Is It Better to Have a Life Plan or a Life Philosophy?

By January 24, 2013Inspiration

Much has been written about the importance of a life plan. Even more has been written and promoted about steps to develop one. All of this is positive, but is it the right approach?

Life Plans Fall Short

Life plans without a life philosophy will not survive in the long haul. A bold statement, maybe, but I believe it is true.

Life plans set a direction and key objectives to pursue. It may even include key milestones to check along the way. Again, all positive. However, what is the meaning behind the plan? What character traits are embedded in plan? What is the aim of the plan in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or a lifetime?

Life. This is the key word, and it needs to have a solid purpose, a meaning underlying what and how we act. Our life philosophy defines how we will live, lead, and develop relationships.

As William B. Irvine pointed out in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:

“…readers should realize that there are costs associated with not have a philosophy of life. I have already mentioned one such cost: the danger that you will spend your days pursuing valueless things and will therefore waste your life.”

Philosophers used to be very popular, spending time with ordinary people to help them live extraordinarily. I believe this practice has great merit and the pendulum is swinging back to this practice. It is time to encompass our life plans with a solid life philosophy, gaining more meaning and purpose in what we do and how we do it.

The Value Unboxed

When a life philosophy and life plan come together, this is where the true power is realized. To gain further clarity on this situation, let’s unbox it.

 Life Philosophy Plus Life Plan

To understand the power of the combination, a two-by-two matrix can help. It creates a comparison between the possibilities, and it facilitates an outcome within each quadrant.

The outcomes are:

Wanderer. Having no life philosophy or plan will result in being a wanderer, and it will not necessarily be a happy one. Pick your favorite analogy, but it is being rudderless. Without either, there is no direction or foundation. There may be moments of meaning, and they may be really, really good moments. It will just be unrewarding as life ages and the hollowness of it all encompasses you.

This is not a good place to be in the long term.

Routine. If we move up to where a life philosophy is present without a plan, it gets better. A belief system is in place about how to live and how to be good citizens in our communities. We may be well-liked and have meaningful conversations. Herein is the danger. It can be a life of all talk and little action, or it can be a life of routines or sporadic bursts of action. There is a great life foundation in place, but the direction or plans for achieving meaningful outcomes will be lacking.

Think about the person who writes fortune cookies, and you can imagine the life here – a place of big thoughts in short bursts and good conversation starters. An easy chair may be present…. you get the picture.

Pace. Moving to having a life plan with no defined life philosophy, a different outcome unfolds, and this is the quadrant where many people will be. Life goals, objectives, strategies, and steps are well-defined, likely for a specific year ahead. Based on the previous year’s successes and failures, the plan is updated and renewed for another year. All good things to do, as it provides a pace to your life. It makes it go, the fuel.

Having a meaningful pace to life is important, but it may lack soul. Your beliefs are likely buried in the goals, but why not define the philosophies you want to live and lead by? It creates a higher calling to your life and the way you lead. Even more importantly, it provides another level of self-accountability.

Having pace in life is essential. We just need to ensure we are on the right path and are leading with an intended purpose.

Stride. When a life philosophy is combined with a life plan, it is like a jet taking off. The path will still be bumpy, but the lift-off will be awe-inspiring and filled with wonder realized.

How could one life travel so far and bring so many others with them? When in this quadrant of having a life philosophy combined with a plan, this is the question that will be posed by those around you. People will notice a strong sense of confident humility around you, and they will wonder how and why.

A strong belief system and a live-life-fully attitude empower a plan for the long haul. More than this, our purpose-filled stride rarely misses a beat. We are living from within, full of action and mindfulness in the outside world.

The real life formula is:

Life Philosophy + Life Plan = Opportunity to Live Full of Purpose

What do you believe empowers a life plan? What role do beliefs and philosophy play?

Learn more on how to solve problems and gain perspective in using a two-by-two matrix. Unbox Clarity: Two by Two is available now! This 13 page guide outlines an approach and offers several different examples.

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Nicole Denise Writes says:

    “Life plans without a life philosophy will not survive in the long haul.” I completely agree with this statement. I believe we (humans) fail because we lack a life philosophy; something deeper that we strive towards beyond our five year plan. What I have learned personally, is that things in my life didn’t start to gel and make sense until I had an underlying current that guided my life activities. For me, it’s pleasing God with my life and accomplishing things that effect the greater good of humanity. It is this blanket goal (philosophy) that helps me remove the pressure of the tasks and to-do lists my life plan entails, and has me focus on the experience itself.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Nicole, for adding your voice to this discussion. I agree that we need something deeper and that is where having a life philosophy helps. It sounds like you have a solid one and it keeps you focused. Really appreciate your insights and comments. Thank you! Jon

  • Hey Jon,
    a life plan is essential… since it is after all a life plan.. BUT as you cleared out above… having a Life Philosophy it sure improve all Life Plans.. thanks so much for your contribution to the world…

  • shankar ram says:

    More on two by two matrices here.

  • Caleb says:

    Jon, I tend towards having a life philosophy but often fail to put a plan into action. Thanks for this insightful post. I think I’ve felt the tension between plan and philosophy before but have never really been able to put it into words. I think for me the thing that really drives my life philosophy is a belief in the value of building personal relationships. Now I just need to work on making that part of my plan too.

