Are You Living in Autopilot Mode?
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Are You Living in Autopilot Mode?

Welcome to the April blog post, where we are talking about the risk of being on “autopilot mode” in your day-to-day life. Keep reading as I discuss what it is, how to tell if you are experiencing this, and how you might be potentially leaving a lot of good things on the table by not knowing about it or when to take action.

What is the Autopilot Trap?

Simply put, it’s when you go through life without really thinking about your decisions or what you really want to do in your life. It often starts at a young age, in childhood, and your upbringing often brings with it a certain level of expectations.

You (and your family) might not even think of these expectations consciously, but often it’s your environment that instills this into you. As you grow up and you’re going through school, you’re thinking and looking ahead at your life, and that’s when people fall into this autopilot trap, which is to say that they get onto this path without even realizing that they’re on it.

You might have parents who are white collar executives, or middle managers, or college professors, or electricians or plumbers. It doesn’t really matter what the profession is. However, there is often some sort of expectation that “Hey, Dad has a plumbing business, so I should be a plumber as well.

Or, maybe your parents don’t pressure you to go into the profession they are in, but you think of their example instead. “Hey, mom and dad both went to college, and they are now managers in a corporation, so I should go to college too.” It becomes what’s expected of you, whether it’s said out loud or not.

So you set down on this path as a young adult, and there’s these expectations in front of you that you haven’t even picked for yourself. You haven’t sat down and asked yourself what YOU want to do with your life.

You might be happy at first, and you might even be on this path that was expected of you for 20 years. But thoughts could creep up that maybe your life is not necessarily the path that would make you the happiest.

I think a lot of societies around the world act like a factory for churning out lives on autopilot. The common path is that you go through school so you can get a good job, and then you stay in that job and raise a family. The better the job, the more things you can buy. It’s a sure bet to winning the game of life.

I do want to make one thing clear. There’s nothing wrong with autopilot mode and going down the path set for you. There’s nothing wrong with the path of “If your dad’s a plumber, be a plumber.”

If you did think hard about it, and decided that, yes, I want to be a plumber too, then that’s great! (And believe me, there’s a definite shortage of plumbers right now!)

However, the thing that is wrong is that you are on that path without even realizing it, and without even asking yourself, “Hey, is this the right path for me? Will I be happy for the rest of my life doing this?

If this is you, then it’s time to break out of it and ask yourself if this is what you want to do with your life.

How I Broke Out of Autopilot

In my own case, I was very much on that autopilot machine, until some big events happened in my life, which really forced me to think a little bit differently. I almost stumbled into being able to break out of autopilot mode.

I met my future wife in Lake Tahoe, California during a skiing trip in 2003. She lived in Argentina while I lived in New Zealand. When I came to Buenos Aires in 2005, I had just graduated as an industrial engineer, and I was going down that path.

But when I got to Buenos Aires, I couldn’t speak Spanish. I was also on a tourist visa, so I couldn’t stay there very long, not legally anyway. It forced me to think outside the square a little bit and think, how else could I do this? That’s how I started getting into online businesses, working from home, anywhere in the world, and the rest is history.

But if I hadn’t been in that situation where I was thrown out of my world, which was growing up in New Zealand, going to school in New Zealand, and getting a good job in New Zealand, then I don’t know if I would have ever broken out of autopilot.

The positive for me was that I realized that I could design a lot more of my life to be the way that I wanted it to be, simply because all of a sudden I was consciously thinking about it.

The Symptoms of Autopilot

So, what are the symptoms? How do you recognize if you’re on autopilot?

Lack of Control

The biggest symptom by far is a general feeling of lack of control. This feeling manifests as a generalized sort of anxiety. It’s probably why a lot of people are on antidepressants and other kinds of drugs, because there’s so many people who feel that they are not happy with their lives. General unhappiness can and is of course caused by many, many things, but being on autopilot is one of them.

Feeling of Unfulfillment

You also have this general feeling of unfulfillment. This was definitely my business partner Steve’s case. One moment he was a high-level executive achieving amazing things in corporate, making tons of money, but always reporting to a boss, working for the man, following the rules… and he came home always feeling somehow unfulfilled. He finally decided to quit and build his own online business.

Steve’s Story

As Steve describes it, living on autopilot is basically thinking there is no other option. You have these blinders on and don’t even realize it.

One time soon after leaving the corporate world behind and building a successful online business, Steve was talking to his Dad. He said to Steve, “Man, I can’t even think that I would have thought that was an option!

