Every month, I travel from New Jersey to Brooklyn to offer workshops focused on “designing a life you love.” I open every workshop with a single question: “What do you want to change about your life?”
At every workshop, I get pretty much the same answer. It goes something like this:
“I always thought my life would be bigger… that I would be happier, healthier, and more successful. I was sure that I’d be making a difference by now. I’m starting to worry that I might never get there.”
I completely understand how they feel. Four years ago, I felt much the same way. By objective standards, everything was good. I had earned my Ph.D. and everyone agreed that I was destined for a coveted university professorship. But I felt penned in. I wanted more.
More what? I did not know.
How to get it? I had no idea.
In that moment, I decided to break away from the path I’d been on for more than 10 years. I left the promise of tenure behind and became an educational consultant in a school design company.
For more than three years, I’ve worked alongside educators to change their schools for the better. I’ve combined my own expertise as a cognitive psychologist with a crash course in design thinking, improvement science, and change management. This was a potent combination—schools were improving and so was I.
I started to use those ideas in my own life and I’ve been AMAZED at the results.
I wanted to exercise more (actually, I wanted to exercise at all), and last year I did a half marathon and a triathlon. I wanted to dig myself out of debt – and I’ve paid off almost all of my credit cards (one more to go!). I wanted to be a writer, and last month I got my very first paid writing job. I don’t feel penned in any more. I feel energized, excited, and honored to live the life I’ve created.
I want you to feel that way, too.
To get you started, I’ve combed through my workshops and have hand-picked three of my best brainstorming exercises. You can even get the workbook for these exercises, here.These three steps will help you:
- Find and appreciate your strengths
- Uncover your aspirations
- Get started this week.
The rules of brainstorming exercises:
Brainstorming exercises can be an incredibly powerful way to break through barriers and uncover new ideas. To get these benefits, though, you need to get out of your own way! Here are the rules:
- Never judge the brainstorm! Let yourself get extreme, silly, petty and unconventional. We’re here to break new ground!
- Write as fast as you can! When you slow down you begin to second-guess yourself.
- Saturate- the goal is quantity, not quality! It’s when you get past the obvious answers that you get to the good stuff.
- Have fun!
Are you ready? Let’s go!
Start these brainstorming exercises by:
Step 1: Getting clear on your strengths.
Any life you create for yourself should build upon your strengths. You have a set of experiences and skills that give you your unique perspective. It’s really important that you have a clear-eyed view of what you bring to the table.
For example, you might be completely non-judgmental and a great writer. Or you could be a dynamic leader and a clear communicator. Knowing your strengths will help you recognize and seize opportunities where you can really shine!
This exercise can be done either through guided journaling, or you can ask a friend you really, really trust to take you through it.
- Take 3-5 minutes and brainstorm as many of your strengths as you can. As soon as you start to slow down, speed up again. Go for 20 strengths!
- Look at the list you’ve made. Pick ONE strength that stands out to you as really
- Take a few minutes and consider, “Why does this strength mean so much to me? How do I rely on this strength in my personal relationships and career?”
- Think about a time when this strength really saved the day or helped you shine. Write that story down, describing the circumstances, who was there, and how you felt. Give yourself the time to dig deep here. Visualize what it was like.
- If you are working with a friend, ask them to suggest 2-3 additional strengths that they hear in your stories. Add them to your list.
Pro Tip: Don’t avoid this exercise! This is the one that everyone is nervous about because it’s hard to lay claim to our power! But you must. Though people have a hard time starting this one, it’s often the one that makes them feel the most energized and excited. It’s well worth the initial discomfort, I promise.
Step 2: Set some aspirations.
Do you remember when you were a kid and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? Immediately and totally without irony, you shot back: “Batman!”
We are still asked this eternally obnoxious question, but it’s been re-packaged for adults. They ask “What’s next for you?” or “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” But these days, we strive to be reasonable in our responses. No more Batman for us! “Middle management” we might say.
It’s not just with others that we squash our most exciting thoughts. Many people shut themselves down the second an interesting thought enters their heads. “I wonder if I could learn to juggle” is dismissed as ridiculous. For lots of us, even very normal things — like being a writer or a web designer— are squashed before they ever see the light of day.
This has to stop! If you are going to have a life you love, you need to remember what you want, need, and desire from your life.
Here’s a fun game to play with a few friends (or you can do this as a guided journaling exercise, too. I’ve done both).
- Take 3-5 minutes and brainstorm: If you had all the access, opportunity, talent and resources necessary, what would you do? Or said another way: If you lived in an alternate universe where anything was reasonable, who would you be?
- Shoot for at least 10 alternate lives that you would pursue if you were guaranteed to succeed.
- Share your list with your friends. Discuss what excites you about these lives.
- Listen to your friends’ feedback, especially when they say, “Oh, yeah, I can TOTALLY see that!” or “That seems like it could be your actual life! No alternative universe necessary!”
- When you have a quiet moment (or at the end of your journaling time) ask yourself: What wants, needs, and desires do you recognize in these alternate lives that are missing in your current one? These could be things like “I need to go outside more” or “I need to spend more time being creative.”
- Pick ONE of these desires and set it as your aspirations for the next 3 months.
Pro Tip: It isn’t the life that you set as your aspiration — It’s the want, need or desire that was hiding inside those lives. For example, you don’t set an aspiration to be a hula dancer; you set an aspiration to dance more.
Step 3: Finally, get busy THIS WEEK!
The insight you gained in the first two brainstorming exercises is invaluable if (and only if) you let it spark you into action. When I talk to people about changes they want to make to their lives, I always ask them “What have you done about it?” and they’ll inevitably reply “I’ve thought about it. I’ve worried about it. And I’ve discussed it with my friends.”
There is nothing wrong with any of these responses, per se…. but… nothing changes if nothing changes, right?
It is NOT enough to have a great idea; you need to act on it. Here’s how:
- Choose ONE of your aspirations.
- Think of a way to move just a tiny bit closer to that aspiration THIS Identify your next step.
- Do it. See how it feels. Reflect on what you learned. Get excited. Share your news with trusted friends.
Pro Tip: My experience tells me that most people stall out here because their ideas for a next step are too large.
If they want to travel more, they think that the next step is to plan a 2-week trip to Europe. But the real next step is to go to a travel bookstore and browse the stacks looking for a place that captures their interest.
If they want to become a bee tender, they think that the next step is to move to rural New Jersey. But the real next step is to go to a lecture on urban farming and chat with the people they meet.
Now, don’t get me wrong – they may one day plan a 2-week trip to Europe or move to rural New Jersey – it’s just NOT the next step.
This is why I ask you to figure out what you can do this week. You already have plans this week, so you’ll naturally scale back your ideas to something small that you can fit in.
Plus, next week begins tomorrow – and there is NO time better than now.
These brainstorming exercises aren’t an overnight method. You won’t wake up tomorrow a giant in your field or an expert at your craft. I wrote a blog about exercise for almost two years before I tried to write more seriously. And I loved every minute of it! I found my voice one blog at a time and made some great friends along the way.
When you spend your time taking your dreams seriously in small ways everyday, you will love your life. And those heartfelt efforts will accumulate into a life you can’t believe you get to lead, I promise.