The Three Things That Lead to a Good Life

“Finding the things that genuinely light you up, that spark you, is critically important.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How to set yourself up for a good day — while making your morning coffee
  • How to move forward when the future is uncertain
  • What three buckets have to do with a life of purpose

Jonathan Fields is a serial entrepreneur, growth strategist, and award-winning author who leads a global community in the quest to live more meaningful, connected, and vital lives. Srinivas Rao recently hosted him on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast to discuss authenticity, mindfulness, and the pursuits that lead to a life of meaning.

Srini: How do you identify those moments when you are completely consumed by something that could actually lead to something great?

Jonathan: I’m still looking for those moments in myself, and as a father to a daughter who’s in high school, I’m on the lookout for those moments with her. Because I know that one of the most incredible gifts that you can find for yourself is to find those things that absolutely light you up, and to lean into that, and invest increasing amounts of energy in those things.

There are some people that hit the planet, and they just know what they want to do. I had a chance to sit down with Milton Glaser, the most iconic living designer in the world, and at six years old, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He didn’t know that it would lead to being a designer and a teacher, but he knew that he wanted to draw and make art and make beauty. He followed that path, and has never wavered from it for 70 years. But a lot of people don’t realize that he is very much the outlier. For most of us, the process is much more about staying open.

Finding the things that genuinely light you up, that spark you, is critically important. They really help in your quest to live well and contribute meaningfully to the world. It’s about saying, “Okay, this may take me years, it may take me decades, but part of my job is to continue to try things.” Not saying, “This must succeed,” but saying, “Huh, what can I learn about myself by doing this?” and doing it until you get answers.

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I think one of the biggest tragedies is that so many people graduate from school with such a mountain of debt that it almost forces you to lock yourself into a career path that services your debt, rather than allows you to run those experiments.

It often takes decades before you can extract yourself, and at that point, people become dejected and feel like “Well, my path is what it is,” and they serve out the rest of their time doing what they’ve started doing. Some people can be okay with that, but I think for a lot of people, it can also be relatively tragic.

Srini: It’s interesting you say that, because I have my student loan debt, and I vowed not to live my life in service of paying off that debt. I knew it would lead to exactly what you’re talking about. I thought, “If I get to the end of my life, and all I’ve accomplished is paying off debt, if that’s what somebody has to write on my tombstone, ‘He paid off his student loan debt’… There’s no way I’m going to go out like that.”

I want to get into the ideas in your book, [How to Live a Good Life,] but I want to start by asking you, what made you decide [to focus on] how to live a good life? Because the answer to that question could be the quest of a lifetime.

Jonathan: Yeah, and it has been. This is a question that I’ve been living for my entire adult life. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by both the human condition and the exploration of human potential. That’s manifested in art, in businesses, but everything has always been connected by this bigger question of “How can we create things that allow people to live better? To live more meaningful, engaged, connected lives in the world?”

“Finding the things that genuinely light you up, that spark you, is critically important.”

It’s [like] that Steve Jobs classic quote: “You need enough dots to be able to look back and see how they connect.” I’ve reached a point in my life where there are enough [dots] to see patterns in my own life, and patterns in the lives of people I’ve been fortunate to spend time with.

Srini: I want to get into the three core ideas in the book. Could you give us an overview of the three buckets — what they consist of, and how they are all related to each other?

Jonathan: Sure. The underlying idea was to create a model for crafting a good life that you would hear once, remember for life, and that could guide your behavior. Over time, this developed into [what] I call the three buckets. Your life is made up of three buckets: vitality, connection, and contribution. Your job in the quest to live a good life is to fill those three buckets, and to keep them as full as possible for as long as possible.

To fill your vitality bucket, we’re talking about optimizing your state of mind, your state of body.

For your connection bucket, we’re talking about building deep and meaningful relationships, and on multiple levels — the most intimate level all the way through a communal level, and on a broad and definable level with God or source if that’s something that matters to you.

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The contribution bucket is about bringing your gifts to the world in a way that is profoundly aligned with the essence of who you are, and that creates the experience of deep meaning, and alignment, and a sense of being fully utilized by the work that you’re doing in the world.

