The Tiny Project Challenge

I am a big fan of tiny goals.

When you set a massive goal (“I am going to write a book, find an agent, get a publishing deal, and become a NY Times bestselling author”), it usually feels overwhelming. You might feel paralyzed. You feel exhausted just thinking about it. You doubt yourself. You struggle to get started.

When you set a tiny goal (“I am going to set a timer for 7 minutes and write a quick ‘thank you’ note to someone who has changed my life”), it feels very different. You feel energized. You feel capable. You believe in yourself. You get it done. No problem! This builds confidence and momentum to tackle the next tiny goal, and the next one, and the next.

Tiny goals lead to big things.

Tiny projects can create a big ripple effect—and touch many people’s lives.

Recently, I challenged a few of my clients to complete a tiny writing project. They’ve been writing tiny poems, short letters, little cards, quick stories, and we’ve been having so much fun together.

Then I realized, “I want to challenge EVERYONE to do this!”

So, right now, YOU are invited to join in.

It’s time for…

– THE TINY PROJECT CHALLENGE –

Here’s what to do:

– Sometime in the next 7 days, complete a tiny writing project. Or a tiny audio project. Or a tiny video project. Or a tiny drawing project. Or any kind of tiny creative project. (Don’t know what kind of project to do? I put several ideas down below, towards the bottom of this message.)

– Take a photo of your finished project.

– Email your photo to hello@alexandrafranzen.com to say, “I did it!”

– Optional: Let the world know about your tiny project! Tell your friends. Tell your colleagues. Get your kids involved. Post your photo online. By doing this, you might inspire dozens of other people to complete a tiny project, too. More people. More projects. More love, art, and beauty being added to the world.

– To say “Congratulations!” for completing your tiny project, I will select one person—randomly—and that person will win a beautiful box of treats from Hawaii. Books, candles, local chocolate, delightful things like that. A box of Aloha. Shipped to your doorstep.

– GO! You have 7 days. Please send your photo by Friday, August 24, 2018. The lucky winner will be announced in my newsletter shortly after that. (But everyone is a champion just for doing this, obviously.)

– TINY PROJECT IDEAS –

Here are some ideas on what your tiny project could be…

– Write a beautiful “thank you” letter to someone who has touched your life.

– Write a glowing 5-star review about a book or product that you really love.

– Write a short newsletter (any topic) and send it to your mailing list.

– Write a short blurb about “my biggest lesson from 2018, so far” and post it online, share it with your family, or both.

– Write a “You really matter to me” letter to someone who always makes your day a little better—maybe a bus driver, a teacher, a barista, an assistant, a grocery store clerk, your professor, whoever you want.

– Write a letter to an elected representative (mayor of your town, senator, etc.) to say “thanks for the great work” and / or, to encourage them to make a particular change that you’d like to see.

– Write or record a short message for a friend who’s going through a hard time right now. Let them know that they’re loved, that you’re here to help and listen, and that they’re not alone.

– Write a “5 reasons why I love you” letter to your partner, to your kids, or to yourself.

– Set a timer for 6 minutes and fill in the blank: “Before I die, I want to _____.”

– Set a timer for 7 minutes and write a 7 line poem. Any topic. Any style.

– Set a timer for 8 minutes and write down a list of your 8 favorite moments / memories from 2018, so far.

– Set a timer for 9 minutes and write down a list of 9 things you really want to do, see, or experience in 2019.

– Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down 10 suggestions on what to do to heal your heart after a break-up, divorce, death or any kind of painful loss. Keep this list. One day, you (or a friend) might be so grateful to have this comforting list.

– Set a timer for 11 minutes and write the beginning of a story (fiction) beginning with this line: “It was 11:11pm on New Year’s Eve, and that’s the moment when I knew…”

– Set a timer for 12 minutes and write the beginning of a story (fiction) beginning with this line: “There are 12 signs that you have mermaid lineage in your blood. The first one is…”

– Write a letter to your kids that goes: “Here are a few things I learned the hard way, in life, that I hope you’ll learn sooner than I did…”

– Doodle a cartoon and write a caption.

– Make a helpful worksheet or checklist. Any topic. Packing for a trip, launching a business, getting ready for college, decluttering your closet, etc.

– Make a tiny poster (or a big one) with an inspiring message that the world needs to hear. Put it somewhere in your city (bulletin board, pinned to a telephone pole, bus stop, etc.)

– Write a very sexy text message to your sweetheart. Or, if you’re single right now, to yourself, or to your imaginary / future sweetheart.

