What the Heck Are ‘PDP’s’ and Why Are They So Awesome?

I’ve written before about the power of daily challenges, about how simply eliminating unwanted elements from your life is often better than trying to achieve some lofty goal, and about how identifying and overcoming obstacles one at a time can be better than plotting a perfect long-term path.

All of this, as well as concepts like deschooling yourself and creating your own structure are wrapped into a very tangible tool we at Praxis call a Personal (or Professional) Development Project (PDP).

My colleague Cameron Sorsby writes about PDP’s:

“A Praxis Personal Development Project (PDP) is a short-term set of challenges with the goal of gaining self-knowledge, overcoming obstacles to success, and gaining mastery in areas of value to the individual and the marketplace.

For the majority of a young person’s life they are told where to be, what knowledge they need to gain, and what skills they need to develop in order to be successful. Their day-to-day structure is designed for them, which makes it an incredible challenge to transition to professional life successfully.

Creating and completing a PDP helps you instill creativity as an everyday habit, develop marketable skills, and provide tangible evidence that you can create value for others. It helps you overcome those unproductive habits you developed in over-structured institutions like school and start deciding for yourself what knowledge and skills you value.  Ultimately, the purpose of a PDP is to become a superior version of yourself within a short-time frame.

Praxis participants complete a series of 12 PDP’s throughout their program experience. With the help of their program advisor and access to resources like the Praxis Curriculum Library, each month they create a PDP and follow through with completing it.”

Check out a few recent Praxis participant PDP’s here.

Check out the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course, which includes a 30-day PDP built into the program.  If you can successfully complete it (harder than it sounds), you get a free coaching session with Education Director T.K. Coleman.

2015: A Personal Year in Review

Four great reads!


Alright, my good friend and Praxis colleague TK Coleman convinced me to share this personal recap in a blog post after I shared it with him in an email.  It feels a little weird or narcissistic, but I guess a little reflection is permitted this time of year.  Besides, I had nothing to write today and I’m not going to miss my daily post!

Praxis is the main driver of my activities and goals, and our continued growth, amazing network of business partners, totally awesome alumni and participants, and expanded offerings (about to be announced!) make me proud of what we’ve done in 2015 and excited about 2016.  Beyond the business, I also have a few personal goals, all still very much related to my mission of freedom and progress.

What was my 2015 like?  Mostly laying groundwork and exploring new ways to create.  Here’s some of the stuff I accomplished that I’m most proud of:

  • Blogged every day.
  • Launched a podcast and released 64 episodes with 40 different guests.
  • Started writing on Medium and gained over 250,000 article views and more than 5,900 followers.
  • Did more than 30 (can’t remember exact number) of interviews on podcasts, news outlets, etc.
  • Gave more than 20 presentations in 15 cities.
  • Published two more books, bringing the total to four.
  • Recorded a song for the first time ever!
  • Read about 30 books.
  • Travelled with the family to Florida and Pittsburgh, and spent a week in Jamaica with my wife.
  • Published in more than 20 different outlets.
  • Launched a monthly newsletter.
  • Gained more than 2,000 new social media followers.
  • Ran a successful KickStarter campaign raising $5,379 for a $4,850 goal.
  • Booked a six-week trip to Ecuador for the family.
  • Ruthlessly removed even more stuff from my life leaving me less stressed and less crunched for time than I’ve ever been.
  • Had a total reach of 491,652 though the podcast, blog, and articles I have data for. (This one gets me.  My goal for the year was 500,000.)*

I certainly had some shortcomings in 2015.  I missed my goal to do one form of exercise a day probably 5% of the time (which is embarrassing when you realize I consider even a few pushups sufficient.)  Though I hit my daily blogging goal, too many days I churned out something less than what I think I could have in terms of quality.  I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to, and almost no fiction, which I planned to read a lot of.

