Learning a foreign language can be exhilarating but also comes with frustration, confusion, and exhaustion. Having lived in France for six years, and despite studying French in high school and college, we often bemoan the fact that we aren’t more fluent and still find it difficult to follow the subtle subplots in movies. (“I know those two are starting an affair, but is it with the editor or the best friend or both?”) But one benefit of this translation soup is the discovery of a French word that illuminates an idea, enriching our understanding in a way English cannot. One example is the French way of saying “custom” when referring to anything made to your specifications. Fait sur mesure (literally made to measure) is the three-word phrase for anything North American speakers of English would call custom, whether it’s referring to a tailor-made dress or kitchen cabinets. Somehow the English word misses the real power of the idea, but the French words highlight the special quality of getting to choose, and the joy of having something made to your exact needs.
Likewise, in life, many of us forget that we really do get to choose for ourselves, that we can make a life fait sur mesure. Rather than following the program, we can decide what, when, why, where, and how we do things. Designer Stefan Sagmeister, whose memorable ads include typography carved into his own skin and inflatable graphics, is a great example. On one occasion, he created a wall of bananas that spelled out “Self-confidence produces fine results.” As the bananas aged, the message disappeared for a time, only to be revealed again as the bananas ripened in different stages. Khoi Vinh, former design director of the New York Times, marvels at “how he gets away with it.” In a blog post titled “The Sagmeister Phenomenon,” Vinh writes that “you rarely get the idea that he’s weary of his assignments, or that he’s doing anything less than having the time of his life.”
It is clear to all that Sagmeister is living fait sur mesure. But how does he do it? The way he pursues his career, with deliberate choices about what life can look like, provides important clues. Sagmeister had a hunch that waiting until retirement to explore your interests, as society implies, was a limiting idea. He decided instead to work five years more before retiring but to add five one-year sabbaticals in the middle of his career. He has since taken three one-year sabbaticals, putting himself in places he is curious about, doing things he is drawn to, and collaborating with people he meets along the way. This hasn’t been without challenges. During one sabbatical in Bali, feral dogs attacked him almost daily—inspiring a series of T-shirts depicting the wild dogs with the line “So Many Dogs, So Little Recipes” as a gallows-humor way to counteract the frustration.
Although Sagmeister provides an inspiring example, living fait sur mesure can feel out of reach for the rest of us. But a trip we took in 2020, during the brief interlude after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, opened our eyes to new possibilities. We planned a trip to the South of France for a course Susannah decided to take with a master tapestry weaver. When we drove out of Paris alongside hundreds of other frazzled post-confinement families, we expected to find some sun and a break. What we didn’t anticipate was a profound lesson: many more people than you imagine, from many walks of life, are giving themselves permission to live fait sur mesure.
The revelations started when we visited architect Le Corbusier’s monastery La Tourette, where he broke the design rules of the day to pursue his modernist style based on proportion to the human body to create a nontraditional monastery. When the monks demanded a crucifix at the entrance to the cathedral, he gave it to them but on his own terms: where the massive metal door to the cathedral pivots on a central axis, becoming a vertical beam, it bisects a horizontal beam of light, creating a gigantic ethereal cross the monks file past as they enter the cathedral.
Curiosity awakened, we barreled south through the Ardèche region to our lodging—an aging château—where a cluster of middle-aged people lingered on the steps, talking and sipping glasses of white wine as they watched the sunset. Our host, Christophe d’Indy, ran down the steps to greet us, a twinkle in his eye, and in a charming franglais introduced us to the group. As he gave us a tour of the aging château, Christophe, the great-grandson of the composer Vincent d’Indy, slowly revealed the outlines of his fait sur mesure life. The group drinking wine and watching the sunset were his extended family who had moved to the region to live a different life, and he himself worked part-time as a hotelier and part- time as a race car driver. The prerevolution-era château had a pleasant patina, and Christophe was just catching his breath after cleaning up from twenty-four Ferrari-owning guests. But it was clear he loves his life. You could tell by how friendly he was, proudly inviting us back to his region and letting us know we should expect a four-hour drive to Nice (but not without inserting, with a wink, that it would only take him two hours were he to take the same route).
