The Goal of My Life Explained (tattoo included)

The photo below explains my ambition: I’m working to fill this shelf with books I’ve written. I want an interesting life which requires doing unusual things and having unusual goals. This is mine. Will I achieve this? I really don’t know, but in having this goal I believe I’ll live the kind of life that I want. What’s your big goal? How do you remind yourself of what it is? I find both these questions fascinating and I thought I’d share my answers as it might be helpful to help you figure out yours.

When I quit my first career as a tech manager in 2003, I primarily wanted to try another way to earn a living. I was afraid if I didn’t try I’d have the same career forever and that scared me. What else is out there? I felt I owed it to myself to try and see what I could possibly do and who I could I might become. I was lucky that I had a window of opportunity to try (no kids yet, little debt) and thought those that don’t would probably tell me I was foolish not to take a shot.

Books had changed my life many times and I wanted, hopefully, to write books that helped other people in a similar ways. Since I saw the shelf many times a day (it’s to my right as I type this) I decided it was the perfect spot to have some kind of reminder. Even when I finished a new book, the reminder would always be there. When my first book was published in 2005 I put this simple photo above on the author bio page.

It’s a cliche for Americans to swoon over Chinese symbols, misunderstanding what they mean and not bothering to study their meaning or context. As my Chinese speaking friend Jeff likes to joke, “Uh, that symbol tattooed on your arm doesn’t mean Great Love, it means soup dumplings.” I did my homework and understand its legitimate meaning (often used to mean sleepy, or something that’s kept hidden or locked away), but it also has a specific meaning to me.

Around the time I decided to quit, which took me over a year to work up the courage to do, I found this card at Uwajamaya in Seattle around the time I quit my job. I liked what it claimed the symbol meant (see below). I love the quiet strength of trees and it matched how I needed to be to reach my goal. The I Ching references the symbol as Hexagram #47, which has various meanings, including the one on the card. I’ve learned in common Chinese the symbol/word is often used to means confinement (one of the other meanings suggested by the I Ching), trouble or sleepy more than overcoming, but that’s OK. The symbol has adorned my shelf for so long it means something specific to me regardless of its common meaning.


Years later I’ve written 5 books, [8 as of 2020], and the shelf looks like this (see below). I have a long way to go. Translated editions don’t count, as that’d be cheating, right?tag=scottberkunco-20 I’ll need to write about 25 books to fill the shelf which will likely demand most of my working life. That’s fine. I have nowhere else to go and no goal as meaningful as this one.

Although it’s a volume goal, I have no interest in writing bad books. I also have no interest in writing unnecessarily long ones. My essay collection Mindfire is comprised of revised essays from this blog, but I’d feel it was cheating if most of the shelf was recycled material. One book in five seems a fine pace for compilations and such.

Occasionally I’m very fortunate to have people interested in hiring me for very nice conventional jobs where I’d have more security and income, but then I look at the shelf. More security and income are desirable, but they have limited bearing on my ability to fill the shelf. So as tempted as I might be, I say no (The Year Without Pants was a notable exception). Writing and speaking are my only means of income.

Another reason I like this goal is writing books demands many things:

  • Polymathic thinking
  • Study
  • Curiosity
  • Passion
  • Connecting with friends and colleagues
  • Making new friends and relationships
  • Commitment to an idea

In the process of writing a book I’m forced to do many things in line with the kind of life that I want: An interesting one. As long as I focus on the shelf, many other good choices are forced naturally.

Most authors repeat themselves, writing the same kind of book repeatedly. The marketplace rewards familiarity and a writing life is hard enough, so I understand why it’s common. Many of our most popular authors publish in narrow ranges. This is wise and lucrative, but also limiting (the most curious perhaps are authors who exclusively write about creativity, which in a way is not very creative). I’m taking the opposite approach for as long as I can. I’ve never written a sequel, because we all know how underwhelming sequels often are. I have no shortage of ideas for books and I’ll keep moving forward until I’m forced to be more conservative, if that’s even possible.

I want to be a writer in the largest sense. I want to be an artist. I want to take big risks with my skills, which will help me discover exactly what abilities I have or don’t have and what good they can do in this world.

Last year I got my first and only tattoo. It serves as an additional reminder to me about why I’m here and what my goal is. I’m a writer which means I work with my hands. I wanted to keep the symbol with me, near my hands, all the time.

That’s my story. If you see me speak and notice the tattoo, now you know why it’s there and what it means.

Follow As I Chase The Goal

Any encouragement is encouraged. Praise the crazy writer man! And thanks for supporting my work. Best wishes to you on your own goals.