Most of all, I feel like my efforts at being a good, peaceful, calm unschooling dad fell short in everything but theory.  I now know clearly what kind of parent I want to be and why (both huge improvements over the last few years trying to figure it out), but I still struggle every single day to translate that head knowledge into daily habits and behaviors.  Hopefully my kids are as resilient as I suspect they are.

Again in 2016 Praxis is the focus.  Outside of my family, it’s what I live and breathe and I’ll be focusing even more tightly on our goals for the business and everything we stand for.  I do have a few personal goals I’m thinking about for the year ahead as well.  Possibly another book, growing the podcast, perhaps changing up my writing routine to do longer pieces weekly instead of shorter posts daily (still trying to decide on this one), etc.

Regardless, thanks to every single one of you who has read, clicked, liked, shared, listened, commented, loved, critiqued, and even openly hated what I’ve been creating.  I’ve always said I do this for me, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it feels great to connect with people over the ideas I love!

(In case you’re wondering, by far the most popular piece in 2015 was this article on why playing LEGO is better than learning algebra.  The most popular podcast episode was this interview with my son on being unschooled.)

*UPDATE: 12/31/15 – For unknown reasons, a few old posts of mine got picked up again and generated a ton of views right after I wrote this.  Just after noon on December 31, I broke the 500,000 mark.  Here’s to a goal being met!

Three Daily Questions

From the Praxis Blog.

  1. Do I like what I’m doing?
  2. Is it getting me somewhere I want to go?
  3. What am I giving up to be here?

These seem like simple questions.  Obvious even.  No need to be reminded of them.

Yet so much of what we do is the result of habit, social norms, envy, fear, outside pressure, or laziness in thought and action.  We follow paths already worn whether or not they’re a good fit for us.  The first step in the process of waking up to a full and free life is asking these simple questions.

It’s harder than you think.

It will take more time to answer than you think.

That’s OK.  Take your time.  Wrestle with the questions.  Don’t lie to yourself.  Don’t ask them with a preconceived idea of what kind of person answers this way or that.  If you do you’re likely to give answers that reflect the person you think others will find cool rather than the person you actually are.

Even if everyone in the world envies what you’re doing and thinks it’s the pinnacle of success, fun, or fulfillment, if you don’t like it be honest with yourself.  I know so many people who stay in crappy situations simply because they feel guilty about not liking something others would love.  You’re not them.  And there’s nothing noble about suffering through something you hate unless you are firmly committed to it as a clear and definite route to something you love in relatively short order.

If you don’t know where you want to go it’s especially bad to suffer through things you don’t like.  You’re suffering for no particular reason with no known payoff.  It’s OK to not know where you want to go.  If you don’t, start exploring things until you get a better idea.  The fastest way to find out where you want to go is to try things and eliminate the ones you really dislike.

Finally, even if you have an idea where you want to go and you’re doing something you dislike right now to get there, you need to compare to the alternatives.  Just because an elaborate and expensive exotic diet and mountainside yoga routine could help you lose 10 pounds, could you have lost the same weight doing something cheaper and less painful like portion control and a little cardio?

The danger of having someplace you want to go – a goal – is that it can blind you to opportunity cost.  If you know you want to reach X, and you know Y is a way to do it, you may overlook the fact that X is a lot more painful than A, B, or C, all of which could also get you to X and give you a lot more in the process.  Just because you have a goal doesn’t mean the common path to reach it is the only or best.

Ask yourself these questions a lot.  Don’t get panicky.  Don’t walk out on your boss in the middle of work because you got bored for a few minutes.  This isn’t about being flaky or avoiding difficulty.  It’s about being resolute and facing difficulty and fear head on but knowing why you’re doing it.  It’s not about the path of least resistance, it’s about having a reason – your reason – for fighting.  It’s about choosing your own challenges instead of floating downstream just because.

You might be amazed how many things you’re doing that you dislike, that have no connection to somewhere you want to go, and that are causing you to miss amazing and valuable experiences.

Questions are powerful things.

