The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters


Have you ever found yourself asking, “How did my life get so out of control?” Or wondering if this bigger life you have created is actually a better life?

Most of us have lives that are as cluttered with unwanted obligations as our attics are cluttered with things. The bigger-is-better idea that triggered the explosion of McMansions has spilled over to give us McLives–leaving us with chaotic, overcommitted schedules and no time to do what we ...

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Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters

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Have you ever found yourself asking, “How did my life get so out of control?” Or wondering if this bigger life you have created is actually a better life?

Most of us have lives that are as cluttered with unwanted obligations as our attics are cluttered with things. The bigger-is-better idea that triggered the explosion of McMansions has spilled over to give us McLives–leaving us with chaotic, overcommitted schedules and no time to do what we want to do.

In The Not So Big Life, architect Sarah Susanka expands her revolutionary philosophy on inhabiting space to show us how to better inhabit our lives. Through simple exercises and inspiring stories, Susanka reveals that all we need to do is make small shifts in our day–subtle movements that open our minds as if we were opening windows to let in fresh air. The result: We quickly discover that we have all the space and time we need for the things in our lives that really matter. These small changes can yield great rewards. In her elegant, clear style, Susanka convinces us that less is truly more–much more.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Best-selling author/architect Susanka explains that in life as in buildings, bigger is not necessarily better. With a 12-city tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812976007
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/26/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 292,891
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Susanka is a bestselling author, architect, and cultural visionary. Her “build better, not bigger” approach to residential architecture has been embraced across the country, and her “Not So Big” philosophy has sparked an international dialogue, evolving beyond our houses and into how we inhabit our lives. In addition to sharing her insights with Oprah Winfrey and Charlie Rose, Susanka has been named a “Fast 50” innovator by Fast Company, a “top newsmaker” by Newsweek, and an “innovator in American culture” by U.S. News & World Report. She is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council. The author of seven books, Susanka resides in North Carolina. Visit her at

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Blueprint for a New Way of Living

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

What Are We Missing?

We are facing an enormous problem in our lives today. It’s so big we can hardly see it, and it’s right in our face all day, every day. We’re all living too big lives, crammed from top to toe with activities, urgencies, and obligations that seem absolute. There’s no time to take a breath, no time to look for the source of the problem. We are almost desperate for a solution. If we stop and consider what our lives would be like if things got much faster, we might feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and futility. We just don’t have any more to give. We’re at the end of our rope.

We need to remodel the way we are living, but not in a way that gives us more of the same kinds of space we already have; that would simply create an even bigger life. What we need is a remodeling that allows us to experience what’s already here but to experience it differently, so that it delights us rather than drives us crazy.

Your life is a lot like the house you live in. It has some things that you like and some that you find irritating. It has rooms that are used constantly and others that you visit only once in a blue moon. It has features that need frequent maintenance and others that will last for decades without your attention. Almost all of us would engage in some remodeling of our house if we had the time and the money. In an ideal world all the shortcomings of our home would be remodeled to fit the way we’d like to live, with plenty of room for the things we hold most dear.

The real issue is that we want to feel at home both in our houses and in our lives, and we try to do this by tweaking the things we are aware of, the things we assume must be the problem, such as not enough space and not enough time. But some problems are less visible; they’re about qualities rather than quantities, so they are more difficult to identify, articulate, and resolve. We can’t create more of a sense of home if we don’t understand where that feeling comes from. In your house, for example, if you feel upset every time you return home from work because you have to enter through the laundry room, pushing your way past baskets of clothes waiting to be washed, unfolded mounds of sheets and towels, and a miscellaneous trail of kids’ coats and boots, you may require an architect to point out to you that yours is not a well-designed entry sequence. It’s not the laundry itself that’s the problem; it’s that you have to pass through it to enter the house.

