Books, Inspiration

Seven Books That Helped Me Design My Life

You know something is a dream when it just won’t leave you alone. I have realized some of my dreams, but others are being nurtured into existence. Discover seven books that helped me design a life that turns dreams into reality.

Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

When it comes to changing your life, I believe books are the best medium available to absorb and ponder ideas that help you build a strong foundation for growth. Long-form non-fiction has helped me discover the science of how my brain gets in my way and find tools to get me unstuck. Since I can’t get enough information, I also supplement books with short-form content from articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos.

These are seven books that helped shape my journey the last few years:

The Backstory

I made a career in my family’s businesses into a dream job by learning everything, then focusing on the roles that suited my best skills, marketing and management. Life was good, but I did not stop thinking about other life paths I could take in the future. A few years ago, I suddenly began to feel some urgency. We had recently scaled back some business pursuits, which created an opening to make a shift in my life. After decades of nurturing a shared vision, I realized I would like to build something of my own.

Several ideas were bouncing around, like working from home, traveling more, pursuing a doctoral degree, or becoming an artist, freelance writer, graphic designer, or professor. After opening myself up to the idea that it was okay to have more than one dream job in my life and that it was definitely possible to branch out beyond the family business after decades of involvement, I decided to shake my life up and let go of safe and comfortable. Success wasn’t static, it was a journey, and I had places to go. I started looking for help in books at the local library and kept a reading journal of every volume I devoured.

Lessons From The Books That Helped Me Design My Life

Initially, I felt like I needed to ask permission to strike out in a new direction. Get Your Shit Together was the wake-up call I needed to stop waiting and start doing. The creative bent toward writing and art I had since my childhood called to me. The lure of teaching in higher education was still there. In my late 40’s, I could either approach mid-life with regrets or get going in a new direction. Time would march on either way. Sarah Knight’s irreverent style made making changes seem like a whole lot of fun, a lot less scary, and something that I needed to do as soon as possible. Most importantly, Knight’s book reminded me that changing careers was my decision to make. I did not need permission from anyone to pivot, but I did get buy-in from my spouse because major life decisions should include your partner if you want to keep that relationship.

In addition to writing and graphic design, my thoughts repeatedly turned to the idea of teaching. For years, I had wanted to become a teacher. Not an elementary, middle, or high school teacher. A college professor. This was something I had dreamed about for years and a goal I had already shared with my family. Enter Greg McKeown and Essentialism. I needed to focus on one thing if I wanted to succeed, and McKeown’s book helped me figure that out. That meant saying yes to activities that would help me reach my goal and no to most everything else.

Simon Sinek’s Start With Why added fuel to my fire and has become a book I regularly recommend to students. This book helped me recognize and articulate the common thread running through my dreams. My fundamental truth is that I love learning and helping others by sharing knowledge. Teaching, writing, and using my business skills to improve organizations I volunteer with are all outlets for the same passion, or why. Finally, I could clearly see my purpose.

Around this time, I also discovered Mel Robbins in a TED talk and read her book The Five-Second Rule. Mel has a pretty compelling story, and she was able to pull herself out of a spiral by circumventing the brains’ tendency to stop us in our tracks. If I wanted to make progress, I needed to interrupt the voices in my head telling me to play it safe and stay where I was or that I was too old to change my career. 

Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

Mel discovered that counting backward, 5-4-3-2-1, and jumping into action before your brain can counter with a negative thought was a simple and effective way of making progress. I had a vision, and I need to jump on the tasks that would make it a reality with no excuses. Robbins also convinced me to turn the feeling of fear into something positive by labeling it as excitement.

With Knight, McKewon, Sinek, and Robbins’ help, becoming a teacher became my priority. By putting aside distractions and taking small daily steps in the right direction, opportunities began to appear. Within months of exploring career options in teaching, I had a conversation with a person who offered me the chance to teach one class. I wouldn’t have to leave my safe, decently-paying day job to dip my toe into teaching and find out if it was truly a fit for me.

The one class trial turned into a regular gig as an adjunct faculty member at a well-regarded local university, and I love it as much as I thought I would. Bonus: my writing and graphic design skills are put to regular use and polished as I create lessons and presentations. My need to help others is satisfied with a new group of students to teach and mentor each semester, and I continue to grow and learn new things from them. This job is a dream come true but is still just part of my journey.

Photo by M. Monk on Unsplash

After attending a short workshop at the university, I became intrigued by the idea of Life Design and picked up a book by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans titled Designing Your Life: Build a Life that Works for You to read on vacation. Burnett and Evans provide tools for being intentional with your life instead of letting life happen. It was not only my career but every facet of my life that could be remolded. Now that I had my foot in the door with teaching, I was empowered to keep going and remake my life more fully. The writing dream had not faded away, and my desire for more independence in my life was a smoldering ember that would not die.

For as long I can remember, I have been writing. As a child, I wrote Star Wars fan fiction stories. I was the kid who thought writing book reports was fun. I journaled or kept diaries on and off for years, ruminating over things I would like to write about before dismissing myself as not expert enough. I still jump at the chance to write anything from fundraising campaigns to social media posts to employee manuals at work. After setting a goal to become a teacher and succeeding at that, why couldn’t I set a goal to become a writer? After all, I AM a writer in every sense of the word. I just haven’t said so and begun sharing that identity or my work more fully with others. That’s where Start comes in. 

Jon Acuff’s Start and (I also listened to his audiobook Quitter later on) helped me realize that I could work toward the writing dream and keep my current jobs. The goals I have, teaching and writing, don’t mean I have to quit the family business today. These endeavors complement each other wonderfully, and participating in one makes me better in the other. Eventually, I can grow either of them into full-time pursuits. I don’t have to completely abandon my present to grow my future. 

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Thanks to Start, my goal for 2021 is to write daily and expect to suck at it. When I began teaching, I was not very skilled in the first semester, but jumping in and learning helped me improve quickly—learning while doing is also essential to becoming a writer. If I wait until I have mastered writing to call myself a writer, I may never make that dream a reality. The practice of writing will help me find my voice, and a path for writing will unfold naturally.

Since I set a goal of daily writing this year, B. J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits has helped me figure out how to keep that intention. Using Fogg’s recipe of making goals very small and tying them to something else I already do every day without fail, my new habit has a better chance of succeeding. So I created a welcoming, quiet space I enjoy being in to write while I drink my first cup of tea in the morning. Wanting to write every day is one thing, but without a plan in place for when, where, and how, it would not happen. I still fail some days, but in the first month of this year, I did write daily over 50% of the time by employing a tiny habit. Without a goal and a plan in place, it might have been one day, two, or none.

I have used these seven books and many others as a foundation for designing my life, but I pursue other support media like articles, podcasts, and videos for reinforcement daily. I follow most of these authors and continue to learn from them on Facebook, Instagram, Linked In, and YouTube. Designing my life is an ongoing process, and the design will inevitably change over time, but these books have provided solid building blocks no matter what I choose to do next.

What book have you read that have created a foundation for designing your life? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Bonus Reads:

Great books that didn’t make the top seven.


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