Is the Ideal Lifestyle Designed or Earned?

Stumbled upon, or deliberately constructed?

Since Tim Ferriss coined the term, “lifestyle design” has become a phenomenon. A Google search for the term brings up nearly 83 million web pages. And the term has helped keep Ferriss’s book on the best seller list for over two years.

The most important impact of the ideavirus has been to start the conversation about a different dimension of career success. Now, many people aren’t just looking at the number of zeros on the paycheck, but the freedom and limitations that work creates.

The drawback, I see is that the focus seems to be shifted from earning the ideal lifestyle to picking it. Unfortunately, I believe the most desirable lifestyles are seldom stumbled upon. They are earned painstakingly through practice and deliberate effort.

Is Lifestyle Design “Get Rich Quick” 2.0?

I hate to be critical of the lifestyle design movement, because I do believe that transforming the conversation of career success from “money” to “money +” is tremendous. Now, being ambitious doesn’t just mean chasing six figure paychecks, but building the life you actually want to live.

But the problem I see in design, indeed in many of the suggestions in Ferriss’s book, is the over-emphasis on initial decisions being the key to achieving the ideal lifestyle.

The unstated premise is often that, if we simply chose to pursue the right work, and built up the courage to make that decision, the ideal lifestyle would flow easily from that point. I disagree with this assumption.

People are hasty to criticize “get rich quick” schemes. The problem is simple economics. If a legitimate opportunity is so attractive, and has so few entry barriers, it is usually flooded with new entrants. The flood of new people create more competition and lower the attractiveness.

It’s like a gold rush. The first person who pans out gold from the river can make a fortune. The ten thousandth is often broke, panning shoulder-to-shoulder with every other fool chasing riches.

However, possibly because of its newness, perhaps because Ferriss himself appears to have a magic touch, people don’t draw the same criticisms as readily against lifestyle design. The quickness is rarely questioned, nor is the ability to achieve more without effort.

Earning, Not Choosing

Just because most get rich quick schemes are either scams or illusions, doesn’t mean it’s impossible to become wealthy. Similarly, just because fast and painless lifestyle design probably isn’t a reality for most people, doesn’t mean you can’t engineer a better way to live.

The distinction needs to come from remembering that any desirable lifestyle traits (freedom, location independence, frequent vacations) are much like money. If you want them you need to earn them.

The same rules that allow you to dictate to the world whether you’ll be paid ten dollars per hour or ten thousand, apply to other lifestyle qualities.

If you wanted to become rich, then some attention needs to be paid to the choice of career. If you choose to go into early years education, you probably won’t be topping the Forbes 500.

Yet, within a range, there are many different careers that can achieve the income you want. Entrepreneurship, banking, medicine, engineering, software engineering or pharmaceutical research are all areas where you could become wealthy.

What matters isn’t so much picking to design software versus to design drugs, but the amount of effort you put into building the skills and reputation that demand the income you want. Making the initial choice to go into medicine or finance doesn’t tell you much about whether a person will be rich.

Lifestyle Traits, Like Money, are Earned

This example of wealth could easily be substituted for many other desirable lifestyle traits. Take location independence, for example.

Once again, your career choice will define the upper and lower bounds for this particular attribute. Being a miner or long-haul trucker won’t afford a lot of location independence.

But there are many careers that have the opportunity for a high degree of location independence. Becoming a writer, entrepreneur, consultant, programmer or designer could all be done with little thought to place of residence.

The decisive factor in becoming location independent isn’t whether you chose programming software or designing logos, but how good you are at it. If you’re a great online entrepreneur, you can earn a full-time income living anywhere. If you’re a lousy one, you’ll still need a full-time job, chaining you to an office desk.

Choice Matters, But Not as Much as We Think

I have a hypothesis (borrowed heavily from conversations with Cal Newport) that we overestimate the importance of making the right choices early on. Many of the successful people I know never planned on being in their particular, job, business or sometimes even career, when they started.

