When Life Gets Weird

Have you ever felt like the last sane person on earth? Fortunately, it’s possible to turn the world right side up again when professional or personal relationships turn crazy.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - When Life Gets Weird

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

When I say that I’ve experienced this feeling, it isn’t (just) paranoia. I know, because I’ve been in the room when it was happening to others who didn’t see it coming. It’s devastating when things suddenly turn cold or change direction in a relationship that seemed okay before, especially when you don’t know why.

These are the times when a stiff shot of perspective can help. When clients, bosses, family members or significant others suddenly turn crazy for no apparent reason, you’ll be tempted to stop trusting a single thought in your head. When this happens, the first thing to do is find a private place to have your initial meltdown. Next, give yourself time to let these ideas wash through your mind before you make any judgments about what happened or say or do anything you can’t take back:

  1. This is not weakness… it’s grief over the death of your assumptions and it’s normal
  2. You are part of a highly interdependent system, professionally and personally
  3. You can’t control the thoughts or actions of others
  4. The person across from you is influenced by history and feelings you can’t see
  5. It’s likely that their assumptions and choices have little or nothing to do with you
  6. Somewhere there’s a vantage point from which their actions make sense
  7. Fear is often the hidden root of the rotten things that other people do to you… responding in kind only makes it worse

See the whole.

When I first got into quality management, I was captivated by a book called The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. He was the first of many system thinkers who opened my eyes to the idea that local events can’t always be blamed on local conditions. Many times they’re caused by things that are several steps removed from the visible symptoms.

Recognize that it’s not personal.

Yes, I know. It really IS personal. One of my favorite movie lines is Meg Ryan’s comeback in “You’ve Got Mail.” Tom Hanks says it wasn’t personal when Fox Books drove The Shop Around The Corner out of business and she replies, “whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” I agree, but that center point is someplace else for every other person in the system.

Events are influenced by things we can’t always see.

During the last big power shift in the automotive industry, Toyota latched onto system thinking to turn their quality problems around. To uncover the deeper root causes behind them, they began asking “why” five times when they encountered a product failure. Dorothea Brande, author of the timeless Becoming a Writer, said it another way – “A problem clearly stated is half solved.”

If the relationship is chilly, but you’re still talking, there are some practical ways to thaw it out. Peel back as many layers as you can. Look beyond your opposing positions to see what deeper interests you might have in common. This is your area of potential agreement. If you and I are committed to working together, the details won’t keep us apart. If you and I are NOT committed to working together, fixing the details won’t help.

Some disconnects can be fixed… some can’t.

Sometimes people get weird when they think you’re trying to change the rules. This relates to another Peter Senge idea – the harder you push on the system, the harder it pushes back. To phrase it more personally, the saner you get, the crazier the group will get so they can feel “normal” again.

They’ll keep doing this until they see that you’re serious about changing the rules. Then, they’ll either give up and adapt (least likely) or vote you off the island (most likely). This is when the client (or the significant other) stops returning your calls, or your boss stops you on your way in from lunch to say you can have a severance check if you’ll leave today (oh, and sign this short legal waiver).

This is a painful experience, but I assure you that it IS survivable. The party who won’t talk has just opened up valuable space in your life for an opportunity that’s much more deserving of the time and energy you’d have spent trying to fix up the old one.

Your input matters – please join the conversation: Have you ever been stonewalled? If the relationship recovered, what got you connected again?

Your Best Day

Remember how you felt the day that really great thing happened? The “you” that felt that way is still here and it might be easier than you think to tune into that feeling again.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Your Best Day

Photo by Tim McDonnell (Downtown Phoenix, 2004)

Lots of pop culture mavens have exploited this idea since, but I think it was psychologist Abraham Maslow who made the first useful examination of what he called peak experiences. What I find most likeable about Maslow (besides the fact that he smiled in his pictures – Adler and Skinner scare the hell out of me) was that he seems to have been the first in his field with the presence of mind to start asking what’s right with people. Everybody else in his line of work routinely calibrated their ideas of mental health on the sickest, most impaired sad sacks they could find.

You have to admit, scientific or no, it’s a refreshing approach.