That’s probably when Steve really started thinking about this autopilot effect. He realized that his Dad was on autopilot all his career. He commuted almost four hours a day on a bus because that’s just what you did. He was expected to have the kids living in the suburbs, and he worked in Manhattan, as millions of other people did. He did that for decades, because he thought that this was all there was to life.

The incredible thing is there are hundreds of millions of people out there who are doing the exact same thing. And again, not to say that there’s anything wrong with it or they’re not happy doing that. A lot of people feel fulfilled doing that.

But it is interesting to think about and to know that there’s a different way. With what Steve and I have done with our businesses, we have also been fortunate to be exposed to thousands and thousands of people who have also taken this path of entrepreneurship, and specifically online entrepreneurship, and making deliberate decisions to go down a path which would allow them to live a lifestyle that they want to live.

For me, when I started out, it was being geographically free and having that ability to be a digital nomad. Today, it’s so much more to it than that. It’s not even just being my own boss, but also the fact that I control my own life and make deliberate, positive decisions with everything that I do.

The Slow Breakup of the Autopilot Lifestyle

In the last couple decades, more and more people have been able to escape this autopilot lifestyle. Though you could always have made the choice to become an entrepreneur (after all, that’s how every single company today was created!), it is so much easier today.

Modern technology, I think, has become the main paradigm shifter in this regard. When Steve’s Dad was doing his 4 hour commute, there was no such thing as the Internet. You couldn’t run your business on a mobile phone (which also didn’t exist), and you certainly weren’t surfing the web at 30,000 feet above the ground, like we can do on flights now.

Today, anyboy can easily start a business online. It’s not just the ease of being able to do ecommerce, affiliate marketing and other forms on income-generating activities online, it’s also the software that has enabled people to do so much more in creating their own businesses.

For example, one of the big shifts I’ve seen has been in the ability to get documents
notarized, such as an important legal document. If I need to get something notarized, I can do that virtually on a Zoom call. Before the technology was availalble, if I needed to achieve some important business activity in the United States (remember, I live in Buenos Aires), I would have to go to the United States Embassy in Argentina, wait in line, and waste half a day to see someone.

But now, I can simply jump online with someone from my home, show a couple of pieces of ID to verify myself with a person at the other end of the call, and I can now do the same thing in five minutes that used to take half a day. So things like this has caused a huge paradigm shift and door opener for people hoping to escape the autopilot lifestyle, especially in this world of online business.

The Impact of Covid

Covid really threw a bomb into everything, because all of a sudden, people’s entire lives changed overnight in so many different ways. They lost their job or got a different job, but more importantly, everybody was suddenly working from home.

All these people, suddenly not making the four hour commute to and from home, imagine the massive lifestyle change forced upon them. Many people will have started to realize, “Why was I doing all this? I’m missing out on so much. I’m missing out on 20 hours a week of stuff I could be doing with my kids and my family or leisure time!

The sudden lifestyle change knocked millions of people off autopilot, and now they’re spinning. They’re thinking, “I don’t know what to do now. My whole identity has been all about this autopilot that I didn’t even realize I was on!” Covid and all the forced lifestyle changes flipped this switch off.

This has been a huge eye opener for a lot of people I’ve spoken to and taught in the courses we provide. For many of our students, it was the first time they ever worked from home, and they were like, “I kinda like this.

Today, of course, you now have all these big corporations all over the world saying, “You’ve all got to get back into the office, otherwise you’re out of a job!” And a lot of these people are saying, “Well, that’s okay, I’m going to try my hand at something else!

Most of these people wouldn’t have done that pre-Covid. Even if they realized they were on autopilot, they wouldn’t have risked losing their job, they just wouldn’t have felt like they were able to. They wouldn’t have felt like there were other options out there.

How to Break the Autopilot Lifestyle

The biggest way to get off of autopilot is to first realize that you’re in it.

I think that, as a whole, we don’t do a very good job of being introspective. You’ve got to set aside time to have an open and honest conversations with yourself. Think about the path that you’re on, and ask yourself really honestly, why are you on this path? Is it something that you chose?
Or is it something that just sort of happened to you without you making a conscious decision?

The other thing is to focus on, and this is hard for a lot of people, is asking yourself what makes you happy. Everybody has an X amount of time per day (think of it like savings in a bank). Now, we have to spend it on some stuff that we don’t like doing. There’s no way of getting around that. However, we should figure out a way to make that the smallest withdrawal from our time bank that we possibly can, and make sure that we’re spending the biggest withdrawals on the things that give us joy.

So, do this:

Step 1: Have an open and honest conversation about what path you are on, why you are on this path.

