How To Begin

By: Michael Bungay Stanier



When MBS first met his wife Marcella, he noticed that tacked to her dorm room door was a note that said "Life is not a dress rehearsal."

It continues to be a reminder to him that we only get one crack at this life, and that we need to do something that matters while we are here - both for our lives, and for the world.

This is a book about becoming the best version of yourself, and to doing something that makes the world a better place.

What follows is a step-by-step plan for making it happen. You'll set a worthy goal, commit to making it happen, and cross the threshold from thoughts and into action.

No matter who you are, where you are on your journey, or the scale of your ambition, this is your call to make your mark in the world.

Part I: Set a Worthy Goal

Find Your Focus: Write a Crappy First Draft

Let's start off with a definition of what a worthy goal actually is:

  • Thrilling: the idea of taking this on as a goal gets you excited. It's something you want to do, rather than have to do.
  • Important: this is the countermeasure against setting a goal that is selfish. This is about giving more to the world than you take.
  • Daunting: when you think about taking this on, your hands get a little sweaty and it's not clear to you how you'll get it done. You'll need to stretch and grow to make it happen.

If it's not immediately clear to you what your worthy goal is, here are some places to start looking:

  • Sphere: work and not work. It could be something related to your work (like launching a new product or service), or something from your personal life (like strengthening a relationship);
  • Scale: intimate to broad. It could be something that is close and tight (impacting the people you interact with regularly), or something that is broad and expansive (impacting the entire world);
  • Class: projects, people, and patterns. Projects are things that need to be done, people is about relationships, and patterns is about something you want to change about how you show up in the world.

Your exercise for this section is to craft a (crappy) first draft of this worthy goal. If you want to follow along with MBS' worthy goal journey, go out and buy a copy of the book.

Test Your Ambition: Write an Active Second Draft

The first test is the spouse-ish test. Spousish is the person in your life who knows you better than anyone. It could be an actual spouse, a best friend, life partner, or sibling. Tell that person your goal, and gauge their reaction. It will likely be some form of the following: (a) Yes! Get after it, (b) YES!!, but stop talking about it and just do it, or (c) No, that's ridiculous, please don't do that.

The second test is the FOSO test. FOSO means "for the sake of," and is your way of connecting it to something beyond your personal gratification. For instance, when MBS wrote his first two books, it was "for the sake of un-weirding/making more accessible the idea of coaching.'

The third and final test is the Goldilocks zone test. We are looking for a goal that has the right scope and weight. It shouldn't be too small (go to bed at 10pm every night) or too big (I want to solve racism). It should feel just right.

Now that you've put your worthy goal through those two filters, it's time to write your second draft in an active way by "verbing" it by ensuring it has a verb at the beginning. Here's an example. One of MBS' first drafts was "Stop being CEO of Box of Crayons" (his coaching/training firm). His second draft was "Manage the transition out of the CEO role."

Claim Your Goal: Write a Strong Final Draft

For each of the criteria we defined already - thrilling, important, and daunting - you are going to rate your goal out of seven.

The idea here is that if your score is not 18 or higher, it's not ready. As MBS points out, this is obviously not a science, but in his experience this type of score is required for most people to feel like they are striving towards a worthy goal.

Once you've done that, it's time to add just one more word. Your task here is to find a word (or phrase) that would tighten the power and focus of your goal.

Here are six ways to be more specific about your goal:

  • Commitment: the time, money, and energy you are willing to give to this goal;
  • Reach: how broad or narrow your reach will be;
  • Time: the amount of time it will take to complete;
  • Scope: how narrow or expansive your goal is;
  • Standard: the quality you'd like to deliver;
  • Outcome: the desired outcome.

Finally, with those edits in place, you'll move to the commit phase of this project.

Part II: Commit

See Where You Stand: False Starts and Mosquitoes

False starts are the times where you've made a half-hearted or ill-fated attempt at a worthy goal in the past. This is about walking the fine line between "what's wrong with me" and sweeping your past failures under the rug.

Write them down so you can start to capture some patterns in your past failures. When you've got somewhere between two and six, you are in the right spot.

The next step is to own up to all of your mosquitoes (those things that keep biting you no matter what you seem to do). These are the things that you are currently doing, and not doing, that are contrary to your worthy goal. This will be difficult to start, but once you get moving the confessions will start to flow.

Now that we've identified the false starts from the past and identified things you are still doing that might sabotage your current goal, it's time to be kind to yourself.

First, you'll recast those past failures from signs of moral failing and lack of character to signs that you are on a path that matters.

And second, you'll find a new way to deal with situations where things go wrong in your worthy goal journey. You'll channel your inner Ros and Ben Zander (the co-authors of The Art of Possibility) and say "How fascinating!" That's because failure is an unescapable and essential part of the growth journey.

Weigh Up The Status Quo: Comforts and Costs

As human beings we love the status quo. Whether you see it or not, there are prizes for not taking on your worthy goal. Maybe it's not disrupting the way the world sees you, maybe it's the ability to keep playing the victim, or maybe it's the certainly of not disappointing yourself and others, again.

Make a list of the prizes that you get to keep if you don't pursue your worthy goal. What patterns to you see?

Next, move on to the punishment side. This is the price you'll pay for not taking on this worthy goal. It's the extinguishing of future possibilities, and a chance to unlock your greatness.

And it's not only a price paid by you, it's a price paid by the people who would otherwise have benefited from you pursuing this goal. Review some of the notes you made in the FOSO test to get clear on that.

