Episode 397 – The Life Brief with Bonnie Wan

Bonnie Wan‘It’s an uncomfortable struggle to land that title of the book, land that sharp, sticky center of the life brief, but it is so worth it.’

As a brand strategist, Bonnie Wan knows how to put together a creative brief that makes meaning out of mess, that goes straight to the essence of what a company is really about. So when she reached a moment of crisis in her own life, she reached instinctively for that skillset.

The result was The Life Brief, not a document but a ‘practice of permission’ she has adopted in all areas of life now for cutting through the noise and finding what really matters to you, the vision you recognise at a visceral level when you unearth it. 

Along the way she discovered the power of exploratory writing, the power of developing her ideas through speaking and workshops, and the art of leading the reader step by step through an experiential book. 

You’re going to love this. 

AUDIO

VIDEO

The Life Brief website: https://thelifebrief.com/

Bonnie on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bonniewanofficial/

Bonnie on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bonniewan/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Write with me! https://alisonjones.com/writing/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Bonnie Wan, who is a brand strategist who spent the last three decades working with brand titans such as Pepsi, Adobe, HP, BMW, as well as provocative and award winning social justice campaigns. She’s a sought after public speaker and the author of The Life Brief: A playbook for no regrets living.

So first of all, welcome, Bonnie. It’s very nice to have you here.

Bonnie Wan: It’s such an honor to be here, Alison. Thank you.

Alison Jones: It’s great to have you and I am just dying to ask you about the title because it’s so smart. The Life Brief, tell us what it is and why it matters.

Bonnie Wan: Well, as a career brand strategist in advertising, the creative brief is my main output of all the work. I call my job is to make meaning out of messiness, to assess a client, a brand, a category, often in disruption, high stakes, high pressure, and to really get clear about what a company stands for and where they want to go, their ultimate, biggest ambition, and distill that into a single minded, single page document called the creative brief.

And The Life Brief is essentially a creative brief for your life. Getting to the essence of what matters most and what you want and declaring it in a really essential, yet expressive and motivating and action driving way.

Alison Jones: I love everything about this. One of the things I particularly love about it is that you bring your professional expertise. Okay, this is something I know how to do really, really well with my clients, and you apply it to your life, which I think is always a really interesting thing. And you talk about, the messiness, the disruption of organizations. Well, hell, you know, messiness, disruption in our lives as well. So why not?

And I also love the fact that it’s actually… it was real. It was a really deeply personal moment. It came… you didn’t sort of think, hey, I could apply this to life and sell it as a book. It didn’t work that way. So just tell us a little bit about the story behind it.

Bonnie Wan: So much of what I do in my professional craft is intuitive because I’ve been practicing it for such a long time. And there was a moment, in young parenting, I had three kids under the age of five, my husband and I were working out the messiness of our roles and how we do it, and none of us are really trained or prepared, even when people try to prepare you.

Parenting is not something…

Alison Jones: I think it’s even worse because then you think you’re prepared.

Bonnie Wan: Exactly. Exactly. That would be worse. That would be worse.

So we were working through it and I was the primary breadwinner at that time, though my husband was trying to launch his own business, so in startup mode. We were fighting, negotiating, debating, comparing, critiquing. It was fraught. And in my head, the story was my husband was the problem.

I had lots of questions swirling and one day while I was in conversation with a very good friend, the questions popped out of my mouth and once spoken, I couldn’t take them back. And the questions were, am I with the right person? Do I have the partner who can help me hold this life we’ve created? What if the answer is no? What do I do then?

And of course no answers came out in that conversation, but the questions, once spoken as I said, were out in the ether and therefore very, very real. And it wasn’t until I had time to myself on a business trip, I went to my hometown, I stayed with my parents in my childhood bedroom, which brings, which unlocks so many things about ourselves.