    • Jon M says:

      Caleb, Thanks for your insights. I agree that there is a healthy tension between philosophy and plan and that is what can really make this work, if we embrace it. I am with you, too, in continuing to work this! Thank you! Jon

  • Amazing post, Jon. Leads me to think about this quote: “Not all those who wander are lost” — J.R.R. Tolkein — and that yes, even philosophical writers benefit from having a plan for the transitions from thought to word to meaningful connection. Thank you so much…and the matrix is a great visual reminder of what you’ve shared.

  • Wow. That’s what I have to say about this post, Jon.

    I’m going through a professional transition because I realized over the holidays that I needed to take my life philosophy and pair it up with my life plan. I’ve had a life philosophy and a life plan but I wasn’t yet coordinating the two. I wasn’t ready. I’m ready now. I’m a little nervous and a lot excited but I know I’m doing the right thing.

    Thanks for this insightful post!


    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Chrysta. I have no doubt you will pair them up well. If it is centered in your life philosophy, then it is the right thing to do. I guess this is where courage is suppose to kick-in, right? Easy for me to say!

      All the best. Glad your plan and philosophy are matching up. Godspeed! Jon

  • Marquita Herald says:

    Fascinating Jon. I have always been a planner, but I find that in recent years incorporating more flexibility and spontaneity into my life has become increasingly important. I have my BHAG goals, and can’t imagine life without my handy task list, but I now incorporate more time to do things spur of the moment and give myself permission to change course from time to time to take advantage of new experiences.

    • Jon M says:

      Marquita, Thanks for adding your experiences and insights. It is very valuable! I believe those spur of the moment things are important, as it is relates to your life philosophy and opens you up to creativity and possibilities. Great things to do! Thanks! Jon

  • Lolly Daskal says:

    Jon Absolutely brilliant. Life Philosophy + Life Plan = Opportunity to Live Full of Purpose (with Passion)

  • Jon, thought-provoking, as usual! I agree that neither plan without purpose nor philosophy without action is optimal in the long run. That’s why I believe in having a personal mission statement, just like every org needs to have a clear, actionable mission statement. To me, our mission is a bridge between our philosophy and action, as it articulates the beliefs, values and orientation underlying purposeful, guided action. That’s why mission statements typically contain action verbs. We can validate whether or not our plan of action fulfills our mission, and whether our mission reflects our philosophy, especially if life-altering events prompt re-examination. Thanks again for the thoughtful, well-written post, Jon! Alice

    • Jon M says:

      So grateful, Alice, for your added input on this approach. I definitely see how our mission can be a bridge between philosophy and action. It helps deliver the focus and, as you point out, make our philosophy active. Appreciate your insights and support! Jon

  • Thanks for this, Jon — a friend just shared it with me via Google+, and it echoes many of the thoughts I have on how people choose to live their lives and what they’re trying to get out of them — too many people are out there absorbing inspirational quotes and expert opinions without having any sort of life philosophy to contextualize the information they’re processing.

    I feel that I fall somewhere between routine and stride, where I know what I stand for and what I want to get out of life, but due to my unwillingness to develop a concrete plan, I either do things out of habit, or force myself to plan at times and come up with some AMAZING outcomes. In 2013, I’ve given myself a list of 100 goals ( and I feel that through accomplishing them, they only help to bolster my life philosophy!

    I like how this was broken down in a more practical manner than I often see. I hope it can resonate with some others and get them to think about how they’re trying to live their lives!

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Casey, for sharing your thoughts and experiences, too. I am glad that this helped break things down in a practical way. This concept and belief has been on my mind for awhile, and I finally got it down in writing. I just think there is so much value in getting a life philosophy in place; it can really empower our plans and purpose to a new level.

      The link you left isn’t working, however, If you want to give me a new one, I can replace it, unless you can edit your comment with an updated link.

      Thanks again! Jon

  • Hi Jon: Those are very well-drawn distinctions. I like the way you analyze what happens if you have one but not the other. Having some guiding mechanism certainly does beat being a wanderer (good label) but as you point out there are limitations that come from not having plan and philosophy aligned.

    I was wondering about the other labels in the grid. Could “routine” also be called “serenity”? Could “pace” be called something that conveys active movement without a full purpose, such as “bustle”? “Stride” is good. Would “Purpose” or “Destiny” be alternatives, too?

    Anyway, very nice piece. Thanks for posting it.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts and questions to this post. Really appreciate it, George.

      I second-guessed “routine” before I posted this, as it really seemed to be more than this. I like serenity because it is more about sitting or being in the moment without taking real forward action. I think that works well.

      Bustle is another good one because it highlights a lot of activity without real meaningful movement forward.

      To be in the upper right quadrant is about enlivening your purpose. Destiny has been a tough word for me in that it connotes a passive approach.

      Great adds and it gives me more thinks to think through, which I like! Grateful for your comments and insights! Jon

  • Kate Nasser says:

    Wow Jon — your posts are always good yet I think you have hit a high bar with this one.

    me life philosophy has bred an evolving life plan. It is the conduit to
    happiness. It comes from life and gives life. A plan alone can’t do

    Truly wonderful post. I will definitely share this on my streams.

    Many many thanks,
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Kate! Appreciate all you do, so it means a lot in getting this feedback from you. I like your statement “It comes from life and gives life.” For me, it creates a visual of breathing in and out; that life is a motion of taking and giving back out. And, this is what syncs a life philosophy and plan close together. Thank you! Jon

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