Are you struggling to find a clear direction for your life? Life throws us challenges that feel overwhelming, and we feel stuck. It’s daunting to imagine how we’ll find our way out. Today’s guest had wrestled with these problems and transformed his life by writing his own eulogy — and now, he’s teaching you how to do the same.
Today’s guest is the inspiring Donald Miller. He is the host of the Business Made Simple podcast and the author of multiple books. Most recently he completed Hero on a Mission: A Path to a Meaningful Life, which I’m excited to discuss today.
In this episode, we discuss how there are four characters in our lives and how you can manage and move through them to get to the best one for you, why it’s important to think about your life as a story constantly, the importance of thinking of your life as a story, the key elements to your story and living a meaningful life, why Donald believes everyone should write their eulogy, and so much more.
Our chat’s packed with loads of great wisdom, and I’m excited to share it all with you!
Donald Miller is the CEO of Business Made Simple. He hosts the Business Made Simple podcast and is the author of several books, including the bestsellers Blue Like Jazz, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and Building a StoryBrand. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Emmeline.
Donald cycled across the country from LA to Delaware with ten friends in seven weeks, and it was while they were in Washington DC that he realized — once they finished and the journey was over, in two weeks, he’d be depressed. Donald read a pivotal book that would change all of that: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (a holocaust survivor). He read it on the flight home, and it screamed at him to get involved in another story.
Three weeks after arriving home, he started planning the next story and received a call to perform a prayer at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Even though he’s a Republican, he agreed. Realizing Barack Obama had some significant fatherlessness legislation, including his Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, Donald asked for more details, and they outlined the entire plan. That prompted him to ask if he could travel the country and share Obama’s presidential vision. Donald became a surrogate speaker, living out of his car and airports and visiting swing states. Not wanting to have an existential vacuum, Donald’s travels taught him a valuable lesson: If you don’t have a mission, find somebody with a mission, join them, and get involved.
Donald first wrote his eulogy ten years ago, clarifying his life’s direction and what to become. Ten years later, he learned what a human being could accomplish by completing his smaller visions like getting out of debt or losing 10 pounds and has used that understanding to create larger goals. One of his three visions is to help fix the government.
We have so much to talk about, so let’s jump straight in!
Donald believes it’s critical to develop your identity in life because our stories operate out of our identity. There are four characters:
“The victim, the villain, the hero, and the guide. The victim is the one who believes they are doomed, have no way out, and they’re looking for a rescuer. The villain is the one who makes others small, and they demean others to feel powerful. The hero is the one who doesn’t have what it takes but accepts the challenge and transforms until they can get the job done. Then the guide is the one who has played the hero for so long, and they have the expertise to turn around and help somebody else.” – Donald Miller
You’ll see all four characters in every story because they exist in each of us. Donald believes that whichever character you identify with will automatically become amplified in your life.
“The more you identify as the victim, the worse your story will go [because] victims in stories do not transform — they’re bit parts to make the hero look good and the villain look bad. You’ll notice the victim sitting on the bumper of the ambulance. They put a blanket around them, and the camera shows them for a second. Then it goes over and shows the hero getting their reward. When we play the victims, our stories go nowhere. We don’t transform. We never get what we want. We don’t build a legacy. We’re not remembered.” – Donald Miller
Start to progress and become the hero in your life. Heroes experience a reward because they accomplish something great, but more importantly, they transform. Heroes see something they can’t do, accept it, and become the person who can do it by never giving up.
“Once we’ve become the hero of our own story, we start figuring out it’s a pretty empty life, and we turn around to help somebody else. [We realize], ‘That felt meaningful,’ and you start playing the guide more and more. The beautiful journey of life is this opportunity to play the hero and slowly transform into the guide.” – Donald Miller
Victor Frankl said that an objective needs to be mutually beneficial to you and others to be meaningful. In essence, we derive meaning from a community where we share a dream with a group of people and try to accomplish it — and this is the hallmark of a great guide.
Now that we understand the four characters, let’s look at how we can transform our own lives and create a better story.
Do you know what your life’s story is? Donald has an assignment in the book to help create your eulogy, which, once complete, you read four mornings a week. This exercise enables you to outline your life’s purpose, and Donald shares the three life stories he created using this exercise.
“One is the story of my family. We’ve built a retreat center called Goosehill [just for] friends and family, but that story is designed to give my family something to do so that we can have some goals and accomplish those goals together.” – Donald Miller
The greater the story, the greater the bonding experience, which is why Donald has made it a long-term story to work toward instead of the next family vacation. Next is Donald’s second life story: his business story.