‘Begin With the End in Mind’

I’ve never been really big on formal goals, goal-setting, or visualization of a desired end-state.  Instead, I focus on eliminating things I don’t like and always making some kind of progress on things I do, even if towards a relatively open future.  It’s fun and mysterious.

But I’ve begun to realize something.  Even though rarely formalized or deliberate, I’ve always dreamt and imagined myself and my projects in different future states.  The more carefully I observe and recall, the more I see those imaginings becoming reality.  It’s subtle and sly sometimes, but it happens.

I am largely living a life I once imagined.  I frequently have experiences where I’ll stop and realize that what I just did is almost identical to something I dreamed up years before.  Only after launching Praxis, for example, did I rediscover a long-forgotten PowerPoint called “Education Revolution” wherein I laid out my plan for a “new model of higher education”.  I had envisioned it with no particular goal-setting attached, forgotten it, and only after having launched a realization of the concept did I recall the dream.

In recent years I’ve started getting a bit more deliberate with my visualizations of the future.  I don’t know what power, if any, it has to bring it about, but I have discovered the immense power such visualizing has to focus my mood and energy in the present.  There’s also the entertainment value of looking back on thought-out and written-out goals years later to see what I ended up creating and how well it tracked.

I think there is some power in what we feed our subconscious mind.  I think it aids our awareness and thoughts with our conscious mind in ways we don’t yet fully understand.  Instead of simply letting my thoughts run wild, I’m trying to get a little – not a lot, as I want plenty of room for free play – more focused and deliberate with my visualizing.  We’ll see how it goes.

Don’t Aim for the Goal, Just Remove the Obstacles

If you’re unhappy where you are sometimes envisioning where you want to be instead is a little too hard.  Sometimes you know enough to know you’re unhappy, but not enough to know exactly what would improve things.

This makes goal-setting difficult.  If a clear goal is the key to achieving it, it puts a lot of pressure on you to have one.  I think there’s another way to improve your situation.

Not that clear goals are bad.  I think they’re great if you can have them (and be honest about them).  But it’s possible to make progress even with really fuzzy goals.  What you want doesn’t need to be clear, but what you don’t want does.

Say you’re in a job you hate.  You want out, but out to what?  You (think you) need X amount of income, and it’s not obvious where you’d get it in a better way.  It’s helpful to envision whatever vague idea of what you really want you can conjure, taking into account all the actual costs and tradeoffs.  But when that’s not clear enough to provide a plan of action, go the opposite direction.

Identify one by one the things you really hate about your current situation.  List them out.  Now you’ve identified the known obstacles to a better life (many currently unknown obstacles will crop up later, but don’t trouble over those until you meet them).

Next ask yourself if you can simply stop doing those things.  You might be surprised to find that several things making you unhappy are things you can stop doing right now.  If you can’t, ask what is keeping you from cutting those things out.  Decide what it would take to avoid ever doing those things again.

Now you have your goals.

If one of the things making your life suck is a coworker in the next office over who is profoundly rude and negative all day and you realize the only way to escape it is to quit, move to a new department, work from home, or request a different office, now you have options.  You can weigh the costs of each and decide which course you want to take.  Maybe you decide moving to a new department is the best way out.  But you don’t have the skills required.

Perfect!  Now you have a clear, tangible obstacle to overcome.

Build yourself a set of daily challenges and activities that work towards gaining the necessary skills.  Don’t stress about the long term, ten-years-from-now-you and how these skills may or may not help you reach some fuzzy utopia.  You need the skills now to overcome a real, present pain in the ass.

You’ll probably never figure out the perfect mix of skills to help you get to the lofty neverland of the distant future.  But if you can identify real pain points in the here and now, you can build your self-improvement project around chipping away at them.

Work backwards from where you want to be.  Identify the things keeping you from happiness, then the things you’d need to do to work around, or over, or through those obstacles.  Then build a daily, weekly, monthly schedule targeted squarely at beating them, one at a time.