Maybe science had nothing to do with it. Maybe he just got sick of listening to all his patients’ weepy stories about why suffocating misery was their only real option in life. I once knew a divorce lawyer who was tired of his job for the same reason, even with the Oprah money he was raking in every month.

To grossly oversimplify the idea that unfolded from Maslow’s approach, it seems that the collective layers of our sensory and response systems are wired to filter for either pleasure or pain. They’re not very well adapted to processing both at the same time.

This process appears to be influenced by awareness and habit.

The easiest analogy that comes to mind is the childhood fascination I had with AM radio. One of my favorite Los Angeles stations would sign off around sunset, and every so often… if the atmospheric conditions were just right… the signal from KCBS in San Francisco would come through above the static.

Even though it can be tough to do without patient practice, trustworthy evidence supports the idea that we can tune in to one signal or the other simply by making a conscious choice. I’m not talking about extreme cases like when you’re being water-boarded by the TSA – just the assumptions we make about the bobbing surf of everyday life. When peak experiences feel rare (like that stray signal from KCBS popping in) our natural tendency is to assume that they’re less REAL than the rest of our life experience.

What Maslow found was that the opposite is also true.

For me, this is the “goosebump” extension of Maslow’s original discovery; peak experiences are never really “off” or gone, nor are they any less “real” than our other daily experiences. We’re just looking away from them most of the time. Our minds are hard wired to sort for sameness and with a little persistent effort, it’s possible to recalibrate our nervous systems and increase our access to the physical and emotional states we associate with peak experiences.

Try it and see. It’s especially valuable to share these stories out loud with a friend, but journaling works too. Just to get you started, here are a few suggestions:

  • Any public recognition you’ve received, going all the way back to grade school
  • Any point in your life where you may remember feeling deeply in love
  • Any day at work where things just seemed to click and go your way
  • Any goal you’ve reached or challenge you’ve overcome just by sticking with it
  • Any pleasant surprise or unexpected joy or encouragement that’s come your way

These are the moments when we’re spontaneously filled with what author and philosopher Colin Wilson calls “peculiar self confidence.” Suddenly we’re able to see… and value… the self evident beauty in the most ordinary things. Our energy feels up to any challenge.

This is why our habitual stories matter so much.

Which ones are we rehearsing the most? The victories or the defeats? In his new book The Honeymoon Effect, Bruce H. Lipton, PhD expands on this idea with practical strategies for accessing this state more consistently.

As you look through your own list of peak experiences, please consider this; right now you are still every bit of the person you were on your very best day. In fact, you’re now all of that and more. As Colin Wilson says, the experience itself really doesn’t matter… it’s what you KNOW about it that matters. The conscious practice of tuning in to peak moment feelings increases our capacity to create more of them.

Your input matters – please join the conversation: What are some of the peak experiences you can recall? How would you describe the “you” that triumphed in those moments?

Your New Best Friend

Life has taught me this. As far as I can tell, living alone turns out not to be the same thing as being lonely. Just recently I’ve been making friends with what “IS” and we’ve been getting along pretty well so far.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Your New Best Friend

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

Have you ever lost money or time on things that turned out to be not so important after all? I have. In fact, I’ve thrown away a LOT of time and money I’d love to have back just “holding on” to things… furniture, jobs, memorabilia, people, beliefs, identities… all of which ended up having far less impact on my quality of life than I ever believed they would.

Over the past eight years I’ve changed homes about six times. Along the way I lost more money and stuff than I care to account for. In that same period of time I’ve landed and lost a couple of dream jobs, broken ties with some old friends and gained new ones that I hope will never go away.

A few minutes ago I was watching a spectacular sunset on the patio of yet another brand new apartment. Melting in my hand was a frosty margarita made from ingredients I brought with me from three states away and two moves ago – net beverage cost, almost free.

Most of the money I “need” to stay afloat for the next couple of months is out there in “receivables” and I’ve been stressing heavily about it today. But I as I watched the clouds change color and flash from the inside with lightning that’s on its zig-zaggy way to San Antonio, I was also given a blinding glimpse of truth.

I’m really okay.

