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?

The Lie Of Perfection

It’s the reason I don’t dance much. It also might be the reason you don’t do certain things you’d like to be doing. Somewhere along the way we’ve been tricked into believing that things have to be perfect, and it’s a lie.

Change On Purpose - The Lie Of Perfection

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of freerangestock.com

What is perfect, anyway? By whose measure and from what point of view? My first job out of college was working as a bank teller. The first time I had to write a three line memo to a customer about something that happened to their checking account, I was paralyzed with dread. It took me all day to type and retype that thing and I filled a two foot wastebasket with crumpled pink rejects. In the end, the customer didn’t really care and the first one would have done the job. I wasn’t really making it better.

I was only making it different.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t room for pride of craftsmanship in our lives. There are times when that’s important, but it’s not everything. It’s a safe bet that you’ve experienced this yourself without even realizing it. How many times have you been left unmoved by a musical performance that was technically perfect but emotionally empty? Contrast that with the number of times you’ve been moved to tears by someone who barely sings in the shower croaking out The Star Spangled Banner with all their heart at a ball game? For surgery and parachutes, perfection is fine. For everything else, give me authenticity.

  • There’s a right time and place for specialization and attention to detail
  • Things have a natural level of completion that’s appropriate to their purpose
  • If you’re doing something for you, then someone else’s idea of perfect doesn’t matter
  • Too often we think “not ready” when what we really mean is “not worthy”
  • Too often we lose sight of “meaningful” by worrying too much about “marketable”

For many years I’ve allowed the lie of perfection to rob me of time and opportunities by holding onto work I could have released a lot sooner. If you want to read an especially liberating book on this subject, I recommend Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. He’ll convince you that you can lay your pencil down and say “ship it” a LOT sooner and a lot more often than you think you can. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way will also help you see that your creativity is welcome in the world, exactly as it is right now.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

A few days ago I noticed a sign at the entrance of my neighborhood market. It’s the big billboard thing with all the smiling managers’ pictures on it. This is for real – there’s a guy in my grocery store they call a “Shelf Edge Manager.” I found myself smiling about it all the way through the store. Can you imagine asking him for help in the wasabi aisle? “Whoops… sorry… can’t help you. Not on the edge. Wait here while I call for backup.”

I’m just having a little fun at his expense. If I met him in person, I’m certain he’d turn out to be a really nice guy and that his title has lots of meaning in the grocery world. Still, I wonder if we’ve allowed too much specialization to creep into our working lives. Sometimes, the more we zoom in on the details, the more we risk losing our connection with the whole and the reasons WHY we’re really doing things.

Here’s something amazing I read in a reply to a blog comment I left the other day. This was from Tanya Lee Markul, co-founder of Rebelle Society, and I thought it was profound: “…we’re sort of taught that there’s only one winner, that there’s room for only one person with talent, that most of us don’t matter. It’s all a farce. How do we break ourselves free? We have to get creative…”

Look, here’s the whole truth about the lie of perfection.

You can do what you can do today. Tomorrow you’ll do it differently, but you’re ready now. You’re worthy. You matter, and so does your work. Write. Paint. Sing. Play. Dance. Invent. Design. Combine. Imagine. The world depends on your creativity the way trees thrive from the carbon dioxide we exhale. We really can’t wait for you to share it, so put it out there.

Question: What would you try today if you didn’t have to worry about perfection anymore? (hint: you really DON’T have to worry about it anymore)

Be The Ball

I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. Once in a while when there was an Excel® report I didn’t like doing, I just quit sending it in. I don’t recommend this practice as an advancement strategy, but it did free up a lot of time for things that were more fun.

Change On Purpose - Be The Ball

Photo by Geoffrey Whiteway, courtesy of freerangestock.com

Whether you’re a student, a freelancer, a homemaker or a corporate officer, you’re going to have days when you feel like you’re too busy mopping to shut off the water. It’s the creeping overwhelm of complexity. Looking back on my own years in corporate life, there’s one important question I wish I had asked myself a lot more often.

Why am I doing this?

For a few years I actually got paid to help my coworkers ask that question and it was one of the most rewarding career experiences I’ve ever had. Every time Tom Peters came out with another book, I devoured it from cover to cover. There was a time when having a “Quality Manager” like me in a senior leadership role was considered a differentiator. Now it’s an entry level expectation that every big corporation and solo-preneur out there is committed body and soul to creating a “wow” experience in every encounter.

It’s a worthy goal, but on a practical level, how do you really do that?

