I’m not into “woo” things. I don’t meditate, I don’t get mind mapping, and I’m not big on “lifestyle design” (although I find value in some of its components).
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, either. The task is arbitrary and pressure-filled, and resolutions are virtually impossible to stick to. If you want to set up yourself for disappointment, just make a list of “goals” that you’re probably not going to achieve/attain.
So, when I ended up somewhat randomly in a “Writing a Manifesto” workshop at a conference, I was skeptical. Like, full-on MythBusters skeptical.
I don’t need a manifesto, I thought. I need practical tips on how to get stuff done. Give me a list, give me an outline, give me steps and actions and how-tos.
I’m an INTJ, damn it. There’s the hill; I’m going to come up with a perfect plan, and then let’s just go take it.
My assumption was that manifesto writing was going to be another one of those squishy “visioneering” things where you sit around and imagine your best life, and I was prepared to hate the whole 90 minutes.
I don’t want to gush and say that 90 minutes instead changed my life, but, well, it kind of did.
The trick for me was figuring out that writing a manifesto isn’t about getting in touch with my personal whatever or about “dreamfluencing” (thank you, Welcome to Night Vale, for that fantastic term).
What I learned was that writing a manifesto is a way to set personal boundaries, priorities, and goals. These are the ideas I want to live up to; a manifesto provides a bar that I reach for or a red line I don’t cross.
It turns out, a manifesto is a succinct statement of practical ideas for both your personal and professional lives, and writing one can help you figure out what you believe and what your goals are.
A manifesto is a statement of what you stand for.
And yes, that means that writing a manifesto puts you in such illustrious company as the Unabomber. However, it also puts you in company with Frank Lloyd Wright and Malcolm X.
Look, context is everything. Your manifesto doesn’t have to be letters cut out of newspapers and magazines, and pasted onto posterboard. Or typed on an ancient typewriter. Or written while in a lonely cabin in the woods.
And yes, if you’re writing a political manifesto, it’s probably going to piss off at least half the population.
But a manifesto doesn’t have to be controversial, at least not in that sense. Your personal priorities may be controversial to some (I refuse to answer another question about when I’m having kids), but they don’t have to be “destroy all governments” controversial.
Simply put, a manifesto is a list of what you believe, what your intentions are, and a snapshot of the world you want to live in.
A personal manifesto may change as you move through life — whereas your goal at age 25 may have been to travel the world and see at least one new place each week, your goal at age 45 may be to own a house with a yard and a guest bedroom. Your manifesto expresses the shift in your priorities — from being nomadic to putting down roots in a community.
Your professional manifesto can shift as well. An owner of a start-up or a solopreneur may go from a manifesto that says, “Every client is worth having” to “Only clients that fit our specific goals and profile are worth having.”
Even though it can evolve, a manifesto expresses core values and priorities for you or for your business. There are some statements within your manifesto that won’t change. For example, a business with a goal of feeding kids in food-poor areas might have “Bring change to the lives of children in the region” as part of their manifesto. Though how they execute that priority might change, the core goal stays the same.
Resolutions tend to be aspirational “I will” statements. I will travel more. I will write that novel. I will learn a new thing every day.
These kinds of statements can be a bit fuzzy: They point toward an undetermined future with no consequences for not completing the set goal.
A manifesto is the core statement of the values you live. These values are ones you have and are acting on right now. By living by a manifesto, you’re living in the present, not a future that depends on you completing a set of tasks.
And, as with most writing projects, writing your manifesto can be fun. And then annoying. And then fun again. And then you’ll put it down for awhile, come back to it a year later, and say, “Wait, did I write that? That’s pretty good.”
The first thing you want to do is create a list. (I know, that’s my favorite thing to do, too.)
This list should include:
Think about what you feel strongly about, what your core values are, and what you want the world to look like.
What do you believe in? Write down the ideas or concepts you stand on as personal or professional foundations.
What do you want to do? Think about how you want to live and work. Write down your goals, priorities, and actions. Think big and long-term. Don’t think “lose five pounds”; think “be healthy enough to climb any mountain, anywhere, whenever I want to.”
What does your world look like, ideally? In my world, elementary school teachers are the best trained and highest paid, no kid ever has to go without a meal, old buildings get reused in awesome ways, and no one ever uses a standalone “this.”
If you’re not sure about using your own words for your manifesto, you can crib from other sources for inspiration. Write down snippets of language that catch your attention. Personally, I use quotes from movies and television shows to illustrate everything, supported by the occasional book quote. But some of the first things that popped into my head when developing my manifesto were song lyrics.
It’s entirely possible my personal manifesto includes Bon Jovi.
If it resonates with you, write it down. Don’t worry if it’s silly or irreverent or boring. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly perfect. Don’t worry if it’s too cute or not cute enough.
You can start with a big brainstorming session, or you can keep a notebook with you and jot things down over time.
Then read back through your list and those snippets of language. Figure out what truly reflects your core values. Individual lines in a manifesto tend to be shorter, so you may want to rewrite some of your thoughts or the language snippets. Sometimes, though, when you find the perfect line, you can keep it just as it is. (Really, can you say “Live for the fight when it’s all that you’ve got” any better?)
