Interviews

Out of the Box:
An Interview with Dan O’Donnell

6 April 2016

Dan-O'Donnell

When Dan O’Donnell found himself with some extra time, he created a personal development game, sold his flea market and moved to Chiang Mai. Two years later, Better Me has been played on at least five continents, helping people all over the world connect and take action to improve their lives.

Doi Luang café in Chiang Mai is slowly filling up with voices and nervous anticipation. We have gathered to play Better Me, a personal development board game. When we sit down around the table, Dan O’Donnell, who created the game in 2014, explains the rules and divides us into two groups. Then we play.

We take turns rolling the dice, moving our pieces and drawing cards from different categories: “heart”, “mind”, “body”, “people”, “fall forward” and “tangibles”. Some cards are questions where you get a point for sharing your answer with the rest of the group. Some invite you to make a commitment to improve different aspects of your life. Some are small challenges where all the players participate. At one point during the game, the other group falls silent. I look over and realize they are spending a minute in silence in response to one of the prompts. For some reason, that is when it hits me how much of a difference a single round of this game could make, as long as you play it honestly and dare to really look at your life without blinking. I make a mental note to ask Dan for an interview, then I dive back into the game.

An inventory of ideas

A few weeks later, Dan is organizing a roundtable discussion for product creators. A motley crew shows up, from an enthusiastic notebook inventor to a troubled underwear designer. Since the game event, Dan has already hosted two lunch meet-ups for digital nomads in Chiang Mai. He runs an online community, several Facebook pages and a podcast. On top of everything, he has a Google document full of ideas waiting to be realized.

quote1‘I have way more ideas than time,’ he says when we sit down at a smaller table after the meeting. ‘There’s no way I could do even half of the things I think of. But it’s fun to look at the list and think: “Hmm, what am I going to do next year?”.’

His first big step away from the traditional career path was, somewhat surprisingly, a flea market.

‘I’m from Bellingham, Washington, halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, and I realized that I didn’t know of any flea markets closer than those two places. It just seemed really weird that there was this big stretch with no flea markets. There were a lot of empty big buildings around town, and because I was in real-estate, I knew I guy who was representing the landlord for half of an old supermarket building. The department of corrections had it for a while, but now it was just empty. So it seemed to make sense. And it sounded fun too.’

One night a few years later, it was in the basement of his flea market that Dan grabbed a bunch of pens and highlighters and drew the first rough draft of Better Me on a big sheet of presentation paper. The idea to make a personal development game had been on his list of ideas for a while, and when he found himself with some extra time and a hunger to do something new, he decided to go for it.

‘It seemed to be the most interesting idea on the list. It sounded fun – I would like to play it myself – plus, it could help other people. If I had another idea that would also be fun for me but wouldn’t really help people, then that would be the tiebreaker.’

Homerun swings

The second shipment of Better Me has just arrived in the United States, and is on its way to the Amazon warehouse. Since its launch, the game has been played on at least five continents, and groups who meet to play the game on a regular basis are popping up all over the world.

‘I still haven’t heard of anyone playing it in South America. And somebody needs to play it in Antarctica, because then I could say it’s been played on all seven continents, which would be really cool.’

Lately, the game has started to catch the interest of therapists, counsellors and even a neuroscientist at a hospital for veterans in the United States. In Minnesota, a man who is helping children age out of the foster care system is about to start a program based around the game.

‘When they turn eighteen, the government quits giving money to the foster parents, so usually they’re out on their own for the first time,’ Dan explains. ‘A lot of those kids had kind of a tough upbringing, so they will have a peer group, with anything from seventeen-year-olds that are about to age out to older kids that are helping them with the process. He will be using the game as the main part of their meetings, and it’s really rewarding for me to hear about uses like that.’

At the moment, Dan’s main focus is to spread awareness of the game and get more people to play it.

‘The more people I tell about the game, the more I help other people, and the more I’m helping myself too. I do everything from marketing it locally to tweeting at people like Ellen Degeneres and Joe Rogan, people with huge audiences. Those are kind of like homerun swings. It doesn’t hurt to try, but they may or may not ever come through.’

quote3Besides the version sold on Amazon, a full version of the game, including the board and all the cards, can be downloaded and printed from the website. I ask Dan what made him decide to give it away for free.

‘Karma, I guess. I’ve borrowed a lot of products in the past. When I was in collage and I wanted books, or for example, there was a board game called Cashflow that cost a lot of money, I’d just borrow it. And so I thought to myself: If somebody has the money, they’re probably going to want the real boxed version. But if they don’t, I’d still like them to have it, because I think it’ll help them out. What goes around comes around. It builds goodwill and trust when people see that they can get the game for free. And I don’t feel bad at all about telling people to check it out.’

The power of accountability

Better Me is built on the principle of accountability. Each player leaves with a list of the commitments they have made and the names of the players who will be holding them accountable, as well as a list of the players they will hold accountable in turn, and their commitments. Everyone chooses their own commitments based on suggestions on the cards, and it could be anything from calling your brother more often to quitting your job. Inspired by the concept of mastermind groups, where a small group of people meet regularly to help each other stay on track with their plans, the game helps its players identify areas where something needs to change – and take action.

quote2‘Before I sold the flea market, I was in a two-person mastermind group and at one meeting it became really obvious that the flea market was the only thing holding me in my town. I was only one sale from moving to Thailand. So in that mastermind I committed: “By next Tuesday, I will have made an offer to my manager to have him buy me out.” And I think I did it the next day. When you talk to the people in your group, you have to make things clear in your own head, and as I was talking I realized: “What am I doing? It’s obvious I should sell this.” And then it just happened really quickly. Sometimes you have these “aha” moments. And that’s what this game is trying to do too.’

At the creator’s roundtable, someone asks Dan why he didn’t just make an app instead of a physical board game, but he says it was a conscious decision; even if the free version could be played online, it is meant to be printed. He thinks the physical aspect of the game makes players more likely to follow through on their commitments.

Tangible things certainly hold a power in a time when such a large part of our lives are played out online. This is especially obvious in a place like Chiang Mai, appointed the digital nomad capital of the world. Many people come here tempted by freedom in a tropical climate, only to end up spending their days hunched over laptops in air-conditioned co-working spaces. Luckily, there are people like Dan out there to remind us all to step back into reality from time to time – and connect for real.

Better-MeDan-O'Donnell2


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