How to create the future of your dreams

In 2005, a year after he was first diagnosed with cancer, Steve Jobs, the CEO and co-founder of Apple, gave a moving commencement speech to the graduating class at Stanford University. In the speech, Jobs urges the newly graduated students to do what they love and to never lose sight of their dreams. Reflecting on his cancer diagnosis, Jobs suggests that awareness of your own death can be a motivator for doing what’s truly important in your life:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” – Steve Jobs

Realizing that you’re going to die soon is an incredibly powerful way to diminish the grip that fear has on you. Contemplating your own death – and the ephemerality of life – can help give you the courage to overcome any fear that’s holding you back. For example, say you want to give an inspirational speech but you have a fear of public speaking. What’s the worst that can happen? You give a bad presentation? You feel embarrassed? So what. It really doesn’t matter. Trust me, in 100 years’ time, when you’re dead and buried, no one is going to remember or care. Like life itself, fear is ephemeral.

Here’s the silver lining: embracing the impermanence of life can free you to go after your dreams. If you want to start a company or a charity, do it. If you want to create beautiful art, make it. If you want to do international aid work in Africa, go for it. Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you. Don’t let the risk of failure stop you. These are just transitory blips in the grand scheme of things. When fear falls away, anything is possible. So go for it — follow your heart, pursue your dreams, and create your future legacy.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” With this in mind, here is an exercise you can try to create the future of your dreams.

This exercise will take approximately 30 to 60 minutes to complete, though it might take longer if you delve deeper into the questions. Find a quiet and comfortable place free of distractions. You’ll need a pen or pencil, and some paper or a notebook. Before you start, I recommend that you turn off your cell phone and other electronic devices.

1) First, imagine your life in 50 years’ time. Imagine that you’ve lived a good and fulfilling life. You’ve stayed true to yourself, you’ve followed your passions, and you’ve pursued your dreams. Fear has not stopped you from doing what’s important in your life. You’ve lived a life that you’re proud of; one that has brought you much happiness and a deep sense of meaning. Thinking back on your life, what are your biggest accomplishments? What have you achieved? What have you created or done? Consider all areas of your life: family, relationships, professional, financial, educational, spiritual, health, travel, adventure, etc. Write down your 50-year future.

2) Next, imagine your life in 10 years’ time. To be on track with your 50-year future, what should your life look like in 10 years? What are your accomplishments in 10 years? What have you achieved or done?

3) Next, imagine your life in one year’s time. To be on track with your 10-year future, what should your life look like in one year? What are your accomplishments in one year? What have you achieved or done?

4) Now, come back to the present moment. What’s one thing you can do today to help create this future? What can you do by midnight today to put you on track for this future? Write it down, and then go out and make it happen. Just do this one thing today, and see how it feels.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate that you are the ultimate creator of your own future. You have the ability to shape your future into something special. To do this, first envision the type of future you want to create, and then make choices and take actions in life that will help make this vision a reality. The formula is really quite simple: 1) dream (big), and 2) take action.

A good metaphor is to think of your life as a canvas. It begins blank and, over the years, you create a work of art that marks your journey through life. The thing is, you only have one canvas. Rather than filling it haphazardly – hoping that something of beauty and value will eventually emerge – why not visualize the masterpiece you want to create ahead of time? This is what visionaries do – and you can do it too. Realizing that you are the artist of your own future is a powerful way to live your life. The question is: What will you create?

Some of you may have no idea what you want to create yet. Trust me, that is completely natural, and there is nothing wrong with you. If you haven’t figured out what you want to create with your life, don’t worry, there is lots of time ahead of you. It might not become apparent until years from now. That’s okay. Everyone is on their own unique life path. For now, my advice is to try a lot of different things and be open to new opportunities. Treat life as a big, fun experiment. If you keep an open mind, when the time is right, you’ll find something that fits and you can run with it. Till then, never stop dreaming.

Living by design: My experiments in goal-setting

Last year, I ditched the practice of making New Year’s resolutions, which, let’s be honest, rarely work out in the end. Instead, I decided to experiment with a more rigorous system for setting my annual goals. My aim was to create goals in different areas of my life that would be more effective and meaningful to me. I previously wrote about my approach here.