– Plan a wonderful party (a letter writing party, a vision board party, a book club meeting, a taco night, whatever you want) and write a beautiful invitation. Send it to your friends.

– Pretend it is many, many years from now. Write an obituary for yourself, as if you’ve died. Mention all the incredible things you experienced and contributed to the world during your lifetime.

– Pretend it is exactly one year from today. Write a letter to a friend. Describe all of the wonderful things you experienced and learned and created during the last 12 months. “Wow, what a year it has been! Let me catch you up on everything that has happened…”

– Pick someone you’d like to interview. Your mom. Your grandpa. Your next-door neighbor. Your mentor. Make up a list of 5 questions you’d really like to ask them. Schedule an interview and do it.

– Write a mini essay (one page or less) titled: “If I ran the country…”

– If writing just isn’t your thing, you can take any of these ideas and do an audio or video version of the same project. Record an audio message with vocaroo.com. Email someone a video with bombbomb.com. Use your webcam to make a GIF with andtheniwaslike.co.

– Or, come up with another tiny project that sounds fun to you.

I can’t wait to see what you create.


Go with your hut.

One morning, about fifteen years ago, I walked into Swork Coffee in Eagle Rock, California with a heavy backpack filled with college textbooks slung over my shoulder.

I had an hour before my first class of the day. I ordered my usual drink—black coffee, no sugar, no cream, because I was pretty uptight back in those days—and sat down to study for my Anatomy exam.

At the time, I was attending a prestigious college. I had a perfect 4.0 GPA. I’d been awarded a merit scholarship to cover part of my tuition. I’d won an undergraduate research grant, too. I was focused on Kinesiology. My professor was pushing me towards medical school. “We need more female doctors,” he urged me.

It seemed like a good plan. But my heart wasn’t really in it. Sure, I was a good student. I worked hard. I could make color-coded flashcards and memorize the names of muscles and bones and recite every single one, no problem. But I didn’t have a dream. I didn’t know what I was passionate about. I felt lost. And I felt guilty for not being happy. Sometimes, I just wanted to escape my own body, my own life. I developed weird habits, like drinking cough syrup before bedtime and then covering my face with a blanket and listening to Enya. It was a strange time.

It was unusually quiet inside Swork that morning. Sunlight poured through the windows, warming my face and chest. For just a moment, I felt completely at peace. No pressure. No stress. No chatter in my mind urging me to study more, harder, longer. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do. I just… sat there.

Next, I did something really naughty. So rebellious. Instead of pulling out my Anatomy textbook, I pulled out a different book. It was a book about the scandalous, twisted lives of the ancient Roman rulers Justinian and Theodora. I evaporated into the book, tearing through page after page, completely losing track of time.

When I finally glanced up at the clock… OH NO. I had just seven minutes before my Anatomy exam. I was horrendously late. If I left immediately and sprinted like an Olympic athlete, I could probably make it back to campus in time. Just barely.

I reached for my backpack, but I hesitated. A tight feeling gripped my chest. Constricted. Heavy. Like I was having one of my childhood asthma attacks. Fifteen seconds passed. Thirty seconds. One minute. Now I was seriously late. I needed to go. But I couldn’t will myself to move.

And then, I heard a quiet voice inside my head, whispering very softly, and very kindly:

“What if you just… don’t go?”

I was startled by this voice. I didn’t recognize it. Was I losing my mind?

The voice came again, quiet, but insistent:

“Don’t go.”

This is the voice that, these days, I call my “hut,” which stands for “heart + gut.”

Your hut is not the voice of reason, logic, or Excel spreadsheets. Your hut is the voice of instinct and intuition, that inexplicable feeling of what’s right for you and you alone. Your hut doesn’t always speak in words. Sometimes it speaks in feelings, tingles, an invisible hand on your shoulder, a fire in your belly, tears in your eyes that won’t stop.

On that day inside Swork, I did something bold and a little reckless. Something totally out of character for such a perfectionist, rule-abiding, straight-A honor student:

I decided to follow my hut.

I didn’t go back to Anatomy class that day, or ever again. Instead, I sat on that couch and read about ancient Rome for hours. I ate an almond croissant. Every last crumb. And I felt euphorically, unbelievably happy. I felt hopeful. I felt free.

A few weeks later, I officially filed the paperwork to take a leave of absence from college. I spent a few years traveling, working a ton of peculiar jobs, reading a lot of plays by Oscar Wilde, and figuring out that I wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I went back to school and I finished my degree, but I switched my major to English.

