Many self-help books are like trains: they travel a pre-established route toward a known destination. The journey’s planned out and the book in your hands, or on your screen, is your ticket. You just have to get on.
And you know what? That’s often the best way to travel. You don’t always need to figure everything out for yourself. Good advice from experts can be the fastest way to get where you want to go.
Let’s say you generally try to eat a balanced and nutritious diet. It keeps you healthy and energetic, and you tend to be more productive and in a better mood when you pass on the chili-cheese french fries and opt for the spinach salad. But being healthy and energetic isn’t really your life goal. It’s more like a means to an end – it helps you do the other things you care about. So you don’t really need to know everything there is to know about nutrition. You don’t need to know why spinach is good for you. You can reap the rewards of healthy eating – energy, productivity, and all the rest – by doing what the experts say you should do.
These blinks to How To Begin, by Michael Bungay Stanier, take a different approach. Unlike most self-help experts, Stanier doesn’t merely offer instructions for how to live your life. Stanier understands that no one can tell us what matters to us. We have to beat our own paths, because the path that leads you to deep fulfillment might be a dead end for me – and vice versa.
In other words, these blinks are not a train ticket. They don’t identify a “final destination” that we all should aim for. We each have our own personal destinations – our own goals. Precisely what those goals are will vary person to person. What shouldn’t vary, however, is the qualities those goals possess. It’s the qualities that your goals possess, not what your goals are, that will make them, to quote Stanier, “Worthy Goals.”
Life is short and, as far as we know, we only get one shot at it. There isn’t time to pursue dead ends. That’s why we owe it to ourselves to get these big goals right.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing in these blinks. So let’s take a look at the tools that can help you plot a path toward your Worthy Goal.
Along the way, you’ll also learn
What makes a Worthy Goal truly worth your time;
How to stress-test big life projects before committing to them; and
When to call it quits on one project and start another.
Worthy goals have three distinctive qualities.
So Worthy Goals possess certain qualities – to get even more specific, they possess three distinctive qualities. Every Worthy Goal should be daunting, important, and thrilling. To get a better grasp on this, let’s look at a person’s life. We’ll follow him from boyhood to adulthood, and, as his life unfolds, let’s see if his life goal possesses those three qualities – if it’s truly a Worthy Goal.
Reader, meet Paul. Paul is a sweet, sensitive, intelligent boy. He does well in school. He studies hard. In his spare time, he loves to draw, to play piano, and to daydream. By the time he’s 18, when it’s time to head off to college, he has lots of options. His parents, pragmatic people with their heads very much not in the clouds, gently urge him to choose a “safe” career – and sweet, sensitive Paul, not wanting to disappoint his family, acquiesces. He goes to med school, does exceptionally well, and becomes a doctor.
And his job is fine. It’s definitely not boring. He has to solve new problems every day. He’s constantly learning and improving.
It’s also valuable. Not just in terms of his paycheck, though that’s definitely a factor. Paul believes that one should be of service – that one should give to the world more than one takes from it. He often reminds himself of this. He’s proud to be of service to others, though he’s not necessarily burning with passion for his work.
So, here’s the question. Does the goal that Paul has spent his life pursuing – the life that he has chosen for himself – count as a Worthy Goal?
It’s definitely daunting. There are new challenges every day – life-and-death situations requiring great mental and moral strength. It pushes him, expands his limits, keeps him evolving, which is what a daunting goal should do. And it’s obviously important. He’s serving others in the most dramatic way possible: saving lives. He’s giving back, improving the world in a palpable way, which is what it means for a goal to be important.
But is it thrilling? Remember, all Worthy Goals possess three qualities, and being thrilling is the third. It should be exciting. It should speak to your values. It should be bold, fun – something you don’t have to do but that you want to do.
And here’s the thing: Paul has an itch. Deep down, he feels that being a doctor is not good enough. Something’s missing. He just can’t put his finger on what that something is. Maybe you feel the same way. We can do better than ticking two out of three boxes.
Imagine a three-legged stool with one leg shorter than the others. Can you use it? Sure, it works. But it’s always going to be uncomfortable to sit on, and it’ll never hold the full weight of your ambition and talent.
So how can we improve that wobbly three-legged stool? Let’s keep that image in mind as we move into the next blink.
It all starts with a crappy first draft.
Making a stool, real or metaphorical, is like making anything else. It starts with an idea, a design. And it doesn’t matter where that idea comes from – what matters is that the idea is there.
OK, let’s get practical and do an exercise together. Think of an idea for a life-project you want to work on. We’re going to get that idea out of your head and into the world.
In order to do that, we have to start with a sketch. It doesn’t need to be a completely fleshed-out concept. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece – it just needs to be on paper. Tangible. Real. It’ll be messy, a little vague – a bit crappy. But that’s OK. Let’s make that crappy first draft. This is good enough for now, because nailing our Worthy Goals at the first attempt is pretty much impossible.