Now that the year is over, I thought I would share my results, along with some lessons that I learned along the way.

So how did it go?

In short, it was a good year. I was able to achieve (or come close to achieving) many of my goals for the year, as you can see in my ultra-nerdy graph below. Two big accomplishments this year were starting the Project Change Foundation, and traveling across the country to meet with some truly remarkable people as part of my Better World Tour this summer. Mind you, not everything was a roaring success. I failed miserably at making progress on “the book”, I was far off my health goals this year, and my credit card balance isn’t where I want it to be. There is always 2016, right?

Goals - 2015

Notes: i) For privacy reasons, I have elected not to disclose my revenue targets. ii) I did in fact set romantic goals, but I’m way too bashful to reveal them publicly. Ask me about it offline.

What did I learn?

Reflecting on my experiences this year, here are some strategies I learned to help move your goals forward:

Set yourself up for success – Perhaps most importantly, take the time up front to create goals that will work for you. I previously wrote about my own process for creating life goals that are effective and meaningful. Based on my experiences this year, there is very little I would change with this approach.

Track your progress – Create a simple system to monitor progress towards your goals. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated or time-consuming. My own tracking system was old-school basic. I made a printout of my goals, with space next to each one where I could pencil in some notes and check things off as I completed them.

Keep your goals close at hand – Whether at home, at the office, or on the road, remember to keep your goals within easy reach. I kept the printout of my goals in my laptop bag that I pack around everywhere. That way, I was forced to see my goals nearly everyday. Once you’ve created your own list of amazing goals, don’t file them away in a place you rarely look. Keep them front and center in your life.

Just do it – A few days might go by where you haven’t made any progress on your goals, or there will be days where you may feel like giving up on the whole project. When you hit a rough patch, try asking yourself, “What’s one small thing I can do today to advance just one of my goals?” It could be the tiniest thing imaginable: call a friend, go for a walk in the park, or read one page of a book. It doesn’t really matter what it is, just move the ball forward.

Strive for balance – The reason for creating a range of goals in different areas of your life is to promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Keep this in mind when working on your goals throughout the year. If you focus too much on goals in one aspect of your life, other areas may suffer. My advice: work on your goals in parallel, not in sequence.

Share with others – Recruit a friend or two to do a goal-setting project with you. It’s a good way to stay motivated, and it is way more fun to celebrate your triumphs and laugh at your tribulations when your friends are around.

Be open to spontaneity – Used effectively, goals can help you achieve a lot in life. But like a lot of things, goals are best used in moderation. You don’t want to be so rigidly structured that you miss out on the joy of spontaneity. If an unexpected opportunity emerges or a random adventure presents itself, go for it!

Don’t beat yourself up – This is a big one. You may very well fall short in achieving some of your goals. And you know what? That’s just fine. At the end of the day, a goal is just something that you’ve made up. It’s literally just words on a page. Don’t make it mean anything more.

Wishing you much fun, fulfillment and adventure in the year ahead. Happy New Year everyone!

Warmly, Joe

100 books in 4 years: Tips for reading more regularly

I have always been an avid, albeit spotty, reader. I’d burn through a book one week, but then read nothing but the newspaper, an occasional magazine article, or some online fluff pieces for the next month.

A few years ago, I decided to amp up my reading practices. I wanted to see if I could form, and stick with, an everyday habit of reading more substantive literature. So beginning in 2012, I set a goal to read 100 books in four years.

I’m happy to say that on October 28, 2015, I finished my 100th book, Finding Your Element by Ken Robinson. From start to finish, it took me three years and 301 days – 1,397 days in all – to complete this goal. That’s an average of one book every two weeks, for almost four years.

Along the way, I learned some valuable strategies for how to make reading a regular part of your daily routine:

Set a goal – Create a reading goal that is clear and concrete. You should be able to measure progress towards the goal, and know when it has been completed. For example, my goal to “read 100 books in 4 years” is concrete and measurable; “read more books” is not. Check out this post for more on the power of using concrete goals.