The stoics say “The obstacle is the way”.  I think for those of us without a really clear end goal, this is phenomenal advice.  

Removing impediments to happiness can be a better form of goal setting than attempting to reach perfection.  Your life might be more like a sculpture than a painting.  Subtraction sometimes yields a better end product than addition.

Tiny, Ridiculous Daily Challenges Work Better for Me Than Big Goals

I’m not big on goals and goal-setting.  I’ve done it at various points, and it’s had a few positive effects and can be somewhat fun, or at least useful in challenging me to think bigger.  Still, I find that I’m more of an opportunist than a planner.  I prefer to keep building things – myself, my project, social capital, etc. – and be aware and alert to opportunities to leverage those things.

This means creating and succeeding and finishing things in general is more important much of the time than any perfectly plotted sequence of what it is I’m doing.  I try to cultivate creativity as a discipline, while what I use my creative energies for remains flexible to seize opportunities.  I want to also cultivate opportunity spotting abilities and the willpower to act on them and see it through to completion.  “Be ready in season and out of season.”

What this translates into practically for me is a series of very small, daily (sometimes weekly) challenges.  Things that are a little difficult, but simple enough that I have no excuse for missing them.  My typical set of challenges is this:

  • Blog every day
  • Do one form of exercise every day
  • Walk outside every day
  • Consume ideas every day
  • Do one thing to add value to Praxis every day (in the areas of money, talent, and vision specifically)

Many days I do more than this.  I might write a blog post and a newsletter or book chapter.  I might go for a swim and ride my bike.  I might read several articles and listen to a podcast.  I typically do many things to add value to Praxis in a day.  The trick is, doing at least one form of each of these in a day, every single day rain or shine seven days a week.  The fact that they’re so easy is what makes it so hard.

If I had “Run five miles every day”, or, “Train for a marathon” on the list, I wouldn’t feel bad about myself if I missed a day or two.  You wouldn’t look down on me either.  It’s a tough goal, and you might be impressed that I even tried.  But doing one form of exercise every day is so damn easy – some days I literally do a handful of pushups and that’s it – if I miss a few days I feel like a loser, and you’d be a little confused as to how I was unable to complete something so easy.

For me, a big, grandiose, far-off goal like, “Be in peak physical shape”, or, “Make $X by 2017” doesn’t do a lot to help me optimize my days.  It’s too easy to slack and think you can make it up later.  It’s too easy to not push because no one will look down on you for missing your goal.  But blogging every day is totally visible to all and totally doable.  It might suck, but it can be done if you really want to.  I’ve even written some posts on tough days that were nothing more than a haiku about how hard daily blogging is (Salvation by Haiku!).  One day I wrote a post that was a single word.

But I did it.

By showing up and completing it every day, I learn to succeed.  I learn to create as a discipline, not in response to a mood.  I also add value to myself every single day by this practice.  Maybe only a fraction of a percent, but if you know the power of compound interest, you can see how much this can add up when you show up daily.

I recently tried a 30 day experiment going a little more abstract with my daily challenges.  I switched it up so I had to do one thing each day for my…

  • Body
  • Mind
  • Spirit
  • Company

It didn’t go well.  It was too easy to begin to define things in weird ways so that I could check the spreadsheet off (I love checking items off).  I mean, I walked outside, so that’s good for my body, and my spirit, and I thought about stuff with my mind, so I hit them all, right?  But it wasn’t a challenge and I never felt that pride for completing it.  I needed to go back to my tiny, silly, well-defined challenges.

Maybe you work well with bigger, longer term goals and plans.  But if they don’t work for you, try a 30 day challenge of a few small things that you have no excuse for skipping.  You might be amazed at how good it makes you feel to deliver, especially on the really hard days.

The added benefit of doing something creative like writing is that creativity begets creativity, and you’ll become a font of ideas for business, personal, and even other people’s use.  Give them away.  Act on them.  Ideas are infinite and the more you create the more you get.