The importance of choice is to define the lower and upper bounds for different lifestyle traits. Choosing to become a social worker has a different range of incomes, location independence and variability than deciding to be a writer.

This isn’t always the case. As choosing to be an engineer could place you into job positions with a huge range of freedoms, salaries and opportunities. But there are still some career choices which effectively lock you into a range of desirable lifestyle attributes.

Considering some ranges are large, the key issue to me isn’t making the initial choice, but ensuring you’re in the upper end of that range. Choosing to be a writer isn’t as important as knowing how to write bestsellers. Choosing to be a programmer isn’t as important as dominating your field so you can pick which clients you want and under which conditions you’ll work for them.

What About Passion?

Whether you should spend a lot of time choosing a career or business you’re passionate about is a completely different question. My point of this article is that initial choice doesn’t seem to be the main factor in success in lifestyle attributes.

I don’t lean as far as Cal Newport in saying that passion is irrelevant in the initial decision. I do believe we have interests and drives that exist outside of how skilled we are in a particular domain.

Those interests and drives are also shaped by early environments. If banking success means spending the first two decades in a hellish rat race, you may not have the motivation to win, even if the upper range of desirable lifestyle attributes is high.

However, I do question whether it is wise to spend a lot of time daydreaming about your passion. For most cases, I believe, being interested is enough. If you’re interested in the field, and like the lifestyle it could create, that’s enough to get started. The raging, head-over-heels kind of passion many authors suggest you look for can come with time.

Stop Worrying and Designing and Get to Work

I think a lot about the ideal lifestyle. The entire theme of this blog is asking the question, “what is the ideal way to live?” So, perhaps more than most people, I think about questions of design and the initial choices we make that shape the life we eventually live.

However, I don’t see the point in worrying or obsessively tweaking these choices. To me, this is another form of analysis paralysis, where obsessing about the details overrides the more important need to start working.

The student who hops between undergraduate majors, even though few people will care what she chose a decade from now. Or the person who cycles through businesses every 6 months, instead of creating one that lasts.

Because, each hour spent worrying about designing your lifestyle is an hour not spent working to earn it.

Note: thanks to Cal Newport for triggering many of these ideas in our conversations and his writing.

Edit: This article isn’t meant to be a complete attack on lifestyle design in general, just pointing out what I perceive to be one limitation of the current meme floating out on the internet. I still really enjoy Tim Ferriss’s blog and book!

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  • Mark


    I’ve never understood why you are such a critic of Tim Ferriss. The core concept behind his concept of lifestyle design is to arrange our life in such a way that we spend far less time doing things that we don’t want to do and far more time doing things that we *do* want to do. That’s what it comes down too. It’s not about money, except to the extent that we find a way of getting enough money to live a life that is exciting to us (he makes it pretty clear in his book that it isn’t about getting rich).

    I also don’t know where you are getting the idea about initial decisions being the key to lifestyle design. I’ve read the 4-Hour Workweek numerous times, and he certainly doesn’t promote that idea. In fact, a big part of lifestyle design is giving you the flexibility to do what you want. He talks extensively about his short-term pursuits. He does something exciting to him and then moves on to something new. It allows a tremendous amount of flexibility.

    Personally, I don’t think that you can choose between *designing* a life and *earning* it. First, we *design* a life, and then we *earn* it. First, we *set* goals, and then we *achieve* them. First, we determine our most important tasks, then we *do* them.

  • Scott Young


    Critiquing an attitude doesn’t mean I don’t support it generally. I loved Tim’s book and enjoy much of his writing. I carefully made the point of illustrating that I dislike criticizing the movement *because* I like it. So if you gathered that this was a personal attack on Tim’s work, you misunderstand me.

    To respond to your other point: yes, Tim does make implicit references in his book. His section on creating an automated muse is treated as an afterthought, as if one can create a business that delivers sustained, automatic income from scratch in a few months. Perhaps that is hyperbolic for impact, I don’t know.

    These references seem to support my conclusion that the lifestyle design trend often treats the means to achieve the lifestyle as the product of decision, instead of painstaking effort.

