“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
You’ve probably seen that line, from the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, pop up on your Instagram or Facebook feed from time to time. If you Google it you will find literally thousands of memes.
It’s a great line. A profound question. Whenever I've run across it, it's given me pause for a second or two, in the middle of everything else I was doing on my mile-long to-do list of the day. It made me stop and ask, “What AM I doing??? Am I doing what I really want or just what everyone else needs me to do? Is anything I’m doing actually important? Am I doing things that really matter to me?”
And then, quite honestly, after a few panic-stricken seconds of self-reflection, I would take a deep breath, pull up my big girl pants, and keep going, keep doing whatever was next on my list. Because that’s what we do, right?
Until something happened. Nothing horrible, but big. I recently left the advertising agency job I’d been at for 25 years. Left, because I got “right-sized” out the door. I wasn’t shocked by it. I wasn’t even sad about it. I’d been ready to go and had plenty of other things I wanted to do.
But still, I was tossed into a time of transition in my life. And trying to answer those questions about how I wanted to spend my days going forward, whatever job I did next, seemed...significant…pressing…like it was time I finally stopped and gave it some serious thought.
I decided I needed a personal manifesto.
Working in advertising I’d helped write a lot of manifestos for brands through the years. Helped them define their purpose, know their why, name it, claim it, try to live it. Like everyone else, I’d seen and shared Simon Sinek’s powerful TED Talk, “Start with why.”
I’d also been deeply inspired by the Holstee Manifesto, written by a few guys starting a T-shirt company years ago. The beautifully designed and moving words they wrote went viral and actually changed their business from being about making cool T-shirts into creating tools to help people live a more meaningful life. Now, they have made their manifesto into a video.
But I’d never done one for myself. That’s when I started doing some research on “personal manifestos.” And I found lots of them – all kinds of them – some just scribbled out, some graphic masterpieces, some long, some short, all as different as the people writing them.
What was interesting was that most of them were born out of times of transition – people going from one life phase to another, or just feeling stuck, or lost, or at a fork in the road and not sure about the next step forward, the one that would help them feel more alive versus numbed out and shut down.
And what these manifestos seemed to hold in common was that each writer tried to capture a few words that gave them more focus, empowered them and helped them prioritize their time and effort. Each author tried to find words that gave them back their voice – or perhaps gave them a voice for the first time. Because "sometimes it's necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness..." as the poet Galway Kinnell has said.
So I started trying to write one for myself. To go beyond my daily To-Do List, toward what my friend, the poet, cin salach called my To-Do-You List.
But I found it really hard to do alone.
So cin and I brought together our experience - cin as a writing teacher and poet, mine as a writer helping brands express their purpose, along with my training as a life coach - and we created a number of writing exercises designed to draw out our beliefs and values and passions, and the reasons we get up in the morning, and invited 10 other people to join us in a workshop to write personal manifestos. We called it SELF. PROCLAIMED. The first workshop happened a week or so ago and well… it was amazing.
We took people through 6 interactive writing exercises over 4 hours. And then every person took a couple phrases or thoughts that jumped out at them from each exercise, and wove them together into their personal manifesto.
It was great to do in a group. Partly because we asked people to share things they were writing and discovering with everyone else along the way – and that really helped with the “editing.” It made it easier to see which statements mattered most to them, which ones really held the “heat.”
The other powerful thing about doing it in a group was that we all got sparked by things other people said. Or in some cases, it jarred some things loose. Like, one woman talked about how important it was to her, as a child, to be outside. And how that’s still important to her. And I realized that was true of me, as well – being outside WAS important to my health and happiness, but it was something I’d put so far back on my priority list that I’d almost forgotten it completely.
We all left that day with a personal manifesto. A Life Manifesto. Or at least a Today Manifesto - one that feels right, right now.
And, for me, I can honestly say, it feels really good to have one, to have put into words what I believe and value and love and how I want to live. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been swirling more than ever lately, not only because I’m in a time of personal transition but because of the state of the country and our world -- it feels like there are so many voices out there telling us what to believe and who we should be and how we should spend our time. And they’re so LOUD. Their volume alone gives me a headache. And it makes it really hard to hear what’s inside me. It takes some conscious effort to do that, I've found.
That’s why I’ve printed my manifesto out and hung it in my workspace where I can look at it every morning. I’ve made it the screensaver on my computer. I’ve even ordered a shortened version of it as a mug. Because…coffee.
Now I have it where I can see it. And hopefully hear it, too over the din all around me. Touch it a talisman, like the football players on the show Friday Night Lights touched their mantra - “Clear Eyes - Full Heart - Can’t Lose” as they walked out of the locker room onto the field.
Now I have it. To hold on to it.
And yeah, it feels good. Clarifying. Simplifying. Motivating.
It also feels like if I ever run into Mary Oliver, I’ll be able to say:
This is what I plan to do with my one wild and precious life.
By the way, if you're interested in getting started writing a personal manifesto, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll send you a very basic fill-in-the-blank template you could play with.
I can also put you on an email list (only if you'd like) and let you know when cin and I will be doing another SELF. PROCLAIMED. Manifesto Writing Workshop. Learn more about the workshops here.
If you do write a manifesto, or already have one, I’d love to see it. Please share it in the comments section below.
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