Last November, the house next door went up for auction. I’d long admired the two-storey brick structure with a white chimney and dark-panelled roof. I’d peered over the fence and dreamt of our children growing up there, playing touch football in its flat, tree-lined garden. I imagined Christmas Day, when we would drink champagne on the balcony while cousins splashed in the swimming pool. I pointed it out to my husband as we walked past: “That’s my dream house,” I said.
When I spotted the For Sale sign, I called the real estate agent, then the bank. It would lend us the money, but it would stretch our family budget. We’d be paying off a mortgage for the next 25 years.
I looked at my husband and could see in the squint of his eyes that he wanted to give me my dream. But behind these eyes lay something deeper – anxiety or perhaps a question. Is this really what we want?
A few days later, I had an unsettling conversation with my doctor: blood tests had returned unexpected results. “There’s only one explanation for this and it isn’t good,” she said.
Her face was red and her fingers trembled, rattling the printed test results she held between them. I retook the test that afternoon. The next morning she called, heaving an enormous sigh of relief. “There must have been a mistake.”
But the night before had been agony; I lay in bed looking at the ceiling. At first, I worried about little things, such as whether my husband would remember to put sunscreen on the kids without me there. About 3am, anxiety turned to anger. Why had I wasted so much time bothering about things that didn’t matter? Then I planned ahead: what would I make of the time I had left?
I’d never really wanted that house. I just walked past it every day, and it seemed like the logical next step. Similarly, with work, I’d admired the careers of people I knew well. “If only I could build a business like that,” I’d think.
My momentary health scare had given me new perspective. If I only look at the houses I walk past or careers that resemble those of my friends, I’ll miss all the other opportunities the world has to offer.
I called Isabelle Phillips, an executive leadership coach and a lecturer and researcher at UTS Business School at University of Technology, Sydney. Phillips specialises in enhancing wellness and performance in the workplace.
I asked her for a framework that leads to good life decisions. Surely other people become trapped, looking just at the options around them? I don’t want to get to the end of my life and wish I’d chosen a different path.
Her advice was simple and powerful: “Don’t think about what suburb you want to live in or what company you want to work at. Just try to imagine your perfect day. Be granular: plan out every half hour; think about how you’d be using your body and mind. What would you do in the first half hour after you wake up? Would you be exercising, eating a healthy breakfast, connecting with your family?
“How would you get to work? Would you bike, drive, catch a train, or would you walk to a studio in the back of your garden? What clothes would you wear: a suit or casual shorts? When you arrive at your desk, who’d be there? Would you be surrounded by the same 12 people or do you prefer meeting new people each day? Do you see yourself at a whiteboard facilitating meetings or sitting by yourself doing deep work? It’s a challenging exercise to do; you need to get out of the helicopter and onto the forest floor.”
People plan their future by jumping behind the eyeballs of an imaginary person who might interview them.
— Isabelle Phillips, executive coach
Phillips says it amazes her that people make critical life decisions by looking only one step up a ladder. “They’ll plan their future by jumping behind the eyeballs of an imaginary person who might interview them.
“For example, I recently met a marketing manager at a construction company who said he was considering moving jobs, maybe to a head of marketing role in an industry that would value what he’d learnt in construction. He wasn’t happy or inspired by the options and couldn’t work out why.
“If you set goals based on how the market values your skills as opposed to what activities bring you joy and energy, there’s a chance that you’ll wake up one day feeling deeply dissatisfied with your choices.”
The 19 hours between leaving my doctor’s surgery and the phone call the next morning had felt like a journey through an old-fashioned clothes wringer. As I lay staring at the ceiling, I’d wrung every personal value and decision flat through giant rollers, plans pouring everywhere.
From flatness came clarity. I focused on the granular – how I’d use each day – and developed a plan that inspired me. And a large brick house, fancy job title and tailored suits didn’t factor at all.