And in that darkest moment of despair, with the questions haunting me and the answers that I thought were real in my head, which is my husband is the problem, I dropped into, out of reflex, my strategy nature, which is, wait a second, we know how to get through this kind of messy feeling. Let’s drop into the essence of what’s really going on and harness a better question.

And it was the unlocking question. What do I want? Looking forward. Not what does my husband expect? What do my parents want for me? What do my children need? It was very centered in: what do I want at the end of the day? And I allowed myself to write and write freely, nakedly, honest. And I don’t know how much time passed, but once I felt that final drip and drain of the last words on the page, I stepped back and I reread and reviewed and immediately was hit with an ‘aha’. That the story in my head was not the story that showed up in my journal, notebook, whatever you want to call it. What was on the page was that my husband was not the problem. It was my relationship with time, how I was spending my time, how much I longed for a different way of moving through time. I could see that I was spreading myself thin, saying yes to all the wrong things, and had nothing left for the things that really mattered.

Alison Jones: That process that you describe of sort of wringing out your mind onto the paper and asking yourself the questions and finding the questions behind the questions, I call this exploratory writing. I love that you described the paper that you ended up with is sort of tear stained and snot stained. It’s just a wonderful kind of visceral truth and rawness about that.

When you write professionally, it’s very, very different, isn’t it? Were you used to journaling? Had you dropped into that sort of exploratory writing, this is just for me, this is raw, this is honest, I don’t know where I’m going with it, sort of mode before, or was that new to you?

Bonnie Wan: I had recently started that practice. Every January, for several years before this moment, I treated myself to a writing retreat. It might be a one day retreat or a five day retreat. They were different at different times, different years. And I took a writing course with a poet and a wisdom teacher.

His name is Roger Housden. And he framed it so beautifully. He said, writing rearranges the furniture of our minds. And when he spoke that phrase, and I have it in the book, I repeated it over and over and I saw it in real time in this moment that I just described because it shook up the stories that were repeating on loop in my mind, shook it out onto the page.

And yes, it was exploratory. And I had experienced that a number of times. I wasn’t a dedicated or rigorous journaler, but when I had done it, each time, I had had this beautiful discovery of an ‘aha’ or an insight or I could see a dissonance between what I thought and felt and what was coming out on the page.

So I’m a big fan of it now. I do it far more. I still don’t do it enough because I’m also a type A, you know, perfectionist. Do it on the daily, but life is messy. I have four kids and a big job, so I do it as much as I can.

Alison Jones: Now I know the end of this story, but of course the listener won’t, so you are going to have to, because I interrupted you rudely, sorry, just finish off what happened when you were sort of looking at the tear stained, snot stained paper, where did it go from there?

Bonnie Wan: When I had the epiphany, the insight that time was the problem, I took that and I moulded it into what is now my first life brief. Which is several, I say five, but it can be one, three, six, there are no rules to this, but declarative statements. Really hearty, fuck yes statements, you know, where, where your blood streams.

The beautiful thing about writing, as you already know, is it allows us to be in relationship with ourselves, because when we reread what we’ve written, we immediately have a reaction, a visceral reaction to the words on the page and the statements that they build to. And you know immediately if you’re not being completely honest.

You know immediately.

Alison Jones: It’s funny how you can disguise that in your thoughts, isn’t it? It’s only see it externally that you’re able to go, well, that’s just fluff or, oh, that’s it. That’s the essence.

Bonnie Wan: Yes, that, that’s the feeling I’m looking for in a life brief. So in the book, I invite the reader, you are the only one who knows when you have your life brief and it’s finished because it gives you that visceral feeling of, Oh yes, I can taste it. I thirst for this. I, this is the declaration of what I want, and what I want now, or what I want with deep desire and urgency.

And so I pushed myself, because as a strategist, I know I have to show up with a creative brief that has that energy, that force of inspiration for creatives in the room. It’s a terrible brief if they all walk out going, or secretly in their minds, going meh, meh. And I know exactly what happens. They rip it up, throw it away as soon as they leave the room.

