Three Life Templates for Modern Times

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Since ancient times, people have looked for guideposts to structure their lives and give them a sense of place, meaning and identity. How can we retain a sense of continuity when our world changes at an ever-increasing rate?

What does success look like and how can we get there? These questions are not far from Aristotle’s question: “What is the life of excellence?” Yet finding a satisfying answer can be hard when our circumstances are more and more in flux.

In the past, certain blueprints for how to live were proposed, adopted and adapted over the centuries. I will call these blueprints “life templates” and focus on three of the most common ones: the professional, the craftsman, and the autodidact. What is striking is that these templates continue to be used despite the fact that the foundations they are built on are shifting by the minute. I’d like to offer some commentary on each template and ways it can be adapted to modern life.

Please don’t confuse these life templates for jobs or even for careers. There are professionals, craftsmen, and autodidacts in nearly every job description. There are craftsmen in offices pushing papers, and there are mechanics that operate as professionals. I’m establishing these categories not so much based on what people do, as on what they value and how they do what they do.

The Professional

The professional is probably the best-known and most widely-practiced template, though actually newer than the two other templates I will discuss below. Ask a particularly anxious or conventional parent of an adolescent what they hope their child will do, and you’ll hear the professional template in its entirety: study hard in school to get into a good college. Get into a good college in order to find a decent job. Work hard in a decent job in order to get promoted. Get promoted in order to earn a lot of money. Earn money to retire comfortably. This, is the professional template stripped to its essentials.

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One aspect absent from my characterization of the professional is any reference to the actual work being done. Clearly there are professionals who care about their work, but for my purposes, professionals are careerists. They do what they do to achieve stability, advancement, and earning potential.

Today, the professional template can still work, although perhaps not in what we now might call the “good old days” of the company man (or woman). What the professional template promises is stability and a smooth, upward trajectory towards bountiful retirement. This works well as long as companies reward loyalty, and unemployment isn’t out of control; two assumptions we can no longer make. As large companies strip their long-time employees of benefits, if not their jobs, the professional template offers far less stability than in decades past. Recently, the smarter bets for professionals are government jobs, or private-sector jobs that satisfy long-standing government contracts.

The Craftsman

Craftsmen (and that includes crafts-women) put the focus on the work rather than the job. This is not to say that there isn’t a career path for craftsmen. In fact the apprenticeship model is the technology that allows masters to bring up a new generation of skilled craftsmen to replace them. Where college-trained professionals focus on knowing facts, craftsmen concentrate on honing skills through years of practice. What a professional knows can be written down. What a craftsman does is learned primarily through observation and practice.

Craftsmanship can be incredibly rewarding for those who genuinely like the work itself. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for coining the term “flow” to describe the feeling of being totally absorbed in a challenging task. The downside of craftsmanship is that demand for artisan-grade products and services seems to be dwindling. The success of big-box stores stocked to the rafters with identical, cheaply mass-produced items gives silent testimony to our current views on quality and craftsmanship.

The good news for craftsmen is that not everyone shops at Walmart. Some are demanding more quality and variety in their everyday goods and are willing to pay more for the privilege. The popularity of “buy it for life,” “local food” and “artisan” movements may be the first move in a shift back towards quality, uniqueness, and a more personal relationship towards the producer.

The Autodidact

If professionals learn from college and craftsmen learn from their masters, then autodidacts learn from the world itself. Of the three templates, the autodidact may be the most attuned to the rising pitch of unrelenting change. In one sense, the autodidact is an anti-template or an un-template in that it rejects the direct tutelage or mentorship that comes with the professional or craftsman templates. On the other hand, autodidacts are free to select from any source: direct experience, academic resources, or skilled practitioners. The difference is that the autodidact assumes control over the shape and outcome of his or her education.

The aim of all this independence is to find something both new and useful: the better mousetrap, perhaps. During times of upheaval, the autodidact would seem to have the edge, as change brings about new opportunities that professionals and craftsmen may miss. Beyond the joy of discovery is the hope of a patent, an innovative product or business, or a best-selling book.

Spectacularly successful autodidacts are the stuff of legends. Leonardo Da Vinci is one historical example of the self-educated man. More recently, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs fit the bill. The trouble is that it’s hard to separate the unsuccessful autodidact from someone “just messing around” or “wasting time.” The ranks of failed autodidacts are beyond counting but we all know a kooky uncle with some crazy ideas that never took off. Without credentials or some other way to justify their value, autodidacts put themselves in a precarious position should their ideas fail to pan out. One way to mitigate this kind of risk is to invest modestly in a wide variety of ideas with the hope that a runaway success of any one of them more than pays for all the failures. This is the approach proposed by Peter Sims in his book Little Bets [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?).

Perhaps in the past there were safe bets and smart ways to reliably do well. This is less so today. And yet each of these templates can still be made to work given current circumstances, given some tweaking and some reimagining, and accepting that there are no true sure bets left.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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