Seth Adelman: A robust framework for good practical wisdom

Dark Car On Road Under Cloudy Sky 
by Scopio from
Dark Car On Road Under Cloudy Sky
by Scopio from

The landmarks are visible, the terrain is coming into focus, the paths open to me are clear and I can see my way forward.

– Seth Adelman

Good ideas can often arise from more than one starting point. That isn’t just true in the sciences, where our best theories are supported by multiple lines of evidence. It’s also true in everyday life. For example, the Golden Rule can be “found in some form in almost every ethical tradition” according to philosopher Simon Blackburn. Living your life as a kind of continual experiment may be another such idea.

Having recently retired from medical practice, I was eager to plan my future and wanted to see if there was a way to integrate the various interests I’ve acquired over the years. I read the book ‘Range’ by David Epstein (about the value of being a generalist in a world of specialists) and came across these pearls: “…we are each made up of numerous possibilities.” “We discover the possibilities… by trying new activities….” “Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly.”

When I then heard a podcast interview with Prof. Evans introducing me to the Designing Your Life methodology, I was immediately intrigued. Here were the same ideas framed within a fully developed system for implementing them. And I soon discovered that there was an online DYL workshop starting in just a few weeks!

Citizen coaches

The workshop (directed with a steady hand by the facilitators at Fieldbrook Advising) fully lived up to its potential. Early on, it became clear that the participants wouldn’t just play a passive role. We were effectively ‘deputized’ as honorary life coaches and placed in small groups where we were instructed not to judge but to be supportive, and not to advise but to generate ideas. For trained clinicians this isn’t difficult, but I was struck by how everyone I worked with easily fell into this role. People want to help each other and are eager to do so in the right settings.

We certainly weren’t dealing with trivial issues! What narratives did you grow up with? What are your views on work? What does life mean to you, in 150 words or less? What alternate lives (or ‘odyssey plans’) can you imagine, no matter how improbable? And what specific actions can you take to explore these possibilities?

Despite our widely varying backgrounds, the small group sessions were mutually supportive and often quite fun, even though few if any of us had met before. On occasion — for example, when seeking suggestions about new work-related pursuits — it probably helped that I was in the same group with two other physicians. But most of the time, our diverse backgrounds didn’t seem to matter. 

In fact, it was probably *easier* to present our crazier or ‘wildcard’ ideas to a group of new (but impartial) colleagues than it would be to family or friends (who might be more likely to offer a critique)!

An open framework

Between the sessions there was lots more to read and do, as detailed in our online workbook and app. Some of the topics covered include life balance and priorities, time and energy management and decision making. 

Not having read the original books yet, I don’t know what else is included in the system. But so far, I’m impressed that DYL is both a detailed program and a framework incorporating good practical wisdom from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. It favors no particular worldview and assumes only that we have the capacity to chart our own course.

And as an open framework, I wonder what other insights could be ‘plugged into’ the system, like modules. For example, it seems to me that modern personality theory can be understood in ways that are completely compatible with positive psychology and DYL methods. There’s much food for thought here, and I look forward to learning more.

My fellow participants seem to share this view. When we had a chance to chat, we sometimes touched on other life management tools we’ve used. A common question was ‘Is that compatible with DYL?’ And quite often, other systems are indeed compatible. Good ideas, like people of good will, tend to work well together.

Going forward

For me, the act of writing out my thinking about the future, making it specific and crowdsourcing my ideas has been tremendously helpful. I’m less inclined now to default to familiar activities and more motivated to explore the novel. And the future no longer seems like an uncharted territory. The landmarks are visible, the terrain is coming into focus, the paths open to me are clear and I can see my way forward.

Of course, life design is a continuing process, and a workshop like this can only be the beginning. So I’m delighted that several of us will be forming a study or ‘mastermind’ group. The benefits of collaborative thinking in endeavors like this are clear and I’m eager to see where our efforts lead.

Much appreciation and great thanks to Profs. Burnett and Evans and their associates for putting all this together! I hope they continue to develop and enrich the system as we learn more about how to achieve well-being and meaning in life.

  • Seth Adelman is an aspiring polymath still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. Having received his MD degree at age 21, he recently retired after a long career in the public sector as a neurologist caring for people with developmental disabilities. As a ‘permanent student at the university of life,’ he has studied music for many years at the Juilliard School and has studied several languages. And just for fun, he arranged several hundred episodes of the popular ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast series in thematic order for the listeners’ benefit. In this next phase, he hopes to combine his passion for learning about most anything with his humanistic instincts to continue making a difference in people’s lives.