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or on my simple monthly newsletter of my best posts each month.

35 Responses to “The Goal of My Life Explained (tattoo included)”

  1. Haider

    Nice tattoo!

    Best of luck filling the shelf. I’m sure you’ll fill it with thoughtful and inspirational words.

    I look forward to seeing them come to reality.

  2. Balaji Iyer

    Your focus and drive to take up a challenging life over one that will easily reward ( $ ) you better – already make you the true artist you want to be.

    From my perspective whether you fill your shelf or not is a secondary objective. You have achieved your goal.

  3. Genevieve Howard

    “Praise the crazy writer man!” That made me laugh. The world is sorely in need of crazy writer men (and women) so keep on scribbling. I like the idea of a visible tattoo where you can see it while you write. I keep all my tats hidden, due to my day job. Perhaps I will do a temporary drawing on my wrist for those writing evenings when I need a little boost.

    And when I retire, wrist tattoo here I come!

  4. Elisabeth

    Love this! And great tattoo. Praise to the crazy writer man from a crazy writer woman ;-)

  5. Ron Geraci

    Scott, this was an inspiring post and has given me something personal to reflect on. A question…you mention “connecting with new friends and colleagues” as one of the draws of your goal. Writing full-time can mean large swaths of solitary work and that’s a challenge for many. Do you battle with this aspect?

    1. Scott

      It depends much on what you write about and how you approach writing. I agree, writing itself is a solitary process. But you’d be surprised how many interesting people will share coffee or lunch with you if you reach out to them and say “I’m working on a book about X which you are an expert on, can I interview you about it?” Being self-employed in any career means you have to initiate many things and staying social and making connections is just another example of that. Many of those connections stay professional, but some don’t and friendships begin. You get your share of rejections, but that’s par for the course in being a writer or entrepreneur.

      Many writers form writers groups for this reason, which makes sense. I’ve tried that several times and never felt at home. Most writers groups are comprised of people who want to be writers, rather than ones who are producing work regularly. But it does work for many people.

      1. Ron Geraci

        Thanks very much for these thoughts, Scott. I’m in the middle of writing a book and trying to avoid the cocooning tendencies that can put a crick in your mental state. Your perspective is helpful.

  6. Luis Villafuerte

    Great post Scott. I’m shure you will succeed in your goal. I’ll be waiting for the novel ;)
    A little recommendation: can you put a Google+ share button in your posts? Keep going with the good writing!

  7. Chris Guillebeau

    This is really great, Scott. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    P.S. My shelf includes translated versions. :)

  8. Sean Crawford

    Nice post. Thank you for sharing. I’m pretty sure I would not have been as brave as you 11 years ago. I have filed your example away, and if ever I take such a risk I will let you know. By the way, I own and have already read two of your books. (projects and speaking)

    Regarding writing groups, I’m not quite in one, but I am in two, sort of: a free fall writing group, and an eight-week night class. Unfortunately, like you Scott, I’m nearly the only one in both groups producing regularly. But both groups meet my need to be able to walk into a room where every person there has a keen, interested, give-a-care about the world sensibility, a sensibility that I can count on with writers.

    Your web site and your readers give me a refreshing window into such a world, and I appreciate that.

    I dimly recall thinking about ten years ago that if we were next door neighbours we would never socialize, but I would not think so today. I guess we’ve both mellowed.

  9. Jason

    Oh Dear….in Japanese it actually means “distressed”.

    1. Smaranda

      He’s a writer… all artists should be a bit “distressed”, right? :-D No amazing art has ever come of pure happiness, isn’t that what they say?

  10. Smaranda

    Hi Scott,

    I wanted to drop in and say “Good thinking! Go for it! Pat on the back!” and “Don’t lose sight of this mission that is so important to you!”. In a sense i feel that I’ve been on this journey with you since the first bookk and you’ve made my attention worthwhile.

    One point: don’t think of new editions of a book as cheating, as long as they really have something valuable to add. I was recently going through Making Things Happen the other day (which I still consider to be my software pm bible so to say) but felt I was missing an update. it’s been 10 years now, right? And though the principles in the book have not changed, there is one thing that has gained significant traction in software development ever since: UX design. I really wish wireframing, low fidelity prototyping, user research, user testing, graphic design reviews etc would be included in the processes you describe. It’s becoming obvious that wireframing for instance comes hand in hand with requirements specification (in a very black box sort of a way). And I know different people have different ways of doing things in different companies. I almost think that the discipline is so young and is growing so fast that there are very few real comon practices out there. Am I right? Am I wrong? Where do people integrate UX in their development process nowadays? How do they and should they work with it in relation to the PM considerations of a project? Considering your former UX background, I would say it would be fantastic to have an update of Making Things Happen to include UX design. Or maybe a new book that utilizes some of the material in it. I really don’t feel that this would be cheating or over-milking a topic that is in your comfort zone.

