearer, and you gravitate toward them more strongly. If you leave the countryside for the city and hate it, then you’ve definitely learned more about what it is about the countryside that really does something for you. That’s progress. That’s getting closer to what you want.

Living with the die roll

For Jamie, and for most of us, those four major structures were not decided consciously. The career you end up working in depends chiefly on what you saw as options when you were just starting to enter the workforce. That was a very narrow period of time, during which you were only aware of a limited number of options. You went with whatever made sense at that time. The result — what you do today — is more or less happenstance.

Friends too, are mostly in our lives as defaults. Most of us have found some incredible and inspiring people just by letting happenstance deliver them, but once we have some stable friendships we become complacent and stop actively looking for friends that really resonate with our values and interests, if we ever did at all.

Where you live is even more random, more difficult to change, and it may have the greatest effect of all the structures, because it determines the rest. You were born somewhere. If you moved, it was probably for work or for a relationship. A minority of people do move to a particular city because they think they’ll be happier there than anywhere else. They are seeking the optimum place to live for their values, or at least close to it. But most of us become too established in one place to seriously consider moving once we hit 30.

Friends, location and career tend to define the other one: what you do with your time. Your habits and your hobbies. Your routines, your typical saturday night activities, your wardrobe, your pursuits and personal projects are all suggested by (and constrained by) what your defaults are in the other categories. If you happened to grow up in Nebraska, you probably don’t surf. But surfing might just be the thing that really would turn your crank like nothing else, if you were lucky enough to discover that.

So much of our lives consists of conditions we’ve fallen into. We gravitate unwittingly to what works in the short term, in terms of what to do for work and what crowd to run with. There’s nothing wrong with living from defaults, necessarily, but think about it: what are the odds that the defaults delivered to you by happenstance are anywhere close to what’s really optimal for you?

In other words, we seldom consciously decide how we’re going to live our lives. We just end up living certain ways.

In all likelihood, what you’ve inherited is nowhere near what’s best for you. Chances are very slight that there isn’t a drastically better neighborhood for you out there, a more kindred circle of peers, a much better line of work, and a much more rewarding way to go about your day than the way you do. Your level of fulfillment and sense of peace with the world depend on how well-matched your values are to the life you’re actually living. There’s no reason to believe they’ll match well by accident.

The most natural-feeling course for your life is to do what you’re accustomed to doing, live where you’re accustomed to living, seek what you’re accustomed to seeking. So be careful. I’m convinced that all of my major problems — and many of the problems in the comment section of the What’s your problem post — are due to going with the defaults, either too afraid or too oblivious to make major changes to them.

As a culture, we do a whole lot of maintaining, rationalizing, procrastinating and reinforcing, and not very much thinking about what’s really best for us and the drastic changes we might need to make to get there.

So what does this mean? It means if you’re a normal person you can expect that a lot of categories of your life are set up in highly inefficient ways, by default. Certain areas of life could be all wrong for you and you have no idea how good it could be on other side of the fence. It also means that wherever you recognize a persistent source of grief in your life, there is probably a different way to set up your life that could eliminate it or greatly reduce it. It could be a major change, like ending your marriage, or it could just be moving to a different neighborhood in the same city.

Major changes are intimidating, but think about it — most of the time when you hear somebody talk about making a major change in their life, like changing cities or careers, a year later they’ll say it put them in a far better place. They tell you they don’t know how they lived before.

That’s a feeling worth seeking out. That specific feeling — which comes in the wake of a major change — of wondering how you ever got along before.

The bottom lines, if I haven’t been clear:

It is typical in human lives to feel like something huge is missing or unsettled.

It is typical for the major aspects of a human life (career, friends, habits and home) to be decided by happenstance, and not consciously.

The feeling of something huge being missing is probably often due to a serious mismatch between what you currently have in one of those aspects, and what is best for you in one of those aspects.

Making conscious changes to the aspects of life you’ve accepted by default can result in dramatic and immediate changes to quality of life.

Few people do this. Few people make a deliberate quest out of finding their perfect city or neighborhood, of seeking out their truly like-minded. Most of us live seventy or eighty years defending what we’ve been given, because we think it’s who we are.

At any given time, the prospect of a major change will tend to seem out of the question. This is because you believe you are what you’ve been doing this whole time. From the other side of a major change, the thought of continuing the with way things were will seem absurd.

But identity is fluid. You’ve been becoming a different person this whole time, and after making a dramatic change, you might find you’re more yourself than you’ve ever been. TC Mark

About the author

David Cain

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