Step 2: Look at your time bank and look at your daily withdrawals. How much goes towards doing the stuff you don’t want to do, such as commuting four hours per day? How much goes towards the stuff that makes you happy, that gives you peace and contentment?

Once you see it for what it is, that you haven’t necessarily chosen this path, then ask yourself, “Is this the right path for me? Do I spend too much time doing things I don’t want to do?”

Once you come to the realization that you don’t like your chosen path and you’re doing too many things you don’t like, it really empowers you to say, Okay, well, what am I going to do about it?

Once you’re empowered to do something about it, your life will completely change. You can make changes, you can start an online business, you can join the gig economy, you can do what makes you happy.

The one pushback I get from people who I talked to about this are like, “Oh, well that’s all fine and dandy if you’ve got a lot of money!” But it’s not about money. For instance, when Steve talks about this, I always remember his favorite example at what makes him happy.

He and his wife, when deciding what makes them happy, decided “We want to move to Key West and have our boat there.

Let’s say that this is what makes you happy, as well – moving to Key West and being on a boat. (It could be anywhere, this is just the new lifestyle I’m using as an example.)

The pushback, of course, is “That’s all fine and good if you can afford all these things!” Here is my answer and the path you can take:

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you have a car, just drive down to Key West. When you’re there, sell the car, because you don’t need it anymore when you live in Old Town, Key West.

Next, go to Craigslist and find an apartment. Search for a job with charter yachts or fishing charters, so you’re out on the boats. You don’t need any special training for entry level jobs, they’ll teach you the basics.

Use the experience to work your way up, get better pay, improve your living conditions, etc. One day you may even be captain of that boat. Then, as time goes by, you can start your own charter and even own your own fleet of boats!

It’s not only possible, that’s how pretty well all charters and boating companies started off in every tourist town by the shore. Businesses like this pop up and become successful all the time. Even if you never actually own a charter business, it probably beats that 4-hour per day commute in a big city!

The first step to do all this is to realize you are on autopilot. Like Steve’s Dad remarked, he never even considered anything else as an option. Guess what? Everything’s an option. So that’s my response.

If you are on lifestyle autopilot and you aren’t as happy as you could be, it all starts with just consciously thinking about what you want to be doing. Then, start to plan on how you can make that a reality, whether it’s working on a boat charter, a ski resort in the Alps, or working from home and building a business online. Make your happiness a priority and be in control of what you want to do.

I hope you enjoyed this, and let me know your stories in the comments below!


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3 Comments so far:

  1. Bonnie says:

    Hi Aidan,
    This is a great post. Lots to unpack here! I find that living ‘intentionally’ rather than ’emotionally’ is the key to getting to where you want to be. For me, this is seemingly slow progress on a day-to-day level, but when I look back at what I’ve achieved in the past year, I see that it is of great benefit to break out of patterns of what is expected or comfortable, in order to discover or uncover (and give yourself permission) to be more of your true self and do what makes you happy, and achieve significant progress in life.
    Thanks for another amazing post!

  2. Mark says:

    Wow! Yes, breaking out of ‘autopilot’ is a great way to put it. I’m going to look at my bank statement this weekend as I’ve now realized that it’s like a historical document that tells a story. As I write this I cringe, because it’s not going to be easy – I’ll probably be overly judgmental on myself…. But it’s refreshing to know that there are options, even as an older person. I already see options in other areas of my life, such as the way I still care for my adult children and tell them ‘anything is possible’. I’m curious to see how I can ‘map’ that positive behavior on my finances too. Thanks, Aidan!

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks, Aidan, and I’ve been following your posts and podcast for a couple months now. I had totally been living on autopilot and didn’t even realize it. A few months ago was a major turning point for me. I had been coasting through life, working a draining 9-5 and going through the same unfulfilling routine every day. Then I got hit by a car on the way to work (I’m okay, just a minor concussion.) I started by honestly assessing my “time bank” and saw that the majority of my waking hours were spent on work that depleted me and left little energy for the things and people I love. It was a difficult reality to face, but also a major wake-up call.

    From there, I began making small changes – carving out more time for hobbies and experiences that light me up inside, being more present with family and friends, and exploring career paths that align with my passions. Bit by bit, I shifted out of default autopilot mode and into being the active, engaged pilot of my own life. I took a leap and started my own business I was thinking about a couple years ago during Covid. I’m finding a now prioritize quality time with loved ones and have renewed many relationships that fell by the wayside when I was checked out on autopilot. I wake up excited and with a sense of purpose that I hadn’t felt in years. Here’s to living life deliberately and to the fullest!

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