Wisdom//

Why You Should Think About Your Life Arc

This exercise will help put your life into perspective.

This is your life arc.

The arc is chronological from birth to death and will tell your story, most importantly what’s likely to come at you and how to manage it. By doing this exercise, your particular life arc picture will emerge.

To get oriented, imagine roughly where you are on that arc. You don’t have to be precise because life isn’t precise. Unless you have some reason to believe otherwise, assume that you will live to be about 80, give or take a decade, and that you start at zero (or look at these probabilities.) That will show about how much you have left. Now let’s explore what it will be like.

As I see it, most lives can be divided into three big phases with two transitions between them as shown in the chart below. In the first phrase, we are dependent on others and we learn; in the second, others are dependent on us and we work; in the third, when others no longer depend on us and we no longer work, we are free to savor life until we die. While you can postpone or hasten your movement into the phases, you will inevitably go through each of them which are unimaginably different from each other. Because they are so different, let’s reflect on them and the transitions between them. 

In each of these phases you are physically, psychologically, financially, and circumstantially very different than in the others, though these differences don’t appear stark when you go through them because they blend together and we tend to pay more attention to what we are experiencing at the time than we step back to see the big picture. The big picture is that in the first phase you are under the guidance of others (probably your parents), have little freedom, and are being shaped. In the second phase, which is the adventure and heavy burden phase, you have great freedom to choose what you want, where you want to live, and who you want to be associated with as long as you are practical enough to make what you choose work for you. This stage presents you with too many choices and things to do, so effective prioritization and decision-making are key to your success. You will probably like — or even get hooked on — doing that well, or you won’t do it well and will be overwhelmed. At a minimum, your need to survive will keep you working at it, which will keep you learning. This is the struggle phase in which the goal is to struggle well. (For my 30-minute animated video on how to make this phase go well, click here.) The third phase is almost completely opposite of the second phase. It’s the phase in which burdens and obligations are minimized and savoring life is the most important objective. Different challenges, such as health challenges, increasingly emerge in this stage. 

Each phase in life is so different from the one before it that you are like a newborn when you enter it, so it is important to be humble in trying to learn how to navigate it well. Now let’s get more specific. (As we will be putting a fair amount of stuff on this arc you might want to draw your own on a piece of paper by copying the one diagram with the three phases and two transitions.)

Think about the most important people in your life — your children, your parents, your spouse or lover, your boss — and put little ticks on the arc with their initials to mark where they are. Because they’re important to you, how they will change will have a big effect on the changes in your life and vice versa.

Now look at your life arc chart and think about what the next five to 10 years will be like for you and these people your life is intertwined with. Think about what each of you want and what you will have to do to get what you want. Think about your physical selves and imagine how you and they will change over the next five to 10 years (or longer if you like). Think about what you need to do to help the other key people on this chart to evolve well given what the future picture of them will be like and what you’d like them to do to help you evolve well. You might want to agree with them on what those things are. On that piece of paper, write any notes you care to remind yourself of the important things you come up with while doing this exercise. If this diagram is getting too complicated for you, make another one or two to go along with it.

Because it’s hard to visualize what you haven’t experienced yet, ask others who are in or have gone through these phases about them. For example, if you’re headed into a certain career, ask those people you respect in it to describe what the career is like, including how it evolves. Do the same with other key aspects of your life like having children. Write down notes that capture what you learn. You will appreciate referring to them and refining them over time.

Reflect on the steps and choices that you will have to make. For example, if you want to be a doctor you will have to go to med school, intern, etc., and, if you want to do that while being a parent you will have to juggle your work and parenting responsibilities, and if you want to spend money in later years you will have to save now. Write down the choices that occur to you now and leave room to fill in more as they occur to you later. You don’t have to — and you can’t — fill in everything in one or two sittings, so keep your chart around, reflect on it, and build on it regularly. As time passes, observe how your life is actually changing as you move along that arc, especially noting the patterns and how reality works and how to deal with it well, feeling free to change your mind and evolve.

Now let’s focus on the transition phases and the milestones along the way. The transition phases typically last roughly 10 years and have clear milestones to them — e.g. graduating from school and entering the job market is clear milestones that signals going from the first to the second phase because it leads to greater degrees of self-sufficiency and the moving on to a very new and different type adventure with very different types of burdens — but it doesn’t signify the completion of the transition. It is typically followed by other milestones like having one’s own children, which is a classic signal that one is well into phase two. As your life transpires, note these milestones and what they are signaling you.

Because these three phases are approximately generational you can note these transitional markers via your parents and your children making their own transitions in sync with you making yours. For example, when your children are transitioning into the second phase you are probably near transitioning into your third phase and your parents are probably close to transitioning out of the picture (or they already have). Because of that, by observing the markers happening to them you can see where you probably are. For example, when your parents pass away and/or your kids graduate from school it should dawn on you that you are probably near transitioning from your second to your third phase. Not all of these markers happen on schedule — some happen earlier, some happen later and some don’t happen at all — so pay attention to the pattern of them all rather than focusing too intently on them individually.

These transitions and generational relationships are important to note beyond one’s family — for example in thinking about succession at work. Observe how they all naturally fit together and what you should do to help them fit together well. For example, note how as the younger generation transitions deeper into phase two, they naturally become more capable and self-sufficient just as the older generation is naturally wanting to pass along the burdens of the second phase so that they can successfully transition into their third phase. Being mindful that this passing along of the burdens and opportunities is coming will help those passing them and receiving them do it well.

Because the relationships between these generations are naturally “designed” to fit together well, paying attention to how they work is instructional. By being observant, you will see that the older generation should step back to make room for the younger generation while the younger generation should step up. As both generations enter their new phases, they should humbly seek advice from people who have successfully been through what’s ahead to learn what it’s going to be like and to get their most important principles for handling the phases well.

Of course there are many more milestones and interesting things about moving along your life arc that I won’t get into because we are at the point of diminishing returns and because you can figure them out for yourself. I just wanted to get you thinking about your and others’ life arcs, to draw your attention to fact that there are these markers, and to have you think about how they fit together so that you and the people you care about move along them well. If you think this is worthwhile, you can take it from here. 

P.S. — As for me, I am approaching my 70th birthday loving this transition phase while finding it challenging and extremely exciting.

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