Jonathan Fields is the founder of The Good Life Project, and the author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance and, most recently, How to Live a Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom. He joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to discuss the little exercises that make a big difference in the pursuit of a good life.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Jonathan and Ryan’s full conversation on The Learning Leader Show, click here.
Ryan: To you, what does it mean to live a good life?
Jonathan: You’re starting with my big question! Through asking this very question to so many people over the years, one of the things that I’ve learned is that it’s completely unique. To me, it’s about immersing myself in activities and relationships that fill me up, whilst surrounding myself with people that I cannot get enough of. That invariably also involves making stuff, creating stuff, and being of service.
Ryan: When you think of the phrase “living a good life,” who’s the first person you think of?
Jonathan: Milton Glaser is somebody who I had the opportunity to spend some time with a couple of years back, and he’s very likely the most iconic designer alive today. [He] runs an acclaimed studio in New York City, is the founder of New York magazine, [and is] also the creator of the single most ripped-off logo in the history of iconography, “I Heart NY.”
He is somebody who has led with a deep sense of connection to the way he contributes to the world, since he was literally six years old. Somebody who has built his life and his career in a beautifully intentional and deliberate way, and who’s given back for decades now, and has no plan of slowing down. When I look at the way he’s crafted his career, his living, and his life, it’s truly inspiring to me.
Ryan: Really interesting. When a stranger meets you at a dinner party, and they say, “Nice to meet you Jonathan, what do you do?” How do you respond?
Jonathan: So, the entity ‘Good Life Project’ started in the beginning of 2012. It’s really the manifestation of a lifelong quest to try and really understand what it means to live well in the world. How do we step into a place of feeling like we’re living our potential? [How are] we contributing to the world in a meaningful way, how do we feel vital and alive and deeply connected to the people around us? I’ve been exploring that question for pretty much my whole adult life, but I kind of elevated it to the level of a more important mission, which quickly became a vocation.
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I decided to try and find what I call “embodied” teachers, people who weren’t just writing and speaking about it, but really embracing life. And then sit down with them and learn from them—film it, and record audio, and share that with people, and build that into a body of work that could become like a giant archive, for people to dive into, explore, and learn from.
Along the way, we also started to create programs, events, and experiences, based in part on what I was learning, and also in part on my experiences as what I’d call a “conscious entrepreneur,” having launched, grown, and sold a handful of companies. [We] explored, “What does it mean to build your living in a way that really allows you to flourish?” We’ve now created, not just a company, not just a database of media and events, but a community that’s powerfully connected and supportive of each other, which wraps around the globe.
Ryan: I noticed in your email signature when we were emailing back and forth that there’s a [link] that says, “I am willing.” I wanted you to expand on it, because this stuck with me. It reminded me of the quote, “A leader is someone who is willing to own not just the result, but the process.”
Jonathan: We hear so many people, and look I’m probably guilty of this as well, [celebrating] these amazing outcomes. [We listen to] CEOs of these tremendous companies, leaders of these world-changing movements, and incredibly accomplished artists, and we look at what they have now. And so many people are like, “That’s what I want.” They dream about it and yearn for it.
It’s really easy to say, “I want to own that outcome, that result.” [The harder part] is standing in a place where you’re saying, “I’m also willing to own the sometimes brutal path it takes to get that result.” Very few people are willing to own the process that it takes to get there. And sometimes rightfully so—sometimes the process requires so much sacrifice that if you actually owned what it’s going to take, you would say, “Actually, as cool as I think it would be to be in this place, I’m not willing to blow up my health. I’m not willing to blow up my relationships. I’m not willing to give up these things that mean a lot to me, in the name of making this happen.” It’s a good thing to own that before you actually start the process.
“It’s really easy to say, ‘I want to own that outcome, that result.’ [The harder part] is standing in a place where you’re saying, ‘I’m also willing to own the sometimes brutal path it takes to get that result.’”
Or, you might look at it and say, “Wow, this is going to take a ridiculous amount of effort and work and I’m going to have to sacrifice mightily and give up so many other things along the way. And I still want it.” When you go into any quest having really thought through the process and the potential barriers that are going to come your way, and then said, “Even if this happens, I still want it”—that’s where real leaders are born. It’s not in the desire to actually go from point A to point B, and take people with you, it’s a willingness to actually do the work and move through the challenges that encompass the entire process.
In my latest book, there’s a process called WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Process. What the research shows is that if you not only wish for this thing, but actually go deep into identifying the obstacles, both internal and external, and then create a plan to respond to them before they ever happen, then your likelihood of getting to the goal that you want, increases pretty dramatically.
So, turns out it’s good to not be delusional.
“It’s not in the desire to actually go from point A to point B, and take people with you, it’s a willingness to actually do the work and move through the challenges that encompass the entire process.”
Ryan: I’ve had [over] 150 of these conversations, asking people questions around their success, and a lot of these very self-aware [leaders] have said luck was certainly a factor. None of them will say it was the only reason, but I think a lot of very aware people would say, “There is a certain amount of luck involved in my timing, for what I was doing.”