So I am practiced in getting to that motivating action driving feeling and that’s where I took it in relation to time.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Bonnie Wan: It was very wide open that first brief. But as soon as I wrote it, I sent it to my husband. It was very late at night and I thought, he’s asleep. I had all these stories in my head of how he would react.

But instead I received a text back immediately. Capital Y, capital E, capital S, YES, triple exclamation points. And we got on the phone and we had our first moment of alignment. In my business, when I work with companies and organizations, alignment is the key, the shortest path to action. And that was the first moment we had alignment and excitement and hope between us. And from there, the mess didn’t go away, but we could meet back at this brief and the name of this brief, because I name every brief, it’s that short, sharp, sticky handle, calls the entire brief to mind. You don’t have to remember all the declarative statements or have it on you at all times, but if you have, it’s almost like a tagline in advertising, right?

Something that tattoos into your mind and heart. And so the tattoo for that one was, ‘take our time’, which meant slow down, on one hand. It also meant take back our time.

Alison Jones: Take ownership.

Bonnie Wan: Ownership. Yes. So beautiful. Back from all the things that the world was asking of us, but didn’t really matter. And certainly wasn’t an investment in the thing that mattered most, which was our family.

Alison Jones: And that lovely, yes, that possessive hour, that’s the key as well, isn’t it? It’s just sort of you against, yes, together. Lovely.

And it makes me think as well of the art of creating a book title, which you have to distill everything, don’t you, into that phrase that somebody can remember that reminds them of what this is all about.

So you’ve got this massive sort of wedge of content and ideas and methodology and evidence and stories, and it all has to come to this pointy, sticky phrase that’s going to capture it all and embed it in somebody’s mind so that it’s accessible to them.

Bonnie Wan: It’s such a challenge. It’s what every great creative brief demands. So I’m doing it all the time. And it’s an uncomfortable struggle to land that title of the book, land the subtitle, land that sharp, sticky center of the life brief, of the creative brief but it is so worth it.

Alison Jones: I think we’re probably violating metaphor rules with sharp and sticky, but we both know and everybody listening knows what we mean. And then what’s also wonderful is the way that having experienced that for yourself, shifted your life, shifted your relationship, moved everything forward. You didn’t end it there.

Of course you didn’t, because here we are talking about the book, but you didn’t then just write the book. So just tell us a little bit about the development of the idea, the way that you packaged, delivered, developed it through a series of stages to get to where you are now.

Bonnie Wan: Well, that first life brief was 14 years ago, so it’s been life tested and time tested. I have written dozens of creative, sorry, I’ve written dozens of life briefs for every part of our lives. So I’ve had marriage briefs, leadership briefs, parenting briefs, wealth briefs, self briefs, and some of those have stuck.

They have been timeless and others have, you know, wafted away. Just, we’ve evolved from them. So it’s a practice that I’ve studied as I’ve done it to really understand the nuance of it. And my promise to this practice that I call… I call the life brief a practice, not a plan or not a goal, not a bucket list, not a to do list, but it’s a practice because it gets easier the more you do it.

And the more I did it, the more I studied it, and the more I invited other people into the practice with me, and I could study through very different situations and circumstances how it worked for others. There are no hard or fast rules, that’s why it’s a practice as well. It’s a practice of permission at the end of the day.

It’s a private practice of permission for you to engage with your innermost voice or truth because strategy, strategists are all about uncovering the truths, the essence of what is really happening in between the lines, in between the words and so this is a practice of permission of allowing yourself to be nakedly honest with yourself and then move from that place in your life.

So it evolved and my promise to the practice was anytime I would receive an invitation to speak about it, teach it, talk about it, I would say yes. Because it was my joy hustle and my gift work, it created such joy and meaning in my life. So the invitation to write a book came to me in 2020, just before the pandemic.

And my first reaction is, I don’t have time to write a book.

Alison Jones: Where am I going to find time to sit at home for these months?