In this moment, nothing is lacking that I honestly require to be okay:

  • I matter to people who matter to me
  • My body is whole and I can move around at will
  • I have made incredible memories that no one can take away
  • I have three beautiful sons who are all healthy and relatively happy
  • I feel great and there’s more beauty around me than I can possibly take in
  • Everything I require to live well is within walking or biking distance of my home
  • No matter how long the receivables take, I can survive for right now on what I have
  • At my lowest point, I have more comforts than most other people in the whole world

Life has invited me to let go of things that I had been clutching pretty tightly. I miss my Mom. I miss the library I was collecting for nearly forty years. I miss the inheritance I threw away on things that are now mostly all gone. The thing is, as I watch the sunset and look around at what I still “have” it’s clear to me that I’m more than just okay.

In fact, I’m blessed.

In retrospect, I think it was the clutching that actually cost me more than the material losses themselves. Before now I had never really considered that cost or how much energy it took – energy that could have gone into other things and better experiences. The endless “holding on” was blinding me to what was in front of me – available to me – as if clinging to the old was cutting me off from the flow of the new somehow.

The whole universe works in waves… sounds, colors, tides, seasons.

It should have been obvious to me before, but now I get it. It seems the point is to quit struggling so hard against the part of the wave we’re actually on in the moment. Up. Down. It’s all relative and it all goes in cycles, around and around.

Do I still have goals, dreams, aspirations?

Sure I do. That’s vision, not resistance. But when I look around and ask myself what’s truly LACKING in my life at this moment, the honest answer is NOTHING. As I learned reading Beachcombing at Miramar, we’re all cosmic beachcombers in a Richard Bode kind of way. Whatever washes in on the next wave is right for me, right now.

The secret I’ve discovered is that when I take the energy I used to waste on resisting what is and pour it into all those goals, dreams and aspirations instead, they seem more within reach than ever before. I’m slowly learning to float with it all like a feather and deal with life as it really is – instead of the way I wish it would be – and we’re becoming good friends.

Your input matters – please join the conversation: Have you ever had an opportunity to make friends with what IS? How did the experience of resistance versus acceptance make a difference in your life?




Enlarge Your Vision

An inspiring father-daughter creative team surprised me with a timely reminder about my own assumptions, and this is it – they’re ALL imaginary.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Enlarge Your Vision

Photo by Peter O’Neil, courtesy of Coastal Inspirations

Over the past few months I’ve been reconsidering a lot of the assumptions I’ve made about work, life, love and relationships. It turns out that most of the perceived limitations, obstacles or disappointments I’ve encountered had a lot more to do with the labels I attached to them than with any objective reality.

Until a couple weeks ago, I had never met Marissa and Peter O’Neil. They came my way through a very indirect Facebook connection and within a matter of hours had left a profound and positive imprint in my life. First, here are just a few of the priceless lessons they taught me – then I’ll tell you how they did it.

  • Well managed conflict can actually deepen personal and professional relationships
  • Having a shared creative goal can be enough to bridge all sorts of perceived gaps
  • We have more in common with others than we think, in spite of external differences
  • Other people’s rules, definitions and expectations only have the power we give them
  • It is never, ever too late to take any step toward the life you really want to live

For many years, Marissa O’Neil excelled as a corporate wellness manager. Even though she was really good at what she did, and was rewarded and respected for it, something was missing. The expectations of her employers were completely out of alignment with her personal goals, but she didn’t know how to leave. One day she had an awakening and realized there was no good reason to continue defining her life path by a job description. She wanted to change lives and empower others to re-discover their passions too.

Same conflict – different resolution.

Marissa’s father Peter O’Neil experienced a similar disconnect between his career path and his creative calling, but his transformation played out in a different way. For decades he soldiered on as a highly accomplished high performance networking research engineer, but his unfulfilled dream was to pursue his love of photography. Where Peter took a more methodical and analytical approach, Marissa chose to resolve the dissonance more intuitively and spontaneously.

Somehow, they ended up at the same joyful destination.

