BY BONNIE WAN
The brief. It’s the essence of a brand, distilled to a single page. It’s the starting point for every project, whether it’s an ad, a product or a brand experience. And ultimately, it’s a North Star for future direction and a springboard for action.
As a veteran advertising strategist, I’ve spent over 25 years writing briefs for world-class brands. Then, in a moment of personal turmoil, I stopped and wondered, why not write one for myself?
I wrote my first life brief in 2010. Married to a wonderful man and being a mother to three, I had just returned to a senior role at the agency I loved. Yet as my sense of achievement grew, my sense of fulfillment faded. Strained by the pressures of dueling careers and the challenges of raising a young family, our marriage skidded close to free fall’s edge. By April of that year, I fell deep into a crisis of meaning. So I did what I’ve done for countless clients. I wrote a brief.
I took stock and asked myself four vital questions: If we could change one thing, what would it be? If we could have more of something, what would that be? What do I fear? What do I crave?
What emerged was clear and surprisingly simple: More time with our kids and with each other. Work with greater purpose and a progressive education for our kids. A creatively inspiring home for our expanding family anchored in a vibrant and value-driven community. And finally, to explore the world, exposing our kids to the many facets of humanity.
Action is a byproduct of clarity. Once the brief was written, we saw our lives with a sharpness and clarity that had not existed before. And once it was clear, it was impossible not to act.
Change was scary and not without risk. We left California and moved to Portland, where I began commuting to San Francisco while pregnant with my fourth child. This move made it possible for my husband to pause his career and stay home with our three kids plus the baby, a decision recently featured in the documentary "The Big Flip."
Creatively and courageously, we made it work and, within months of writing it, manifested everything we envisioned in our life brief.
Here are six things I’ve learned to help kick-start your life brief:
Find your quiet. Tuning into you requires tuning out life’s distractions. The good news is that it doesn’t require a summer sabbatical or even a weekend getaway. Our most mundane moments can be our most meditative. Take advantage of mindless routine to let your insights and ideas bubble up.
Start with questions. Creative briefs use questions to stimulate ideas. The same applies to the life brief. Here are a few questions to play with: What’s your ambition? What makes you leap out of bed? What’s your enemy? What do you fight for or against? What’s your edge or superpower? If you could be remembered for only one thing, what would it be? Write the answers down, especially the stuff that makes you squirm.
Interview your fans. It’s hard to see for ourselves what’s obvious to everyone around us. Make a list of eight to 10 people who know you best, from different corners and stages of your life. Ask them the following: What three things make you you? What (situations, people or things) energizes you? What (situations, people or things) drains you? What’s your superpower?
Look for patterns. Life is a tapestry. It’s easier to see the patterns when you step back. As you review the feedback from yourself and others, highlight the themes, recurring words and ideas. What are they telling you?
Sharpen your words. Words matter in briefs. When used well, they capture the essence of an idea while evoking emotion and inspiring action. Getting to the heart of your life brief takes time and practice. Your first attempt will probably suck. But once you get a draft down, you can experiment with words to help you drill deeper, get sharper and be braver. Be honest with yourself. Don’t stop until you nail what you truly want.
Let go. Allow your brief to realize itself. Focus on what matters instead of how to get there. Clear intentions are enough to unlock and reveal the path forward. And when you release yourself from self-doubt and limiting narratives, you make space to see opportunities you would have otherwise overlooked. Changing your story changes your life.
Over time, our life brief has expanded and taken on new iterations. With every evolution our lives follow suit. After moving to Portland six years ago, we moved back to the Bay Area, with our latest chapter unveiling a different version of the same yet expanded brief.
Through it all my husband and I have become co-creators and collaborators in life, growing the awe and admiration we have for each other and for our life together. We’re doing work that lights us up, stretches us and makes us better.
We’re each carving a path of fulfillment, not just achievement. Most importantly, we’ve become more present and patient parents—as well as more generous and compassionate friends.
The life brief has become a new year’s ritual, an annual reimagining of what’s possible while reconnecting to what’s true.
I have shared our brief with others and now teach a workshop about it at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, encouraging purposeful, creative living for our employees. In doing so, I hear about the fears and limiting thoughts holding people back from living with intention. It’s no surprise in the era of social media, where envy, inadequacy and regret have become commonplace.
It’s my hope that the life brief can help free people from the shackles of comparison to craft a life anchored in what matters most. In the book, "The Great Work of Your Life," author Stephen Cope observes, "In knowing what truly matters, we are liberated from our striving to be somewhere else or someone else."
The life brief is a practice in reimagining what’s possible while reconnecting to what’s true, freeing us from envy, confusion and regret. In answer to the common debate question about if whether people can have it all, I say, you can’t have it all, but you can have all that matters.
Repost of an original piece by Bonnie Wan on campaignlive.com in 2016.