“Business Made Simple is my company, and I want to build six different frameworks [to] help small businesses grow. Then I want to take that to a major university and have the Business Made Simple school for entrepreneurs and teach at that school.” – Donald Miller
Donald is well on his way and already has seven business courses, starting with “How To Grow A Business,” helping aspiring entrepreneurs and current business owners scale their businesses. Donald’s third goal has an audacious objective:
“There’s a third goal called ‘build the middle class,’ and I’m working with a bunch of folks out of DC to identify eight pieces of legislation that will get America moving again and bring Republicans and Democrats together. The third story [will] be the final story of my career and life. The cool thing about reading your eulogy is you know what your stories are, and the biggest benefit is you know what to say, ‘no’ to.” – Donald Miller
What a great tool Donald’s created to remain focused! He shared that the more successful you become, the more opportunities that can distract you from your primary purpose will be presented to you. Donald has defined, refined, and remained committed to his three succinct stories.
Most of us wish we could avoid suffering, but Donald shares a unique perspective on why pain is necessary for good stories.
An interesting fact is that heroes and villains have the same backstory: pain. The only difference between them is how they respond to pain.
“The villain says, ‘The world hurt me, so I’m gonna hurt it back.’ And the hero says, ‘The world hurt me, so I’m not gonna let this happen to anybody else.’ It’s just literally how you decide to react to pain that causes you to be the villain or the victim.” – Donald Miller
How you respond to pain directly impacts the quality of the rest of your life. If you are currently a victim but want to become a hero, Donald offers some practical advice on the healing journey.
“I think the healing happens in action — going to therapy, getting into a relationship, learning from past mistakes, helping someone else. All growth is learning from our mistakes. [People seek a way to end their suffering, but I believe you don’t want to end your suffering], because you’ll stop growing. … I don’t think you’re going to get away from suffering. There’s also something broken in our hearts, so there’s a deficiency in all of us. [When we recognize,] ‘Gosh, this hurts,’ [then we have an opportunity to] turn around and help other people not experience pain as much.” – Donald Miller
Without suffering, you have no opportunity to be a hero. Without pain or conflict, there’s no story.
Once we know how to become the hero, we are ready for the next character evolution. Let’s hear how to inject meaning into life and become the guide.
After hearing Donald’s wisdom, it’s easy to think it takes years to become a guide. The truth is, even a one-year-old can be a guide if they have a little sibling — being a guide is always within you. However, most people become guides by going through some form of transformation.
“The biggest transformation to becoming a guide would probably be parenthood for most people. Anytime you realize that accomplishing things is fun but doing it alone is not and you want to bring other people with you, that’s guide characteristics.” – Donald Miller
Even though Donald rapidly turned into a guide with the birth of his daughter, Emmaline is still teaching him. In thinking about what legacy he would like to leave her and what his greatest lesson will be for her by the time she goes to college, Donald makes an interesting observation.
“Victor Frankl says, ‘Look to the end of the day, or the month, or the year, and try to figure out what you’re going to regret — then don’t do it!’ I still have a healthy dose [to learn] that life is not about me really at all. You know, it’s really much more of a ‘we story’ than a ‘me story.’” – Donald Miller
While waiting to get on a Southwest flight out of Phoenix two weeks ago, Donald received an amusing FaceTime call which led to a beautiful piece of truth. With everyone standing bumper to bumper in the queue waiting to board, his wife shared that their daughter still hadn’t pooped, and of course, everyone heard.
“Everybody is just rolling [on the floor] having so much fun with it, [even telling me,] ‘Please tell us whether she poops.’ The gentleman in front of me had his first kid when he was 17 years old. He’s now in his sixties, [and] they are still married. I said, ‘Well, I didn’t have my first kid [until] I was 50, and there are pros and cons.’ He said to me, ‘There are no cons, period.’ I thought that was really a nice thing to say.” – Donald Miller
This beautiful encounter with a stranger gave Donald an even greater appreciation for his daughter and why his three stories are so important to read every day. Donald is no longer building a legacy just for him and his wife — he’s building one for his daughter too.
Guys, this was a genuinely inspiring talk with Donald today. It was jam-packed with so much inspiring wisdom from him that I couldn’t fit it all into this post. I highly recommend heading over to Episode 1,215 and listening to the entire thing.
Donald’s new book, Hero on a Mission: A Path to a Meaningful Life, is a must-read; I like the part of writing your eulogy. At the end of the book is a section about creating a life plan for a one-year vision. Everyone needs to get this book, especially if you feel like the last couple of years have been a challenge for you.
If you’d like to connect with Donald online, his preferred channel is Instagram, but he’s also on Twitter and Facebook. For more information on how to build your business and connect with customers through better storytelling, head over to Business Made Simple, which has everything from courses to personalized coaching to ensure that you become a competent professional who doesn’t just sound like they understand business but actually knows how a business works and how to grow it.
After hearing Donald’s journey and how he inspires and teaches others to think about building a legacy that is bigger than just themselves, I’m not surprised to hear what his definition of greatness is:
“My definition of greatness is what I hope that happens at my funeral — [that] people talk more about how I encourage what they were able to accomplish, and less [about] what I was able to accomplish.” – Donald Miller
What a beautiful way to end Episode 1,215 as we work toward building a legacy of greatness.
If no one’s told you lately, I want to remind you that you are loved, you are worthy, and you matter. Now it’s time to go out there and do something great!