The last fifteen years have rippled with so many adventures—writing hundreds of articles, working on hundreds of projects with hundreds of clients, getting short stories published, and poems, and books, teaching writing in four countries and eighteen cities around the world, appearing on TV to share writing tips, producing a digital magazine, putting “Thank you mom and dad” in the acknowledgments section of each book. And this year, I’ll reach another career milestone, when my first sci-fi novel gets released in hardcover—online, in bookstores, libraries, everywhere. A dream come true.

This beautiful adventure began for one reason and one reason alone:

Back on that sunny morning inside Swork Coffee, I listened to my hut.

Your hut might speak to you today, or tomorrow, or sometime soon. Maybe when you’re stuck in traffic. Maybe in the middle of a meeting at work. Maybe the night before your wedding. Maybe two minutes from now, when you glance up from your phone and you notice a poster pinned to a bulletin board, you walk over and read it, your body zings alive, and you know that whatever this poster is describing, you’re supposed to be there.

When you aren’t sure what to do, or which path to take, trust your hut.

When you can’t remember who you are, trust your hut.

When you’re minding your own business, just trying to navigate through the day, and then your hut starts talking to you, insistently, quietly at first, and then louder, listen to it. Believe it.

Go with your hut.


What is your dream?

I took the elevator to the 8th floor of a quirky hotel and settled into a lime green chair. It was time for my coffee date with Tay and Val, two filmmakers from Singapore.

Eight years ago, these women began an extraordinary adventure—they traveled to 40 countries, spoke to 5,000 people, and asked 1 question: “What is your dream?”

What they discovered is that everyone has a dream. It might be a tiny dream. It might be a gigantic dream. It might be a secret dream. But deep down, everyone yearns for something. Even people who initially say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t have a dream” eventually admit, “Well actually, there’s this one thing…”

After interviewing thousands of people and collecting thousands of dreams, Tay and Val created a short film about their experiences, as well as a website, a TEDx talk, and now, they’re writing a book.

I asked them, “What does the word ‘dream’ mean to you? How do you define it?”

They told me, “Most people think a ‘dream’ is a job title or a destination that you eventually reach. But we don’t see it that way.”

As Tay and Val explained to me, there’s a better way to describe your dream.

First, consider what type of person you want to be. “I want to be brave.” “I want to be kind.” “I want to be happy.” “I want to be strong.” “I want to be a source of light.” “I want to be someone who makes a difference.” “I want to be a role model for my kids.”

Second, come up with a few specific ways that you could start being that person. For example: “My dream is to be a role model for my kids every day, including today. I can be a role model in many ways: for starters, I can apply for a promotion at work, be more punctual, eat more vegetables, write that book I keep talking about, and keep the promises that I make.”

When you combine these two pieces together—the type of person you want to be, and a few ways you could start being that person—then you’ve got an amazing dream.

Try it:

My dream is to be _______ every day, including today. I can be _______ in many ways, including _______, _______, and _______.

When you describe your dream is this way, your dream becomes immediately attainable. Instead of feeling like your dream is so far away, or feeling like you have to wait for the perfect moment to start pursuing your dream, you can choose to be that type of person right now.

For example, if your dream is to “be a source of light,” you can be a source of light today whether you’re a high school student, a Senator, or a janitor, whether you’re a billionaire or not, whether you’re ten years old or approaching ninety-seven. You can live your dream right now. It’s not a future destination that you’ll eventually reach. It’s right here. It’s you. You are the dream.

What type of person do you want to be every day, including today?

What matters to you more than anything?

What is your dream?


Find a reason.

My friend Kris and I were talking about grief and loss. Specifically, the type of shocking, shattering loss that blasts into your world out of nowhere. Like a hideous comet hurtling towards the center of your life. Abrupt and senseless. Completely out of your control.

A baby who dies suddenly in the night. A hospital worker’s voice saying, “I’m so sorry, your husband has expired.” The terrible news: “There’s been an accident.”

And this type of shocking loss doesn’t always center around a person’s death. It can also be the death of a dream. A marriage. A friendship. The only job you ever loved. It was there. Now it’s gone.

“They say everything happens for a reason,” I said to Kris. “Do you believe that’s true?”

Kris, a woman who has endured a stupefying amount of loss in her life, shook her head. “No,” she replied. “Everything does not happen for a reason. Sometimes things happen and there’s no logic or reason at all. It’s just senseless. But…” she continued. “We find a reason. We make a reason. We can turn the heartache into something meaningful, if we choose to.”