Was it “better” to throw caution to the wind and choose fulfillment over job security, or to put creativity on hold and pursue career and family first? The end result seems to matter more than finding a “right” answer. Peter received a photography class as a gift from his family and fell in love with a signature artistic process that produces images of incredible beauty. On pure intuition, Marissa started creating collateral materials to support her nutritional vision and paired one of her father’s photographs with an inspirational quote.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Coastal Inspirations

“Coastal Inspirations” co-creators Marissa O’Neil & Peter O’Neil

One thing led to another… sparks flew, ideas grew… and the next thing they knew, Peter and Marissa had pooled their vision to co-create a book project called Coastal Inspirations. Right now they’re about a week away from reaching their crowd funding goal to complete the first printing and inspire countless readers to pursue dreams of their own. The book combines Peter’s painstakingly crafted images with thought-provoking quotes curated by Marissa. Using the essence of their family’s personal impressions from summers on Martha’s Vineyard, they hope to encourage everyone to give themselves permission to pursue the things that make them feel fully alive.

Here are some of the lessons they took away from this project that have encouraged me to recommit to my own creative vision:

  • Few of the labels we attach to ourselves or our experiences are true or useful
  • Words like job descriptions or titles don’t have to define us as individuals
  • We won’t always agree with our collaborators on every detail, and that’s okay
  • Working through conflicts can lead us to bigger, better results than we first imagined
  • Most barriers to creativity are self-imposed – no permission is required
  • We can take the first step without knowing how we’ll accomplish the whole thing
  • The seeds of something wonderful can appear (and sprout!) in the most mundane and unexpected surroundings

If you’d like to get involved in Peter and Marissa’s crowd funding campaign, I know they’d appreciate it, even if it’s just to help spread the word. Peter’s photography website offers a lot of inspiring background on how the book project came about, as well as images that will delight you.

Your thoughts matter and comments are encouraged: Have you been waiting for permission to pursue an artistic dream? When have you challenged an outdated assumption in your life and how did it pay off?

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Coastal Inspirations

Cover for “Coastal Inspirations” by Marissa O’Neil & Peter O’Neil


There’s Room For You

I learned an important life lesson from Malcolm C. Dankner’s “Jazz and Standards” radio show. Here it is in a nutshell – if it really matters to you, there’s a way in.

There's Room For You - Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell

Archive photo courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

The first time I set foot in a radio station, it was like entering a shrine. I grew up listening to legendary AM personalities in Los Angeles and everything about their world and work fascinated me. My good friend Mal gets it. When we get together or talk on the phone, it’s a feeling we don’t have to explain to each other.

It’s a safe bet you have passions that create the same feeling in you.

When I met him several years ago, Mal was a guy with a burning passion and a lifetime collection of insights about jazz. It’s not as if he was short on accomplishments – he had already built a respected professional practice and raised a beautiful family. What’s different today is his weekly show that reaches THE biggest radio market in the United States. Granted, his station is a “small” one across Long Island Sound, but you can hear his voice, music and ideas on the very same radios that pick up New York powerhouses like WOR and WCBS. Factor in streaming on the internet and his reach is literally global.

All because he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Even if jazz isn’t your personal flavor, it’s worth listening to his show just for the inspiration. He’s like that great neighbor who always knows what’s wrong with your car and how to fix it. If you want to know anything about the performance, construction or cultural context of an early jazz composition, Malcolm C. Dankner is your go-to guy.

By the end of his first back-announce, three important things are obvious:

  1. He’s doing this because he loves it – it feeds his soul
  2. He’s accessing decades of diligently assembled expertise on this subject
  3. He cares deeply about preserving this art form and making it accessible to others

Here’s how Mal’s “Jazz and Standards” show applies to everyone; it proves that YOUR ideas matter, whether anyone else validates them or not; it proves that there’s room for you no matter what you want to do and no matter when you want to do it.

Can one man’s radio show (or your idea) change the world?

I think so, and I have social proof. In books like The Butterfly Effect and The Boy Who Changed the World, author Andy Andrews proposes that every life matters and makes an imprint on the world – even on generations yet unborn. First, as a self-taught jazz authority, Mal is leading the way for anyone who craves any sort of an artistic outlet. Second, there’s no telling where the cultural seeds he’s planting might bear fruit generations from now by inspiring a new young composer or performer.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, I do believe there’s a difference between being persistent and being delusional. If you’re four feet tall, you’re not likely to start for the Knicks or the Lakers with any amount of effort. We probably won’t see you in the lead with the New York City Ballet if you didn’t start very young with several rare genetic advantages. That does not mean, however, that sports or dance or any of an infinite number of other passions can’t be a hugely rewarding part of your life in some other form.