Our lives are just the same. We think the problem is our job or our boss or our child care arrangement or our spouse, and we keep trying to fix those things, only to find new frustrations popping up once we get free of the offending situation, making it impossible for us to feel at home in our lives. The problem isn’t what we think it is. Like the process of identifying that it’s the entry sequence that takes you through the laundry and not the laundry itself that’s the problem, fixing the problems in our lives involves understanding what underlies these events. What’s needed is a dramatic shift in perspective, and architecture and design provide remarkably useful metaphors for helping us to see what that shift might look like.

When you remodel a house, you don’t need to change a lot of things in order to shift the character of the house, but you do need to evaluate what isn’t working and determine what you would like to have room for but don’t. Then you need to compose a good design solution that uses what already exists but modifies it here and there to accommodate the new functions. After that you must develop a thorough set of blueprints that record all the decisions made. And finally, to live the changes, you must build. This last step may seem obvious, but it’s actually the easiest to miss. No amount of planning will bring about change. It’s the actual implementation that allows things to shift.

In remodeling your life it’s the same. You can read all manner of books and dream all manner of dreams, but only when you decide that you’re really going to do something differently, and follow through with the implementation of those plans, will things begin to change. You have to start living what you’ve learned, and not just on Saturday afternoons when you have some spare time. The lessons have to be woven into your everyday life and lived just as reflexively as the acts of washing your hands and brushing your teeth. Solving the problem has two parts: first, we need knowledge in order to see things in a new way; then, we need to integrate what we’ve learned by being in our lives differently and doing things in a new way.

To accomplish a life remodeling, we need a blueprint, along with instructions for putting the plan into place in our lives. That’s what this book offers you, the remodeler. When we’re done, the contents of your days will still be quite recognizable to you, but there will be room to do what you’ve always wanted to do and the freedom to experience more of the potential you know is waiting within you to be revealed and realized. If you engage the steps prescribed, integrating them as suggested, there will be change, and you will experience things differently, and with new vitality.

So how do we get there? Let’s take a look at the key ingredients that go into the making of a Not So Big Life. These will serve as a thumbnail sketch for each of the plans we’ll develop more fully in the chapters that follow.

one • Developing a Blueprint for a New Way of Living

Because we tend to compartmentalize our lives—to see our working world as one thing, our home life as another, and our desire for connection with our inner nature as yet another—we don’t really live in the way we know should be possible.

This compartmentalizing is similar to the way we separate room from room with walls. A house that’s full of separate rooms that are connected to one another only by narrow doorways can feel claustrophobic no matter how large the overall square footage. What gives a sense of space is the extent of the connecting views between rooms. The more you can see of an adjacent room, by opening up a wall with an archway or an interior window, the more spacious you’ll feel the house to be.

In our lives we need to make the same kinds of connections between realms, removing the barriers to flow so that we can feel as alive and whole at work as we do when we are engaged in doing the things we love. What is needed is an integration of what we long for and what we work for. We don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. Both can coexist in deeply satisfying harmony if we learn to understand ourselves better from the inside out.

two • Noticing What Inspires You

When I first begin working with architectural clients, I ask them to show me pictures from magazines or from other houses they know that delight them, as well as their favorite places in their own house. These are the features that will make them look forward to returning home each day, so they are really important to a sense of well-being and a sense of home.

For example, I remember one woman, a mother of three active boys, showing me a picture of a small alcove off a family room, with a comfortable wingback chair positioned to look out across the vista of prairie beyond. When I asked her what in particular she was responding to in the photograph, she told me that it was the promise of a time when she could do nothing more than sit and look, without any obligations, and without her to-do list nagging at her. The picture captured a quality of being that she was missing in her life. Such a place, when designed into her remodeled home, would inspire her to find this kind of time for herself.

Another client, a man in his late fifties who was the CEO of a midsize manufacturing company, showed me a dog-eared photograph of his grandmother’s summer cabin—a place where he’d spent many happy sun-drenched months as a child. For him, the character of the structure, a simple clapboard house with no frills or embellishments, spoke to him of the calmness and ease he had felt during those summers. He wanted to replicate the form in his new home to remind him of that simplicity, even when the events in his life seemed anything but simple.

