Bonnie Wan is head of brand strategy for the storied ad agency Goodby and Silverstein.
Below, Bonnie shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Life Brief: A Playbook for No-Regrets Living. Listen to the audio version—read by Bonnie herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Start practicing; stop planning.
The Life Brief is a practice for getting clear about what you want. It’s a practice of alignment between who you are, what you believe, and how you live. And like any practice, it gets easier the more you do it.
The poet David White once said, What you can plan is too small for you to live. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of plans when it comes to finances, ad campaigns, and organizing events, but when it comes to navigating life, plans prevent us from seeing possibilities as they emerge in real time. The life brief is a practice of permission to hear and heed your voice, allowing it to be your life’s compass.
You can begin by applying it in low-stakes ways, playing and experimenting with what works for you. Tune into your inner voice, the one you push aside in favor of what’s practical or right in front of you, so that you can hear the essence of your calling. You’ll distill your desires into a short list of what you’re ready for right now. You’ll be able to wrap it in a sharp, memorable phrase that brings your entire life brief into focus anytime you need to remember what really matters, and you’ll learn how to create different life briefs for different parts of your life. Starting with the four areas where people spend most of their time: relationships, work, community, and self.
2. Action is a byproduct of clarity.
Clarity is the most important action you can take. Without it, life can be a series of dead-end experiments or U-turns. Clarity focuses your attention and centers your intentions in ways that generate waves of momentum toward something bigger. It automatically attunes us to what matters most, making it easier to act. The art of the life brief is to cut away things that are misleading or distracting. Doubts, drama, thoughts, and fears that weigh us down fail to inspire or detract from the essence of what matters most.
When you cut that away, you create a clearing so that you can zero in and redirect your mind, center your heart, and focus your attention. It’s here, in this place where clarity appears, that change begins. Shining a light on what’s essential puts you on the path toward your unadulterated, most audacious vision.
“The art of the life brief is to cut away things that are misleading or distracting.”
Shifts begin to happen as soon as you get clear. First, your perspective changes, and you find yourself seeing familiar situations differently. Next, your attention automatically redirects and zeroes into choices, people, and circumstances that serve your life briefly and away from those that don’t. Your actions naturally and organically follow, propelled by the immediacy and urgency of your newfound clarity.
3. Chase questions, not answers.
The path to clarity begins with curiosity. When we lean into our curiosity, we unlock insights and epiphanies about what makes our lives worth living. That exploration often reveals latent, buried, or previously undiscovered paths for living that transform overwhelm into adventure. Questions have a way of short-circuiting self-doubt, comparison, and anxious thoughts by directing our attention to something more productive: our hunt for answers. When your brain is searching for the answer to a question, it can’t think of anything else.
One way to ease into your curiosity is through the daily brain dump. The daily brain dump gets you accustomed to using curiosity as a way to deepen your relationship with yourself. Over time, a few minutes of writing every day helps us surface what we want and what matters most in our lives. The pace is yours, the space is yours, the pen is yours—allow it to lead. There is no planning required or editing allowed. This exercise is designed to allow your thoughts and feelings, whatever they may be, to come out of you and onto the page. This is a practice in curiosity and non-judgment. It is a practice of privacy and permission. You’re not writing for anybody else; nobody’s watching, so go for it.
First, grab a piece of paper and a pen. Ideally, you’re going analog using real paper and not your phone or computer. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Aim your attention at the question, “What do I really want?” Then just write, capturing everything that comes to mind. Get it all out onto the page. Write fast and write furiously without judgment, withholding, or self-censorship. Anything goes: big stuff, little stuff, random stuff. Drawings, diagrams, and doodles are all allowed and encouraged. If you ever get stuck, bring your mind back to answering, “What do I really want?”
4. Reframe your perspective.
The life brief is an art in perspective, seeing twists in the familiar, and inventing unexpected solutions to old problems. It challenges “what is” with “what if.” This practice is about finding the joy in problem-solving while doing your brain dumps; you’re likely to unearth some limiting beliefs or stories that keep you stuck. What can you do with them? You can reframe them, meaning challenge yourself to see them in a new way. Zoom out, step back, and ask yourself, “Is this belief really mine?” “How can I reimagine this belief from a new angle?”
A valuable reframing exercise strategists use is called, It’s not X, it’s Y. Here’s how it works. Take one limiting belief and write as many reframes as you can think of over five minutes. Set a timer to help you track time. Because some limiting beliefs are deeply tattooed into our psyches, they can feel impossible to reimagine. Give it a try anyway.
“How can I reimagine this belief from a new angle?”
This is a practice. Not only will it get easier the more you do it, but you’ll also get more out of it. On a clean, blank sheet of paper, declare one gnarly limiting belief that has been gripping you. Set a timer for five minutes and write as many reframe statements as you can muster. Examine your belief from all angles. Make as many cases as you can.
Here’s an example of a reframe around the topic of money. Money is not a measure of self-worth; it’s a means to self-reliance. Demanding my full worth is not selfish; it’s self-respecting. True wealth is not financial; it lies in freedom of choice and personal agency.
5. Big change starts small.
People often think that change begins with giant leaps: quit my job, break up with my partner, move to a new city. In my experience, lasting and meaningful change comes more often from a daily flow of micro-movements. The life brief is an invitation to focus on tiny daily actions. Identify one irresistibly small step you can take at a time, and when I say irresistible, I mean steps so easy that you simply cannot ignore, excuse, or avoid them. Then, take another irresistibly small step out of your brief the next day. Engage in a practice of incrementalism, not maximalism. Ask yourself, “What can I do that will take less than 10 minutes?” Make a list of anything that comes to mind. If you look at what you’ve written and it still feels hard, think of something even easier, perhaps something you can knock out in just five minutes.
How can you break it down even further until you get to, “Duh, why wouldn’t I do this?” Sarah is an example of how incrementalism can generate outsized outcomes. Sarah is a writer and editor who had a pattern of setting big, ambitious writing goals that often daunted and pressured her to the point of paralysis. After she wrote a life brief to reignite her creative spark, she approached it with tiny daily actions instead of audacious, ambitious ones. The only action she committed to was to open the document to her novel. Not only was it easy to do, but it was inexcusable not to do this tiny little act changed everything. Some days when the document was open, Sarah would write one new sentence. Other days she would write 100, but each daily opening of her document kept her connected to her project and her creativity. After two weeks of this practice, Sarah realized she had added over 7,000 words to her novel. More importantly, her writing felt more alive, energized, and joyful. Instead of feeling daunted or paralyzed, Sarah was having fun.
The life brief is designed for you to do in your time, your space, and at your pace, but it doesn’t have to be a solo practice. One thing I’ve learned over more than a decade of teaching is that people love to life brief together. As couples, families, friends, teams, or communities, the power of personal transformation is compounded by community. When you invite others into your life brief journey, insights and ideas expand exponentially. You don’t need to organize anything formal. You don’t even need to be focused on the same type of brief, but what you will discover as you sift through the messiness is a desire to connect with someone who is also on this journey and speaks the language—kind of like nerding out over a season of your favorite show together. Find someone in your life who is up for reading a new book with you, dive in, give it a go, and see what unfolds.
To listen to the audio version read by author Bonnie Wan, download the Next Big Idea App today: