New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about two ways of thinking about life: the Well-Planned Life and the Summoned Life. 

The Well-Planned Life

Brooks’s presentation of the Well-Planned Life leant heavily on a 2010 Harvard commencement address given by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and a “serious Christian” (yes you read that sentence correctly).

Brooks underlines Christensen’s Christian commitment by narrating how he refused to play College sports on a Sunday. But, Brooks says, Christensen “combines a Christian spirit with business methodology.”

In plotting out a personal and spiritual life, he applies the models and theories he developed as a strategist. He emphasizes finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs…When he is done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.

Christensen observed how high-achievers usually misallocate their resources. If they have a spare half-hour, they use it to produce some tangible result at work (like closing a sale, writing a blog! etc.), rather than invest time and energy in far more important things like family relationships, which may not yield results until 20 years later.

Christensen’s advice? Invest a lot of time when you are young in finding a clear purpose for your life. “When I was a Rhodes scholar,” he recalls, “I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it — and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.”

Having done that, he says, you are then able to make the right decisions about time-management and talent-multiplication.

The Summoned Life

David Brooks then goes on to describe the “Summoned Life,” a life lived from an entirely different perspective.

Life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose.

So, instead of plotting a course like a strategic planner, we should wait for the course to unfold and respond accordingly.

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

Such questions can only be answered by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.

In America, we have been taught to admire the lone free agent who creates new worlds. But for the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.

Brooks says that the more individualistic “Well-Planned Life” is more American, whereas the more social “Summoned Life” is common elsewhere.

Which is best? Well, in Brooks’s predictable “moderate” style he comes down firmly on the fence by concluding: “But they are both probably useful for a person trying to live a well-considered life.”


However American or un-American these two ways of living are is not the most important question for us. Rather we should be asking, which is the most biblical? Or are both unbiblical? What do you think?

I’ll give my thoughts tomorrow?