Introduction: What Is a Strategic Plan and Why Do You Need One? – The Joy of Strategy: A Business Plan for Life


What Is a Strategic Plan and Why Do You Need One?

The joy of a life well lived—our work well done, our cherished ones well loved, our potential realized. Isn’t that what we’re all after? You don’t need to leave your dreams to chance. However, achieving this most fundamental and often elusive goal doesn’t just happen. It requires a strategy. To create a meaningful plan, you need a structured approach that guides you, step by step, through the process of defining what is most important to you and what you must do to get it. The world’s most successful businesses do this as a matter of course, and there is no more essential business than the business of your life.

Here’s my story. In 1995, I was recruited to lead Massachusetts General Hospital, the nation’s top-ranked hospital,1 through a strategic planning process and bring order to the chaos that was the chief executive’s office. Chaos at MGH? Doesn’t everyone know that stands for Man’s Greatest Hospital? From the outside, everything looked great for this world-renowned institution and, for the most part, it was. But as the health care industry rapidly changed around it, the formula that brought this prestigious medical center legendary success for nearly two centuries would send them into a slow death spiral if they didn’t develop a strategy to thrive in the evolving landscape.

While the hospital worked to position itself for continued success in the new millennium, the CEO was seriously overcommitted. His calendar was consistently over-booked and he needed a system to ensure he spent his time on matters that required his personal attention. More than that, in this time of unprecedented change, he needed to improve communications with the hundreds of clinical and administrative leaders who had to carry out this new agenda and reduce the time they spent in meetings so they could get this extra work done while providing the exceptional patient care for which they were so well known. Like the hospital he was tasked to run, he needed a strategic plan of his own.

While we didn’t call it that at the time, that CEO was my first coaching client. He urgently needed to set priorities and make his actions reflect them. He had to stop allowing his assistant to overbook his calendar and I told him so during my job interview. So when the request came in for him to attend a vendor selection meeting for their computer system during our interview, he turned to me and asked if he should accept. I told him if he didn’t have people he could count on to attend that meeting and give him a recommendation he could trust, he was in bigger trouble than he thought. He offered me the job that very day. Thus began my sixteen-year stint running the executive office for him and the two presidents who followed.

Your Joy in Jeopardy

Chances are you are a lot like this CEO, highly accomplished in your own way and with so many demands coming at you that it’s hard to get through the day in one piece, let alone feeling fulfilled and joyful. As a person with your own unique gifts to offer, it is your responsibility to use your talents wisely and it is your right to enjoy yourself while doing so. Happiness is so fundamental, in fact, that its pursuit is even stated as a right in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Yet despite achieving phenomenal career successes, countless professionals are experiencing feelings ranging from vague dissatisfaction to utter misery.

As a senior executive and management consultant, I’m astonished that more leaders don’t pay close attention to how their employees feel about their work, or at least they don’t do this formally. To put it in economic terms, I’ve come to appreciate over the years that happiness on the job is a leading indicator of an individual’s ability to sustain high levels of passion, performance, and productivity over the long run. Because any organization’s greatest asset is the people who work there, supporting joy on the job seems an obvious way to protect that investment.

This just makes intuitive sense to me—so much so that I even invented a metric and an instrument to measure it. Productivity indicators for individual performance are common, as are profitability measures for organizations. I also track people’s joy quotient, which is simply a measure of the joy-to-hassle ratio of a given situation. And I measure it on my joy meter, which I keep in my office. When I worked in the executive suite of Mass General Hospital, countless people would come into my office, close the door, and point the dial on my meter toward hassle or joy, depending on what had happened recently. You’d be surprised by the number of very senior, world-famous physicians who have had a go at it.

With so many experts exhorting us to work smarter, not harder, why are so many smart people working so hard? Even smart people need help. Like the overcommitted CEO, they need a solid framework to guide decisions large and small. In this book, I will be your coach as you create a business plan for your life so you can enjoy success on your own terms. This eight-step process mirrors the strategic planning steps that may be quite familiar to you, but here we will mix in some tools that may surprise you to bring you joy and success. I will teach you some hard skills to accomplish this and will offer firm but gentle guidance to support you when the work itself is tough.

