For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick plot synopsis.

Evelyn and Waymond Wang own a laundromat. Their business is failing, their marriage is fracturing, and so is their relationship with Joy, their daughter. During a meeting with the IRS, Evelyn is visited by a version of her husband from a parallel universe. He says that the multiverse — all of the many parallel universes — is under attack from an evil being named Jobu Tupaki, and Evelyn is the only one who can save it. The rest of the film is about Evelyn overcoming her skepticism and discovering her true power (and Waymond’s).

This trailer pretty much nails the mood and theme of the film. If this preview intrigues you, you’ll probably like it:

Everything Everywhere All at Once is strange. Very strange. It starts mundane and boring, descends into madness, then ultimately ties everything together in some magical ways. Some people hate it. They can’t finish watching it. That’s too bad, because if you abandon the film during the boring part or the strange part, you never get to the magical part. The tedium and the madness are all part of the journey.

I’ve watched the film five times now (and will likely watch it a sixth later today), and I get something new from each viewing. The movie is rich. And detailed. And layered. In fact, it’s designed for repeat viewing (because frequently there’s no way to know something has meaning the first time through).

The reason the film hits me so hard, I think, is that its themes are aligned with things I’ve been ruminating over throughout 2022. While I was caring for my dying cousin during the spring, I reached some sort of nihilistic nadir. Like Jobu Tupaki, the movie’s “villain”, I decided that nothing matters, that life is inherently meaningless.

At heart, though, I’m a Waymond figure — and I always have been. It didn’t take me long to realize that even if life is inherently meaningless (especially if life is inherently meaningless), then it’s up to each of us to make our own meaning. And that kindness matters.

It’s as if the universe is trying to beat me over the head with a message: “J.D., you bozo, you are not trapped by your current reality. If you’re dissatisfied with this timeline, it’s up to you to create a timeline you like better.”

Message received, Universe.

Burnett and Evans aim to get students (and readers) to apply principles from the world of design to the process of planning their future. While sometimes this approach (and the terminology associated with it) feels forced, most of the time it works surprisingly well. In fact, I found this book was full of aha! moments.

What does a well-designed life look like? What does that notion even mean? “A well-designed life is a life that makes sense,” the authors write. “It’s a life in which who you are, what you believe, and what you do all line up together.” They call this alignment coherence, and I think it’s an excellent concept.

To build a coherent life, the authors encourage readers to practice five disciplines:

Because this book is based on an actual college course, it’s filled with exercises. These exercises were quite clearly homework assignments for Stanford students, but for old folks like me they’re useful tools to gain clarity.

But the exercise I like the most in Designing Your Life makes me think of the multiverse.

“This life you are living is one of many lives you will live,” write Burnett and Evans. “The plain and simple truth is that you will live many different lives in this lifetime. If the life you are currently living feels a bit off, don’t worry; life design gives you endless mulligans.”

To prove their point, they ask readers to visualize three versions of the future, to create three five-year Odyssey Plans.

An Odyssey Plan is like a roadmap to an alternate universe. It’s a vision of what your life might might like five years from now. And the authors want you to draft three of these so that you can see clearly that there really is a multitude of alternate realities from which to choose.

I love this idea. And, in fact, I think of it as a missing link in my own work.

But I’ve always felt that my presentation lacks a certain something. Now I know that that something is: Odyssey Plans (or my own version of this idea). An Odyssey Plan helps to put a personal mission statement into action.

Let me give you a real-life example of what Burnett and Evans are after. (This isn’t exactly their exercise, but it’s the same idea.) Let’s look at three possible futures for me.

Future #1: Get Rich Slowly.
The authors say that your first Odyssey Plan should be built around your existing life. In my case, that means Get Rich Slowly. This works well because that’s my preferred plan, anyhow. I have a clear vision of what I want this site to be, and although my aims have been thwarted repeatedly over the past year, I have made progress toward the goal I have in mind.

My preferred plan is to do what I’m doing now — but more of it…and more intensely.

Future #2: Preserving the Past
Your second Odyssey Plan should be something you’d do if your current work suddenly vanished. In many cases, that means you’d end up doing something similar to what you already do. For me, this is and isn’t true. If Get Rich Slowly suddenly vanished, I’d still write — but not about money.

The two months I spent with my cousin Duane at the end of his life made me interested in finding a way to contribute my talents to hospice somehow. But what can a writer do to help the dying? When I phrase it like that, I suspect you might already see the answer.

For my second five-year plan, I’d explore how to help people tell their life stories. The idea excites me, actually. I think I could do a good job at it because it’d combine a lot of my interests and talents.

So, my second possible future is helping people tell their life stories.

Future #3: A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
Your third Odyssey plan should be a pipe dream. It’s what you’d do if money (and/or the judgment of others) were no object.

In my case, I’ve had a plan percolating in the back of my head for a year now. My Plan C would be something completely different than I’ve ever done before. I’d go to art school.

You see, I’d like to draw a webcomic about personal finance. I’ve been a comic nerd my entire life. I’ve been writing about money for 15+ years now. This seems like a fun way to combine these two passions. And, in fact, I have a concept already. It’s about a young woman named Penny Short who moves to small village inhabited by colorful characters, all of whom are anthropomorphized animals. Each of these animals is a caricature of one of my colleagues (or their ideas).

That’s my third five-year plan. I’d go to art school, then create a webcomic about personal finance.

This book is so good, in fact, that I plan to make time to work through all of the exercises. And I’m not the only one. Kim is going to do them with me, as is my buddy Craig.

Even if I didn’t plan to do the exercises, though, I feel like I would have profited from reading Designing Your Life. The book is packed with actionable advice and thought-provoking questions.

For me, though, the biggest takeaway has been that the multiverse isn’t just the stuff of science fiction. That concept can be applied to my own life today. By taking the time to think about how to align my life with my values, then drafting multiple five-year plans that fit with these coherent values, I — and anyone else — can build a well-lived, joyful life.

My biggest pet peeve with this book is the lack of an index. I never understand how books like this make it to print without a way to look things up. Designing Your Life is dense with “sticky” ideas, and I found myself wanting to reference past sections repeatedly. But it was nearly impossible to find the info I wanted because there’s no index. Instead, I had to flip through page by page until I found what I wanted. Such a terrible design decision for a book guided by design principles.