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?

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!

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?

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?