Often the simplest ideas can lead to the most profound results. The Good Life Book is chock-full of ideas and tools to make your life better. But 9 times out of 10 the single exercise that resonates most with readers is one that appears right at the start of the book in Chapter 2. It’s called the Three Circles and it’s an exercise about using your passions to change your life.
In this article I want to explain how you can do the Three Circles for yourself, and then how you can put what you find into practice.
The Three Circles approach has three stages: Identifying, Iterating and Implementing.
The Three Circles (shown below) are a way to bring into focus which interests and curiosities might become passions, and also how the things you think are passions right now might actually be just interests, pleasurable activities or means supporting a passion.
One root of the word passion is suffering. A passion is something that means so much to you, or you’re so drawn to or curious about that you’re willing to put emotional blood sweat and tears into pursuing it over a period of time. Having said this many passions don't start out with such a burning intensity, instead they begin as feelings, curiosities or reoccurring thoughts.
A simple example is learning to play a musical instrument. An activity that typically takes thousands of hours of effort. It’s unlikely that we wake up one morning and decide to learn an instrument without ever having thought of it before. Instead, a level of curiosity or affinity builds up over time that eventually causes us to want to begin to engage more. Perhaps a trigger such as seeing a favourite performer strut their stuff finally tips us over the edge to begin.
Keep this in mind as you begin to identify potential passions. Don't self-censor yourself because you think the passion sounds silly to others, or that it doesn't match up to things you've done before, or even that it doesn't seem to fit in with the image of what you do for work (at the moment)...
To start the exercise you’ll compile a long list of things that you are passionate about or have been strongly curious about on a reoccurring basis. These are things that you wish could be a regular part of your life from now on.
Action: Using a piece of paper or electronic device list out those items now.
When you’ve finished you will need to prioritise your list to identify the top three items that you believe that you feel most strongly about.
Action: When you have your top three write one item into each of the three circles in the diagram (above).
Look back at your list of words that didn’t make it into the circles. Do you still feel good about your choice of words selected for the circles?
Next, in the centre of the diagram, you’ll write an imaginary job description (or job name) that sums up and incorporates the intersection of all three things/passions that you’ve written in the circles. Try to visualise in your mind’s eye what a day would look like if you were doing your imaginary job. What type of location or environment would you be in? What type of people would you interact with? What would you do or create during a typical week or month?
Action: write your imaginary job description name or description now
Don’t worry if you can’t come up with crisp job description or image straight away… what is important is that do you try to now, since the success of this process relies on you engaging with the task. Asking the question of "What is the intersection of my strongest passions/interests" will bring your subconscious mind into play to find a solution.
You might literally want to try to pursue this as a job in future, or just make the "job" a defining part of who you are in your spare time. The key distinction between a hobby and what I'm asking you to write as a job description is that you "turn pro" on the intersection of your circles... you meticulously measure your progress, increase your knowledge in the area and try to expand your network, for example.
You may also find yourself mentoring or teaching others in the area of your passions - a great way to turn an interest into a passion.
Here are my three circles:
The next step, involves deepening and clarifying your understanding of what the words in your circles really mean. You do this through a combination of thinking and experimentation.
Action: Next to each circle write a short list of bullet points, which help to make very precise what you actually mean by the thing or word written in each circle.
For example one of my circles is Business, which is a really broad and wide-ranging arena.
I’ve had an interest in business for as long as I can remember and Entrepreneurship is one specific area of business that I’m interested in. There are lots of areas of business that I'm not interested in too!
Try to narrow down the field of your passions to be more specific. You can do this by asking yourself “Why?” several times as you identify ever more specific personal drivers of your interest. For example it is the personalities of (some) entrepreneurs and the personal expression involved in running your own business that is of most interest to me in the field of Entrepreneurship.
Continue refining your bullet points for each circle. You might find that you reach a point where you really don’t know exactly what or why something is interesting to you. That is a good point to look for an opportunity to engage with your passion in a small way.
For example if you’re interested in volunteering then you could find a charity that works in an area that you care about, and do a day of volunteering there. After running this small experiment (a day of volunteering) you’ll be in a much better position to understand what, specifically, draws you to volunteering. Is it your desire to share, or to build connection, or to learn from others experiences, or to develop new skills and so on? Even if that single experiment doesn't work out completely as planning you'll be in a better place to take the next step with more precision.