Self-Management and More

The great news about learning how to create a business plan for your life is that you can apply this newfound knowledge so you can be more effective in everything you do. Beyond managing yourself, you will be better equipped to lead teams and projects at work, rally the troops for a community service initiative, manage your family life—you name it. The investment you are about to make in yourself will pay huge dividends for the rest of your life and in ways that may surprise you.

The Time for Your Passions Is Now

Helping such a complex and historic institution as MGH determine its future was an intriguing intellectual challenge. And gaining the support of the hospital’s leaders to implement the resulting plan, with its inevitable winners and losers, called on all of my diplomatic skills and powers of persuasion. My accomplishments were rewarded with more: more responsibility, more people to lead, and larger budgets to manage until I had hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars under my direction. More of what many professionals regard as indicators of success.

And then came the year that changed everything. After enduring a string of heart-wrenching personal losses, I was thrilled when I became pregnant with the baby we’d worked so hard to conceive. But elation turned quickly to fear when we learned his heart didn’t appear to be developing properly and it was not clear if he would survive. We had to make some impossibly difficult decisions. If that wasn’t enough, in the midst of that pregnancy, my husband was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening condition that required a risky surgery to repair. Facing the very real possibility that I could lose the husband and child I cherished so deeply, I realized our time was short and I needed to make the most of it—now .

That meant leading with my heart and emotional intelligence after years of putting my intellectual gifts first. I’d spent my life thinking that if I worked hard enough I could fulfill my potential: put myself through college; earn a graduate degree from Harvard; effectively manage huge projects and successful teams; and win big contracts, awards, and promotions; and I did all that. Yet, at the pinnacle of my career, I knew that snuggling up with big budgets wasn’t enough and that my real satisfaction came from connecting deeply with other people and making a positive difference. After a great deal of introspection, I realized that my unique ability to combine the techniques I’d employed so effectively in business with some hard-won life lessons to help others to find soul-satisfying success was a great way to do that. So while mixing soul with strategy isn’t exactly the most intuitive combination, it is a lot more spiritual than leaving your dreams to chance or, worse, letting them go because you don’t know how to pursue them. I’ve met a lot of souls that need organizing. More than that, many organizations need soul. After conducting dozens of workshops for people ranging from physicians to firefighters, I could see that using my strategic planning and executive skills was the perfect way to put my passion into practice.

What Is a Strategic Plan and Why Do You Need One?

“Good plans shape good decisions. That’s why good planning helps make elusive business dreams come true.” 2

—Lester Robert Bittel, industrial engineer and management guru

In its simplest form, strategic planning is the process of identifying your purpose and core values, setting goals, and developing the approach that is most likely to achieve them. A strategic plan serves as a road map that defines your destination and shows how you can use your talents to take you there. Several routes are possible, and this map lays out which way is most likely to get you there quickly and reliably.

Are you thinking this just isn’t for you and that you might put down this book? Not so fast! I’ve seen time and again that the people who resist this process are the very people who need it most. If the term strategic planning makes you think “I’d rather have a colonoscopy,” rest assured I will walk you through a focused, streamlined process aimed at giving you practical news you can use and not a bunch of jargon-filled fluff. Drawing a map that takes you someplace you actually want to go requires some careful thought and quiet reflection. Working with this book, you will create the space that makes that possible.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 3

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

No business could attract investors without clearly stating what its purpose is and what it hopes to achieve. Further, backers would not be satisfied by a fledgling business “hoping” to fulfill its mission: they require a detailed business plan showing the specific actions the business will take to accomplish what it sets out to do. In the business world, no one is going to take an uncalculated risk. Savvy investors know how to pick a winner, and winners have a clear sense of where they are going and how they are going to get there. Furthermore, their plans are doable and have a high degree of probability that they will yield the results needed for a successful return on investment.

Asset Management

Once you have gotten clear about what you want to achieve, you can be a responsible steward of your limited resources—time, money, talents—and utilize your assets in ways that are most likely to get you the results you desire.