Bonnie Wan: Well, I didn’t know that was going to come literally one and a half months later, that the world would shut down because at the time that the invitation came, I was traveling so much. I actually didn’t think I could hold everything that I was holding at that moment. It was another moment of where’s my time? And is it being placed in the right ways? Or is it, you know, spread too thin?

But the pandemic hit and removed every barbecue, happy hour, gymnastics meet, soccer practice. And I was able to be home and the potted plant parent for my kids. There was a whole other journey, leading the agency through a pandemic, leading my kids through a pandemic.

So it wasn’t ease, but I was, I was in one place and that allowed me to carve out slivers of time in between the big urgent moments. So I sat at the dining room table, warm beverage in hand. Any sliver I got. That was usually Friday night and Sunday morning, and it took a long time to birth this book. I know authors who… six months they have their book, they’re on their third one since the beginning of the pandemic, but I had this wonderful team both my agent and publisher who gave me the spaciousness to birth the best book I could birth.

And it wasn’t all about getting it out. So they really respected my relationship with time.

Alison Jones: And by that time, of course, you had turned this into a talk at an agency and a workshop, a workbook, a talk on a conference stage, so each time refining, developing, seeing what landed with people, codifying. Yes, which is really what you have to do, isn’t it? Because when you write a book, you’re not in the room with someone.

They have to be able to take what you say in this book and run with it. And what seems self evident to you isn’t self evident to them necessarily. So it’s really important that you have that experience of talking to people about what it is that you’re saying.

Bonnie Wan: My editor, Leah Miller, had this beautiful phrase. She would remind me again and again, Bonnie, your job is to walk the blind horse down the mountain to get to water…

Alison Jones: oh, that’s a great phrase.

Bonnie Wan: …with only your words.

Alison Jones: Yes

Bonnie Wan: That was a huge struggle because so much of what I do as a strategist is intuitive. It’s been crafted over 30 years of professional work.

So writing the book made me a better strategist because I had to unpack every single step of the process and why that step matters and what the ideal outcome is.

Alison Jones: And the step word is really important there because there’s no point telling the blind horse about the route you’re going to be taking. All they want, all they can deal with is the step that’s in front of them and then the next step and then the next step and it can be very tempting as an author because you know so much about this topic to go oh and then there’s this and then this is it or incidentally there’s that and no because you just want to know what the next step is.

Bonnie Wan: Yes, and that was the art and the challenge of it. To break it down into small, what I call inexcusable, and if I could, irresistible steps. Tiny, that it would be hard to say, I don’t have time. I know that we’re a time starved, attention confused society and culture, right? So I needed to engage people through story, through rawness, I needed to demonstrate that I understood the edges of emotion that I was asking people to allow in their own experience and I needed to demonstrate that through my own stories.

I was more careful in holding other people’s stories because I wanted to really respect their experiences. So, so much of the book is my experience because I knew I could push it to the edges and I am so thankful to be married to a partner who allowed me to do that

Alison Jones: because it’s his story right?

Bonnie Wan: Yes, it’s his story too. And I did have a parenting story chapter in the book that I pulled out and…

Alison Jones: their story.

Bonnie Wan: …it was their… it’s their story told through, it’s also my story. I think the thing with stories is everyone who is a part of that circumstance or situation has their own story in it. And while I was telling it through my lens, I knew that for my children in particular, it would cement people’s impression of them during a massive growth stage. My husband could have the dialogue with me, and we could be courageous together, but my children are still forming, and I didn’t want to cement the image of them in thousands, hundreds, however many people end up reading the book, and it just felt irresponsible.

Alison Jones: It’s such a good point because yes, your story is your own, but if it involves other people, which of course all our stories do, you do need to be talking to them. You need to be getting their view on how you’re expressing it. Yes, absolutely. Brilliant.