    I don’t know what Tim actually believes, because I’m merely reporting on what I see as a larger trend of lifestyle design in general. Which, in my opinion, merges with the passive-income meme in many ways suggesting that the “decision” about which avenue for income generation to pursue is more important than the effort to sustain it.

    That doesn’t mean I dislike Tim’s work, or his book at all. If you read my review, you’ll notice it is favorable. Simply that Tim’s work has become such an all-consuming meme on the internet, I find it more useful to deconstruct it than to write thousand word me-too articles.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Young,
    I came upon your website last year but was never able to take the time to look through it properly until now. Your posts are very interesting but as a student, I’m not understanding some of the aspects of holistic learning. Do you know any decent and free resources that I could use to learn more about speed reading and other things about learning more, and studying less? If not, is it possible for you to post some video demonstrations/animations or more pictures? I’m still new to your blog so if you have any tips please let me know. Thanks!

    By the way, I’m a student trying to improve my productivity and trying to improve my grades (all A’s except one B that I’m working hard to change). I read Getting Things Done and in the middle of Making it All Work and I’m planning to re-check out The Leadership Challenge and The Four-hour Workweek to finish reading them. However, I don’t think I understand how to implement the techniques let alone get things done efficiently or understanding the basics.

  • FrF

    One of these days someone should make a taxonomy of Personal Development websites!

    On one end of the spectrum we would have ultra-reflective people like the continually self-doubting and self-tweaking PJ Eby, with pragmatics like Cal Newport and Scott in the middle and more gung-ho, aggressive strategists like Tim Ferriss and Steve Pavlina (e.g.http:// on the other side.

    * I’m enjoying PJ’s book project which he’s currently sending out chapter by chapter to people who have signed up to his mailing list:

  • Wendy Irene

    Wow! I know that great thoughts is not the most original comment, but I can’t help myself because that sums up exactly how I feel. This post really struck a cord with me, and made a lot of sense!

  • Maria

    I am one of those people who worries and designs and worries some more. It took several years of being a grownup and working meaningless jobs and feeling jealous of others’ accomplishments to realize that I had to seize the moment and just do what I wanted to do with my life. Now that I have a general idea of what I want to accomplish, how do I stop the worrying and planning that plagues nearly every day of my life??

  • Duff

    A mentor of mine told me once that the folks who made money in the Gold Rush were the ones who sold the equipment to the miners. I think the same is true of “making money on the internet” or “lifestyle design.”

    The biggest criticism I have of Ferris’ lifestyle design is that his whole system relies on cheating. Ferris cheated at martial arts and won on a technicality. He cheated at Tango by hiring a top female Tango dancer to make it look like he was leading. And the structure of his business involves cheating at business, taking shortcuts like exploiting exchange rates, etc.

    Ferris didn’t invent the idea of caring about more than money in one’s career, nor about leveraging one’s time and resources to do more of what you most value in life. These fundamental principles remain important regardless of the latest fad for achieving them.

  • Oscar – freestyle mind

    I personally think his model of lifestyle design is based on removing assumptions that we currently have. Making a living online and living in hot countries is possible if you consider that living in countries like thailand costs way less than living in cities like new york.

    Still, you have to work to get all of this. It’s not overnight success and you have to try until you get what you want, so I agree that lifestyle design is earned somehow.

  • Lis Carpenter

    @Duff some call it cheating, some call it lifehacking and streamlining. Tim Ferriss not only “cheats” he deconstructs seemingly impossible goals and works hard to achieve them.

    Scott, I am grateful that you took the time to analyze Tim’s work and comment on it though I also disagree. Choice does matter. A person that is working in corporate America that never chooses to build income streams other than his/her wages, that ends up getting fired before they reach their retirement stage really suffers. Think, if that same person had made the decision not to be dependent on the system, to make their skills more marketable to many different companies, and to build many different streams of income. That’s lifestyle design in one sense. When that person got fired it would not be as devastating. In these times, Ferriss’ perspective on things is exactly what we need.