Your Life Is Serious Business . . .

Just like that business, you need a clear picture of what you want to accomplish and what success means for you in order to focus your efforts and achieve your goals. Don’t leave fulfilling your dreams to chance. If you don’t take the time to decide where you want to go, it is impossible to draw a map that will help you reach your destination. Lacking direction, you could spend endless days simply responding to what others want from you. Years of this condition can leave you feeling unfulfilled and asking “Is this all there is?”

So You Need a Business Plan for Life

Most people don’t live deliberately and they skip the critical step of deciding what is most important before they act, a state Thoreau sought to avoid for himself with his reflective sojourn in Walden Woods. Without a clearly defined purpose, many people find they are not living their lives. Their lives are living them. Your own strategic plan is the result of a structured, systematic process and provides you with the basis from which you can make good decisions, both personal and professional.

Step off the Treadmill and Break Free from Inertia

Let me tell you about Danielle. In the first several years we knew each other, I rarely saw her fully dressed and never saw her completely happy. Our lockers were located close together at our health club and we chatted every morning as we dressed to go off to work. We would discuss what was ahead of us that day and quip about funny things that we’d seen at the gym.

While I’d usually be excited about a talk I was giving or an interesting client I’d be meeting, Danielle was not so enthusiastic. She worked in the fashion industry and would often regale me with outrageous tales of her company’s dysfunction. While her stories were devilishly funny, they revealed how truly miserable she was. Her job was eating away at her spirit and each day she dreaded going to work. The problems only compounded when her company was bought out and a new management team took over.

One morning, Danielle came into the gym more excited than I’d seen her in months. She and her colleagues were going to be laid off at the end of the summer and if she stayed with the company until the agreed-upon date, she would get a sizable bonus. The end was in sight.

She was counting the days until she could leave when she showed up at the gym one day deflated. Her new manager told her she was needed to help with the transition. While she was desperate to leave the company, she needed the bonus to give her time to pursue new career options. Over the ensuing months, as this demand was repeated and she was promised ever-growing bonuses, she stayed even longer. During this period, she was contacted about a senior position in a competing company and was actually considering pursuing another job in the industry she couldn’t wait to leave.

It was clear to me that Danielle was allowing herself to be swept away by the inertia brought about by circumstances rather than taking the lead role in her life and writing her own script. I suggested she participate in the Business of Life workshop I was giving later that month and she gratefully accepted. This day would allow her to sit back and think about what was really important to her. With that in mind, she could consider how this decision would impact her life and whether it was a wise move. She had never stepped off the treadmill long enough to see how the decisions she was making impacted her health, relationships, and general sense of joy and purpose. In order to do that she needed a plan, and this workshop was just the opportunity she needed to take charge of her own well-being. We will meet up with Danielle later in this book to see the changes she made.

Get Clarity and Get Going

There’s nothing mysterious or overly complicated about this kind of planning and strategizing. But for many people, it’s the missing piece, the step-by-step breakdown that shows them very concretely what they need to do to put their own dreams first every day and how to find effective strategies to deal with what’s derailed them in the past.

Those who achieve soul-satisfying success don’t rely on intellect alone. These people know that to be truly happy, they need to focus on what’s most important. They have more than a high IQ. They have a plan. A strategic plan. I know because I’ve taught them how to create one. They are smart enough to know what they don’t know and they’re not afraid to ask directions. They have attended my workshops and courses or have hired me as their coach. And you are about to learn what they have discovered.

This book guides you through that process, which begins by connecting you with your deepest life purpose and then walks you through bringing that ideal into reality. It’s not just about visualizing. It’s also about looking carefully at what you have, what you need, and how to get it. A strategic plan, unlike other things you may have tried (vision boards, simple lists, resolutions), helps you create strategies for moving steadily toward your target—based on who you really are, strengths, weaknesses, and all.