I found the answer in that scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray tells Andie MacDowell to “be the hat.” I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I had to settle for the Caddyshack clip where Chevy Chase says, “be the ball.” Whatever. It’s a comical way to think about a shift in perspective that can actually deliver profound results.

Whenever you look at a task you have to perform and feel that sense of overwhelm creeping up on you, sometimes it helps to be the ball – to actually move yourself to the point of view of the thing you’re working on. You don’t have to consider yourself a “business” person for this to work. It can apply to any personal task at hand too.

The answers to these questions can help you make some important decisions:

  1. Who is this for and what will they do with it when they get it from me?
  2. Who touches it before me and what happens to it before it gets here?
  3. What does this have to do with my central purpose here?
  4. How might my feelings change if I imagined myself as the object of this task?

If you’d like a fun kick start into this way of thinking, you can’t go wrong with The Other Side by artist Istvan Banyai. The images in this book will open up a way of seeing that could change the way you look at everything. In the technical world I worked in, being the ball meant actually following an object or document from point to point through an entire process. When was it really being improved? How long was it just sitting in somebody’s inbox doing nothing? How could we take the parts that didn’t add value out of the process by letting go of some of our rules and assumptions about how things are always done?

I wish I could give fair credit for this story, but I don’t recall where I picked it up. It might have been in one of those Tom Peters books or a corporate motivational film. Anyway, a shipping clerk at a big home improvement warehouse switched jobs with a receiving clerk at one of their flagship stores. After spending time in each other’s shoes, they were shocked to discover the number of things they did every day that not only didn’t add value, but often unwittingly sabotaged the person on the other end. The alternate point of view ended up having a transformational impact on how they used their time and energy.

Maybe “just ask why” is the new “just say no.”

There are things that have to be done because they’re important. That doesn’t mean that everything is important just because we’ve always done it – or just because a “boss” says we have to. A lot of our ideas about how hard or important things are have more to do with assumption than observation. I’m not advocating anarchy or sedition here. When somebody squawked about one of those Excel® reports, I got it done, but when they didn’t, it opened up a lot of time for things that mattered in my life.

Questions: How has seeing the other side made a difference in your life? Without falling out of integrity, is there a task you can drop from your life that would free you up for higher value things?

Time To Let Go

When you think about a memory… an object… a person that’s taking up space in your life, does it ever feel like you’re looking down from a scary height? Maybe it’s time to let go.

Change On Purpose - Time To Let Go

Photo by Tim McDonnell (Sorrento, Italy – August, 2011)

I sold my Fight Club DVD a couple weeks ago, along with dozens of others that were just taking up space. Looking at the wall of movies I’d collected over the years, I had to ask myself why they were there. Sure, there are some that I’d watch again and again. I kept those. Truthfully, most of the rest were there in hopes that visitors would think I get Lynch or Tarantino. I don’t. I barely catch half the pop culture references in The Simpsons.

It was a bumpy, crooked road to the realization that what Tyler Durden said in Fight Club had become frighteningly true for me. The things you own end up owning you. Somehow the idea of “having” had become more important to me than just being. I fell for the lie that my worth as a person might be enhanced by the the stuff in my house, the people in my life, the beliefs I defended or the title on my business card.

The truth I resisted was that the “holding and having” had cut me off from living.

There comes a time when we have to empty the cup in order to get it filled up again. I’m thinking now about the supply of creativity and ideas you and I require to be fulfilled in our work, but this applies to our relationships and material circumstances too. I don’t know why it’s taking this lesson so long to stick with me, because it seems I have to keep learning it over and over again.

Get rid of what you DON’T want to make room for what you DO want.

Simple, but hard. I’m reminded of two versions of a story about monkeys. The lighter version involves a lab with a special jar. The opening was just big enough for a monkey’s empty hand to fit through and there were treats inside. What the observers found was that most monkeys would not let go of the treats, even though it kept them from pulling their loaded fists back out of the jar. Does that situation sound familiar?

In The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, Deepak Chopra paints an inspiring picture of shooting stars as a metaphor for miracles. He says that we think of shooting stars as something rare, but they actually happen all the time. We just can’t see them against the background of sunlight. Creative solutions to life’s challenges – personal and professional – are as abundant as shooting stars. It’s up to us to create the space in our minds and in our surroundings so we can see them flowing again.

This is something that takes awareness, practice and courage.

The best ideas are the ones that flow through us. Holding on too tightly to too many things inevitably cuts us off from that natural flow. If you’re feeling any creative blocks in your life, here are ten clearing techniques that may help get things moving again:

  1. Ask yourself why you’re holding onto certain things that are crowding you
  2. Do a symbolic clearing of your closet, cupboards or garage to create more space
  3. Donate things you no longer use to people who can truly benefit from them
  4. Keep photographs of sentimental objects you know you’re better off releasing
  5. Rate every contact as “helpful” or “not helpful” – you know which ones to delete
  6. Make room for ideas by removing clutter from your desk, drawers and computer
  7. Question your current beliefs about what you can be, do and have
  8. Let go of the ones that aren’t serving you anymore and replace them with new ones
  9. Drop outdated goals or renegotiate broken agreements that bog you down with guilt
  10. See if you’re managing relationships as they really are or as you wish they would be

Letting go isn’t the same as quitting or giving up – it’s just being brutally honest with ourselves when it’s time to say “enough.” Holding onto things that are no longer adding value to our lives carries an enormous opportunity cost. What fresh ideas could we be missing by clinging to yesterday’s leftovers? Instead of grasping life so tightly, let’s try a catch and release approach together and see what happens.

Questions: Have you been thinking about letting go of something? How have you been rewarded when you’ve had the courage to let go at other times in your life and how could that help you manage the fear of letting go today?

Why Connections Matter

You may doubt that it’s possible, but sometimes the first word of a message can tell you a lot about the sender, and the first sentence in general can be pretty revealing. How great would it be to really connect with people during those first few syllables?

Change On Purpose - Why Connections Matter

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

There it is, right in the opening line. Whose name do you see there – the sender’s or yours? Instant turn-off, right? Back when I wrote four inch thick marketing proposals for a living, it was one of my biggest pet peeves. A client who also happened to be a friend woke me up to this idea. “If we’re the ones who are going to be writing the multi-million dollar checks, shouldn’t OUR name go first?” Invariably, my bosses would cross it out and put me in writer’s time out for failing to open with, “Here at Dunder Mifflin, yak yak yak…”

But enough about YOU. Let’s talk about ME.

That seemed to be the only message that got through no matter how many fun facts we stuffed into that binder. It was kind of a game show mentality, really. We got so lost in spewing as many answers as possible before the buzzer that we completely missed the opportunity to connect with anyone. Imagine how that approach would work on a date.

I’m not anti-marketing. People on both sides of the connection need enough information to make responsible decisions about the relationship. The tricky part for me has been knowing how much information is enough and what parts are useful. Honestly? I haven’t found a balance that satisfies me yet, but I’m a lot more mindful of it than I used to be.

Little symbolic things like putting the client’s name first reminded me to let go of clever technique for a minute and just be available to form genuine bonds with the people on the other end. Leading off with their identity forced me to ask myself what I really knew about them. It got my mind off my “story” and onto saying something important.

The author Matthew Kelly made a big impact on my thoughts in this area with his book, The Seven Levels of Intimacy. He offers a fresh model that sheds a lot of light on human connection. The title suggests a focus on romantic relationships, but he also shows how the seven levels have a powerful influence on business and family connections.

There’s more to the book, but I’ll share three quick applications with you:

Have a common purpose. The connection has a better chance to thrive if it has a reason to exist outside of one immediate transaction. Why are we doing this? Don’t assume that everyone knows. Too many meetings skip to assigning action items before anybody has a clue what they’re for – a fact they’re often scared to admit.

Dig beyond the obvious. The vast majority of day to day communication in the business world rarely gets past the level of clichés and facts. The good stuff is almost never on the surface. It’s the experiences, assumptions and even fears beneath the outer layers that enable the most resonance and fuel the best creativity.

See the whole person. The things people say they want (and the reasons they give for wanting them) may not always be the real ones. You may not know what they are yet, but the business at hand is rarely separate from the emotional, spiritual and intellectual parts of the person across the table from you. The client who asks you for the most data is often the one making the most emotional buying decision.

One of the original “mad men” from the 1960s was Stan Freberg, whose advertising motto was “slightly more honesty than the client had in mind.” His work was unusual at the time because he often took his client’s most embarrassing disadvantage and made it the centerpiece of the ad campaign. Besides being funny, the honesty established intimacy and trust. Yes, there IS such a thing as too much information, but almost any business relationship can be improved when we have the courage to be vulnerable and connect.

Questions: What experience can you recall where forming a deeper connection brought you better results than expected? Did the vulnerability feel risky at first?

Your Four Creative Aces

It’s your World Series, game seven lineup. Which will you cut – your hitters or your fielders? Ridiculous, right? You might be doing the same thing at work without realizing it.

Change On Purpose - Your Four Creative Aces

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

If the game matters, then it pays to play your aces in every key position. The creative process works that way too. When you have an important creative challenge in front of you, these are the four aces you want in your starting lineup – but (and here’s the key) – the batting order is crucial.

  • The Explorer
  • The Editor
  • The Evaluator
  • The Evangelist

I adapted these ideas from Roger Von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head. It was his writing that first helped me see creativity as a natural process I could tap into on purpose. Before that, I always thought of it as some random lightning bolt of luck. Creativity follows the same pattern we see in nature from seed to plant to blossom to fruit.

The secret lies in following the sequence instead of fighting it. 

  1. The Explorer: (seed) You’re in gathering mode, observing the environment and available raw materials without judgment. At this stage, you have to be willing to play the fool, collecting every option and angle no matter how random or ridiculous it might seem at first.
  2. The Editor: (tree) Patterns and potentials start to emerge. Now you can begin sorting things and trying out different combinations. You might rearrange a few or notice some new ones, but you’re not making any final decisions yet.
  3. The Evaluator: (blossom) Gathering and sorting give way to the judge who makes the call on the ideas that offer the most simple and elegant fit for your ultimate goals. Which approach offers the most benefits with the least friction?
  4. The Evangelist: (fruit) At this point, the other three players have loaded up the bases for you. All your inner champion has to think about now is the power hit that channels your energy into persistence and gets your project out into the world.

Any analogy breaks down if you push it too hard, but I think the application to individuals and organizations is pretty clear. Too often the creative process gets sabotaged when we play the wrong role at the wrong time, or when we impose one at the wrong point in someone else’s creative flow.

Here are four ways to work with the creative flow instead of against it:

  1. When you approach a creative challenge on your own, ask yourself “what time is it?” In The Architecture of All Abundance, author Lenedra J. Carroll describes the power shift this simple question created for her. There’s a natural time for each player to take their sequential turn at bat and then head for the dugout.
  2. Turn off the inner voices and stick to the flow. Once you become aware of this, you’ll catch your inner critic jumping in as the Editor or Evaluator before the Explorer has a chance to grab any seeds. No seeds, no harvest, but the Explorer also has to know when to be quiet, or nothing will ever get finished.
  3. If you’re part of a larger group, create a time and place for each of these roles to do their natural work. You’ll begin to notice that many teams and meetings emphasize one role at the expense of others. Make it clear to everyone what stage you’re in and set ground rules to encourage that kind of participation.
  4. If this soft stuff isn’t your bag and you find yourself in constant “Evaluator” mode, no problem. Some people are just wired that way. Surround yourself with people who are good Explorers, Editors and Evangelists and allow those roles to flourish in others. Timing is the key. Nothing kills an Explorer faster than phrases like, “the problem with that is…” or “we tried that before and…”

Imagine being able to take a deep, relaxing breath and just let go of anxiety about creative deadlines. Like it or not, we live in a results-driven world. There’s constant pressure to monetize everything as quickly as possible, or duplicate somebody else’s success and slap a new label on it. Taking time to send all four starting players up to bat in sequence might feel counterintuitive. If you give them the opportunity, they’ll help you play to your authentic strengths with more power, speed and consistency.

Questions: Do you tend to get stuck in one part of the creative process? What methods of coming unstuck work best for you?

How You’re Like Neil Armstrong

You may never visit the moon, but you could have more in common with Neil Armstrong than you think. Even if that’s only partly true, when you consider how far he went, it might be worth looking into.

Change On Purpose - How You're Like Neil Armstrong

Photo by Beverly O’Malley, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

The events leading up to Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon played a big part in shaping my world view. My father worked on the Apollo program, so it was something I heard about a lot, whether I wanted to or not. In July of 1969 my parents and I were glued to the little black and white TV set our apartment kitchen.

There are disadvantages to assigning “role model” status to people:

  1. We tend to project “super human” qualities on them that they don’t really have.
  2. We mistakenly underrate our own abilities by making incomplete comparisons.
  3. We assume they have advantages that let us off the hook for finding our own edge.

Most of what we THINK we know about Neil’s 82 years on earth comes from the eight-plus days he spent in space. He was a fiercely private person and I think it’s disrespectful and pointless to draw too many conclusions about what he thought or felt about things. Still…

Here are some fairly safe assumptions:

  • He took visible steps to find and extend his personal edge.
  • He appeared to make a consistent effort to keep his ego in check.
  • He seemed to care a lot about how his accomplishments would benefit others.
  • He showed discipline in putting his energy and effort into a couple of key strengths.