    Even people that make it to retirement with their companies. Most of the time they are sick and they are definitely too old to do a lot of the things that they dreamed of doing when they were younger. This is the tragedy that Ferriss created a movement against.

  • rossccini

    I believe that scott shares a great opinion in taking the painstaking effort in achieving what you want out of life, i believe thats how masters of anything did it. It is effort that determines where you lie on the spectrum. The average person lies in the middle he exerts passive effort he gets passive results, it might be satisfactory to him or may even be success depending on how he look at.

    Another point i would like to share is that some people are to overly critical. That in essence is like shooting yourself in the foot. You critque to make sure the person as build is thesis on strong premises but not to knock them down because there thesis doesnt attune to you.In any event personally i just try to learn the positive values out of any arguement or article. Which in this is case is painstaking effort is a core essential especially when pursuing your life goals.

    Also my opinion on decision and effort is that a decision must come before effort so it is only wise to make a wise decision before putting all of your effort into it, so there you go i agree with Tim Ferris and Scott Young.

  • Scott Young


    I wouldn’t take my criticism of Ferriss that far. His book is extremely well written and many of the “cheats” he utilizes could also be described as brilliant strategies.

    But I think Tim is sometimes done a disservice because people see the feats he performs and thinks they are magical, when in reality he has a highly developed set of skills. Anyone who has seen his talks on web optimization understands that he has a highly developed skillset with optimizing web pages and measurement in general.

    It’s not *just* the tactics that allow him to “cheat” it’s the highly developed skills that bring rise to the specific tactics.


  • Jonny |

    Earned. NO wait, designed? Or is it earned. I have no idea.

  • How to Speak Japanese

    Lifestyle, as most people define it, needs money and the more money you earn, the better (in public opinion) lifestyle you can design.
    Many people decide that they are happy with their accomplishments and their way of living. Their lifestyle is just differernt from those who amke top dollars.

    One advantage of the higher earning individual is the possibility of location changes or changes in work habits.
    Example: a friend of mine who works as a consultant stopped working during the real downturn of the economy because those laid off from the big firms tried to find work at lowest hourly rates. He instead decided to take vacations and also invested in training. Now he is back in business at the same rates as before the downturn, whereas the others worked their … off at low rates and have difficulties to charge higher ones now that the economy recovers.
    Lifestyle, whether earned or designed, is a combination of personal goals, abilities, restrictions (partners, children), ambitions and money.

    I am happy with mine 🙂

    All the best – and don’t worry too much about other peoples lifestyles

  • How to Speak Japanese

    Just found an example of someone changing his lifestyle and goals.
    Hi IQ made him not only famous, but probably also triggered his changes in later life.

    (hope it is OK to put this link in here)

  • David

    I don’t take this post as a criticism of Ferris or those recommending following your passion. It’s very easy for people to take these concepts to depths that aren’t realistic or productive. You’ve presented a balanced perspective that people should consider. You can drive yourself nuts if you try to follow Ferris or the passion idea to the “letter of the law.”

    I’m deeply passionate about Registered Longhorn Cattle, but there is no one in the industry making the kind of income that I need to make at this time. Following that passion exclusive to other areas would be foolish.

    Balance and perspective are critical to peace of mind and success.

  • Craig Thomas

    I’d say designed will become earned. Also, I follow and enjoy Tim’s work and it’s helped in a few areas but it ultimately comes down to me designing my ‘ideal’.

  • EJ

    Interesting article.

    Minor nitpick: The people making the big bucks in the pharmaceutical industry aren’t the ones doing research – it’s the marketers, accountants, lawyers and upper levels of management, who often have no scientific background whatsoever.

    Spoken from bitter experience. 😉

  • Paul Montwill – Switch Stories

    The success doesn’t came overnight and it is a hard work. I can’t understand why people believe they can quickly and without pain redesign their lives. It usually takes a few years of hard work but the fruits are worth the effort.

  • shreevidya

    good opinion!

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