If you’re worried that this work will take some of that precious time you just don’t have, rest assured that once you sharpen your tools, your future efforts will be far more precise and efficient. As Melissa, an operations manager and early graduate of this program, said, “The best thing about your class is how timeless everything was. It was such a great investment of time because I still use your techniques [five years later] for goal setting all the time and I know I always will. It’s just the way I think now.” You will see how Melissa employed these techniques at work and at home with relative ease and achieved her two most important goals—getting promoted and finding a husband—in short order.

Zen Garden in the Shark Tank

Predictably, as I rose through the ranks at MGH, ultimately becoming a senior vice president, more and more people sought me out for coaching and mentoring. It’s very satisfying to help earnest, able professionals advance their careers and enjoy life outside of work and I was glad to do it. MGH is blessed with countless bright and dedicated professionals contributing to its worthy mission. Yet even in such a rich environment, the uncompromising drive for excellence can be daunting and stressful, taking its toll over time. My office became known as an oasis of serenity in the hospital’s relentlessly fast-paced environment as I guided people to make choices that brought them professional and personal satisfaction.

If the notion of monitoring people’s joy on the job sounds frivolous to you, I have some outcomes of my own that validate the utility of paying close attention to your employees’ happiness and engagement in their work. In my sixteen years at MGH, not a single one of my department heads left the institution. In fact, up until a few months before I left, there was zero turnover among my direct reports. That one change occurred when the hospital CIO was promoted to lead the IT enterprise for our entire system, a move I heartily endorsed. That loyalty and longevity doesn’t just happen.

If these empirical data aren’t enough to convince you, a recent study by Dr. Michal Biron of the University of Haifa’s Graduate School of Management showed that employees are less likely to take time off for stress-related illnesses when they receive “emotional and instrumental support” from their supervisors. Absenteeism due to stress-related illnesses cost U.S. businesses an estimated $225.8 billion annually.4 If you need a reason to support your workers, there are a quarter trillion good ones right there.

When the demand for individual mentoring sessions rose beyond what my calendar allowed, I created a course to teach groups of leaders the skills they needed to manage their careers and their lives. The course, called The Business of Life, was instantly oversubscribed and the classes have been full ever since. As word spread, I developed courses for the doctors and research faculty at the hospital and created programs for my coaching and consulting clients in financial services, broadcasting, marketing, higher education, government, and a wide variety of other industries.

Recently, I met with a group of physicians and surgeons who had taken my course six weeks earlier to check in on how they were putting their new knowledge into action. In spite of being brilliant and virtuous doctors, or maybe because of that, they had been feeling pretty dissatisfied. After just one day of learning about the Business of Life, they were able to make small changes in their habits that made a huge impact on their outlook and experience. They felt more in control. More like they were running the show rather than the show running them. Here are just a few examples of what they had to say about their experience:

• “It was life changing.”

• “I let go of trying to do everything. Your challenging me to ask myself, ‘what would happen if this doesn’t get done’ was so eye-opening. Often, the answer was ‘not much,’ and sometimes even ‘I can do something that is much more important.’ So basic. Why hadn’t I figured that out long ago?”

• “This experience completely changed the lens I look through when evaluating work requests. I allowed myself to feel anger for the first time when a colleague tried to dump his work on me instead of worrying about how I was going to please him. And for the first time, I simply said no. I was shocked when all he said was ‘OK, I’ll try someone else.’ Sh*t, that’s liberation!”

It is so fulfilling to hear how people have used what they’ve learned in my classes over the years not only to transform their own lives, but also to do amazing things that help countless others in myriad ways. I knew I needed to broaden my reach so even more people can do the same. That defines my mission. I’ve written this book to coach you through the process of creating a business plan for your life so you can fulfill your potential and make your own special contribution.

Who Will Benefit from This Book?

The beauty of this process is that it meets you where you are and takes you where you want to go. Whether you are looking to find direction and transform your life, fine-tune an otherwise pretty good life, or just figure out how to manage your time so you can get home for dinner by six every night, you will find help reaching your goal. If you are looking for a new job or more satisfaction from the one you already have, you will find tools and suggestions on these pages.

