Are You a Student at The Finishing School?


Photo credit: Terence Tam (flickr: ttstam)

I told the story earlier of one of the best summers of my life. It was that awesome because I (somewhat inadvertently) followed three simple steps.

  1. Make a list of your life goals
  2. Circle the ones you could start working on tomorrow
  3. Start tonight

“Starting tomorrow” is the enemy. It was the whole reason I hadn’t started in decades. Years of starting to train for a marathon tomorrow meant never starting to train for a marathon.

I didn’t want to go for a run that night, but I had to start. So instead, I e-mailed my friends who had run marathons: “What’s the shortest training program you know of for first-time marathoners?” I didn’t want to be a chronic distance runner; I wanted to check an item off of a list.

The winner was an 18-week program from an old professor of mine. I went online to look at the date of the NYC marathon, and counted back 17 weeks, 5 days to figure out when I’d have to run my first training run.


At least the universe was conspiring with me (albeit in an uncomfortably overt way). Starting is half the battle, and I won half the battle right there. I got up and ran five kilometers. Four and a half months later, I went to NYC to run forty-two kilometers.

The Least Part of at Least One Goal

Even if it was past ideal running hours and all the martial arts gyms in the area had closed eight hours ago, I was still going to start now.  I did the smallest thing I could– I asked some friends about their training programs, read some reviews on, and found the closest Krav Maga and rock climbing gyms to my house. The next morning I placed some calls, went to the libary, and was off to the races.

Since then, the idea of doing “the smallest part” of a goal has really stuck with me. I’m not the first person to think of it. In fact, it’s been repeated to me again and again since high school psychology, and if I had stopped to think about it for half a second, I would’ve internalized it long ago.

It’s called the “foot-in-the-door technique”. It goes like this: if you want to change behavior, start with a fraction of the desired change. Once that fraction is complied with, it’s easier to change the rest.

It turns out that this is perhaps the single most powerful technique in changing your own behavior (and it also works well for others’ behavior).

So if you want to start flossing your teeth, you’re far better committing to flossing at least one tooth per night no matter what than just marching straight into the bathroom with some floss and your willpower, no matter how big you think the latter is.

The foot-in-the-door technique is a staple of productivity literature– David Allen in his classic productivity book Getting Things Done writes about breaking major tasks into the smallest possible components, and then putting those on your list. “Running a marathon” is too big not to be relegated to the evil Someday Pile. But “e-mail friends to find marathon training program”? I could e-mail as many as six friends before breakfast!

When I started training for my marathon, I actually had a number of free weeks before starting a new job. I knew that I would rarely have that kind of time again, but even if it would be harder to dedicate time so intensely to running, climbing, fighting, and reading, I could still always promise myself that I would, for instance, make the least progress towards at least one goal. Every month.

That’s hardly anything.

And yet that’s the second half of the battle!

The Finishing School

It was not long before I was telling my friends about my personal program to accomplish my life’s goals. Some were completely unfazed by my upstart attack on the un-lived life, but others lit up like fireworks.

After a conversation with a few who fell into the latter category, the path was clear: spread the love. Invite others in on the action. Make it a club or something. Start a group of people who will meet monthly and share and help each other along on their life goals.

A life goals club! A bucket list society! The finishing school.

The only requirement, the only rule would be this: make the least progress on at least one goal every month.

You could do more if you wanted– and you probably would. It’s not very rewarding to floss one tooth. Nor is it interesting to come to a monthly circle of peers and say “I e-mailed some friends to find a marathon training program. Next person, go”.

So the idea was born. We had our first meeting at the Zig Zag Cafe in downtown Seattle. I asked those who I invited to invite others who would be interested. We went around the circle introducing ourselves. Two people in the circle, neither of whom I had met before, mentioned that they had had the exact same idea as the Finishing School. Clearly we were all in the right place.

The next order of business, since we were all new members, was to share our lists of life goals with the group (in future months, we would only give updates). This could have seemed staged, but it did not. We could have felt like reckless over-sharers, but we did not. The atmosphere was one of liberation.

For those of you who have a list of life goals, how often do you read it? Have you ever read it out loud, or told anyone about any of those things?

How many times have you read it to a group of friends and strangers because you need to announce to the world what it is you intend to do before you die?

That’s powerful, sister. And that’s why the Finishing School is meeting today.

And we’re spreading– or trying to.

Chapter Two

The Finishing School has been meeting in Seattle, where I live, for almost a year now [at the time of writing]. It has been an incredible experience. We’ve seen each other start work on dozens of goals, and a few have big ones have even been completed. One member finished his novel. I published guest writing on a pretty major blog. Earlier this week, two people who had met via the Finishing School got engaged. They both had “fall in love and get married” on their lists, so we’ll count that as progress.

I’ve talked to people in a few cities around the US about starting other chapters. Unfortunately, they’re interesting in starting tomorrow. And starting tomorrow is The Enemy. So I’m done with that. If you want to start a Finishing School tomorrow, leave. The X is up and to the right.

But if you want to start a Finishing School today, let’s talk. Your first meeting won’t be today. You’ll have to find people– definitely some friends, hopefully some strangers– and that will take some time. It took us a month to find eight people who were on fire to accomplish their goals. And we met them all over– at coffee shops, at community service projects, all the boring places people say you should go to meet people. But it worked for us.

When we get together, there’s an energy in the air. It’s the most constructive night I have all month. And I want others to experience it.

I have no doubt there are people in every city in the world who’d be interested in attending something like this. I have no timetable for starting these things. No plan, really. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to leave this call up here until things get off the ground. If you’re interested in helping that effort in some capacity, let me know. I promise to respond.

If you take your dreams seriously, I will do the same.

  1. December 13, 2011

    ha HA! I’ve found your blog! 🙂

    The “start tonight” bit reminded me of a tattoo that a guy I know, Sean, has:

  2. December 23, 2011
  3. January 3, 2012

    i am serious

  4. June 20, 2012
    Stacy Rupert

    Speaking of the universe conspiring with you … my friend and I were talking yesterday about trying to do something similar. So, needless to say, I think this is a GREAT idea and I’m interested!!

  5. June 24, 2012

    I’m starting one on the south end (Federal Way) today! Any tips beyond what you’ve already shared?

  6. July 13, 2012

    Sounds like an amazing idea! I’ve been toying with the idea of getting people together in Managua, Nicaragua — and this sounds like a great context within which to do just that!

    Any tips?

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] of accountability groups dedicated to bucket lists– a book club for your life goals– called The Finishing School.  He can be found mostly in Seattle.  The first item on his bucket list is to shave his face with […]

  2. […] so the Finishing School was born.  The Finishing School is a group of people that meets once a month or so for each member […]


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