Has anyone ever said “no” to your dream? Take Mal’s way in:

  • He turned himself into an expert, one tune at a time
  • He looked for more than one entry point and kept knocking
  • He recognized that fulfillment might come in unexpected ways
  • He kept pursuing what he loved on his own, simply because he cared about it
  • He didn’t wait for perfect conditions
  • He took the opportunity at hand and perfected things as he went

If you happen to stop by Mal’s place on Tuesday afternoons, say hi for me.

Questions: When has refusing to take “no” for an answer helped you to realize one of your creative dreams? What passion would you start pursuing today if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Malcolm C. Dankner - Tuesdays 1-4pm ET - WPKN 89.5 FM

Magnificent Misfits

Nobody said it out loud in grade school, but the subtext was clear – don’t stand out. It’s okay to “win” approved games in approved ways, but it’s not okay be different. Is being a misfit really such a bad thing?

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Magnificent Misfits

Photo by Peter Gunneweg – courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

It wasn’t her fault – or mine. It was just a coincidence that the visiting arts teacher’s presentation captured a seven year old mind that day. It never occurred to either of us that what happened next would carry an opportunity cost that rippled decades into the future.

Here was the artistic challenge she set for us:

  • First, we were to take a few one and two syllable words and sing them to a simple ethnic melody that contained no more than three or four notes.
  • Next, she had us move a pair of “twapper” sticks around in ways that choreographed the story points of the song. I can’t recall now what sort of sticks they were.

They could have been actual percussion instruments or just some random scraps of wood. At any rate, I got into it and lost track of where I was for a minute – especially forgetting that other kids might be watching or making decisions about me. The next thing I knew, I was being called up front to demonstrate the combined moves to the entire class.

Regrettably for me, I had picked it up like a natural.

In a setting less dysfunctional than the average public school system our teachers are forced to cope with, this could have been something to celebrate – but the other kids got that handled pretty quickly. Apparently they all knew something that I did not – that this arts teacher was not cool and neither was her ethnic stick song. The unspoken message was this – we can’t have anyone breaking ranks and exposing our sneering mediocrity. Stick out too far above the group for the wrong reasons and you’re liable to get lopped off.

Again, nobody said it out loud, but I saw it in their faces – all 20 or 30 of them looking back at me while I twapped my sticks with a red face and growing self-consciousness. Suddenly, having “perfect form” didn’t feel so good anymore. In that moment I made a decision that kept my creativity in check well into my adult life. I allowed the joy of the achievement to get plowed under by my desire to fit in.

In that experience were the seeds of years of misdirected thinking:

  1. Keeping quiet when it was time to speak up.
  2. Playing it “safe” even when I knew a better course of action.
  3. Believing that all my ideas were defective if one got rejected.
  4. Looking to others for approval I should have been giving to myself.
  5. Not trusting my inner voice when group-think tried to shout it down.

Here’s something that you and I are just going to have to remind one another about from time to time. Not everyone is going to like us… or our ideas… or the fact that we’re just plain better with the twapper sticks than they would be if they’d had the guts to try. The “misfit” treatment might start out as friendly advice or a left-handed compliment, but they’ll eventually turn up the heat until we get back in line. Sometimes you can see the corporate immune system kicking in when someone proposes something a little too unorthodox.

Later I started to get some enjoyment out of being labeled the closet bohemian in a few of the cubicle cultures where I worked. Sometimes I was able to turn it into a personal brand that worked, but there were places where it backfired. There are bosses and even siblings and significant others that will just automatically go all “whack-a-mole” on you if you say or do anything that appears to threaten their status quo.

Their attitudes and behavior have nothing to do with us or our ideas. The only power they have over us is the power we give them. How many artists, leaders and inventors never gave the world their gifts because they were tricked into believing they were misfits? Most of the significant improvements to our quality of life in the last thousand years or so came from so-called misfits who let go of their fear of not belonging.

It’s not that you don’t belong. You just belong to a smaller, more supportive club.

Questions: Can you recall a time when standing out backfired on you? How did you handle it? In what ways do you embrace being a “misfit” in your current personal or professional life – or where might you start?