For this exercise, make a list of the price being paid by (a) you, (b) them (the people directly impacted by your goal), and (c) us (the broader world). What insights do you have and what patterns do you notice?

Finally, it's time to weigh up the prizes and punishments and see which direction the scale tips. Take the top three prizes you get to keep and put them in one column, and take the top three punishments and put them in the other. List out the best arguments for both sides.

The goal here is to make sure that the punishments of not taking on your worthy goal clearly outweigh the prizes. If you don't clear this hurdle, go back through the previous exercises until they do.

Weigh Up The Journey: Qualities and Risks

One of the things that will become clear to you as you begin your worthy goal journey is that it will require more from you than you've ever give before. It's the difference between You+ (getting a little bit better) and You 2.0 (making a quantum leap in your abilities).

This will seem like a daunting mountain to climb, so we need to ensure that our motivations are big enough to get to the top.

There are external benefits to achieving this goal, including status. These are fine, but not enough to sustain us on the journey.

There are internal benefits, like the fulfillment of universal human needs (like affection, freedom, participation, etc.) and the use of our best qualities/strengths (innovation, drive, learning, etc.).

Take time to write down the answer to two questions: (a) who you would be if you fully committed to your worthy goal? (b) which essential human needs does your worthy goal connect with and nourish? Don't stop until you've got at least five words or phrases for each question.

That's a motivating exercise, but there are also costs to taking the journey. Go back to the exercise on the prizes you'd get to keep for not taking on this goal - these are a good place to start. Now, make a list of all the things that might be at risk. Some simple ones to notice are time and money, and the opportunity cost of not being able to work on other things.

Finally, just like we did the previous section, we'll want to weigh the benefits and risks, and see which way the scale tips. If the scale doesn't favor the benefits, go back and do more work on your goal. If it does favor the benefits, you are now finally ready to cross the threshold and actually begin your journey.

Part III: Cross The Threshold

Take Small Steps: Histories, Experiments and Practices

Whether you know it or not, You 2.0 (the person you need to be in order to accomplish your worthy goal) already exists in your past.

So the first thing we'll do as we start getting into action is remember the times in the past where we showed up like that person. This will be the evidence you need that you are the right person for this worthy goal when doubts or worry set in along the way.

Next, we'll adopt the scientific method as our guide to making progress. The idea here is that we are on a path to figuring this out, which will require small experiments to validate our hypotheses along the way. We can test for things like amount of time taken, costs involved, engagement of people, and even our own level of engagement.

As you design your experiments, make sure to manage these three human tendencies: (a) making the experiment bigger than it needs to be; (b) putting too much at risk in any one experiment; and (c) investing too much in the success of the experiment.

You can start by brainstorming two or three things to experiment, making sure to think about what data you want to gather, and how you can reduce the risk.

Finally, we'll create some practices (a series of steps that keep your worthy goal moving forward through learning) to implement along the way. This is based on the idea of making continual progress and how that leads to a virtuous cycle of action and positive feedback.

A practice is different than a habit, because it's a commitment to stay conscious and open to learning (habits are unconscious, and so you can't learn from them). Come up with a small practice you can reliably do while gathering feedback and learning.

Remember Your Best Self: This/Not That

The journey towards accomplishing your worthy goal will swing back and forth between light and dark. In your best moments you'll be in a state of flow, losing track of everything but the work. In your worst times, you'll be full of doubt, anxiety and fear. All of this is normal and to be expected.

In order to keep moving forward you'll connect with your Best Self through a "this/not this" list.

You are looking for combinations of words that describe (a) what you are like when you are "on your game," and (b) when you are "slightly off."

Pay attention to the "slightly off" part. We are looking for instances when you are 15 percent off your game - not necessarily failing, but suboptimal.

As an example, here are MBS' pairs for his goal to role model a gracious, generous, and trusting transfer of power (a further iteration of his goal we mentioned earlier):

  • Calm not Reactive;
  • Deep Trust not Loose Reins;
  • In My Corner not Fingers in Pies
  • Offstage not In the Spotlight

When you do this exercise for yourself, what insights do you have, and what patterns do you notice?

Don't Travel Alone: Build The Band

Accomplishing a worthy goal is not a solo sport - it requires a team.

The first decision you need to make when crafting your team is who you'll leave behind. Invariably, there will be people that don't want you to change. They like the old you better. They trigger the worst in you, make you numb, and colludes with you not to step towards your trilling, important, and daunting future.

Name at least one person you need to leave behind in order to start.

The next decision you need to make is who will be on your team. There are five types of people to consider:

  • Warriors: people who have your back and are fired with purpose just like you;
  • Healer/Lover: people who bring you gentleness and encouragement, unconditionally;
  • Teacher/Magician: people who bring you insight, create space for reflection, and have a hunger to learn;
  • Visionary/Ruler: people who stretch your ambition and help you channel it.
  • Trickster: people who tease you, provoke you, and makes light of what is heavy and dark.

Make a list of these types of people. It could be specific people you already know, and idealized person, a group of people, or somebody from history. These are the people that can lean in throughout your journey to make sure you don't drift too far away from your path towards accomplishing your worthy goal.


So there you have it. Everything you need in order to begin your journey towards your worthy goal.

Right now, no matter where you are, who you are, or what your story has been up until this moment, you have a decision to make.

Will you keep playing it safe, holding on to the life you've always had, getting the results you've always gotten, or will you jump head first into a new worthy goal?

If your decision is to move forward, I implore you to not just listen to the advice in this book - do the work.

Your future self, your friends, your family, and the entire world - we are all waiting to see what you'll create.

Begin today.

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