Summary: How to Begin By Michael Bungay Stanier
Summary: How to Begin By Michael Bungay Stanier

Summary: How to Begin By Michael Bungay Stanier

#1 Find Your Focus

“Set a Worthy Goal.” Sheesh. Worthy is a big word.

Worthy becomes more accessible as a standard when you understand its three different elements: Thrilling, Important, and Daunting.


The idea of taking this on gets you going. You’re excited about this, not just in theory but in real life. Thrilling means something to you. It speaks to your values and lights up your receptors. It makes you rub your hands together and think: “YES! This!” You’d be proud to do this. It’s cool, fun, bold. It’s an adventure you want to have.


In Jacqueline Novogratz’s wonderful book Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, she lays down the challenge to “give more to the world than you take.” Important connects to that. It’s a project or a goal that’s for a bigger win than just self-satisfaction or self-gratification. The stakes are higher than your life.


With Daunting, when you think about taking this on, there’s a flutter in your heart (or your stomach, or your shoulders, depending on where you show tension). It doesn’t feel utterly impossible, nor is it immediately obvious how you’re going to get going on this or finish it. If the thought of taking on this goal makes you just a little bit sweaty, then you’re nudging up to Daunting in an interesting way.


#2 Test Your Ambition

You’ve taken a brave stab at your Worthy Goal with your crappy first draft. It might be tempting to stop now, because it’s already a big step forward to have something written down and declared. But don’t stop here.

Don’t. Stop. Here.

It’s time to strengthen and fine-tune your draft by testing and triangulating this ambition.

Here are three tests to work through. You don’t have to “pass” all or indeed any of the tests. You’re just collecting feedback or information. But it’s useful to run your draft Worthy Goal through these tests to see what data you gather.

The Spouse-ish Test

Go tell your Spouse-ish person your Worthy Goal, and clock their reaction. It’s likely to be a variant of these three:

Yes! “That’s wonderful! Pursue it with gusto!”

YES!! “That’s great. But seriously: stop talking about it and go and do it. You’re driving me nuts.”

No! “That’s ridiculous. Do not do this, I implore you.”

The FOSO Test

it can be helpful to test any Worthy Goal by making explicit its connection to a bigger win that goes beyond my own personal gratification. The bluntest way of doing that is to simply ask, “Why?”

A more nuanced way to reach the same destination is to see if I can complete this phrase that I add on to the Worthy Goal: “for the sake of…”

The Goldilocks Zone Test

For your Worthy Goal, you’re looking for your own Goldilocks Zone. You’re gauging its doability. Does it have the right scope, the right weight? Too small and granular (“I want to go to bed by 10 p.m.”) is unlikely to be suitably Thrilling, Important, and Daunting. Too big (“I want to solve racism”) is too abstractly aspirational. Does it have a “just right” feel to it? Locating your Worthy Goal in the Goldilocks Zone is the way to ensure it has the right amount of heft.


#3 Claim Your Goal

You’re about to give your Worthy Goal one final working over to get it as close as possible to a final draft that is genuinely Thrilling, Important, and Daunting. After a final edit, you’ll be ready to declare victory (or at least “Good enough!” which is often the same thing).

Here’s how you take stock of where you are: the Voting Test.

Let’s go back to our three core criteria: Thrilling, Important, and Daunting. Against each of those, rate the current expression of your Worthy Goal out of 7.

You’ve got a choice now: press on or linger here a little longer to refine your Worthy Goal. In order to do that, you need to know what standard you’re working towards. After all the work you’ve put in, it may sound odd to remind you of the standard we’re looking for. “Perfection,” whatever that actually is, is not it. Seeking “perfection” just runs the risk of leaving you becalmed. “Perfection” is just misery dressed up in fancy clothes.

We actually want “good enough.” “Good enough” can be a tricky standard to hold, mostly because it sounds very close to “not good at all.” But “good enough” means it’s over the line, it’s in the light, it’s made the cut. Making the call requires something of a gut feel now.


#4 See Where You Stand

“Understanding the present.” It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve your Worthy Goal if you don’t know where you’re starting from. There’s enormous benefit in taking the time to close-read who you are now and what your patterns and commitments are before you set out.

Be forewarned: this part of the How to Begin process is challenging and provocative. It asks you to examine what isn’t going so well. It’s a confession of past and present struggles. That means you’ll be walking a fine line.

You have almost certainly declared an intention to do something that matters before, something that’s in some way Thrilling, Important, and Daunting. It might have shown up, along with a glass of champagne, at midnight on December 31. It might have appeared at some other time, a moment when inspiration and ambition commingled. A tug on your sleeve, nudging you: Dream big. Dare bravely. Pursue boldly. Commit.

And commonly enough, not every time but likely the majority of times, you made little or no progress on it. You were becalmed, undone by some combination of: you didn’t know where to start; you didn’t know who to ask; you were denied access to resources and support; you made a few False Starts and lost heart; you were told you weren’t the right person; you didn’t trust the plan; you didn’t master the skill immediately; you ran out of puff; you got distracted; you put it away “for now”; you were told to stop.

What makes that feel worse is that you—yes, you—most likely know a bit about change and personal growth. You’ve read some books, seen TED Talks, followed influencers, and subscribed to podcasts and newsletters. Maybe hired a coach. Perhaps even trained to be a coach. “What’s wrong with me,” you might think, “that I can’t figure this out?”

