This article is a part of a series called "Life", where I revisit The Good Life Book (2017), and other (unpublished) drafts and notes relating to the book, and offer an up-to-date commentary on the topics in the book, as at February 2021.
A lot of us have been through a lot in recent times, and I want to do what I can to try and highlight and share material that might help you. Also, there were many (perhaps too many) ideas in the book, and it was written in a time of "heavy" transition for me. I'm interested to see how the book stacks up several years down the track, and what I see as the key messages.
Here, I look back at the original published introduction to the book (the new/current version replaced it a few months later in May 2017). I'm excited to look back at this version of the introduction with fresh eyes. Obviously, I'd chosen shortly after publishing to revise the introduction. But did that actually make it better? And what was I feeling and trying to get at when I wrote the original?
Original Introduction (March 2017)
Several years ago, at the age of 36, I had a realization that shook my assumptions about life and how to live it.
Reclining in my seat on a flight from Nairobi to London, I thought, I’ve made it. I’m living the good life.
As an international business consultant, I’d spent the past decade flying around the world, advising companies on how to optimize performance. I’d visited every continent, excepting Antarctica (though I did glimpse it from the window of a flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney). I’d risen steadily up the corporate ranks. And I was making decent money.
But I couldn’t help wondering: is that it? Before the flight landed, I was restlessly looking ahead. Was this really how I wanted to spend the rest of my life? I mostly enjoyed the work, the travel, the status, the perks, the income. But my “success” felt a bit hollow.
I wasn’t particularly happy or healthy. I wasn’t in a place to seek a meaningful relationship. I had begun to wonder if helping companies make more money was ultimately the “contribution” I wanted to make in the world. And I had a nagging sense that the things I wanted most in life were those that money couldn’t buy. It was clear I needed to rethink my idea of success. If the life I’d been living wasn’t “the good life” after all, what was?
That question—What is a good life?—sent me on a journey of discovery that changed my life. And it could change yours, too.
The approach I lay out in this book enables professionals and leaders to envision, design, implement, and sustain a good life for themselves in the real world.
Early on in my journey, I looked to books and articles for guidance on how to live a happier, more balanced and meaningful life. But the search came up short. Being a problem-solver by profession, I decided to create my own approach to living a good life, using many of the same skills and the same mindset I’d used in my career helping large global organizations to change.
I call this approach to a good life, along with the experiences and actions to create and to sustain a good life, Total Life CompleteTM.
As working professionals and leaders, we readily accept the need for structured approaches to problem-solving at work, yet we rarely apply a structured approach to the most important problem of all—how to live a good life. This book seeks to address that gap.
The word “journey” is terribly overused in the world of business, but no other word more accurately describes the transformation that happens to an individual as he or she progresses through the start, middle, and end of a process of personal change, as outlined in this book. When you finish a good life journey you are a different person than when you began.
That’s certainly what happened to me.
I was born on a small island in the Irish Sea called the Isle of Man, to working-class parents. We immigrated to Australia when I was 12. The definition of success that I grew up with was one of attainment, based on doing well at school and getting a good job. And that’s what I did, landing a job after university at one of the big consulting firms.
Being an ambitious person in an organization of ambitious people seemed to legitimize living life with a competitive paradigm and sacrificing everything to win.
The spoils of life went to the winners—salary, job titles and access to different types of experiences. As I explored the world of work, I never questioned why I was ambitious, or what the point of that ambition really was. I don’t think many of us ever do. Soon, still in my twenties, I was earning more than my Dad in the factory job he took to support us when we moved to Australia. My sights were set far away from the type of happy, suburban Sydney home I grew up in, and after a taste of business travel to Hong Kong I decided that overseas was where my future lay.
I completed a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) and began to work in Strategy and Operations consulting, eventually moving from Sydney to London. My job involved working with the top executives of many of the largest companies in the world, quite often focusing on their emerging growth markets. This involved travelling to help troubleshoot operational issues that were impacting service, profit, or the expectations of growth in that market. I began to know how to work my way around Asia, Europe, and then Africa.