Kris’ words still echo in my ears and in my heart. We find a reason. We make a reason.

Now, as I am reeling from a particularly stinging loss in my life, that is exactly what I am trying to do. Make a reason. Make a lesson. Make an opportunity. Take all the disappointment and loss and turn it into light, into art, into the next book, into creative fuel — fuel to begin a new chapter of my life, the best one yet.

This is not easy to do. But I am trying. Trying to remember that no matter what happens around me or to me, I am not powerless or helpless. Because I can pick up these broken pieces and make something beautiful out of the shards. And so can you — dear human being who is reading this message. You’re not alone in your pain, and neither am I. We’re swimming together through the chaos, and we’re going to make our own reasons, and we’re going to create our own answers to the question of “Why?”, and we’re going to make some art, and earn some wisdom, and we’re going to survive.


The big break.

My friend Melissa has always been obsessed with TV shows. The more salacious, dramatic, and ridiculous, the better.

As a kid, she loved watching all the classic soap operas. Shows like All My Children and Days of our Lives. Shows with utterly preposterous storylines — “She’s my evil twin!” “He faked his own death!” “It was her uncle the entire tiiiime!”

At age ten, she started writing her own soaps — but with a twist. All the characters in her stories were classmates from school. Oh, the drama! Her stories were a major hit on the playground. But eventually, a teacher shut down the project, telling Melissa it was “completely inappropriate.”

Melissa didn’t write a TV script again… for almost thirty years.

She moved on to other pursuits. She worked in sales. She ran a PR agency. She worked as a business consultant. She created a satisfying career and enjoyed her work very much.

And yet… her TV obsession always remained.

In her spare time, she would write quick stories, sketch out characters, or email friends with ideas — “Wouldn’t this make a great TV show?!” She started a fan-newsletter dedicated to True Blood. She fantasized about being a professional TV screenwriter. But when you’re in your mid-thirties with zero connections in Hollywood, that kind of dream is pretty unrealistic. At least, that’s what people always say, so it must be true, right? Melissa figured that TV would always be a passion, but probably not her career.

Then, something shifted.

One day, Melissa asked herself, “What if I decided to take my dream seriously?”

“What if I approach screenwriting as if it’s actually my career — as if it’s a ‘real thing’ that I’m doing — not just a fantasy or a hobby? What would that look like?”

She decided that’s exactly what she would do.

For Melissa, getting serious meant:

– Downloading screenplays from the Internet and studying their structure.

– Writing tons of screenplays of her own — some great, some not-so-great.

– Hiring a screenwriting coach to give feedback on her work.

– Entering several screenwriting competitions.

– Taking classes on improv comedy and acting.

– Reading dozens of books about screenwriting.

– Emailing friends to share her dream and ask for any help they could possibly give — an introduction to someone in the industry, an encouraging text message, anything at all.

– Scheduling time on her calendar to write, and treating this time like it’s a paid job and showing up is mandatory.

– Lining up coffee dates with people who work in Hollywood to share her story ideas and get mentorship and advice.

– Researching to find contact info for agents, managers, and decision-makers at TV networks and reaching out to introduce herself.

– Pitching her ideas to almost one hundred people, collecting tons of rejections along the way.

– Eventually, moving to Los Angeles (temporarily, at first) so she’d be ready to attend meetings, should the opportunity arise.

– Telling herself, “I am a TV screenwriter” rather than, “I wish I could be a TV screenwriter.”

Once Melissa decided to take her dream seriously — and put in a serious amount of work — a lot of things happened very quickly. A series of big breaks.

Within about a year, Melissa sold her first project to the Lifetime Network. It premiered last year and got watched by over 4 million people. Shortly after that, she sold an original TV show, loosely based on her real-life experiences working in the seedy, twisted world of pharmaceutical sales. Last week, she signed a deal to write a trilogy of movies. So many victories, so many breakthrough moments — and her TV career is only just beginning.

. . .

 
So many people wait around, wishing for a “big break” to come along — a blog post that goes viral, a bestselling book, a life-changing client, the perfect mentor or coach, something that will forever alter the course of their career.

In his memoir, the Tony Award winning actor Leslie Odom Jr. writes:

“The biggest break is the one you will give yourself by choosing to believe in your vision, in what you love, and in the gifts you have to offer the waiting world.”

From Melissa, I’ve learned that the big break isn’t a book deal, a lucrative gig, a rave review in the newspaper, or an invitation to give a TEDx Talk.

The big break is the moment you decide to take your dream seriously.