Read every day – Set aside some quiet time each day to read. Personally, I like to read for 30-60 minutes every morning over coffee. This routine works because I was able to link a desired behaviour (reading) with an established everyday habit (my morning coffee). It helps that I have a caffeine addiction. The key lesson is this: if you want to read more regularly, try combining it with one of your existing daily habits.

Track your results – Keep an up-to-date list of the books you’ve completed. Tracking your progress will help to motivate you to read more, and give you a sense of accomplishment each time you add a just-read book to your list.

Make a list of books you want to read – Create a list of new books you want to read and keep it close at hand. I use a notebook to jot down the names of books and authors I want to check out in the future, and revise it often. Alternatively, you could create a list on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer.

Ditch the newspaper – I used to read the newspaper almost every morning. While it helped to keep me abreast of current affairs, in truth reading the daily news did not enrich my life much. The news is almost always negative (“If it bleeds, it leads”), is largely superficial in its analysis, and rarely impacts your life in a meaningful way. Rather than reading the newspaper – or online news sources – use that time to read books instead.

Borrow books – Buying new books can be expensive. To keep the costs down, borrow books from the library or from a friend. Sharing one book among many readers is better for the environment too. However, if you really want to own a copy of a book, consider picking it up from a second-hand bookstore.

Give books away – Let’s face it, most books you will never read twice. So once you’re done with a book, rather than squirreling it away on some dusty bookshelf, give it to someone else to enjoy. It’s an easy way to practice giving more regularly and will infuse a small boost of happiness into your reading regime.

In case you’re curious, here is the complete list of the 100 books that I read (those marked with an asterisk are personal favourites).

  1. Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change, by William Marsden
  2. The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments, by John Geiger
  3. Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin
  4. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare
  5. The Beach, by Alex Garland
  6. Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene *
  7. Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
  8. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann *
  9. The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb
  10. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut *
  11. The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson *
  12. A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
  13. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
  14. Ace on the River, by Barry Greenstein
  15. How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
  16. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller *
  17. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  18. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  19. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
  20. The Skillful Teacher, by Stephen Brookfield
  21. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan *
  22. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
  23. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt *
  24. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
  25. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
  26. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl *
  27. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
  28. Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds
  29. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie
  30. Night, by Elie Wiesel *
  31. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls *
  32. Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom *
  33. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
  34. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway *
  35. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway *
  36. Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson
  37. The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe *
  38. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
  39. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood *
  40. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving *
  41. The Power of Why, by Amanda Lang
  42. A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah *
  43. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess *
  44. Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom for Today’s Leaders, by General Rick Hillier
  45. Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  46. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho *
  47. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan *
  48. Golden Vision, by Thomas Dodd
  49. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
  50. The Great Work of Your Life, by Stephen Cope *
  51. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
  52. Switch, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath *
  53. The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff
  54. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
  55. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, by Robin Sharma
  56. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing *
  57. Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown *
  58. Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, by Jose Bowen
  59. The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs
  60. Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman
  61. The Positive Dog, by Jon Gordon
  62. The Optimism Bias, by Tali Sharot
  63. Positivity, by Barbara Fredrickson *
  64. The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
  65. Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman *
  66. Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis
  67. The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, by John Izzo
  68. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  69. One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer
  70. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy *
  71. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  72. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  73. Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton
  74. The Bhagavad Gita. Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran *
  75. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, by Tina Seelig
  76. Manuscript Found in Accra, by Paulo Coelho
  77. Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis *
  78. How To Be Interesting: (In 10 Simple Steps), by Jessica Hagy
  79. The History of the World, by Frank Welsh
  80. The Power of Giving, by Azim Jamal & Harvey McKinnon *
  81. Quiet, by Susan Cain *
  82. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
  83. How Will You Measure Your Life?, by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon
  84. The Happiness of Pursuit, by Chris Guillebeau
  85. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson *
  86. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
  87. Didn’t See It Coming, by Marc Stoiber
  88. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi *
  89. An American Dream, by Norman Mailer
  90. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut *
  91. Count Me In, by Emily White
  92. Drive, by Daniel Pink
  93. For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  94. The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle *
  95. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle
  96. The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho
  97. The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman *
  98. Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert *
  99. In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick *
  100. Finding Your Element, by Ken Robinson