It was after about a decade of this life that I had my realization on the plane to London and began my good life journey. The next major milestone came about four years later, after I’d met and married my wife, Darcy, and soon after turning forty. That was my cue to start taking life more seriously and focusing on what was really important.
Sitting together one spring on a beach in Split, Croatia, taking a short weekend break from our busy consulting careers, Darcy and I were filled with a sense of life’s possibilities. We’d both lived and worked in different cities around the world, and had established strong and internationally mobile careers. Yet although we’d both been successful, this success, we realized, had come at the price of a richer life outside work. Seeking a better life took on an air of redemption. The next steps to a good life seemed close, yet somehow just beyond reach.
Shortly after that trip to Croatia, we made the move to Dallas, Texas. Darcy had been offered a promotion there. Although I’d moved country several times, starting life over as a married person in a new country was more difficult than I’d imagined. This move forwards in life led to a move backwards at work. While thinking about next steps I had to build my reputation and contacts from scratch, and that meant being on the road a lot, chasing new projects and opportunities. This hardly contributed to a peaceful life outside of work either, as we’d envisaged kids and a new sense of rootedness that comes along with that stage of life. All of my closest friends were in different time zones. In my down time on planes, in hotels or on weekends the question of what is a good life? kept turning over and over in my mind. A kind of existential crisis enveloped me as work, my passions, and family life seemed to be pulling me in different directions.
As I was pushed toward and then beyond what the normal boundaries of my life experience had been to that point, my question began to feel more like a quest.
At different times and in different ways, my journey brought me face to face with my own mortality. Complications leading up to the birth of my son and an incident in which I feared I might drown while visiting Sydney finally put things in perspective. The Good Life was about creating an experience of life in which you feel alive and living in a way that minimizes regrets. A good life existed in a place beyond the sort of generic definitions of success and happiness that I’d used up to that point, and that are common in our society. Searching for something more from my time on the planet resulted in a concentrated less. The essence of life distilled into its key elements.
The ingredients or raw materials of a good life were ones that I already possessed, but these weren’t coming together in the right way. I was spending too much time away from Darcy and our son. I was getting dangerously out of shape, and not finding the time to create or grow, or to have much of a life outside work.
My career as a management consultant had contributed so much to my life. I’d worked with some tremendously talented people and great organizations. I’d travelled the world and had access to many special experiences. Even the setbacks at work had been character-building. I’d come so far from that slightly shy and awkward kid on the Isle of Man. Consulting has played a significant role in who I am today, but it is not all that I am. A new chapter of life beckoned, yet invisible forces seemed to hold me back.
In the year before quitting my job the idea of living a different life no longer seemed like only “nice to have,” but an urgent imperative. The proverbial crossroads lay before me, and I felt that my life depended on having the courage to make the right choice. I enjoy teaching and learning, so the idea of trying to write a book about the good life was something that I began to seriously consider. Of course, to write a book I’d be forced to find a solution that worked, at least for Darcy and me, and for those who found themselves in the same boat we were in.
Before starting my career I had, like many people living in Australia, taken a few months off to travel to London and backpack around Europe. There were many impressive sights, and I had some wonderful times there. The lasting memory however was of simple things—for example, buying meat and cheese and perhaps some cheap wine, and then sitting in a town square eating this simple meal, watching the world go by and soaking up life. On returning to Sydney and exchanging my backpack for a newly purchased business suit, I’d pondered why so many of us feel that we have to travel halfway around the word to have this type of positive experience, and why we couldn’t seem to do it at home.
Almost 20 years later the idea of a simple life still held me, in contrast to years of chasing complex pleasures and ephemeral happiness. The definition of the simple things in life now also included physical and mental health (freedom from stress), being with family and friends, and a sense of spiritual connectedness and calm, plus being able to spend time on creativity, growth, and renewal. Although in retrospect this seems an obvious road to a better life, at the time it felt like a revelation. More often than not we find ourselves not actually living this definition of a good life—if indeed we have a definition of a good life at all.
Before this book, a vocabulary for talking about and improving life in a complete and systematic way didn’t exist. Concepts like work-life balance only cause a further muddying of the waters and are, in my view, often counterproductive, since they constrain thinking and action, missing the point of what life is about.