Stop It Or Else

Or else what? Bad choices come with real consequences and it’s smart to avoid them when we can. But imaginary consequences often block good changes too. Maybe it’s time to update a few beliefs.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Stop It Or Else

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

After some narrow escapes, I’m happy to take their word for it when people say never light matches around gasoline, always grab sharp things by the handle or wait until the tram comes to a full and complete stop before exiting. I also give those voices on airport trains the benefit of the doubt when they say “stand back – doors closing!”

Not all dark predictions come true.

Some warnings are meant to keep us safe. They’re intended to protect us from bad things that really happen to other people. Other times, though, fear is the quickest way to stop us from doing things that aren’t especially dangerous, but DO annoy the person giving the warning. Happily, not one of these things I heard as a kid ever happened:

  • You’ll fall and break your neck.
  • You’ll put somebody’s eye out.
  • You’ll crack your head open.
  • Your eyes will stay crossed.
  • Your face is going to stick like that.

I think comedian Bill Cosby captured it best. Quarreling siblings often bring grievances to parents under the illusion that justice will be dispensed, when all grownups really want is quiet. Some warnings have nothing to do with real outcomes – their only purpose is to gain momentary compliance. Sadly, this kind of behavioral conditioning never really goes away as we get older. It just gets more subtle.

  • Are you going out like that? (okay, maybe this one is valid)
  • Being a (you name it) is really competitive – better try something safer.
  • Sure, go ahead and pursue (whatever) but get a real trade to fall back on.
  • Speak up for that and people will think you’re a (fill in the religious or political label).
  • Immediate doom is certain for all of us when Y2K comes, the Mayan calendar ends or the candidate you happen to like best gets elected to public office.

Most of these come sugar coated with benevolent humor, but every so often you get one that masks an ever-so-slight threat of abandonment if you don’t conform. That makes me stop to consider how my words affect the beliefs of others.

My mentor Bill once said something that challenged my beliefs in a positive way. In addition to being pretty high up in the radio business, he also owned race horses. One day he invited me to the track to watch his new thoroughbred run. I can’t remember now why I was afraid to leave the studio, but I looked around and said, “oh, I can’t go right now.”

“Tim, you can do a LOT of things you think you can’t do.”

I didn’t believe him at the time – or for years afterwards. What got my attention was that HE believed it. The words stuck, and later in life I started using them as a test to see if my assumptions were based on real dangers or imaginary ones. In books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey described the path to maturity as a journey from dependence through independence to interdependence. My sense is that part of that process is developing the discernment to validate beliefs for ourselves.

Let’s hold on to the few that protect us, and release the many that hold us back.

People once “knew” for certain that the sun revolved around the earth. When others use fear to knock us off our paths and keep us in line, there’s no percentage in trying to judge whether they mean to hurt us or help us. However, it IS useful to consciously replace beliefs that no longer work. Gregg Braden offers concrete tips on how to do this in The Spontaneous Healing of Belief: Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits.

I don’t know where Bill is now and I never went to the track with him, but I do know this. It was a perfect spring afternoon and the horses would have been amazing to watch.

Questions: What belief turned out to be a paper tiger when you challenged it? How would you rate the length of my posts? A bit long? Way too long? About right? I’d like to improve my offerings here to make them more readable and useful. Thanks!

Fire Your Gatekeepers

Those dreaded gatekeepers. How many opportunities have we missed waiting around for them to say yes? Let’s go crazy and give ourselves permission to do all kinds of stuff.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Fire Your Gatekeepers

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

This guy called Scott is a Facebook friend now, but I doubt we exchanged five words back in high school. It’s not that we didn’t get along – we just ran with different kids then. I’m sure he has no idea how profoundly he influenced my thinking. Something he said in class one day took decades to catch fire in me, but it’s Scott who gets credit for lighting the fuse.

Our teacher must have been leading a discussion on career ambitions. I don’t recall any other details, but I do remember Scott stating categorically that he was going to be a broadcaster. I had no idea where broadcasters came from, but I was pretty sure you couldn’t just decide to be one. Certainly opportunities like that were handed out on a highly selective basis – sort of like inductions into the Skull and Bones society.

Not to ruin the story, but the upshot is that Scott went right out and became a broadcaster. He learned his sports stats, volunteered to call games for the school teams, grabbed one professional monkey bar after another and before long had landed himself some pretty prestigious gigs. He just gave himself permission and did it.

