How to Birth a Dream—Gently

Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.

We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.

Let’s add another, gentler perspective.

How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.

After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.

We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.

When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.

It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.

Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?

Midwifing the start of a book

I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.

I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:

  • Is my dream begging to come forward?
  • Do I love it?
  • Do I believe that it’s needed?
  • Is this something I feel I have to do?

It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.

Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.

How my idea started

The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.

Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher?  Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.

So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:

Speak about it – with caution

It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.

I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.

Play with it and let it move

I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.

Create some structure to support me

My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.

Build daily practices that support the work

I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!

Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth

The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.

Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!

Structuring Your Time Without Killing Your Muse

As a creative entrepreneur, I often wrestle with how to manage my time, get things done, and nurture my creative zeal.

I experiment with how to find the balance between creative flow and structure. As a writer, should I follow the discipline advocated by some writers to put my butt in the chair everyday regardless of whether I have anything to say? Or should I listen to those who say that trying to force a piece of writing when it’s not flowing is just pointless?

If you’re like me, you know that during the day your energy ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re good for a creative burst of thought or work on a project, other times you’ll be best polishing your existing work, responding to problems, doing email or grooming the cat.  And there may even be times that are good for meetings. (I hope this is true, given how meetings consume so much of organizational life.)

Managing the balance between flow and structure, while finding the best way to work with your own rhythms is key to productively accomplishing creative work (or really any work). I tend to err on the side of flow. I used to tell my leadership classes that my programs would be more like a sailing expedition than a motor boat ride. We’d reach our destination (the course objectives), but we’d be tacking a lot (responding to the needs and knowledge of participants), rather than driving straight ahead like a planned-by-the-minute training session. This helped some of my structure-loving engineers to relax a little. Sometimes.

Knowing that personal organization has never been my strong suit, in my first corporate job I convinced the purchasing officer to let me buy an expensive personal organizing system. Beautiful leather binder. Yummy designed pages. I was so hoping it could miraculously organize me.  If I had been the kind of person who loved making lists, using them, and was already anal about organization, it would have been perfect.

Mostly I ended up affectionately stroking its binder.

My need to be organized and structured without stopping the creative flow has made me very curious about time management systems and structures that creative artists and business leaders use to stay productive.

Although I yearn for big unstructured blocks of time to do creative thought-work, without a way of deliberately organizing myself, I can end up in the eddies, feeling brain-dead about what I intended to do.

After all, a flow of water down a river needs the riverbank to guide and contain it.

How to Flow with Structure: 7 Ideas to Try

  1. Know your chrono-type. We all follow slightly different clocks. If you’re curious about yours, read The Power of When by Michael Breus. Then, explore how you can adapt your days to fit your rhythm. Some people are most clear headed in the early morning; others are foggy until noon. Give your teammates a break and tailor your work to your own internal clock. (Who needs more glazed eyes or bodies keeled over in meetings!)
  2. See your work in big patterns or clumps. Different types of work take different types of energy—and require bigger or smaller chunks of time. Some projects like my writing take large concentrated blocks of time; reading email can be fit in when I’m half asleep. I want to map my high-value creative tasks against my high-value creative energy.
  3. Experiment. Most of us have failed repeatedly at optimizing our time. Maybe this is a game we’ll never really win, but it’s still worth playing around with whatever helps us feel satisfied as well as productive.
  4. Leave time for deeper work. In his provocative book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport rants that our attention-sucking environments risk robbing us of the time and capacity to do our most thoughtful, important work, the work where we could really make a difference, whether it’s designing a strategy or writing a novel. We need to vigilantly protect spaces for deep time.
  5. Make it visual. I love my computer tools — but there’s something totally cool about white boards that keep my important priorities right in my face.
  6. Remember breaks, retreats, vacations and the fact that things will never, ever go as planned.
  7. Celebrate small successes. A darn good idea that many of us neglect.

Back to you. What keeps you at your own energized, creative best? Do you have a system to manage yourself and honor your own rhythms and life, work and creative priorities? Tell me— I’d love to pass on more ideas here.

In the meantime, I’m off to a day that’s mine to create, adding a little structure to keep my mind focused and at the same time being curious where the muse will take me.

Because she often has her own agenda!



Why Positive Thinking Can Have Negative Results (and what to do about it)



In last week’s post I wrote: Wishful thinking actually decreases our possibility of meaningful action,” as I explored why dedicating ourselves to what we want to create can be more effective than making resolutions.

That statement was inspired by Gabrielle Oetinger and the research she writes about in Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Although thinking positively about the future can be very empowering, it can also be trivialized into chanting, affirming and sitting back and hoping. After watching that New Age cult classic The Secret, with its emphasis on the law of attraction (i.e. you can pull things to you by your intention alone), this kind of thinking makes me very queasy. Does this mean that all it takes to get that mansion in Malibu is to intend and affirm? