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

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?

A Safer Portfolio

I never realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in my stuff, my job description or my relationships until it all started changing – if not disappearing outright. I decided to try a new investment strategy.

Change On Purpose - A Safer Portfolio

Photo by Bryan Gilchrist, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

The other day I heard this quote attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. He said, “that is real which never changes.” I’ve been hearing and reading things like that a lot lately, but this time it grabbed my attention by the neck and shook it around. It got me thinking about the time and energy I’ve wasted chasing things that go up and down.

  • The value of my investments
  • The amount of cash in my bank account
  • The number and condition of my possessions
  • The affection of other people (or any one person in particular)

Taking Lao Tzu at his word, I started looking around for a store of wealth that doesn’t change. Foreign currencies? Collectibles? Precious metals? Nope. I reached back to the beliefs my parents held about the way the world works – or to times I was certain I was in love with “the one.”

Everything I looked at was moving or changing – some faster than others.

Either Lao Tzu was having a laugh at my expense from the 6th century BCE (okay, some scholars argue it was the 5th or 4th century, so even that’s moving) or I was looking in the wrong places. Why would he say “that is real which never changes” unless there really IS something that doesn’t change?

There is, but you can’t get it from a bank, a real estate broker or an online trading account. In fact, there’s no way to acquire it at all, because you’ve always had it. It’s the divine spark you brought with you when you came into this world. It can’t be bought, sold or traded, but it does expand every time you make a deposit through one of these convenient ATMs:

  1. Stillness. Making room for stillness in your life is one of the most powerful ways to connect with the divine spark. It’s also one of the hardest because you can’t turn off that noisy stream of thoughts. You can turn it down, though. Just being aware of your breath can bring your mind back when it wanders.
  2. Gratitude. Steve Martin said that it’s hard to sing a sad song when you’re playing the banjo. Andy Andrews said that the seeds of depression cannot take root in a grateful heart. Whichever one flips your switch, it’s the same message. Expressing gratitude honestly and often can change everything around you.
  3. Hugs. My friends laugh when I call this “vitamin H” but I’m convinced that high quality hugs are as important to our long term well being as food, water and shelter. There’s something primal about our need to be held that bypasses all of our external wiring and goes straight to the heart.
  4. Beauty. It’s one thing to see beauty in a flower or a seascape or a lover. It’s quite another to welcome it in something ordinary, or even in something that used to annoy you. It will appear wherever you look for it. I once asked a friend what she loved best about her late grandfather. She said, “he taught me beauty.”
  5. Respect. It still amazes me how much easier it is to get along with people when I let go of my need to be right. It’s a constant battle to keep my ego in check, but when I take myself less seriously, I find that what bugs me most about others is usually… me. Well, the parts of me that I see in them, anyway.
  6. Acceptance. Almost nothing depletes my reserves faster than resisting what is. The only thing I can really control is where I put my attention. That and how I’m using my imagination in the present moment. Everything else is just set dressing that comes and goes. The less meaning I attach to it, the better.
  7. Caring. Showing others that you recognize the divine spark in them makes a difference for you, for them and for anyone who observes an act of caring. This can be verified by measuring serotonin production and it doesn’t always take a major sacrifice. Sometimes just a word of encouragement or a moment of real listening is enough for both parties to remember their true worth.

So, in case you’re looking to diversify your portfolio, I’ve just gone public with my top investment picks. These are my personal “buy” recommendations and I’m taking aggressive positions in all of them. Through countless bull and bear markets, I’ve never seen any of these holdings lose their value.

Your results may vary, so evaluate the risk for yourself.

I’m a long way from having this all figured out. Pick any one of these on a given day, and I’m likely blowing it, but as investment tips for living, they’re working better for me than anything else I’ve tried.

Questions: What have you learned from chasing things that didn’t hold their value? What helps you to connect with the real you – the part that doesn’t change?

Why You’re Still Alive

Change is tricky. For a start, we bump up against it as both a noun and verb. As a descriptive word, it’s a way of understanding the world around us – something that’s always in motion – always carrying us to the next “now.”

Change On Purpose - Why You're Still Alive

Image courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

As an action word, it can be a command or a choice. Sometimes change is imposed on us from outside and we’re forced to adapt in some way to new conditions. At other times, we trigger it ourselves in order to take some internal trait or external circumstance to the next level. Change implies a relentless push to reinvent ourselves. Sometimes it’s a nudge. Other times it’s a kick.

The nudges remind us to make adjustments in our habits or surroundings. The kicks sometimes demand bigger course corrections to keep our lives “on purpose.” Love it or hate it, there’s no escaping change. Even when we think we’re standing still, we’re riding a dirt ball that’s spinning at roughly 1,000 miles an hour and circling the sun at over 60,000 miles an hour. Meanwhile, the activities of the trillions of cells in our bodies are keeping us alive as our subatomic parts continuously flicker in and out of existence.

Everything and everyone you know is always in motion.

Years ago I saw a sign on a coffee shop tip jar that said, “If you fear change, leave it here.” Looking back on my own life it’s clear that the worst damage was done not by change itself, but by the things I did to resist it. Resistance only creates more friction, which can show up as conflict, wasted motion and lost opportunities. This is harmful for a couple of reasons. First, we’re saying no to our only real asset – the present moment – and missing out on the chance to capture new value. Second, we’re burning massive amounts of energy that bring us nothing in return and likely work against us in ways we can’t even see.

Where there’s no change, there’s no life.

A good friend of mine figured this out when she was a river guide, leading adventurers through some of North America’s most wild and beautiful water. Huge, jagged rocks that could easily crush the boats and the people were everywhere. Instinct screams to paddle madly in the opposite direction, but by approaching the rocks with respect and carefully observing the way the currents interacted with them, she learned to “read” the water. She conserved energy by working with the obstructions instead of against them and effortlessly redirected the boat with a few small, calm flicks of her paddle.

We can all do that.

Consider this. When your awareness is in the past or future wishing the change away, none of it is available to you to deal with what’s in front of you right now. “Change On Purpose” suggests that by being mindful about it, we can work with change instead of struggling against it. In the posts to come, we’ll explore three primary skill areas for navigating the currents of change and using them to carry us in a purposeful direction:

  1. Creativity: awakening to the innate ability of every person to imagine and adapt.
  2. Communication: creating deeper and more authentic connections in personal relationships and professional organizations by fully and actively listening.
  3. Continuous Process Improvement: bringing the idea of expansiveness to everything we do by being fully present for every task.

Change isn’t just part of life. It is life. When fear comes along for the ride, we can embrace it as a sense of adventure and patiently teach ourselves to stay in the flow. That’s what this verbal journey will be about and I’m glad you’re with me.

QUESTION: What have you learned about working with change?