I thought real hard about that.

Later on I found myself in line at an Orson Scott Card book signing. He’s one of my son’s favorite authors and I was getting a copy of Ender’s Game signed as a gift. I also grabbed his Characters & Viewpoint and had him inscribe that one to me. He asked if I was a writer and all I did was stammer. When he saw that I was waiting for permission, he asked if I needed a pencil. Then he reached out and handed me one from the signing table.

I thought real hard about that, too.

In his many talks about what he calls the long tail business model, Wired editor Chris Anderson describes a crucial power shift that applies to anyone with a creative dream. The old arts model was based on scarcity. Production tools for records, books and movies  were vastly expensive and complicated. Because the output channels were limited, whole industries grew up around a privileged class of executives whose job it was to say “no” to anyone approaching with a song, a band, a story or an idea for a screenplay.

Today, as Scott would report from the press box, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Thanks to the internet, audience access channels are now infinitely abundant. Production tools like HD cameras and editing software are becoming exponentially more affordable. All those highly paid gatekeepers are becoming obsolete and the barriers to entry are falling away. Just about anyone who wants to can learn how to make art and get noticed.

We don’t need permission anymore, and never really did.

Playwright and film director David Mamet touches on this idea in a great book for aspiring artists called On Directing Film. Character actors you’d recognize from some fairly big movies got their start in a home-grown repertory group they launched with Mamet when they were mostly broke. He encourages his readers to quit waiting for permission to enter the temple of creativity and become their own gatekeepers:

  • Self publish your book
  • Open your own theater company
  • Start your own record label
  • Establish your own publishing imprint
  • Produce your own independent film

Here’s something else to consider. When my Facebook friend Scott broke into broadcasting, none of the gate crashing technologies we have today had been invented yet. Three things empowered him to beat the gatekeepers without any gadgets:

  1. He was crystal clear on what he wanted
  2. He spent his time in the woodshed learning what he had to learn
  3. He refused to take “no” for an answer and kept showing up until he got in

Years later, it was Scott’s insight that gave me the persistence to break into radio myself, but there’s more than one kind of gatekeeper to watch out for. The ones who are closest to us often do a lot more damage than the ones in the suits and the Range Rovers. It’s also time to fire the “voices” that tell us we’ll never make it, that our dreams are impossible or that there’s something defective or unworthy about our art. Oh, and thanks, Scott.

Questions: Tell me about a time when persistence helped you beat a gatekeeper and fulfill one of your creative dreams. How did you do it? How did it feel?

Old School Telepathy

Not to be a downer, but have you ever stopped to think how alone you are? Even if there are people around you right now, there’s no way for you to know one another’s thoughts for certain. One fragile thread is the only thing keeping us all from complete isolation.

Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose - Old School Telepathy

Photo by Ian L, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

For just a moment, try to imagine what life would be like without the power of language. It feels comforting and miraculous to me that an image or idea can move from my mind to yours simply through sounds in my throat or squiggles on a page or dots on a screen. We do it all the time, so it doesn’t really astonish us that we can pass understanding back and forth from places neither of us can see.

The connecting thread that makes the miracle possible is language.

Without it, we’d be virtually alone. Consider this – our minds are essentially closed systems. We’re free to take in as much of the world as we want through our senses, but without language the process would end there. You can share an experience with someone, like a concert or a sunset, just by using your senses and sitting together. What you can’t do is share your observations and feelings about it without some way to transmit the thoughts that are locked inside your minds.

If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s one of the most generous and encouraging books out there for aspiring writers. In one of my favorite chapters he takes his readers through an entertaining thought experiment. Using just a handful of descriptive terms (something he’s especially good at, by the way) he explains step by step how creating an image on the page can pass it whole and complete from his mind to ours.

He showcases writing as an old school form of mental telepathy.

The more I look into it, the more miraculous it seems that billions of people and countless generations around the world can agree on enough words and symbols for us to share understanding about things that matter. We can transmit holographic ideas of “bright yellow sunflower” or “love” or “sorry” through the written or spoken word and feel confident that the meaning will be close enough for us to be able to hold it in common.