I’m going to ask you, Bonnie, which is so greedy of me, because you’ve probably given us about 18 already, but I’m going to ask you what would your best tip be for someone who’s just starting out on this journey of writing their first business book, or self development book, or just book,

Bonnie Wan: Have a very clear idea. For me, know what the spine of your message is because you will return to it again and again and it will help you know when you’ve gone too far off and taken an off road, taking your reader on an off road or not. Because the process of writing is so, it is messy in itself.

You’re unearthing so many things and the first part of it is just to lay it all bare on the table. Get everything out. And if you have a very clear intention, message, or idea for what role you want this book to play in your life and in people’s lives, in your audience’s, your reader’s lives, then that will be that vertebrae for the book.

It will always pull you back to center. It will…

Alison Jones: Hold it all together.

Bonnie Wan: Exactly.

Alison Jones: We need a book brief. need a life brief for a book…

Bonnie Wan: …need a brief for everything. If you ask me, that’s what we need for everything.

Alison Jones: Whatever the question is.

Bonnie Wan: Know the essence for why you’re doing it.

Alison Jones: …to be honest with you, that’s kind of why we have book proposals. A book proposal is a brief for a book. It’s, what is this about? In its essence, in one sentence, tell me what it’s about. Who is it for? You’d be so… that’s your North Star. Yes.

Bonnie Wan: And book proposals are deep. You know, I live in San Francisco, or in the Bay Area, and there are famous tales of companies started on a napkin, you know, a cocktail napkin drawing. I don’t think that happens anymore, but that’s the lore. But book proposals are deep, deep works. It took a year for us to really pull that proposal together, so much more than a single minded, single page brief.

But the brief had to start that whole process, and it had to show up throughout all the parts of the book proposal.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. Oh, brilliant.

And I always ask my guests as well, Bonnie, for a recommendation. You’re not allowed to recommend The Life Brief. I think we’ve already done that comprehensively, but what book would you say that somebody listening, if they haven’t read, should definitely do?

Bonnie Wan: So I love business books that blend and blur into professional, sorry, personal settings. I like that crossover effect where…

Alison Jones: …picked that up already actually.

Bonnie Wan: Yes, yes, yes. So The Life Brief brings business into our lives. Morgan Housel’s The Psychology of Money. I enjoyed that read so much. It absolutely surprised me because I thought I was going to get a whole bunch of financial tips, tricks, tactics.

And what I was so energized to discover was that he sees money as just another relationship in our lives. And the book is really about your relationship with money. And it spoke so much to me and had literal alignment to my own life brief or what I call wealth brief, because in chapter two, he asks the driving question that got my husband and I to our wealth brief, which is what is enough? Do you have a clear sense of enough?

And so it really is a psychology of money book, and I think it serves leaders who run businesses. Because our understanding of money, our relationship with money, our relationship with scarcity and abundance drives how we show up in our work and as the CEO of our lives.

Alison Jones: Great recommendation, and interestingly, although it is an incredibly successful book, it’s been out for a while, incredibly I haven’t read it yet, which is a bit embarrassing, but nobody else has recommended it, so thank you. I will take it off the ‘To Be Read One Day’ pile and punt it up to the ‘To Be Read Now’ pile, so thank you.

Bonnie, if people want to find out more about you, more about The Life Brief, more about the work that you do creatively, where should they go?

Bonnie Wan: thelifebrief.com is the easiest place and it has resources and ways to sign up. I have a great, I don’t like calling it newsletter, but I haven’t found a different name for it, where I just share what’s going on in my life right now and what are the driving penetrating questions that I’m using.

So, prompts really, resources, tools every couple weeks and you can follow me at bonniewanofficial on Instagram and I am Bonnie Wan on LinkedIn and it’s a fun way for us to stay connected.

Alison Jones: Amazing. Thank you so much. I have loved talking to you today, Bonnie, and so much has resonated with books, with life, with writing. It’s just brilliant. I want to go back and listen to it immediately. Thank you.

Bonnie Wan: Thank you for having me. This has been one of the most rich conversations I’ve had.

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