And there’s all kinds of reasons for that. Often, like Paul, we just can’t find the right words to pin down what’s missing. But don’t be too philosophical about it. Make quick word associations and move on. For example, if your goal is “Go to bed at 10 p.m. every night,” you could jot down the following: early night equals early start, equals more energy over the day, equals more energy after work, equals more time for X, Y, or Z project. So, Make quick word associations for your goal and move on. Give yourself 10 minutes for this task.
Remember to aim for a goal that’s worthy of your time. So, when you’re writing it down, ask yourself if it’s daunting, important, and thrilling. Is it something that’s going to push you out of your comfort zone without being impossible? Is it going to connect you to the world in some way? Does it excite you?
Keep those word associations flowing and see how far you can get. Now, can you put it all together in one short mission statement? Think of statements like “Create a new, top-notch podcast” – which is the author’s Worthy Goal.
Is it going to be perfect? Nope, probably not! But it is a start.
Check your goal is feasible before moving forward.
OK, you’ve got your first draft down. Bravo. Now it’s time to put your Worthy Goal through its paces.
Think of it as a stress test. How sturdy is it? Does it support the weight of your ambition, or does it look like it’s going to wobble? We’ll start with the spouse-ish test.
Here’s the idea. You’re going to run your idea past the person who knows you best. It’s spouse-ish because it doesn’t have to be an actual spouse. It could be your best friend, or your sister, or your partner. Point is, they’re someone who’s heard it all – your jokes, your dreams and ideals, your hang-ups. They have a sense of who you are, what you stand for, and where you are in life. They care.
Your sketch is still on paper. It sounds great, but it’s still abstract. It could easily stay there, tucked away in a drawer, but you’re about to change that. You’re going to both make yourself accountable and give yourself a reality check. Scary? Sure. Necessary? Absolutely. We all have our blind spots. Catching problems early is going to save a lot of heartache later on.
So what can you expect? Chances are, you’re going to hear one of three things from your spouse-ish person. “Yes, brilliant – do it!” “No, that’s nuts – don’t do it!” Or “Yes, it’s a great idea, but you’ve been talking about it forever; just do it already!”
Look out for extreme reactions. Positive feedback isn’t a green light, but it’s a great sign that you’re on the right track. Nor is a negative response a red light – it’s simply a warning telling you to check you haven’t missed something important .
That brings us to the second test – fitting your project into the Goldilocks Zone.
If you know the fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you’ll remember a little girl trying three bowls of porridge. One was too hot; another too cold; the third, though, was just right.
In astronomy, there’s what’s called the Goldilocks Zone. It’s the part of space near a star where a planet’s water remains liquid. If a planet’s too close to the star, the water boils off. If it’s too far away, the water freezes. In the Goldilocks Zone, you have liquid water – the precondition of life as we understand it.
Some goals are too small and granular. Being in bed by 10 p.m. is a good example. Others, like finding happiness, are too big, too abstract. What you’re looking for is a goal that feels just right. Your project should fit into a Goldilocks Zone, which is why this exercise is called the Goldilocks test. You’re looking for that perfect balance – meaningful but realistic, inspiring but doable.
So, how did your Worthy Goal fare after the stress tests? Still wobbly? No worries – just go back to the sketch and make the necessary tweaks.
Small tweaks can make your goal much clearer.
Let’s recap. You’ve run your first draft past a spouse-ish person, so it’s out there in the world. You’ve also thought about its weight and heft. Can it be done? Is it worth doing?
Did your goal pass these stress tests? Yes? Great! You’re ready to start working on your final draft.
There’s a restaurant in Toronto the author loves. It rates its dishes with a “heat scale” that stretches from 1 to 20, or from mild to crazy hot.
OK, but what’s this chili scale got to do with anything? Well, you can also measure your Worthy Goal on a similar scale. You don’t want it to be insanely spicy – that’s too much sweat and pain – but it can probably do with a bit of an extra kick. Amping up the power of your goal is often as easy as adding a single word or short phrase to your mission statement.
And that’s our next exercise. You’ll want to give yourself around 15 minutes. You’ll also need pen and paper, the notes app on your phone, or anything else that writes. Ready? Nice. Okay, here we go: How can you add some spice to your draft? Let’s look at the kinds of words you could add.
For starters, let’s consider “time.” Think about when you’re going to working on your goal – is it a full-time commitment, for example, or more like five hours a week? Deadlines also give you lots of choices. By tomorrow? Within four weeks? By the end of the year? By 2040? Before I die?
Next, ask yourself how you’re going to work. Will it be with a team or alone? Willingly? Joyfully? Passionately? All-in?
What about your project’s reach – is it geared toward the place you live or an international audience? Do you want 1,000 local customers or ten million global subscribers?
You can also consider outcomes. There’s lots of descriptors to choose from – think profitable, sustainable, helpful, lucrative, freeing, or fulfilling. You can aim to be in the top ten, five, or three percent. Your goal can be transformative or a best seller. It can be recognized or loved or valued.
Then there’s standards. Are you professional, extraordinary, or elite? Too high-flown? What about competent or just good enough.