Even Hobbits pay attention to this, so it must be important.

What’s the farthest you’ve ever been from home? Our idea of distance might be just as relative as Einstein’s concept of time. Here’s proof. When I was in Cape Town, South Africa, I was 9,976 miles from home. It was only 5,472 miles from my house to Tokyo, Japan and just 3,385 miles to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Even though they were physically closer, I’ve never FELT further away from my IDEA of home than I did in those two places.

The moon landing is not Neil’s legacy – it’s the billboard that points to it.

When I started researching this, it surprised me to see how much ink was wasted on the “controversy” over whether he said one small step “for man” or “for a man.” Have the grammarians forgotten that he was 238,900 miles from home when he said it? The profound insight enfolded in those few first words spoken from Tranquility Base is the transcendent power of small steps in every human life. The “giant leap” he took us on was ALL small steps. Just like the ones you’ve been taking all along. So, relax. You don’t have to go all the way to the moon to be a worthwhile person.

Here are three ways that you’re already like Neil Armstrong:

  1. Whether or not they were recognized or nurtured from birth, you have innate gifts that will carry you much further in life than focusing on your shortcomings. Okay, Neil found his early. He had a pilot’s license before he could drive. The point is that he stuck to his twin passions of flying and engineering no matter what his job description was. It is never too late to start focusing on your gifts.
  2. Every choice you make carries the potential for a high impact result. That doesn’t mean you’re going to see it immediately. There wasn’t a single defining moment that led to Neil’s becoming an astronaut. It happened because he did small things every day to be in position when the time came.
  3. Not everything Neil did was successful. By taking small steps, over and over again, he learned where his true edge was and ultimately accomplished something that was once considered science fiction. No matter what spills we take along the way, we can always ask more from ourselves next time.

Neil Armstrong didn’t get to the moon in one giant leap. He got there one small step at a time. Like the rest of us, he likely took many internal journeys without ever leaving Ohio. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that some left him feeling farther from “home” than he was in July of 1969. How far are you willing to go to do what you were born to do?

Questions: What personal victories, no matter how small, have you experienced in finding and extending your personal edge? Are you celebrating them regularly?

The Hidden Risk of Tuning Out

Hey! Are you listening? You might be tuning out without even realizing it. When we’re not fully present for certain conversations, we can pay an extremely high price.

The Hidden Risk of Tuning Out

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

As Michael Hyatt points out in his book Platform, we live in an increasingly noisy world. As if your to do list weren’t already overwhelming enough, scientists claim that out of the billions of bits of incoming information coming at us each second, our brains can only register about 2,000 of them.

Everything else goes over the spillway.

One unfortunate result of this is a scarcity mentality about listening. If attention is a limited commodity, then it does make sense to spend it wisely. Without our built-in noise filters, our lives would be like a nonstop rerun of Lucille Ball’s classic candy factory scene. The problem is that our filtering habits can also cut us off from things that matter.

Here’s a sample of the hidden price we pay for not listening:

  • We run the risk of increasingly superficial and unsatisfying relationships
  • We miss bigger, deeper veins of opportunity by rushing off with the nuggets
  • We burn needless energy and resources on assumptions that could be faulty

Every message involves a sender and a receiver.

Obvious, but this is where the wheels begin to fall off. Speech and hearing are processed in different ways and in different areas of the brain. Most people interpret what they hear in a direct and literal way, but tend to speak more indirectly and metaphorically. Individual values, beliefs and memories also impact how people navigate this terrain in conversation. Allow for these differences so you don’t judge or label what you’re hearing too quickly.

The one who listens the most has more influence in the conversation.

There’s a reason why doctors (hopefully) diagnose before they prescribe. While everyone else is competing to be the loudest one in the room, you can be the one who actually understands what’s going on. I’m not talking about manipulative ways to trick the other person into THINKING that you’re listening. I’m talking about skills you can acquire to really do it in a way that benefits both of you.