Four hours later, we arrived in sweltering Nice, just in time for lunch with Eric and Rixa Freeze, the couple we mentioned in chapter 11, personal real options. Somehow, when they feel a curiosity to do or learn about something, they find a way to make it happen. They both have PhDs; he’s a writer of novels and she’s a global teacher of methods for breech births; he free dives to put fish on their table and she started an organization called Breech Without Borders to reverse traditional but harmful practices. They swim in the Mediterranean, ski in the Alps, and live in one of the most expensive areas in the world on a salary far below most people’s.
By the time we headed south to Italy for the course run by Lynne Curran and David Swift—the artists we spoke of in chapter 4—our radar for fait sur mesure was on high alert. We already knew they lived a covetable life, visiting their friends dotting the Tuscan hills for bread, flour, fresh cheese, and honey. But living in close proximity to them for a week, we witnessed other relics of their fait sur mesure life: studios warmed by teardrop-shaped wood stoves, a garden overflowing with lavender below their moon-watching balcony, and stacked letters from their vast correspondence with friends around the world. David admits that no one can quite figure out how their life works, including their “commercialista,” who David described as “a cross between an accountant and a financial adviser. . . . Everyone has one here.” When the commercialista asked David how they manage on so little, David said: “In life it’s not what you have, it’s what you do . . . but we’re not sure how we manage either! But today was good and tomorrow will be too and that is enough.” During our visit, David shared his longing to someday live near a volcano, and although he is nearing traditional retirement age, he assured us he’s just getting started: “Winding down? I’m winding up!”
Take note, fait sur mesure types attract others like them. In two days, Lynne and David introduced us to so many made-to-measure lives. Their favorite place to get coffee, Snack Bar Esso, is manned by three proud brothers who run a tidy café inside what looks like a functioning gas station. Gas prices are illuminated on tall Esso signs, but no gas has been pumped there for years. They provide fabulous coffee and pastries, offer delicious small plates for lunch, and stock a fridge with great wines to serve a steady stream of locals. We met a guide who specializes in firefly tours and wolf sightings, and after the sun had set on the field full of chatty Italian families, he led us into the dark forest below St. Francis’s monastery, the blackness illuminated by the wild dance of tens of thousands of fireflies. In Arezzo, we met Francesco Mario Rossi, creator, comedian, writer, and curator of Il Museo di se Stesso (the satirical museum of itself), which adjoins his fresco-lined apartment with strange contemporary artifacts, including the hilarious portrait of himself in a Renaissance lace ruffle collar.
We met others along the way, including a Roman count who wanders the hillside pensione speaking to guests in his flowery Oxford English; the proprietress of Matrignano, who left a career in fashion to run the family olive press and winery; a Japanese woman who carefully crafts custom leather shoes in a small alleyway near Ponte Vecchio in Florence; and a family that runs a delicious streamside restaurant in the gulley below their farm in the middle of nowhere.
It felt like the world was trying to teach us a lesson. While it may appear that there is one way to do things, “it’s all made up!” (Thank you, Steve Jobs.) We all can create a life that’s fait sur mesure. It isn’t a matter of money. In fact, often the rich and famous—who could afford that everything be made custom—are busy copying too. A shopkeeper friend who stocks exquisite, one-of-a-kind tableware recounts how his wealthy customers have asked for a piece identical to the unique one they have seen posted online. He is shocked to find that they refuse a similar object by the same artist because they want the exact one they saw on Instagram on so-and-so’s party table.
Failing to live our life fait sur mesure can lead to regret that is emotionally draining and undercuts our performance. Research confirms that people who ruminate on the paths not taken underperform at work. During two short weeks, we learned that people with vast differences in age, career, finances, family, location, and education are able to live fait sur mesure.
Don’t get the wrong idea: fait sur mesure lives are not about changing all the time or being unreliable. The quirkiness of the way these folks live isn’t random or uncertain anymore because . . . it’s how they live! They took their extremely personal vision, with all its wondrous creativity and oddity, and then primed for it—thoughtfully measured, planned, and lived it into reality in a very dogged, practical, even rigorous way. There are individuals whose fait sur mesure lives are about spontaneity and having uncertainty blow them from here to there, but in each of the cases of the individuals we shared, they were very much planners and hard workers who might not see their lives as anything but under their control. While you are setting up your personal real options and exploring your risk profile, it is the perfect time to remind yourself to add in some fait sur mesure elements. Be sure you aren’t following someone else’s star home.