You will take from this process what you need. That was made very clear to me the first time I taught the Business of Life workshop in a large company. At the end of the course, several people came up to the podium to thank me for such an enriching experience. First in line was the manager of the company’s parking garage. He said, “That was the best time management class I’ve ever had.” The very next person in line declared that “this was a life-altering experience,” and the tools he’d learned helped him and his wife make some major life decisions after they had already achieved their career goals. You will see the results Bruce accomplished later in this book.

As a strategic planner, of course I believe everyone should have a life plan, one that balances career, relationships, mind/body/spirit, and community service priorities. My programs have been enormously popular with professionals across a wide range of disciplines and industries. Business leaders often find that sharing my methods with their staff helps with team bonding and makes them more effective at assigning people to the roles that play to their strengths and ignite their passion at work. People from all walks of life have benefitted from my workshops, often at times of transition such as career shifts, nests emptying, and retirement, to name a few. I frequently hear from course participants that they’ve shared their materials with a spouse or a friend. Who wouldn’t benefit from taking a careful look at her life so she can make conscious, well-considered choices?

Left and Right Brains Unite

One thing that is so appealing about the strategic planning process is that it works for just about everyone. Some people love the conceptual work and find that creating a vision comes naturally, but the practical steps to bring it to life often elude them. Others, who are more left-brain and analytically oriented, are quite comfortable making lists and getting things done. For them, the challenge is focusing on the big questions like their life’s purpose so they can be sure all those completed tasks contribute to their most meaningful goals. If life planning has fallen short for you in the past, it is probably because you neglected half the story.

After decades of working with people all along that spectrum, I can warn you right now, parts of this process may well put you a bit outside of your comfort zone and you may find yourself resisting certain activities. Do them anyway. The parts that are hardest for you are likely the ones that will have the biggest payoff—much like exercising when you’re out of shape. It’s not easy, but you know this investment will make you stronger. And after some practice, it becomes much more natural.

Some Artists Take the First Step

Peggy and Gail are artists with a burning desire to inspire “peace, spirit, and healing” in a supportive environment for children and teens touched by cancer. As breast cancer survivors, they were struck by how isolating it is to be so sick and also by the way the medical system cured their disease but left them on their own to heal their souls.

As artists, they had no trouble visualizing how they could help these kids, but they had no idea how to start the practical tasks of making it come about. I taught them the fundamentals of developing a strategic plan and coached them to start with one small action that very first day. I sent them off with the simple assignment of buying some beautiful folders and a colorful rack that appealed to their aesthetic so they could file away all their papers. Now they had an office set up. It was starting to look real. They were surprised by how quickly small, concrete actions added up to tangible results. You will watch their Our Space, Inc. story unfold throughout this book.

Ticked off Tasks Don’t Add Up

Stan is a coaching client whose work life defined the term “rat race.” He started working right out of business school, where he’d gone for that most practical reason: he wanted to make money. That he has done. And like a lot of people, once he set out on his path, way back in his early twenties, he never changed course or even gave much thought to what he really wanted to do with his life. There was no time for that. He spent nonstop days reacting to the fast-paced drama of the stock-trading floor. The problem was, after the first few years, none of that activity ever added up to anything he cared about.

Like Danielle, Stan got the shock and opportunity of a lifetime when he was downsized right out of his rut. At first, losing his job seemed like a crisis. But then, he used that “crisatunity” to refocus—or maybe to focus on the big questions for the first time.

How This Book Is Organized

Over the years, I have streamlined the strategic planning process to address the most essential elements you need to consider to achieve your goals efficiently. I keep it simple because the work it guides is not easy. We start with simple exercises so you can ease in and gain confidence as the complexity of the tasks grows. You will see stories every step of the way that illustrate how real people have used this program to address all kinds of goals and challenges. The names and/or details in some of these examples have been altered to maintain anonymity or to illustrate a specific point. In a few cases, the characters presented are composites of more than one individual.

