The Responsible Way to Blow Up Your Life

Here’s what to do with that late-pandemic impulse to make a big change

Photo: Hispanolistic/Getty Images

Blowing up your life has always seemed like a romantic idea — shrugging off all the things that were weighing you down, wiping your slate clean, actually doing the thing you always kept tucked in the back of your mind. Trying your hand at a job in a totally different industry. Picking up and moving somewhere new, just for the thrill of the change.

Now, there’s a sense going around that those options are feeling more possible than they ever have before: Covid already blew up our lives. Now, the thinking goes, comes the chance to do it ourselves.

A common refrain throughout the pandemic is that it’s been a time of self-reflection and discovery. Perhaps because we’re wired for seeking meaning, versions of the question swirl: What have you learned? What’s become clear to you about what you want, about what matters? And buried beneath those questions is a more actionable one: Who do you now want to be?

Of course, that wondering is a sensation not everyone is privileged enough to experience, and a radical reconsideration not everyone has the resources to execute. While there’s a tendency to spin the past year as a great awakening, that undersells how many people yearned to change their circumstances and knew systems were inherently broken before. It’s fine to imagine new lives and selves; it’s a different matter to give people the resources to have that agency. But we know that the pandemic — joining other significant points in history and our lives — has spurred a kind of reflection point, a moment of renegotiation about what’s been working, what hasn’t, what we want, and most centrally, who we are.

Over the past few years of reporting a book on young adulthood and life transitions, I’ve been mystified by the allure of the “fresh start” — an abstract idea we’re taught to chase, or, at the very least, imagine for ourselves. After all, how easy is it to envision the new self you’ll be in a new place, or with new hobbies, or new opportunities? “Who do we want to be” is such a foundational question throughout young adulthood, but it’s also one people described considering when picturing their life post-pandemic: They articulated new jobs, less focus on work, more time spent with friends, and, as someone phrased it to me recently, “to become a new person.”

So, I was curious as to whether the blow-up-your-life impulse worked in reality. Is there a realistic, responsible way to act to become that new version of ourselves?

Sort of.

The false promise of a clean slate

“I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘wiping the slate clean’ of our lives,” says Ruth Chang, chair and professor of jurisprudence at the University of Oxford who studies choice and decision-making. “We are embedded creatures, embedded in our histories and our psychologies and our cultures.”

You can quit your job, leave your spouse, or pick up and move, but “you will bring yourself with you,” says Chang, adding “the skills and capacities you had for facing hard choices will follow you wherever you go.”

Though part of the luster of the significant fresh start, whatever that means for you — a cross-country move, starting a business, cutting bangs — feels like this idea of imagining a totally new life, and a new self to go with it, Chang says that a better question might be: “Who can I commit to becoming?” In other words, the more sustainable way to make a big, life-shaking change is to reverse the order of operations. Instead of planning the life and assuming your desired self will come with it, start by intentionally constructing that self.

Asking the hard questions

Of course, that’s not exactly a simple undertaking. While the grass-is-greener mindset often makes it easy to rush headlong into a new life phase, full of optimism and vigor, it can feel a lot more challenging to decide so definitively on who we want to be.

While the impulse around making any big decision is to gather as much information as possible about our options, Chang explains that’s only useful up to a point. “What we have failed to recognize is that sometimes in life, one option isn’t better, worse, or equal to another,” says Chang. “When options are on a par, the choice between them is hard. And we have to look somewhere else — not in the world but in ourselves — to find the reasons to choose one alternative over another.” Those reasons might be practical, or they might be more introspective, based on values or even a gut feeling.

Or they might be both. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began shutting down businesses, Nicole Voris, 30, had begun to feel stifled and frustrated in her career. After working and training in the ballet world — a career path often centered on order, consistency, and discipline — for 20 years, she knew she’d hit a wall in career growth. And once shutdowns took place, the status of her job and income felt precarious, with her status as a subcontractor feeling especially vulnerable.

So, she started over — specifically, she started at California State University, Los Angeles, this school year, pursuing a master’s in accounting with the goal of eventually working toward her CPA license. “I’m still in my transition period. So I don’t have any wise knowledge yet,” says Voris of making a significant life change.“Some days I do feel overwhelmed by the amount I need to learn,” she adds, “but for the most part I feel very free and liberated.”

Which is precisely what happens when we make hard choices, Chang explains: What feels like a narrowing of options is often, in reality, freedom. “When we face hard choices, by committing to one option over another we make ourselves into one kind of person rather than another,” explained Chang. “We build ourselves through what we do in hard choices.”

The alternative to committing is drifting, Chang added, something most people do. It’s not inherently a bad thing, and “sometimes we need to drift for a while in order to be in a position to commit,” Chang said. But drifting is also a missed opportunity to make yourself into a distinctive kind of person: one who has chosen to make these changes, at this time, and stand behind them.

Timing matters

The idea of the “fresh start” can be powerful in describing moments when we make a big change or improve ourselves, says Katherine L. Milkman, PhD, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who has done research on the “fresh start effect.”

One of Milkman’s main research findings was that, when certain dates arrive on the calendar, they can help spur us to start making changes in our own lives we otherwise may not have pursued. “Temporal landmarks, which are defined as moments that stand out from on our calendars and help us mark time the way physical landmarks help mark a landscape, also tend to make us step back and think big picture about our lives, which tends to lead us to think about goals and set new priorities,” Milkman adds.

Sometimes, changes themselves also prompt big, personal change. Cameron Williams, 24, went through a hard breakup with his partner, which was a catalyst for beginning to care for his mental health by seeing a psychiatrist and therapist, and “trying to rediscover what I like and focus on myself.” Williams was passionate about stand-up comedy, and embraced the new habit, performing all over New York City. But by early 2020, he was laid off from his job, which he’d been looking to leave, right before the pandemic. “Just those few things, rather than just kind of stretching myself in all directions, really was my starting over and blowing up in my life,” Williams explains. He’s proud of where he is now, he explained, but feels that had he done things sooner, he’d be in a better spot. “I mean, obviously, a breakup and a global pandemic, all these things are definitely kicks in the butt,” he adds.

It may not be the obvious “fresh start,” but those decisions led to a dramatically different life. The same can be true of our present circumstances: This doesn’t have to be the moment in which everything about you is different, in which you have the epiphany that will change your life. Instead, this can be a moment for putting one foot in front of the other and being conscious of each step, how those little choices add up to different selves. The impulse for change, and the ability to reimagine what life could be, can be a powerful factor in actually making sprawling changes through simple means: reflection, commitment, and making choices, not as elaborate as fearlessly stumbling into the unknown — but significant because we chose them.

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.