Drawing Up Life Blueprints

Have you ever found yourself flailing aimlessly, trying to figure out “what’s next” but not particularly hopeful of your chances, unsure of where to even begin? Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction aims to be the solution. The program guides the reader through a series of exercises, generating an answer to that eponymous question: “now what?”

Who Is This?

Laura Berman Fortgang is a life coach, writer, and speaker. She’s the owner of Now What? Coaching, previously InterCoach.

What’s the Big Idea?

Fortgang developed the Now What? program immediately after the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks. In the wake of the attacks, she was deluged with coach requests. Many people, it seems, had received a wake-up call: Get serious about doing what you’re really meant to do. Stemming from this focus on “life purpose” coaching, Fortgang drafted a week-by-week structure that allowed her clients to search their past and present for clues on their best futures.

The result is Now What?, which is divided into twelve chapters, each representing a week’s worth of exercises (in theory – more on that in the next section).

The first seven weeks are centered around figuring out a new “it” or goal, what Fortgang calls your “Life Blueprint”. This section covers everything from what you hate about your current situation and what you might lose from changing it, your beliefs about your limitations or weaknesses, lessons from your personal history, what your current life purpose is and what kind of career or other “vehicle” might suit that purpose, and your needs and wants for a happy life.

Chapters/weeks eight through 12 focus on how to achieve “it”, from financial considerations to finding other people who can support you to the specific actions you’ll need to take to make the changes you’ve identified.

Each chapter includes several activities; in most cases, the reader brainstorms or does some kind of self-evaluation in response to questions and then writes down the answers.

My Take

I am deeply conflicted about Now What?.

I’m always impressed by a self-help book that asks the reader to do actual work (and not just half-hearted “reflection questions” at the end of a few chapters). Fortgang mentions several times within Now What? that the exercises were developed and honed through her coaching practice. In fact, these exercises were further perfected and “tested” by a group of beta testers, who went through each week’s exercises as she wrote them down in book format. While this isn’t quite a double-blind randomized trial, it’s still more honest experimentation than most self-help book authors do.

And it shows! These exercises were, on the whole, helpful. While I’m on record as being against rigid programs, Fortgang’s exercises are free-form enough to be meaningful to most people while still giving the program structure. And having done about half of the exercises myself in earnest, I can say that they do produce some insights – not anything life-changing, truthfully, but interesting realizations.

The coaching-structured background of this book is both its strength and its weakness. Several key exercises revolve around “finding non-obvious patterns in your history”, which is not an activity easily done by oneself without the help of an extra set of eyes. At times, Fortgang’s rhetoric also seems less than empathetic. Divorced from the understanding and ability to address a particular person’s particular circumstances which comes from one-on-one coaching, glib exhortations to stop grieving non-specific losses and “get on the bandwagon [of change] now” are distastefully over general.

The weirdest disconnect between coaching and book is the proposed timeframe cited in the title. If you read Now What? as a transcription of twelve weekly sessions with a coach, with homework to do between each session, the “ninety days” makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if you follow Fortgang’s written advice to spend an hour a day on the exercises, or several hours for those not currently employed, you’ll knock out one “week” every couple of days. I borrowed this book from the library and had no problem returning it on time, without renewing it, having completed all of the exercises in a couple of weeks.

A larger problem is that the book’s exercises are almost entirely internal; the vast majority of activities are based sole on the reader’s thoughts and perceptions. When evaluating your skills and traits, for example, Fortgang instructs the reader to remember what others have said about your strengths and what they come to you for, but not to actually go out and ask people for their feedback. Later, based on the life purpose you have surmised (for example, “making people laugh”), the reader is instructed to brainstorm a list of all careers or roles that would let you fulfill that purpose. No research required – apparently you will just know every possible job that fits that criterion and not have any biases against potentially great roles. It’s not until you’ve narrowed down your list to roles that “really” are right for you – again, based solely on your judgment – that the reader is told to gather outside information on what those jobs might entail.

I’m left feeling wildly ambivalent about the book, as you can probably tell. The first half is great, since it’s focused on questions that can be answered more internally – what does my history tell me? What have I enjoyed doing? What values are most important to me? – but the second half is lackluster.

Meant For

People who are truly stuck, particularly those who have a pretty good sense of what kinds of things they’d like to do but feel trapped in their current circumstances and unsure of how to get from here to there. Anyone who is looking for structured exercises to help them gain self-awareness.

Bottom Line

If you are looking for a book to guide you to find a renewed sense of purpose, to put words around who you want to be, I would recommend this book (the first half of it, at least) – that’s what I’m putting it under the Purpose category, rather than Success. But if you are looking for a true blueprint of what you should do with your life in the concrete, clear sense of “what job should I pursue”, I’m not convinced this book will quite get you there.

Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction by Laura Berman Fortgang – 288 pages – Published 2005 by TarcherPerigree

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