Here are seven ways to become a more powerful listener:

  1. Set a simple intention that you’re going to connect with each person without obsessing over how you’ll do it. The more you focus on what they’re saying, the sooner an authentic connection opportunity will become clear.
  2. Acknowledge that this person has risked revealing themselves to you for a reason. See if you can honor the moment – and them – just for now without rushing forward to some other outcome.
  3. Make up a private symbolic ritual to alert yourself that for this moment, you’re turning off your impulse to multitask. Maybe it’s flipping over your smart phone or making a subtle shift in your posture.
  4. Most sales and negotiation courses teach “empathy” and “rapport” as techniques to get what you want from the other person. Try asking yourself what they’re here to teach you instead.
  5. Ask open ended questions to free up layers of meaning, but use them gently. Questions like “why?” or “how do you know that?” may sound like a challenge and cause the other person to shut down.
  6. If you feel a temptation to judge or label what you’re hearing too quickly, silently ask yourself “what else could this mean?” and gently bring your mind back to the conversation. This takes practice.
  7. Take yourself on an auditory field trip once in a while that’s got no conversational pressure attached to it and practice simple awareness of sound. Julian Treasure’s TED talk on listening is a great starting point.

These are just the seeds of another way of thinking, not an attempt to be glib about the complex science of human communication. At a minimum, being a more purposeful listener helps to limit the amount of unproductive noise in your life. It makes your relationships more meaningful and resilient. It adds clarity to your life and increases your influence. We may not be able to do much about our CAPACITY to listen, but there are things we can do to improve the QUALITY of the experience.

Question: How have important people in your life helped you to feel heard and understood?

Creativity Is Not A Crime

Most people are more creative than they think. Not only are there simple ways to bring your inner artist back to life, there are also compelling personal and professional reasons why it’s important to give it a shot. It’s a blind spot that might be costing you.

Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose - Creativity Is Not A Crime

Da Vinci drawing courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

“I’m not creative.” What most people usually mean when they say that is that they don’t rate themselves as a professional artist in some traditional creative outlet. They’ve fallen for the lie that unless their work is on a commercial par with somebody famous, then it’s better for all concerned to just keep a lid on it.

Everyone is creative. Not everyone expresses creativity in the same way.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about creativity is Orbiting the Giant Hairball
by the late Gordon MacKenzie. He observed that creativity is conditioned out of most kids before they get to sixth grade. School teaches us a couple of primary, if unwritten, rules:

  1. There’s only ONE right answer.
  2. NEVER stand out, unless it’s for a pre-approved reason.

A second grade art project taught me these rules the hard way.

Using scissors and glue, we were to make construction paper “frames” for watercolors we had done earlier. From a previous class I remembered a mesmerizing glitter demonstration the teacher had done. Certain that it would make my frame a masterpiece, I ran to the supply cupboard, grabbed a jar of silver glitter and started… creating.

Vatican treasures had nothing on my masterful scrolls and stars.

Our teacher was patrolling the desks and apparently found what she’d been policing for when she got to mine. She had me on multiple counts of aggravated creativity. It was bad enough that I’d gone beyond the scope of the assignment, but worse that I’d gone to the cupboard on my own without running it up the chain of command first. She made a loud, public case of it to deter other young thought criminals in the making, and it worked.

Here’s a truth that took me decades to rediscover.

Sometimes it’s okay to add glitter. Yes, it takes discipline to run a business, but it’s a costly mistake to check our creative impulses at the door (or squash those of others). The key is balance. Here are three practical strategies to reclaim your creativity:

  1. Look for more than one right answer. Shift your context. Challenge your assumptions. Ask radical questions about the issue at hand. Steve Jobs refused to allow his thinking to become constrained by convention, just because others were focused on being incrementally better at the same old thing.
  2. Become an active observer of everything. Our brains are wired to filter out details that might contain hidden value. For example, a brick is more than just a red rectangle. Look closely and you’ll see that it has infinite textures, colors and surface variations. So do your opportunities.
  3. Remember that there are phases to the creative process. Allow yourself (or your organization) opportunities to get all the way through the idea-gathering phase before you start editing and implementing. Most people engage their inner critic long before the gatherer has a fair chance to find the richest alternatives.

Quit beating yourself up.

Creativity is linked to genuine primal fears. We’re tribal by nature. Standing out in the wrong way and being ostracized from the tribe once meant certain death. Today it’s time for an updated perspective. You won’t be thrown out of the village and eaten by predators for putting glitter on your art project.

  • Making room for creativity in your life renews your energy to get things done.
  • It helps you stay grounded in your true vision and purpose.
  • It opens unexpected doors to personal and professional abundance.

You’re applying creativity to the everyday challenges of life, work and relationships all the time, whether you realize it or not. Even if you never write a bestseller or paint a masterpiece or sell out a concert hall, your whole life is a worthy work of art, so put it out there in your own way and keep on creating.

Question: What creative instincts have you been putting on the back burner? Can you recall a time in your life when following them paid off?


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?