I will be your guide as you work through my 8-Step Strategic Planning Program. In each section, you will complete exercises to accomplish all the necessary steps. You will find tools you can gather to address your particular needs and assemble your own custom toolbox. We start with an assessment of who you are, what you care about, where you want to go, and how well you’re positioned to get there. You will do some organized, strategic soul-searching.

Step 1—Mission: Find Your Purpose

Step 2—Vision: Imagine the Sweet Smell (Sound, Look, and Feel) of Success

Step 3—Name Your Critical Success Factors: What You Need to Succeed

Step 4—Find Your Sweet SWOT

From here, we move from who you are to what you’re going to do to express your essential self, employing your talents and putting your passions into play.

Step 5—Set Goals: What You Need to Do to Get the Results You Desire

Next, we do some diagnosis: how well are your activities aligned with your goals? Where are you off track and why?

Step 6—Perform a Time and Emotion Study

Finally, you will find treatments for whatever is standing between you and your goals—practical advice and tools to help you choose the strategies that are most likely to get you the results you want. You will learn new ways to excavate time from your calendar to invest in your most worthy pursuits. You will find tips and tools to help you get back on track if you find you’ve strayed off the path. The process ends with you devising an action plan that will break down your next steps into bite-sized, doable pieces that banish procrastination and set you in motion toward your vibrant future. Today.

Step 7—Select Successful Strategies

Step 8—Get Going! Your Simplementation Plan

Step Back—Tips and Tools to Get Back on Track and Stay the Course

How You Will Work with This Book

You are about to get very organized. You will also eliminate the anxiety that comes from trying to keep myriad details in your head by putting everything on paper. For this, you will need a notebook to record your thoughts and complete the exercises. Then, you will organize the most critical pieces into a one-page designer document that will make it easy for you to track your progress regularly and make timely course corrections.

Your Custom Closet

Ask anyone in the know what the greatest pitfall of strategic planning is and she will likely say it’s when a company spends tons of time and money creating a huge, impenetrable document that gets put aside and collects dust.

Well, this isn’t another plan to put on the shelf—it is the shelf.

I will confess to being an organization junkie to the point that cleaning out my closets gives me a sense of order when life feels like it’s getting out of control. So it seems an apt metaphor to use a custom closet to organize the essential elements of our life plan. You can use this to clear out the clutter of your life, eliminate anything that no longer fits or that blocks your view of the clothes you’d rather wear each day, and make space for new ideas and priorities. With your essentials easily visible, you can try mixing and matching them in new, intriguing combinations.

Okay, I can almost hear you snickering at my obsessive devotion to getting organized, but this isn’t just about indulging my infatuation with the velvet-lined jewelry drawers you can build into those high-end closets. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary,5 the word organize means “to form into a coherent unity or functioning whole.” Isn’t that what we’re after? Aren’t we all seeking the integrity that comes when what we do is in harmony with what we believe so that we feel balanced and whole? Organizing ourselves is critical to making that happen.

I just Googled the term “work–life balance” and it returned 208 million results. That’s a serious problem. I believe the reason that work–life balance is so elusive is that our definition of balance is fundamentally flawed. If you, like so many, are looking to allocate the “right” number of hours to work versus life activities, you’ve set up a false dichotomy and an equation that can’t be solved. My friends, life is work. Keeping your house clean, staying fit, and maintaining healthy relations all require work. But work doesn’t necessarily suggest drudgery. Your work—at the office or on behalf of your community, health, or home life—can be rewarding, joyful even, when it is contributing to your individual vision of success. That kind of balance you can achieve.

Your closet captures your mission, vision, goals, and strategies, balanced by your own priorities, and it will serve as an easy way to track your progress and course correct for years to come. And it’s a custom closet because you can use the shell I’ve created (you can download one from or modify it in any way that serves your purposes. Laid out in the way that works best for you, everything you need is right there in one place. Can’t get to one of your priorities right now? Put it on a shelf so you will remember to get to it when you’re ready. Now that it’s written down, you can stop worrying that you’ll forget about it when the time comes.