  11. Ravi

    This is the best post that I’ve read from you in a while. I clipped your blog post and placed it in my Evernote notebook called Inspiration.

    Scott, you are already a great success. You are making art on your own terms. One of the great qualities that you have shown is grit – 11 years as a full-time writer.

  12. Susan

    I smiled when you defined a writer as someone who works with his hands. I’d say you work with your mind primarily. And your heart.

    Question: After you left Microsoft, did you ever work at an uninspiring “day job” to make ends meet?

      1. Susan

        Thanks for sharing so openly (I read the post about how you make a living, too).

        You are an inspiration in many ways. And so darn level-headed and wise.

  13. Kelly

    I’m so excited for you! Can’t wait to see the books as they fill that shelf and eager to read them all. Best of luck to a very talented guy!!

  14. Dan Ward

    From one crazy writer man to another, let me say Bravo and Thank You!

    Great stuff as always, and I love the shelf idea. I think I’m going to make a similar shelf, although finding an empty shelf in a book-filled house can be a real challenge.

  15. Gloria Buono-Daly

    You have achieved so much already and are truly pro in everything you do. Great how you share your perspectives and thought processes…for sure many are learning and inspired by you. Also wonderful that you managed to find time for other things you are passionate about like your first and only symbolic tattoo. :) Wishing you continued successes ~~~ Gloria

  16. cam

    What advice would you give to someone with a “very nice conventional job” but feels dissatisfied and has a hard time really caring about the work?

  17. Antoinette

    I found this blog after reading Confessions of a Public Speaker — which is so well written, BTW, and I’ve recommended it to friends and colleagues. I’m still reading your blog because I also value the opportunity to do interesting work, in some cases above all others.

    You are a good writer and I will probably read every book that ends up on your shelf, at some point.

    I am mulling over your point that some authors write on a narrow scope of topics because it is lucrative. Could a narrow scope indicate commitment to mastery? People who have attained mastery seem, to me, the ultimate specialists. Maybe their audience for all those books that have a bit of overlap are fellow specialists / aspiring specialists. ?

    1. Scott

      I’m glad you enjoyed Confessions and thanks for stopping by to comment.

      You’re right that it depends on how you look at mastery and craft. My personal bias is towards completeness – I’m inspired by the notion of someone who masters all the forms of writing, or at least tries them, rather than writing mysteries or thrillers continually. But that’s my preference and bias. I’m more impressed by the chef who can cook many different kinds of food, than one who makes a perfect hamburger better than anyone else in the world, but that’s all they choose to make.

  18. Susana Cabaço

    I wish I knew exactly what the goal of my life is :)
    Basically I am avid for learning new things, which makes life harder when one needs to pick some sort of career.
    So, in essence, I absolutely agree with your last reply to Antoinette’s comment: be impressed by the chef who can cook many different kinds of food, than one who makes a perfect hamburger better than anyone else in the world :)

    Oh, I love your writing by the way. Confessions of a public speaker has been a source of inspiration for a very long time and it will continue that way :)

    Keep up, good luck in filling the shelf! And make room for more when you get there ;)

  19. Derek Murphy (@Creativindie)

    This is awesome Scott. I like the idea of having a defined space to fill. More empowering than just an infinity of space. My wife and I were discussing your tattoo and guessed the meaning, but the quote from that translation of the I-Ching fills in the blanks.

  20. Steve

    I can’t believe you used the phrases “I don’t care” and “regardless of its literal meaning” in your cultural appropriation of Asian culture. I was going to give you a pass for just being ignorant and making a mistake, but you are actually steadfast in your disrespect for another culture.

    1. Scott Berkun

      If you read the card you should notice the meaning I initially took from the symbol comes from the I Ching. From this source there are many meanings of the symbol, including the literal one. I don’t see it as cultural appropriation to use one of many meanings from that culture for a symbol.

      I updated the post to reference a link to the meanings of the symbol so readers can decide for themselves.

      1. Steve

        “It’s a cliche for Americans to swoon over Chinese symbols”

        No, this is the cultural appropriation I’m talking about. I don’t think anyone would take offense to one finding inspiration in another culture. But when you brand yourself professionally (your body, your website header, even your favicon) with another culture’s language, you’re demonstrating cultural insensitivity.


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