My hope is that ideas such as “The Five Pillars,” “Three Circles,” and “What does good look like?” that you’ll read about here will become commonplace. If so, this would allow us to help each other towards a good life, and to pay forward the gift we receive by applying them. The promise of a good life is about more than just a shot at sustained personal happiness, balance, and meaning. It is about what we prioritize and how we live as a society.
This book got its title after I was tossed roughly by the surf off Sydney, tumbling over and over underwater, looking for a light to follow toward the surface—in other words, the direction back to life. A good life presented itself as a singular feeling that I came to know long before I could articulate what it was.
A good life is one of happiness, balance, and meaning. It is a life lived in line with your values and one that makes you feel alive. A good life happens in the present, yet is also connected to timeless human qualities such as love, hope, and compassion. Living a good life allows us to minimize regret when our personal day of judgment comes, whether through crisis or season.
Despite our best efforts, we must deal with a seemingly never-ending stream of urgent tasks that fill our days and fuel our waking thoughts at night. Life is created in individual moments that when strung together stretch into hours and then years. But is the life that you’re creating right now a good one?
One of the biggest mistakes that we can make in trying to live a good life is to chase happiness, balance, and meaning individually as things, rather than treat them as outcomes of a life that we actively create.
If living a good life was easy and automatic, then we’d all be living one already. Instead there are both internal (invisible) and external obstacles to living a good life, and a need for a resourceful persistence in overcoming these obstacles. What’s more, even after a short period of stability, a life event will inevitably come along, or our priorities will naturally change, and either the definition of a good life, or the way that we apply that definition will need to change as well.
The implication of this is that we must move our minds from the idea of a good life as a single-shot “answer” to one of training ourselves in the philosophy and practices of a good life that we can apply again and again across our lifespan.
It is well said that we remember only a fraction of what we hear, slightly more of what we engage in and much more of what we actually apply. I’ve found that reading any book focused on the improvement of the individual risks being no more than an elaborate form of leisure or, worse, procrastination, if one is unwilling to reflect on the material and then apply its lessons to oneself.
This book is split into three parts, each of which describes a stage of the journey to a good life.
The three stages are:
- Starting your good life journey—creating a vision for life based on your values and beliefs, then detailing this into a personal definition of “good” for five key areas of life: people, vocation, health, spirit, and expression (including creativity, growth and contribution). Expressing yourself through what you do and who you are.
- Staying on track—becoming aware of the complete scope of your potential, and overcoming obstacles to reaching that potential.
- Getting there—making decisions, taking action that further reveals your values, passions and purpose. Bridging the gap between who you are today and the “future you”.
Each stage of the journey to a good life is underpinned by a set of disciplines that you can learn, build on, and master over time by applying them to your own life (as you need them), thus becoming a lifelong practitioner of the art of living.
Few if any readers will get the most benefit from this book by reading it just once and in one long sitting. Just as a travel guidebook is not a substitute for visiting a new city or country, this guide will provide the most assistance if you travel through it by doing the exercises and leaving appropriate time to reflect and reorient your perspective based on what you’ve done. As with travel, the places in the guide of most interest will vary depending on your preferences and needs right now. There are no prizes for racing through the guide—take the time to linger in areas that you feel are delivering the most benefit to you.
Almost everyone seeking a good life will benefit from having others to bounce ideas off of and to help review the outputs of exercises. The causes and solutions to others’ problems are often more quickly apparent than those that apply to ourselves. New perspectives offered by friends, mentors, or other “good life-seekers” can help us to achieve better solutions to our problems and thus potentially save us months or years of wasted effort and emotional toil.
Whichever path you choose through this book, I hope it provides support on your path to a better life. I wish you all the best on your journey to a good life, and I’ll be excited to see what you do after finding one.
If there was one single idea that I became obsessed with while drafting The Good Life Book, it was the idea that the “default” measures of success that are handed down to us by “society” seemed to me more likely to lead us away from happiness, if we followed them, rather than towards happiness.
If our default success measures are “wrong” or incomplete then, by implication so my thinking went, millions of us might be off track by default as a result. And thus presumably require some sort of internal or external “intervention” to get back on track to happiness, balance, meaning etc.
