“Write like your life depends on it, because it does,” Debbie Millman advised.
Millman, a renowned designer, podcast host, and educator, was describing an unconventional writing exercise that her students complete each year. This exercise is a staple of her teaching, since it has proved transformational in her own life.
In July of 2005, Millman was taking a summer-intensive class at School of Visual Arts. The professor, design legend Milton Glaser, told the class to envision the life that they could have if they pursued everything that they wanted, with certainty that they would succeed
In this “Five-Year Plan”, the students were assigned to:
- Dream big
- Not edit themselves
- Be careful what they wished for (because it might just come true…)
Millman poured her heart into the writing, filling her essay with “long-ranging, farfetched goals.”
Fast-forward to 2017, and Millman explains that nearly everything from her essay has come true. And the same has been true for her classmates, and students.
Millman described the results as “magical”, and a bit “spooky.”
But there’s clear logic why an exercise like this is effective.
Without a Destination in Mind, Finding Direction is Impossible
What do you do when you leave your house to go somewhere?
I go through a similar process every time:
- Establish where I’m going. Am I getting groceries? Which store will I go to?
- Confirm directions. Have I been there before? Do I remember the way?
- Set a course. If I don’t, use a GPS or call someone to get directions
- Get Moving. Once I know the direction I’m headed, start moving (by car, bike, bus, train, foot…)
- Adjust. Navigate there, adjusting to any obstacles or turnarounds that may come up
Each step has it’s purpose to get you from here to there. But without step 1, establishing a direction, none of the others matter.
If you never establish a direction for yourself, you’ll never get where you want to go. You can spend all day driving and not get to where you’d like to be.
But when you take time to envision the place you’d like to be, suddenly you’re able to work backwards, and chart a path that’ll get you in the right direction.
Sure, you might not know the best route to get there…Or, you could encounter some detours…And you might even get a flat tire…
But since you took the time to set a vision, you know you’re heading in the right direction!
The exercise Millman described is one way of establishing your direction.
By writing a detailed vision of your future life, you’re planting a mental seed. It takes time to grow that seed. But your actions and decisions in the years that follow nurture it to it’s potential.
Yet still, most of us never take the time to establish such a vivid direction.
Why we Live Without Direction
Writing about your vision for the future is a simple exercise. But it’s filled with many forms of resistance.
- Urgency in the Present: It can feel like there’s no time to slow down, think, and plan. After all, you have a lot on your plate! It never feels like the “right time”.
- Comfort: Doing new things means creating change. And change is usually uncomfortable.
- Conditioned Practicality: If you’re used to taking the “safe path,” any deviation from that is unfamiliar territory.
- Fear of Failure: You focus too much on what might go wrong. And you ignore the potential benefits. The idea of “messing up” feels catastrophic.
- Fear of Success: You feel unworthy of living the life you could dream up. There’s a little voice that says “Who am I to deserve my dream life?”
- Disbelief / Lack of Permission: You don’t let yourself believe that this exercise will make a difference. And if you don’t give yourself permission to dream, you’ll never write about that future.
When this resistance holds you back, you never set that initial direction. You never give yourself the chance to make your vision come true…Because you don’t set it in the first place.
I let this resistance get the best of me for far too long. Months ago, I heard about this exercise. I loved the concept! But I didn’t take action.
This week, that changed, and I followed through on it. I hope you’ll join me in setting a vision for your incredible future.
Vision Setting: How to Create Your “Ten Year Plan for a Remarkable Life”
Here’s everything you need to know about creating a ten year life plan, or establishing a vision for your future self!
What do I need to get Started?
- Either 1) Paper and pen or 2) A computer with a printer, so you can have a physical copy
- Enough uninterrupted time so you can write without feeling pressure to finish at a certain time
- Some energy and a healthy mood!
How Does the Exercise Work? (Best-Practices to Keep in Mind)
- Imagine what your life could be if you could do anything you wanted, and had no fear of failure.
- Dream big. Don’t hold back.
- Get specific about all aspects of your life. Go into as much detail as you’d like.
- Write in full sentences and paragraphs.
- Don’t edit yourself! You might be surprised by what comes out on the paper. That’s okay, we often don’t let our truest selves come out.
- Keep writing until you have nothing else to write.
How does Debbie Millman Teach the Exercise?
After having such success with this exercise in her own life, Millman now guides her students at SVA through it. She shared instructions for completing the exercise in a recent podcast interview.
“Let’s say it’s winter 2027…What does your life look like?
What are you doing? Where are you living? Who are you living with? Do you have pets?
What kind of house are you in? Is it an apartment? Are you in the city? Are you in the country?
What does your furniture look like? What is your bed like? What are your sheets like? What kind of clothes do you wear? What kind of hair do you have?
Tell me about your pets. Tell me about your significant other.
Do you have children? Do you have a car? Do you have a boat?
Talk about your career.
What do you want? What are you reading? What are you making?
What excites you? What is your health like?
And write this day, this one day, 10 years from now…So one day in the winter of 2027, what does your whole day look like?
Start from the minute you wake up, brush your teeth, have your coffee or tea, all the way through till when you tuck yourself in at night.
What is that day like for you? Dream big!
Dream without any fear. Write it all down. You don’t have to share it with anyone except for yourself.
Put your whole heart into it, and write like there’s no tomorrow. Write like your life depends on it, because it does.
And then, read it. Once a year. And see what happens.”
Got that? 🙂
- Picture a specific day in your future, 10 years from now. Everything has gone as you hoped it would. Let go of any fears or doubts that may exist in your mind.
- Write about that day in full detail. Get specific about all aspects of your life. Write until you can’t possibly write any more.
- Store the pages away somewhere. You’ve created a direction for yourself in you mind. Revisit it once a year to reconnect with your vision. And keep taking steps in the right direction.
Create Your Remarkable Life
“Ten Year Plan” has a nice ring to it, but “plan” might not be the right word.
Vision Setting isn’t about creating the one and only perfect life you can live. That doesn’t exist.
We all have many “right paths” in life.
Vision Setting is more of an orientation mechanism than a checklist. It helps you move in the right direction, consistently over time. It pushes you to take leaps you might not otherwise take. All because you’re informed by a vision that excites you to your core.
Don’t let the resistance get the best of you. Take some time to complete this exercise.
What’s the worst that could happen? You’ve written for 60 minutes.
What’s the best that could happen? Well, you’ll have to sit down and write to find out. 🙂
“He was still tired and scared, but he wasn’t sleepwalking, and he wasn’t lost. There was still a long road ahead of him, but it was the right road.” – Martha Beck