We can use this same approach in our lives by identifying the activities and engagements that have made us feel most alive. Almost anything can provide raw material for inspiration and for an expansion of who we take ourselves to be. All we need to do is recognize the places where we are most susceptible to their showing up and build into our regular lives the elements to support them, just as an architect builds in places that make you feel at home in your remodeled house.

three • Identifying What Isn’t Working

Once my new clients have shown me what inspires them, I’ll ask them to show me what isn’t working in their existing home. This is where they’ll take me from room to room, pointing out the problem areas. Often they’ll refer to the awkward configuration of work surfaces in the kitchen, for example, and the lack of room for an island where others can sit while food is being prepared; but they won’t realize that the kitchen’s isolation from the main living area is at least as big a problem as any of the smaller issues they’ve enumerated. An architect’s job is to look beyond the obvious, beyond the stated problems, to the larger but often hidden issues underlying the overall configuration of the house.

Similarly, in our lives we can readily point to the things we’d like to have time for, and we can rattle off a list of ways to do more efficiently what we have to do, so we can theoretically find time for the fun stuff; but, like the kitchen’s isolation, we can’t see that the real problem is not a lack of time but how we engage time in general. We think the problem is the way we’re sequencing or managing what we’re doing, when in fact it’s the way we engage the doing itself. Like the architect for the kitchen remodeling, I’ll be showing you some ways to look at things differently so that you can recognize the real obstacles to living a meaningful life.

four • Removing the Clutter

Almost every remodeling client I’ve worked with has had at least a handful of secret stashes of clutter. They’re not always obvious on first inspection, but dig a little—open a closet, perhaps, or look under the bed—and you’ll find all sorts of old stuff that’s no longer useful and now just takes up space and gathers dust bunnies. Most of these clients also have a few more apparent piles of unused detritus taking up space and making it difficult to get around while giving the impression that there’s no room for anything new. In a house remodeling, these out-in-the-open piles are easy targets for removal in order to make the house feel bigger. But to remodel successfully, you also need to identify and sort through the hidden piles to make room for what’s really supposed to go into those closets and drawers— the stuff that’s still useful and that plays an active role in present-day living.

In our lives we tend to see the frustrations with our jobs or our mates, but we can’t see that the reasons we’re frustrated with them emerge not from them but from some old conditionings from our childhood and early adulthood—patterns that might have served us once but are no longer useful. These are the life equivalents of the hidden stashes under the bed or the pile of miscellaneous papers on the kitchen counter. Old patterns keep you locked into the way things have always been, unable to imagine what a small amount of remodeling can do. Here we’ll be engaging a little psychology and a significant amount of self-observation. You’ll discover that when you are given the right tools to work with, the materials for the remodeling of your life are delivered right to your doorstep every day.

five • Listening to Your Dreams

With my clients’ lists of likes and dislikes clearly in mind, I’ll ask them to tell me more about what they long for. I tell them not to worry for the time being about whether they can afford these things. If I am to help them make their existing house into their dream home, I need to listen to everything they are willing to tell me about their true longings. It’s not that they will be able to build exactly what their dreams suggest, but with a little interpretation I may be able to design some features they’d never imagined possible on their budget.

For example, one client told me that in her dream house she would love to have a library, but she knew this was out of the question. Yet as I worked on the design, I realized that the wide hallway at the top of the stairs on the second floor could easily be lined with bookshelves, turning a space that was otherwise just for circulation into an ideal place for book storage. She was, of course, delighted. Had she never told me of her dream, the idea would never have occurred to me.

The same thing is true in our lives. If we tune out our dreams because we don’t think they’re possible, there’s no chance they’ll ever come into being because we won’t be listening. Here I’m talking not only about the dreams we have for our waking lives but also about the dreams from the realm of sleep. Whether or not you believe that dreams have anything to offer you, in a Not So Big Life you start to see that everything that enters your life contains meaning. They’re like signposts directing you in the process of waking yourself up more fully to what’s right in front of you.

From the Hardcover edition.

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