I do think there is something to [the idea that] certain people get luckier than others. Adam Grant says, “The people with the best ideas aren’t necessarily the ones who are just smarter than everyone else; they just have more ideas than other people.”
Jonathan: You can definitely increase your chances of being lucky. You can be open to possibility. But, at the same time, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in a window of time, where had they been 10 years earlier or 10 years later, they wouldn’t have been who they are and done what they’ve done. So, you have to factor that in, to a certain extent.
Luck is absolutely not the major piece of the puzzle, but it is part of [the puzzle]. You can do things to have fortune favor you more, and more often, to increase your chances at being lucky. And at the same time still there [are] just those rare moments, sometimes, where you step in good stuff.
Ryan: Let’s talk about your current writing project—I would love for you to explain why this book is coming out. What was the impetus for you to write it?
Jonathan: The book is called How To Live A Good Life, which is kind of funny because it’s like, “Who am I, a middle-aged guy from New York City, to write a book called How To Live A Good Life?”
What it really is, though, is a distillation of years of conversations with incredible teachers—people from all walks of life, from all different cultures, who’ve done different things, and in some way are [who] I consider these ’embodied’ teachers. People who are actually living it, who are moving beyond walking or talking about it, but actually a living piece of the puzzle.
Over a lot of time learning from these people, I started to see patterns. I felt like it was time to distill those into really simple ideas that people could latch on to. [Ones where] you can hear it once and remember it for life, and then have it be super actionable.
There’s a really simple idea that a good life is made up of persistently filling three buckets: your vitality bucket, your connection bucket, and your contribution bucket. My sense is that we’ve all known what to do for thousands of years, but we don’t do it, because [the message] tends to be delivered in a way which is overly complicated. It was important to me to deliver a message and a way to make decisions that was super simple.
“A good life is made up of persistently filling three buckets: your vitality bucket, your connection bucket, and your contribution bucket.”
The majority of the book then goes on to actually give you a series of things to do, every day, over a period of 30 days. Each day there’s a bit of a story to allow you to identify with it. I’m looking to share small things that you can do every day that I consider to be “levers,” meaning the impact they’ll have on your life is exponentially larger than the effort you put into them.
As you build these into a daily practice, things change in really subtle ways. When you look back over a period of a few months, you find [your] life is substantially more meaningful, [that you] feel so much more alive and connected to the people around you.
Ryan: Who’s the ideal person to read this book?
Jonathan: Somebody who has been through enough of life that they’ve [experienced] highs [and] some lows, and they’re very likely in a place in their life where they’ve sacrificed a lot [and] likely stifled the sense of who they are, what’s meaningful to them, what lights them up, sometimes in the name of serving something that they’ve been willing to serve.
They’re ready to live with intention and with heart, and to reclaim their sense of self and identity—and step into their full potential, rather than just knowing that they’re capable of so much more.
Ryan: How do you respond to people who are skeptical? Some would say, “The real world’s harder than this, Jonathan. Get real man.” How do you respond to that?
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Jonathan: My answer is simple—”Don’t believe a word I say. Just do it.” Let the outcomes that happen in response to these simple behaviors be all the evidence that you need.
Ryan: Another aspect of The Good Life Project is putting together a creed for what you believe in. I think this is something everybody should do. It’s a powerful exercise to sit down—with yourself, your family, or your business, or all of the those things—and write down what you believe in and how you like to live.
“It’s a powerful exercise to sit down—with yourself, your family, or your business, or all of the those things—and write down what you believe in and how you like to live.”
Jonathan: Fundamentally it’s the answer to two questions: “What do I believe is possible?” and “What do I believe is important in the way that I bring myself to the world and pursue what is possible?” Those are the questions that I ask myself.
A really simple example from the creed is, “Be fierce with your time, but generous with your heart.” I believe it’s possible to be in a world where you have tremendously deep, powerful, loving relationships. At the same time, I also believe that if you fritter away your entire life being maniacally busy with things that don’t matter, and relationships that empty you out, you’ll never get to that place.
It’s a great exercise to create your own creed, so that every time you have a challenging decision to make, every time you have an opportunity to say yes or no to something, you have a well-thought-out basis upon which to make those decisions, because you know what you stand for. You’ve already laid out what’s important to you, so you understand what to say yes or no to.
“What do I believe is possible? And what do I believe is important?”
Ryan: Two lines that I love [from your creed] are, “Have a strategy, but be open to serendipity. The best things in life are rarely planned.” Then following that is, “Life is a story. If you wouldn’t read the one you’re telling, write a different ending.”
These just show that the best time to start whatever it is you’re thinking of starting is right now.
Jonathan: I think an interesting nuance on that, too, is to “Tell your story, not somebody else’s story,” because very often we’re not actually telling the story of our own lives. We’re telling somebody else’s story—somebody else’s expectations—through us.
In a past life, one of the businesses I owned was a yoga center in New York City, and one of the texts that I’ve moved through a number of times is The Bhagavad Gita. In it, there’s a line that translates roughly to, “It’s far better to live your life imperfectly, than to live another’s life perfectly.” I think that’s really what this embodies.
“It’s far better to live your life imperfectly, than to live another’s life perfectly.”