Your Toolbox

This book is full of news you can use. Sprinkled throughout are Toolboxes that you can use to address challenges you may be facing at any point throughout the process. You will also find many tips and techniques to help you get and stay on a fruitful path toward achieving your goals. Whenever any of these speaks to you, you can record them in your notebook or put them on a shelf in your closet so they are available for ready access whenever you need them.

Reservoirs of Joy Create Resilience

I thought I was organized until Lauren, a Wall Street analyst and consulting client, showed up to our first meeting with a file full of color-coded folders, one for each topic we were to cover and another summarizing all of the research she’d conducted to back up every point we’d address in her organization’s strategic plan. You can imagine that two methodical planners hit it off and we became great friends once she’d launched her successful strategy.

Over lunch about a year later, she confessed that she had been skeptical about “the joy thing.” While she had nodded politely when I described that part of my approach, she was secretly thinking, “I don’t need that,” and dug into the project in earnest when we got to the “real” work. So it was a true gift when she told me that some part of her had absorbed the message. She was concerned that her tween-aged son was too serious and worked too hard. As they planned his summer activities, she remembered about those reservoirs of joy I’d mentioned and she shipped him off to spend the summer with relatives in Europe with nothing but good times with good people on the agenda. She was thrilled when he returned from his visit with his crazy cousins with an easy laugh and quick wit he’d rarely demonstrated before his trip. These qualities eased his transition to high school, where he easily made new friends. And he was a lot more fun at the dinner table, a bonus Lauren truly treasured.

Lauren realized that her son’s time in Europe had created joyful memories that he could draw on when he returned to the pressure of his schoolwork. And when he needed a break, he could relieve some stress with a good chortle. She was sold.

These reservoirs of joy make us more resilient dealing with the daily stresses we all face. Have you ever noticed that you can put up with tedious tasks when you are surrounded by colleagues you respect and enjoy? Or that your annoying coworkers don’t bother you so much when your work is enormously fulfilling? That’s your joy quotient in action: the joy you feel offsets the inevitable hassles you have to face. And having a deep reservoir to call on will help take you through the joy drought brought about by a particularly difficult situation. That’s another way you can capture that sense of balance that eludes so many.

Don’t Die with Your Song Still Inside You

When I was in the third grade, my music teacher, Mr. Series, directed me to stand in the back row of the chorus and silently mouth the words to the song we were rehearsing for the winter concert. With that one dismissive act, he extinguished the enthusiasm of an exuberant (if not tonally superior) student who had, moments before, been singing with gusto and glee.

Decades later, just after my fortieth birthday, I was sitting in the audience of a concert at a national convention where my daughter’s musical ensemble had been invited to sing with the choir. As several musical luminaries joined one another to jam onstage and make beautiful music, I thought wistfully how tragic it was that I loved to sing so much and couldn’t carry a tune. Then a lightbulb went on over my forty-year-old head as I realized that I hadn’t yet done everything possible to develop my singing ability and that the real tragedy would be to have had the raw talent all along without ever knowing it or developing it. So, I resolved that day to give it my best shot before giving up on something that would bring me so much joy.

That week, I registered for a weekend-long workshop that promised to “have you singing the way you’ve always wanted to” and that “not an ounce of talent” was required. It took every bit of courage I could summon to mount the stage and sing in front of a group of strangers, but I was determined not to die with my song still inside me, quite literally.

The leader of my singing workshop saw the reticent little third grade girl Mr. Series had silenced so many years ago now standing onstage, choking on my fears and croaking out a feeble tune. He saw that I had to get out of my own way and told me to try again, this time pretending to be a New York City truck driver. I dropped my register and belted out like a tough guy used to shouting at other drivers at the top of his lungs. The crowd laughed and sang along and then jumped to their feet cheering when I triumphantly finished my song.

Shame on Mr. Series for not doing his job: teaching that eager third grader how to sing on key. But as an adult, I am responsible for my own experience. What’s holding you back from pursuing your dreams? If it’s that you don’t know how to start, or are stuck, your excuses are gone. I challenge you to defy any limiting beliefs and to take decisive action toward making those dreams come true. Don’t die with your song still inside you.