Life can be crazy in our house. With four children of ages from newborn to teenager, a busy professional life and a bustling social calendar, it can seem like I am constantly going from place to place, dropping off, picking up, checking off boxes on a seemingly never-ending list of to-dos.
If you have a family, chances are pretty good that you know the feeling. Everything begins to swirl together to the point where days fade from pre-dawn alarm clocks to falling into bed without much having been accomplished and, yet, a million things being done. Modern life is a constant uphill struggle to keep up and trying to keep your head above water, deliver on commitments and get through the days leaves precious little time to reflect or look forward.
This year, I will turn 40. It’s an accomplishment – granted a small one and one no more meaningful than the passage of time – and it has me in a mood both reflective and pensive. I find myself in moments – waiting in the carpool line, sitting in traffic, wandering the aisles of the grocery store looking for diapers and dog food – looking back on the last decade of my life and the one before that and wondering how it all came to this. How did the ten years of my 30s pass by so quickly? What did I do?
This second question is dangerous. It can lead to self-doubt and the withering of your sense of esteem. I know I accomplished a lot. I wrote 15 books, began raising great kids, bought a house, went on family vacations and saw a lot of the world traveling for work. So it’s not a matter of not having done enough, but one of not feeling like I was working against something – a plan, an outline, a vision. It was a couple months ago when this feeling reached a fevered pitch and I was feeling lost and passive, driftwood in the strong current of my own world. So, I decided to do something about it.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably read a lot about life lists, those numbered lists of things you’d like to do or experience before you kick the bucket. I’ve read other people’s, I’ve made my own. I even bought a special notebook in my 20s to jot down all the things I wanted to do or have by some unspecific deadline in the future. Life lists are fun exercises in recognizing your own id, but in general, I don’t find them to be a satisfying means of planning out your life.
In the first iteration of my career, I worked as a reporter. I started in high school, studied it in college and spent my first struggling years as an adult filing stories for newspapers and wire services. In addition to learning about the inverted pyramid and how property taxes work, the most valuable thing that came out of my experience as a reporter was a framework for seeing and defining the world around me by answering six questions, the only six questions I believe a person can ask – Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?
After journalism, I moved into advertising life and, at first, it was a struggle. I feel undereducated and lost among business school people until I began applying my personal framework for thinking to the challenges in front of me. Since then, I’ve found a degree of success and satisfaction at work I could not have imagined in my first couple of years in the industry and it has all come down to those six questions.
It’s tempting to think that all the questions are equal in importance or that the order you ask them is irrelevant, but I’ve learned that could not be farther from true. It is vital that you ask the questions in the right order. I wrote yesterday about the importance of starting with Who. But quickly following that should be What and Why. These three questions, when taken together represent a strategy- they define who you are trying to reach or be, what you want to bring to them or experience and why it is important for all parties involved. If you can nail the answers to these three questions, the other three will follow.
If you take the time to answer Who, What and Why and connect them, your strategy begins to take the shape of a manifesto, which I define as the story you tell yourself about yourself before you tell the rest of the world. I’ve helped some really big brands develop manifestos for the purposes of creating guide posts for the future. They aren’t plans, they are touch stones. As work spins up and campaigns are launched, there can be a lot of activity, a lot of ideas, a lot of politics and personalities that can create confusion, contradiction and noise. Without a clearly thought out strategy and a clearly written manifesto, things can easily spin out of control and you end up looking back at the year and wondering what you actually accomplished…
Which is what I was feeling about my life. After a few weeks of existential crisis and self-defeating ennui, I wondered if I could apply the same framework I’d learned as a journalist and modified as a marketer to my own life. I sat down with a sheet of paper and divided it into three sections – Who? What? Why? – and began writing. Some of the things were new, but most were simple codifications of what I already had swirling around in my head. Here are some of the things I wrote:
I want to be a person that saw his ideas brought to life; the kind of person who sought meaningful work and meaningful connections to the people I love; the kind of person who stepped to challenges and learned to love the process more than the result; the kind of person who saw the best in other people; the kind of person who was unafraid to take personal risks without sacrificing the security of those who depend upon me; the kind of person who owns his output and puts his knowledge and experience to work for others…
I want tackle the challenge of becoming healthier; I want to create experiences for others; I want to write more, create workshops, put together a conference where people come together to Rewrite their lives, their work, their world; I want to be present wherever I am; I want to create lasting experiences for my children; I want to go to the beach, to Maine, to New York, Sweden…
Because I want my family to know they are important to me; because I want to own something I built; because I want to connect more clearly my professional life with my personal passions; because I want to be someone people look forward to seeing; because I love nothing more than standing in front of a room and helping people create connections and solve things that challenge them…
I wrote a lot more, then I took a day or two to reflect on what came out of my mind. This structure allowed me state my priorities clearly and revealed a lot more than simply trying to answer the question “what do you want?” which is, really, all a life list does. I turned those answers into a narrative. I wrote a story from my own perspective 18 months in the future, a memoir based on my manifesto. Together, these two documents will help me answer the When, Where and How, because these three questions are about the process, not the vision. I even created a miniature version of the manifesto that I’ve filled out every morning since in a notebook similar to the one that held my life list from 15 years ago.
Who do I want to be today?
What do I want/need to do today?
Why are these important for today?
This exercise was not about creating some impossible to accomplish master plan. Writing my manifesto was about creating a touchstone, a point of reference for my life that will inevitably be consumed by swirling to-do lists and never-ending activity. It was about define purpose, action and intent for the day, weeks, months and years to come. It’s not indelible. It can and will be changed as life goes on, but ever since I did it, I’ve noticed a new sense of presence and agency in my day-to-day activities. I’ve made decisions based on the manifesto and have begun new projects to help make that future memoir a possibility and reality.
Try writing a manifesto for yourself. Answer those three questions then step back and see what the answers will reveal. Remember, this isn’t for public consumption. No one will read it but you. It doesn’t have to be artfully written or crafted, just honest. Spend a half an hour and take a break from the noise of every day life. You’ll be glad you did.
Remember, the past may be written in ink, but the future is written in pencil. Write it well.
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