We might end up being somewhat successful by these superficial measures (i.e. having some of the trappings of success) in a material sense but not happy, for example. Or worse we could be not successful and not happy but still chasing and sacrificing for that definition of success. Perhaps sacrificing the very things that would bring us happiness, balanced and meaning in the long term.
And by the stage of reaching a bit of success, it can be harder to change to something more fulfilling/authentic as you now have something to “lose”. And even if you do decide to change, you might likely still deeply rue and regret the time lost on the wrong track, as I did/do.
Part of the driving force for me to complete the book was to help you to avoid as much of this lost time and these regrets (that I’ve felt) as possible.
The external trigger for an intervention or disruption to the path you're on right now might come in the form of a crises or crises. Something that shakes you deeply also has the potential to cause you to question what is important in life, and then perhaps to change your work and life as a result (or at least to think seriously about changing).
As a global society we’ve been through a lot in the past 12 months. Many of you will have had plenty of pause and food for thought about what is really important.
The premise of The Good Life Book, based on my own personal experience, is that we need a structured process to help us to deepen and to refine our realizations and reflections on work and life into a personalized (and multifaceted) definition of success.
Importantly, after defining success, we also need to actually do the work to the make adjustments to align work and life to that definition of success.
This is all logical, but not as straightforward as it sounds as there are various barriers to change. If there weren’t barriers then people would positively change their work and life every time they returned from vacation (another time that we get perspective on life)!
I believe that until you have a commitment to change and a plan to do so (and the ability to overcome common pitfalls, and a support team) then it will be extremely difficult to put the ideas in your mind into practice.
All of this suffering, and ruminating over the past months will go to “waste”, and that seems an immense shame. Not recovering at least something from a bad situation.
I want you to change if you want to.
I don’t want anyone to be trapped in a work or life situation because of lack of guidance, structure or tools. That is what the book aims to help you with. And that is what this article series aims to help you with.
I actually believe the world would be a better place if we first individually and then collectively evolve our definitions of success to be more balanced, personal/human and holistic (individual/societal/environmental and so on).
So, putting aside the slightly clunky voice and tone of the original book intro above, the story about the plane is meant to illustrate what I’ve just been talking about so far in this commentary.
That I’d gone all the way along a path to climb the “mountain” of a professional career. And at the first real taste of success and accomplishment, I began to feel increasingly lost. It happens, and you’ve probably experienced a similar sense of disorientation after you reached a major goal yourself.
This is also not to say that professional jobs are wrong for everyone or inherently bad. Your existing job might be exactly where you should be right now. The principle in the book is that you should define success and “good” for yourself, and my and your “good” will be different just as people are different.
At the same time, I do still believe that the “paternalistic” view of large organizations is largely outdated.
In 2021 (and for a while prior) it is probably naïve to still believe that a job for life is guaranteed, realistic or even desirable. And corporate objectives rarely prioritize employee happiness. The previous economic crash, not that long before the time of the realization I describe in the book (2009), has already proved that. And little has changed since then for the positive.
So my advice, for what it's worth, is enjoy your career but don’t be under any misapprehensions that you won’t have to constantly and actively take the lead in managing both your career and your life just because you work for an organization.
In the months and years following the plane story, I began to feel increasingly frustrated and even angry at myself that I’d come this far (mid 30’s) without really drilling down on what I wanted from life, and taking the (difficult) steps to get that. I'd finally start to do that a full year later after a setback at work (when I first completed the Three Circles exercise in the book).
It is an artificial comparison I know (since I wasn’t driven to do this at the time) but I look back to my corporate days when I had plenty of disposable income and enough disposable time to invest in learning music and video production, when compared to today, and I regret not doing so. If I had, I’d be further along than I am now. No matter how “pointless” hindsight it, it still stings a little.
You’ve probably heard these before:
You regret what you didn’t do more than what you did do.
The number one comment (or regret) of people who did eventually do something is that they wish they’d done it sooner.
At the start of my career, I’d envisaged that I’d be in consulting for a couple of years, as a stepping stone to the type of Silicon Valley startup I’d been reading about in Wired magazine in college.
