Move your story forward

“No one wants to read a book about how the protagonist sat around thinking about all the things she wanted to do.”

My friend was talking about a recent revelation she had after analyzing a number of fiction best-sellers.

The audience wants to see the characters take action.  Action produces conflict.  Conflict is exciting.  Conflict helps characters develop.  It offers the opportunity to triumph.

 

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She was right.  And she was taking her lesson to the streets.  She decided to act like the protagonist she would want to read about in the story of her life.  While on a run, she passed by Boudin’s (the San Francisco bakery famous for its sourdough) and thought that it’d be cool to learn how to make bread.  But instead of just letting that thought sit as she continued her run, she went inside to find the master baker.  She took a risk, took action.  Now, don’t you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?

The rest of her story is hers to tell someday, but she presents a valuable lesson.

How do you want the story of your life to read?  Will it be safe, but with many regrets about what might have been?  Or will it be full of risk-taking, mistakes, and interesting lessons?

What type of protagonist do you want to be?  Will you sit around and wait for your fairy godmother to come grant your wish?  Or will you venture out and seek out what you want?

What will be your greatest challenge or conflict?  What will your triumph look like?  How will that feel?

And most importantly, what action will you take right now to drive your story forward?

Advice for my undergraduate self

About a month ago, I received an invitation to speak in front of a group of undergrads.  I had spoken on panels before, but I had never been asked to give a talk, by myself.

The invitation asked me to talk about my MBA experience and the type of options my MBA allowed me to have after my graduation.  Doing that could take less than ten minutes.  I had up to an hour to fill.

Q&A could fill some of that time, but what could I tell them to ensure that they would have questions to ask?  And be comfortable enough to ask them?  I began to think about what would be the things they may not think to ask.  What were the things I would not have known to ask, when I was their age?

It occured to me that many of the students in my audience would be freshmen and sophomores, and it’s been a full ten years since I was in their shoes.  I crafted my talk around what would have been helpful for me to hear ten years ago, as a freshman in college.

Here is a recorded, condensed version of the presentation I gave at UC Berkeley on Monday, March 14th, 2011.

But I don’t know what I want to do

“But I don’t know what I want to do.”

A couple weekends ago I was at my favorite restaurant for Pad Kee Mao (Lucky House Thai in Berkeley, if you wanted to know), trying to help a young undergrad shake the stress of her summer internship search.  I was offering advice about how to conduct a networked job search, when she alerted me to her bigger dilemma.

“I don’t think I’m passionate about anything.”

Passion can be an intimidating word.  As I once wrote in a craigslist post, being passionate about something “doesn’t have to be big like raising money to help some endangered animal that’s too lazy to screw to save their species (sorry, once went on a trip to Hong Kong and saw a couple pandas that were exactly that), but it can be as small as driving around San Francisco for forty minutes looking for a 24-hour Jack-In-The-Box because two tacos and a chicken sandwich sound so good at 2am that you absolutely must find them.”

So, what do you want to do?  It may seem like a very very big, almost unaswerable question, but it’s possible to find an answer.  Notice I say ‘AN’ answer, and not ‘THE’ answer.  THE answer may not exist, because it will always be changing.  Besides, Type-A super-achiever folks are often too obsessed with finding “THE” answer when “AN” answer will do just fine.

Here is the first exercise I did when I didn’t know how to answer that question.

 You will need: a big piece of paper and either colored pens or a bunch of post-its.

The post-it mind map I created while preparing to apply to business school

Step 1.  Prepare to make a list. Actually, a mind map.  Even better than that, a mind map of post-its if you have them, so that you can rearrange items as you notice patterns.

Step 2.  Write down all the things you have done or been in life. What if you haven’t done anything?  Untrue.  Don’t limit yourself to defined extra-curriculars, jobs, achievements, or the kind of stuff that you’d put on your resume.  No one has to see this list but you.  One thing that could go on my list is “obsessive list-maker.” Just think about how you spend your time.  Try to aim for 30 – 50 things.

Step 3.  Look at the list/mind map as a whole.  What things did you enjoy?  What things were you good at? (Note: Enjoying something and being good at something are two totally different things.  In college I hated Investment Science, but for some reason I was also good at it.)  What things did you hate?  What motivated you to do the things you did?  What prompted you to stop doing the things you don’t do any more? Do you see any patterns?  If you’ve written your list on post-its, start grouping things that seem to be related/similar.  If all of your things are on a single piece of paper, connect similar things with lines, or color-code them using different colored pens.

Here is a picture of the “Stuff I’ve Done” mind map I created for my Personal Innovation Project during business school.

Step 4.  Look at the groupings, and pick out themes you feel are important to have in your life.  It may still be a jumble of words, but those themes should give you a good start in thinking about what types of things you would like to do in the future.

Step 5.  Translate the themes into sentences starting with the words “I want to…”

Voila.  You have a list of things you want.  It will likely need to go through some iterations of refinement, but this is a good start.  Stay tuned for more exercises that will help you think about what you want and how you can work these things into your life.