The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It looks like an ordinary calendar. But Passion Planner aims to be the cure for millennial angst.

(Illustration by Rebecca Bradley)

Angelia Trinidad’s desk is covered in sticky notes. Her headphones are in a tangle. Her computer screen is an aimless scroll of BuzzFeed. Or so we see in her video presentation — a scene, she knew, would seem all too familiar to you.

“What the heck am I doing with my life?” she frets in voice-over. “This is the question I asked myself, over and over. . . . This post-grad uncertainty spiraled me into a strange depression, and I found myself caught in analysis paralysis.”

Analysis paralysis.

Trinidad, 24, is ostensibly talking about her own life after she graduated from UCLA. But really, she’s telling the story of her target audience: recent college grads. The unemployed-living-at-home types, the hustlers at their dream jobs, the hostel-hopping globe-trotters — for all of them, she has a $30 solution.

It’s a leather-bound calendar with a self-help slant. She calls it the Passion Planner.

Designed by Trinidad in California, printed in China and shipped straight to the core of millennial insecurity, the Passion Planner is basically a fancy notebook intended to make your life more meaningful. No app, digital reminders or technology are involved. It is $30 of good old-fashioned paper. But because Trinidad is tapping into two of the defining characteristics of her generation — anxiety and ambition — this planner has become a gold mine.

She launched her business through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter at the end of 2013, the time of year when calendars and planners do best, and sold an impressive 4,000.

So with the 2015 calendar season looming, she ordered 6,000 to sell. And then she made the advertising video in which she sits at her messy desk, pondering her options in life. It seems to have struck a chord. This time, she says, she sold 80,000 planners. Her one-woman operation in her parents’ San Diego basement became a warehouse staffed by 32 part-time employees.

So what does the Passion Planner offer that, um, dispassionate planners don’t? A lot of questions, and a lot of blanks to fill in. Alongside your typical weekly and monthly calendars, there are places to list goals, the steps you will take to reach them, extensive to-do lists and rankings of the good things that happened in your week. There are words of wisdom from a random collection of insightfuls — Buddha, Benjamin Franklin, Jane Austen. Throughout, you’re constantly asked to analyze: What were the three biggest lessons you learned this past month? Are you happy with how you’ve spent your time? What are three things you can improve on?

It is, essentially, an interactive self-help book. Or, as we tend to call the genre now, self-improvement, which remains as big a business as ever.  The best-selling book on for 2013, 2014 and 2015 thus far is Tom Rath’s “StrengthsFinder 2.0.” (It would have won 2012, too, but “Fifty Shades of Grey” had a serious takeover.) The blurb on its back cover asks, “Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”  

Your Facebook feed is filled with motivational stories: “Successful people do this at work every day.” “Seven tips to increase your productivity.” And everyone is talking about “lifehacking,” which is really just the latest way we channel our desires for being “organized,” the elusive pinnacle that has inspired such philosophies over the centuries as feng shui and the Container Store.

[Benjamin Franklin wrote first great self-help bestseller, and it’s just like Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up.]

With the Passion Planner, Trinidad took these tried and true (and lucrative) genres and twisted them into a millennial-minded product. Not through creating an app, as you might expect, but by simply taking a tool that has been around for decades and rebranding it as a solution to the emotional turmoil of entering “the real world.”

“When you’re in school, there is structure and deadlines and a clear idea of what’s coming next,” Trinidad said in an interview. “In the real world, we have to define what the rubric is and what the framework is.” In high school, you work toward getting into college. In college, you work toward getting a job. And now that (hopefully) you have a job, the Passion Planner’s pages demand you ask yourself: What are you working for now?

After Trinidad graduated from college and spent time traveling, she and two cousins opened the Macaron Studio, a bakery that sold the popular French pastry in surprising flavors such as Pop Rocks or Sriracha cream cheese. The pastries were gone in a bite, and she felt like her customers spent more time Instagramming than savoring them.  After six months, she was over it.

In her quest for a meaningful career, Trinidad was hardly alone. The Pew Research Center reports that her generational cohort (born roughly between 1981 and 2000) cares about having a job they “enjoy” more than any generation before them. Nearly one-quarter of those millennials surveyed said it is extremely important to them that their job helps society.

They also want to feel a sense of accomplishment, Trinidad says.

This is one of the stereotypes about millennials that seems to hold the most truth. The Internet has made it possible for them to be constantly aware of everything their friends are doing.  The LinkedIn job updates, Facebook engagement announcements, Instagram photos of vacations — being tuned in to every accomplishment of everyone you’ve ever known is certainly enough to trigger “what the heck are you doing with your life?” on a regular basis.

Every Passion Planner user we talked to for this story explained that writing down their ambitions gave them confidence that their lives were on track. Just as they can cross out to-do’s such as “buy dishwasher soap” and “schedule haircut,” they would soon be checking off “get a promotion” and “buy a house.”

“By writing it down, I’m more likely to stick with it,” explained Amanda Ferguson, who is using her Passion Planner to manage working full time as a nanny, finishing school online and planning a wedding in Georgia (as well as her short-term goals, planting a garden and saving for a new car.) “This isn’t about somebody else telling you what you need to do. It’s making yourself accountable.”

That’s the challenge, after all of the writing and planning and listing your to-do’s in multicolored pens. You have to go do it then.

Read more:

Millennials want a work-life balance. Their bosses just don’t get why.

Tony Robbins, self-help guru, is larger than life

Why parenting is even more daunting for millennials than it was for their parents — or their grandparents