Next, have a look at what I call the secondary overlaps, between one circle and one other circle. You can list out the bullet points that sum up what this overlap represents to you, or could represent (i.e. a future opportunity or innovation). By smashing two, perhaps seemingly unrelated, things together in this way your mind might jump to a new idea or possibility that you didn’t see before. What you come up with can be the basis, after further research and experimentation, of a strong future passion.
For example my friend Chris likes: Cycling, Coding and Creating writing. You could envisage that Chris might also really like writing about cycling, or developing an App that incorporates neat descriptions of cycling trails, for example. If that were Chris' personal project then you could easily imagine that he'd be able to make the time to work on it (avoiding excuses) since it combines three of his passions together.
Action: write out the bullet points that describe the overlap of two circles
The next step in the circles process is to look at the intersection of all three circles. Can you write some bullet points or even, if you like, a sentence or paragraph that articulates what this intersection means to you, or could represent?
Action: write a compelling description of what the overlap of three circles means to you
Completing the Three Circles exercise can be profound since it gives you such an insight into who you are, what makes you tick and what you value.
Here are my circles and bullet points:
I first ever did this exercise about 15 years ago as part of an MBA course. Although the “job description” has changed through several iterations since then the essence has remained the same.
One reason why, is that if you dig deeply enough into why you are curious or passionate about something, eventually you’ll begin to reveal your core values. Our core values tend to be fairly stable over time. In The Good Life Book I also describe a complementary approach to the Three Circles (but in reverse). Using your values to predict your passions.
I’ve labelled the intersection of the Three Circles as “Mix|Essence”. Although the essence of your passion areas will stay the same, how you mix or weight the specific aspects in each circle will change as you explore different ways to maximise the level of passion you get from your circles.
The Three Circles can be transformative because of how focused the passion at the intersection of three circles is. Like a laser this intersection is a powerful light and source of energy. It can pull you into action. Action is critical not only to do your passion, but to find the best way to engage with your passion.
The fact is that many of us don’t spend any time at all engaging with our passions in a typical week, month or even year. I was as guilty of that as anyone. Between work, unwinding, family time, other commitments/chores and so on I rarely found the time to work specifically on my passions. Instead of doing, I read about entrepreneurship, daydreamed about creating and immersing in art, and ruminated about doing something positive for the world.
"life gets in the way of living a passionate life”.
We’re busy but somehow we don’t find time to do the things that we know bring us joy. After speaking with many hundreds of professionals and leaders about their passions I see a combination of blockers that stop us from making time to live a passion.
- Beliefs. We believe that passion is a nice-to-have rather than a critical ingredient of life. We believe that we're too old to follow our passions. Not true.
- Grand gestures. We believe that following a passion requires quitting our job or having a huge swathe of free time. No. The best way to start to engage with a passion is to spend 5-10 minutes in a week creating in your area of passion (e.g. writing, teaching or explaining it to someone else). As you begin to understand the best way to engage with your passion you'll start make the time to scale up your investment of energy in your passion. To begin with, schedule 10 minutes into your work calendar to spend on a circle/intersection of passions. Ensure that you create an output from that time, it could be to write down what you learned or want to try next. Write it down.
- Invisibility. There is a tendency to go deeper and deeper into ourselves when thinking about our passions. Few of us actively discuss our passions with others. We kind of treat them like a bit of a secret. As a result we miss out on the virtuous effects of networks and chance. I hope that the use of the Three Circles tool will become commonplace, and that will allow us to engage others in making each others lives more passion-filled. I'd say that all of your closest friends and colleagues should know what your circles/passions are, if you hope to begin to live them. Do they? Do you?
I hope that this article and the Three Circles tool are helpful to you on your journey to living a better and more passionate life. Please share your circles and your results!
* * *
Brett Cowell is the author of The Good Life Book, a step-by-step guide to increasing the happiness, balance and meaning in your life. He is also the founder of Total Life Complete LLC, a startup business helping people to have fun, learn, grow and give back. If you like this article please take the additional step to share, comment or like it too! The Good Life Book is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. All the best, Brett!
This article (C) 2017 Brett Cowell, All rights reserved.