While you were adding all that extra spice, how did your mission statement change? Those vague descriptors from your crappy first draft should have started to firm up and become more precise.Remember the author’s crappy first draft – “Create a new, top-notch podcast”? Well, when he refashioned his draft after going through this exercise, he liked the word “new.” It’s precise and meaningful. “Top-notch” was too vague. It had to go.
After experimenting with more adjectives and adverbs, he tried qualifying the time and outcome of his project: “Launch a new podcast that is in the top 3 percent of all podcasts within 12 months.”
That’s his final draft. It’s a lot tighter, right? See if you can make your mission statement as impactful.
Take stock of the risks and rewards of your goal to find out if you’re ready to commit.
You’ve got your final draft. It’s exciting. Meaningful. Challenging. Maybe a bit scary. That’s good. It’s supposed to be daunting, after all. You’re almost ready to commit.
But there’s one last test to run.
The American artist Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side comic strip, has a cartoon of a paunchy moose slumped in front of the TV on a beaten-up old armchair, beer in hand. He’s the perfect picture of “stuck in a rut,” albeit in animal form. His moose wife has just answered the phone.
With her hand covering the phone’s microphone, she tells him: “It’s the call of the wild.” The joke, of course, is that no one is less likely to respond to the wild’s call than Larson’s chair-bound moose. But what about you – are you going to answer? Will you take on this goal, or let the opportunity pass you by?
It’s not nice to think about that possibility, but it’s a vital part of this journey. And the thing is, there are reasons to ignore that call. Yes, the status quo has its rewards, but staying in your comfort zone also has its costs. In our final exercise, you’ll be stacking those rewards and costs up against each other.
Let’s start with the rewards. The biggest prize is maintaining what you have. That looks different for each of us, but the themes are usually pretty similar. You get to keep the comfort, status, and authority you’ve built up over the years. You stay in control. If you don’t try something new, you can’t fail. You’re not going to disappoint yourself or others. It’s safe. Tried and true. Comfortable.
The downside is that none of those things are going to unlock your greatness. To do that, you have to work on the hard things. Risk something. Enter unfamiliar terrain. So let’s get onto the exercise.
Start by asking yourself how you benefit from not taking on your Worthy Goal. You might find that the status quo lets you keep your options open. Or maybe it’s money or status that you’re afraid of losing. Or your project might force you to admit that you don’t know as much about something as you like to think. Maybe it allows you to keep telling yourself a comforting story, like success being down to blind luck, not hard work.
Give yourself ten minutes and list all the rewards in a column. This is hard work, but keep digging. You’re going to unearth some powerful stuff.
Once you’ve got those rewards down on paper, create a second column. This is where you’re going to list all the costs of not pursuing your Worthy Goal. What happens if, like Larson’s moose, you don’t answer the call. What opportunities are you foregoing? It might be the chance to meet interesting people or master skills that lead to more fulfilling work. Or it could be that you’ll resign yourself to the idea that you’ve already peaked.
Give yourself another ten minutes.
Now that you’ve filled these two columns, pick the three biggest rewards and costs. How do they stack up? Which way does the balance tip? You can do this part of the exercise in your head. You might find that the whole thing is pretty much redundant – you already know the answer.
That could go one of two ways. If the rewards outweigh the costs, don’t worry. It’s much better to find that out now, rather than weeks, months, or years into a project that wasn’t quite right for you. If that’s where you find yourself, take the off-ramp and circle back to the beginning of the process. Rethink your goal. Does it need a few tweaks, or do you want to pick a new aspiration?
If the costs of refusing the call outweigh the rewards, you’re ready for the final step: commitment.
Don’t get caught in endless planning – take action, and as you do, evaluate your progress.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. Your goal has been drafted, redrafted, refined, finalized, and tested. In short, you’ve done your due diligence. You’ve cleared the biggest hurdle. You’re ready to begin.
That means leaving the planning stage and actually doing the work. Remember, endlessly reworking to-do lists can be a form of pseudo-action – it’s a way of tricking yourself into believing that your procrastination is achieving something. The key is to actually move forward.
If it’s a book you’re writing, write it one page at a time. If you’re building a community organization, fund it one phone call at a time. Ongoing commitments to small steps of action make the difference. So take the necessary actions.
Chances are, you’re going to be working on your Worthy Goal for a while. Depending on your project, it might take months or years or even decades. So, it’s important to take time out to evaluate your progress.
If you want to maintain momentum, it’s a good idea to take a break every six weeks. That’s enough time to make real progress but not long enough to wrack up serious sunken costs.
Take a few days off to evaluate the previous weeks. What are you happy about? What went wrong? Do you want to continue with this project? If so, what’s your target for the next six weeks?
Breaking your Worthy Goal down into small chunks like this makes it feel much more achievable.
We owe it to ourselves to make the most of our time on this planet. That means doing something that matters. No one can tell you what that might be. You have to decide for yourself. The best way of figuring that out is to set a goal for yourself and put it through a series of tests. Is it thrilling and challenging and important? Do the people who know you best think it’s a good idea? Is it better than the status quo? If the answer to those questions is yes, you might just have found a Worthy Goal.