A key thing to remember when creating your manifesto is that you want to be able to remember it. Maybe not word for word, but it should be simple enough that you internalize the idea behind each line.
Personally, I think it’s best to keep your manifesto to a page or less. Any longer, and it gets harder to remember what your principles are. It also gets harder to print it out and put it where you can see and read it each day, which helps you internalize it.
Even if you don’t want to read it every day, it is important to keep your manifesto where you can see it — you’ve worked hard on this statement of values, so display it proudly.
Like resolutions, a manifesto works best when it’s in a tangible format, not just notes in your head. Unlike resolutions, a manifesto can be a piece of art.
As a creative (and we’re all creatives in one way or another), it feels good to express our core values in a way that fits well with who we are.
Your manifesto can look like anything you want. Draw, paint, or cross-stitch it, if you’re so inclined. Illustrate it. Write a song and record it. Make a video of you reading it out loud. Turn it into a comic book.
The expression of the idea can be just as important as the idea itself.
Plus, it helps you internalize your statement. If you can see it and read it, you feel more accountable to the ideas in the manifesto.
Your manifesto doesn’t have to be elaborate, with fancy fonts and artwork. One example I like is that of Holstee. The founders use a simple text-only design, but it’s more than a bullet list.
And if writing a few things down on brightly colored Post-it notes and sticking them on your bathroom mirror or computer monitor is all you feel like you can do, then do that.
Make it your own. Something you want to come back to, something you can look at day after day.
There’s little difference between the final version of a personal manifesto and one you write for your business.
Your professional manifesto reflects the beliefs, desires, and priorities of your business. Even if you’re a solopreneur, you’re thinking as a business entity, so there may be overlap between your two sets of ideas.
A professional manifesto reminds you and your clients or customers what matters to you, and what your business values are.
If you work with a partner or a team, get them involved in creating your manifesto. These words should be a reflection of your whole business, and you want your team to stand behind it. If they have to live by this manifesto, you should take their thoughts into consideration, too.
Even if you’re a solopreneur, you want your professional manifesto to reflect your business priorities. It’s a way of figuring out what your mission and vision are, and it sets the values of your business.
Professional manifestos are useful if you have a team, too, especially if you’re adding employees some time after the company’s founding. It’s a way for new folks to understand the mission and culture of a company, and know what’s a good action and what doesn’t fit with the company’s way of doing things.
Your manifesto isn’t just a group of pretty words (or Bon Jovi and Star Wars quotes); it’s a living document that you use to guide your decisions and help you set priorities.
You don’t have to carry it around on a little card, which you pull out of your pocket to read when you have to make a decision. (I mean, you could, but it’s probably going to get lost with your MetroCard, the 17 business cards you haven’t put into your contact file yet, that Starbucks card on which you think you have $3.57 left, and everything else you carry around.)
If you make your manifesto into something you internalize, you are already carrying it around with you. And then every choice and decision becomes a simple gut check.
You internalize your manifesto by reading it every day (which is another reason for turning it into something aesthetically pleasing), and then living by it.
If you question whether or not you’re doing the right thing, what does your manifesto say? If you get stuck making a decision, what does your manifesto tell you about your core priorities and boundaries?
For freelancers, it can help you set boundaries and figure out what to take on to grow your career. When you’re offered a job that is well below your normal pay rate and doesn’t give you any other benefits to balance that out, if your manifesto says that you will ask for what you are worth, you choose to negotiate for a higher rate or you say no.
For writers, it can help you figure out what topics, projects, and outlets to pursue. When you’re asked to write about a topic that you could cover but would give you nightmares, if your manifesto says you only accept work you want, you say no to writing about that topic.
For entrepreneurs, it can set the vision and mission for your company. When your business partner wants to grow and there’s an investor offering you money but it would mean giving up personal interaction with each of your customers, if your manifesto says your most important thing is connecting directly with your customers, you say no.
In your personal life, where a resolution might help you lose five pounds, a manifesto helps you change your overall eating and exercise habits. It’s the difference between “lose five pounds” and “stop to appreciate food as I eat it, eat only when I’m hungry, and be strong and healthy.”
For personal and business decisions, a manifesto is a signpost, always pointing you in the right direction. And it’s something you can check your company’s progress on — if you read through your manifesto and feel like the decisions you’ve been making don’t fit, that’s a sign to rethink how you’ve been working.
Having a manifesto is a way of making decisions before you have to make a decision. It’s practical, saving you time and energy in the future.
If you know exactly who you are (or who your business is) and where your line is, it’s easier to make the tough calls quickly.
We all know that we make better personal and professional decisions when we have time and space to think. We know that when we get emotional about choosing the right thing to do, we might do stupid things.
Taking the time to write a manifesto for yourself and for your business removes the pressure. If you’ve made the decision already, all you have to do in a crunch is ask yourself if what you’re doing or the decision you’ve made fits with your manifesto. If so, great. If not, don’t do it.
Instead of writing resolutions for the new year, take some time and think about your manifesto. What do you believe? What do you want to do? And what kind of world do you want to be part of?
Write down phrases and words and quotes that resonate with you, and then turn those words into a statement of what you stand for.
Whether it’s personal or professional, having a manifesto is a practical way to state your principles and core values, and is something you can check your goals and decisions against.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.