Don’t do the usual and sweep these False Starts under the rug or conveniently “forget” about them. Instead, bring the stories out of the shadows and take a look. “Where,” you can ask yourself, “have I seen something like this before?” Note all the versions and close relations to your Worthy Goal that you dabbled in or flirted with, versions that trailed off or never really got going; were shelved or put away in the drawer; were mocked or lost their mojo; were scaled down and then down again to nothing.

Acknowledge those times when you were disheartened, discouraged, discombobulated, distracted, and stuck.


#5 Weigh Up the Status Quo

In weighing up the status quo, you’ll balance out the Prizes & Punishments of not taking on your Worthy Goal. It’s in this weighing up that your choice to follow through or not will become clear.

Prizes: Comfort

Broadly speaking, the Prize for not taking on the Worthy Goal is the maintenance of what you’ve gathered in your life so far. What that looks like is different for each of us, but the underlying themes are the same. You’ll maintain comfort, status, authority, privilege, familiarity, and control. You’ll protect and keep hidden vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Prizes for not taking on your Worthy Goal might include not disrupting the way others see you or disappointing the expectations they have of you; not having to challenge your own limiting stories about yourself; not stepping out to the edges of your experience, competence, and confidence; and finding ways to let yourself off the hook, or play small, or keep being a victim, or stay disengaged, or be cynical.

Punishments: Costs

You have to see both sides of the equation before you can see how it all adds up. We’ve done Prizes, and now we have to do something similar with Punishments.

We start by looking at the price paid by you should you choose not to Cross the Threshold, take on the Worthy Goal, and have this adventure. At its heart will likely be the extinguishing of future possibilities. You miss a chance to unlock your greatness.

But the price of your not engaging is also paid by others, not just you. If it was only about you, it would be easier to find all sorts of slippery reasons why it’s OK for you to pay the price. We can fall back on old stories about being a Victim or a Rescuer or whatever to justify the suffering.


#6 Weigh Up the Journey

In Alexandria, Indiana, hangs the world’s largest ball of paint. It started life as a baseball, and on January 1, 1977, the first coat of paint—blue—was applied. It’s been painted many many MANY times since then, somewhere north of 25,000 coats. It now hangs from a beam in a purpose-built barn, has its own website, and weighs in at close to two metric tons.

It’s not only a roadside attraction, it’s a slightly awkward metaphor for how we can mistakenly think about our personal growth: another day, another barely perceivable paint layer.

Your Worthy Goal isn’t a stroll through the Shire. It’s not even a walk in the park. You’re about to journey into the unknown, and you’ll need to navigate the ups and downs that lie ahead. Three principles will see you through.

  1. Take small steps. There are three different ways to do just that, and we’ll get into those in a minute.
  2. Remember your Best Self. When doubt strikes, and it will, being able to tap into that essence of you at your best is grounding, reassuring, and empowering.
  3. Don’t travel alone. There’s a cast of characters you’ll want to gather around you to make the journey sustainable.


#7 Take Small Steps

With small steps, you’re doing two things. First, fuelled by curiosity, you’re collecting feedback. It’s the only way you can make your way forward in a complex situation: keep checking where you are, try some things out, collect feedback, and decide what’s next. Second, you’re mitigating risk so you don’t end up plunging off a cliff or running into one or more of the three terrors of the Fire Swamp, thus prematurely ending your quest.

Jim Collins of Good to Great fame explains the process of figuring out strategy thus: fire bullets, then fire cannonballs. Even if you’re not a fan of military metaphors, this is helpful. Collins explains that bullets are cheap and low-risk. Firing them is a manageable commitment, one that helps you figure out the real target. Once you’ve identified the target, then you can fully commit and fire the cannonball. Collins says that most people don’t fire enough bullets and fire their cannonball way too soon; or they spend their life firing bullets without ever having the courage to load up the cannonball.


#8 Remember Your Best Self

When you’re across the threshold and on the journey, your feelings can swing back and forth between light and dark. There are times when you’ll be in the Csikszentmihályi flow state: every step feels assured, your confidence is unbounded, you’re in the zone. Good times indeed.

Other times, doubt overwhelms you. Of course it does. You’re on the edge of your own experience and competence. You’re taking on something Thrilling and Important and Daunting. You’ve made a choice, which means saying yes and therefore also saying no. You’ve decided not to dabble, not to keep your options open, but to commit.

In those moments of doubt, you’ll be feeling some cocktail of confusion, anxiety, fear, heaviness, vulnerability, uncertainty, dread, guilt, and general dispiritedness.

That’s all OK. That’s normal. That’s entirely expected and completely predictable.

don’t make things worse by now beating yourself up for feeling that way. Perhaps throw your hands in the air and say, “How fascinating!”)

How will you go on? By reconnecting to your Best Self.


#9 Don’t Travel Alone

It’s been said we’re the sum of the five people we’re closest to. Our weight, our wealth, our ambition… it’s the average of their weight, wealth, ambition, and so on.

As with anything apocryphal, it’s not really true. Or rather, the kernel of truth that’s here has been distorted by repetition, memes, social media, and the various forces that want everything to be reductionist. Turns out, you can’t blame that friend of yours for you not being as rich or as skinny as you’d like, tempting as it might be.

But here’s what is true. It’s good to have good people around you. Particularly when you’re journeying into the future.

No one travels alone. Now’s the time for you to choose your travel companions.