That doesn’t necessarily equate to your job—it may be something that lies outside of the thing that you get paid to do. But if you spent a little bit of time every day doing something to top off those buckets, and you turn it into a daily practice, over time, all these small shifts start to happen, and you realize, “Wow, things are better. I’m feeling better, I’m feeling more of a purpose, there are deeper relationships. My health and vitality and state of mind are slowly getting better.”

It’s like for you, [Srini,] looking at what you’ve been through over the last few years, one thing that became a powerful bucket filler was surfing. It was this thing that you do every day, partly because you love doing it, but also, if you deconstruct it, what’s that actually doing? It’s amazing exercise, so on multiple levels, it’s improving your health through moving your body. It’s also deeply meditative and [good] attention training, so it’s a powerful thing for your mindset. Also, just being in the water, in the waves, is something that can drop you into a state where nothing else matters. You’re completely and utterly present.

At the same time, it’s communal. It’s doing something to fill that connection bucket because you have friends that you go surfing with, and even if you don’t go with them, you’ve got all the regulars that are there. You have a sense of belonging in a community of people who are committed to this beautiful thing. And that unlocks your ability to then lean into your work. It’s kind of fun to look at your process over the last few years. You can talk to almost anybody and understand how these things work [via] this simple model of the buckets.

“You need enough dots to be able to look back and see how they connect.”

Srini: How do you know when a bucket isn’t full? What kind of signals do you see in your life? How do you develop the awareness that a bucket needs to be filled?

Jonathan: I think we all know, deep down. You wake up in the morning, and you’re like, “My relationships suck, I haven’t talked to my best friend in three weeks, my parents have been estranged,” whatever it may be. Or you wake up and you’re like, “I’m achy, I’m tired, I never feel like I have energy.” We can get pretty delusional because we don’t want to own it, but we all pretty much know. So there’s a quick intuitive hit that you can do.

It’s funny, we made our own companion practice journal for this book. Part of the daily morning practice is to do what I call a quick bucket check. Literally take 10 seconds and draw a line that represents the level of each bucket, just completely intuitively. We pretty much know.

But then you can also go deeper and ask specific questions. They’re generally preceded by, “How satisfied am I with” and then you ask that about the various elements that might fill each bucket. And in relatively short order, you can figure out what’s in need of a little bit of love.

Srini: What does your daily practice look like?

Jonathan: My morning practice [actually] starts the evening before with setting up my coffee machine, so that all I have to do is hit my grinder first thing in the morning, put the grinds in, hit go, and then [when] the coffee starts brewing, I go and meditate for 25 to 30 minutes.

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I start out with a few minutes of breathing exercises, and then I drop into my meditation. From there, I experiment with different things. I’ll sometimes do that quick bucket check and just say, “Okay, what needs a bit of love today? Where do I need to focus my action?” I’ll try to get a bead on what is the most important thing I can do today, and commit to that, and everything else becomes gravy.

Then one thing that I’ll try is to get a really quick win under my belt. That may be sending a note or a text or email to somebody saying, “Hey, I just want to let you know, that thing that you did or you said to me last week or three weeks ago, I’ve really been thinking about it, and it made a difference to me, so I want to thank you for it, and thank you for being in my life.” That literally takes 30 seconds, but it’s this quick little bucket win. Then I move into my day.

Srini: Having written a book about it, how would you summarize what it means to live a good life?

Jonathan: One of the things I’ve learned is it’s not universal. It’s very individual, but there are some really big themes. It’s when your connection, your contribution, and your vitality bucket runneth over. But on a more personal level, for me, I look to be engaged in activities and relationships that fill me up, surrounded by people I cannot get enough of, and [working] in service of something bigger than me.

Srini: One last question: what do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

Jonathan: I think it’s the ability to close the gap between who you are on the deepest level, and who you bring to the world. Some people might call that authenticity. To me, it’s having a deep understanding of who you are, what matters to you, and how you need to express yourself — then living as that person, with every fiber of your being, in every interaction you have with the world around you.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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