Language is something I’ve come to feel extremely thankful for.

I used to take it for granted. In fact, there was a time when I considered it a burden to have to write letters or research papers or business presentations that I didn’t find especially entertaining. Now I see what a privilege it all was. It makes me want to dig more deeply into ancient stories and myths that gave birth to spoken and written language.

I’m not suggesting that other kinds of sensory input aren’t important – even vital. I’m just saying that the emotional and intellectual coding that comes with language must be a part of how we feel known and understood – how we know we belong. And then there’s the inverse miracle – how we can collapse all that meaning back into a hug… and just know.

Questions: What do you love about language? Have you had an experience where language  either wasn’t available or didn’t serve you adequately? How did you make yourself understood or how did it feel to be misunderstood?

New Paper Hats

My more evolved friends don’t appear to be having an issue with this, so I want to make something clear from the outset. I’m writing about my own hang-up here. When did it stop being cool to wear paper hats?

Paper Hats - Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

One morning I was picking up doughnuts for work (yes, and extras to scarf in the car) and noticed a family with small children ahead of me in line. Besides the sudden sugar high, it was clear that the paper hats with the bright franchise logo were a big draw for the little ones. It seemed to be a family ritual – all the kids marching back to the minivan like a row of downy ducklings wearing their new paper hats.

I noticed something else, too.

Nobody my size was wearing one unless they were working behind the counter. What happened? Not so long ago I was unselfconsciously eager to be crowned “Burger King.” I was lord of the post-nutritional realm, knighting my subjects with a royal french-fry, which had become a starchy Excalibur under the power of my golden paper crown.

Where IS that person now?

The hat was a portal and all I cared about from the time it touched my head was where my imagination was taking me. It didn’t matter to me that there were other people in the room. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would feel one way or another about my fantasy of the moment. If I noticed them at all, they were nothing more to me than extras in my show.

When and how did the opinions of other people become so important?

Once I passed a certain age, it’s almost as if I entered into an implied contract with the rest of the world that paper hats weren’t dignified anymore. Now it takes a national holiday and a fair amount of alcohol to get one of those things on my head.

It’s one thing to mourn the loss of your childhood pass to turn into a cartoon mascot without fear of being institutionalized. It’s quite another to consider how this involuntary agreement spills over into other areas of adult life where it doesn’t belong.

Here’s what paper hats turn into for grown-ups:

  • Sharing your new idea out loud in a meeting.
  • Talking about anything in front of lots of people.
  • Getting up the nerve to share your feelings with someone who may not return them.
  • Trying a new dance step in a room full of strangers (especially tough for me).
  • Daring to write or sing or paint or play an instrument when you’ve been told that you’re not the “artistic” type.

Rejection is scary. Our reaction to it is primal and it’s connected with biological reactions we don’t necessarily control. Julia Cameron presents some inspiring ideas for dealing with all kinds of creative rejection in The Artist’s Way. For some people, it just gets easier over time to pretend they never really wanted to do any of those things in the first place.

But here’s a liberating idea that came to me in yoga class.

For months I crammed myself into the most hot and isolated corner of the room. I could barely see what I was doing in the mirror, which sort of defeated the purpose of the class. My fear was that all those hard-body yogis would see me struggling with my poses. Guess what? They never knew I was there because they were all focused on their own poses. I missed out on a lot of benefit for nothing.

Sometimes “paper hats” are okay, even for grown-ups.

If you’ve stopped wearing some of your modern day “paper hats” like I have, I’m daring to say that it’s time for us to take back permission. What about new ones you’ve been wanting to try on? These are the passions in our lives that cause us to lose track of time and connect with authentic imagination. Ultimately they’re the channels through which we’re empowered to give our highest and best gifts to the world.

I’m not suggesting that it’s good to hog the spotlight or behave in ways that are uncaring, disruptive or disrespectful. What I am suggesting for myself (without getting too preachy) is that maybe it’s time to stop being so concerned about what others are thinking of me – and start realizing that they’re usually not. As Dr. Seuss reportedly said, “the ones who mind don’t matter and the ones who matter don’t mind.”

Questions: What symbolic “paper hats” have been trying to re-emerge in your life? How have you been able to free yourself from the imaginary judgments of others when too much self-consciousness comes up?