I even had the kernel of an idea for my own lifestyle startup based around shared experiences (I allude to this in the intro when I talk about a Europe trip in 1998, and did eventually leave to pursue this idea, 18 years later), but didn’t really feel equipped to go out on my own at that point.
Part of not feeling equipped or ready was that (perhaps paradoxically) I’d been a professional electronic music DJ in college and had run a successful event production company that grew so quickly that after a year or so, it got beyond my ability to manage it, and things started slipping through the cracks.
I felt overwhelmed, and then burned out on running “my own thing”. Many great people helped me at different stages, but the buck for any mistakes and missteps had to stop with me, and I took failure personally. I thought at the time that getting some business experience would give me the grounding to do better next time, and was keen to start this gleaming new “proper” career in order to do that.
And perhaps to somehow “grow up”.
I’m providing this context to kind of soften the first page of the book intro above. In retrospect, it’s not completely the right point to say the incident on the plane “shook my assumptions on life and how to live it”.
If it had truly shaken me (as later events eventually would), I’d probably have changed sooner.
I don’t think that up to and since that time, I ever really forgot or stopped feeling the pull of my business idea, or even my creative life in electronic music.
Instead, the plane incident had the effect, in the weeks and months that followed, of starting to pierce the “bubble” of delusion I’d created for myself.
The bubble was a set of logical implicit working assumptions that were really probably borne out of a degree of fear, and that had the effect of trying suppress or distract me from the “call” to finally start the business and to do something different (it’s not that consulting was all bad, some of the best experiences and friendships of my life have come as a result of it).
These working assumptions were that if kept going in consulting until I reached this vision of being a type of international business troubleshooter I’d get to a kind of promised land of fulfillment and happiness.
I’d finally grow up and be one of those well-adjusted and productive members of society, in their right place, and comfortable in their own skin.
Or something like that.
As I mention in the introduction, being a business troubleshooter was something that I’d first visualized way back in High School.
Though it worth saying that I also thought about being a stockbroker, pilot or lawyer, or producer of musical computer programs!
It’s perhaps interesting to note that I, like many of you no doubt, kind of fell into my career and the whole process seems like a bit the result of randomness and chance.
Yet, by the time I was only even a couple of years into my career it seemed like I (my identity) had become my job. After such a short time it became difficult to imagine me being able to do anything else.
Funny how that works, but the truth is that you can change, at any age.
Following what I’m calling the plane incident, I knew in my heart that I needed to change, and the team and structure of the firm I worked with was also changing, but I didn’t have the guts or a visible way forward to change (and most of us don’t).
In all practical terms, I actually just continued on the same track and I even worked harder to get promoted in the years following! Opportunities as the result of change often seem more intangible and risky than ones right in front of you, even though the so-called intangible ones might be dramatically better for you if you pursued them, and the tangible opportunities worse as they take you further down (or should that be higher up) the wrong track.
And it would be seven full years from that original point until I finally left my job to start the business.
There are many reasons for that delay. I just talked about intangibility and risk, and there are others, which I will talk about in the book, and that I’ll revisit as we continue to go through this “Life” series.
For now, let me acknowledge that we all have realizations about work and life with different scales and frequencies. I’d wager you are considering some sort of change otherwise you wouldn’t have read this far.
Perhaps you are thinking about a different job or career or just a different life?
In the book I felt the need to kind of scientifically justify this desire to change, but really it is just life.
We change and our work changes and the world changes, and we want something different. It is natural, and it is just the way it is. That might be obvious, but it might have helped if I would have heard that at the time.
What’s more important for now is how you take the input of one or several realizations or a crisis or several crises and effectively process that/those into a positive overall conclusion.
That is, to respond to a trigger by designing and living the life and work that equates to what “good” is by your definition. That is what the book is about, and let's see if we can help you process what is on your mind right now.
When I look through the remainder of the introduction above, I believe it is still solid in laying out the context and approach of the book so I won't reiterate those points.
In the next article I’ll be writing a commentary on the updated/current introduction to the book. That commentary will allow me to pick up on additional points of interest that are common to both versions of the introduction so I won’t duplicate them here.
Until next time!
The Good Life Book extracts (c) Brett Cowell (2017), published by Total Life Complete LLC. All rights reserved.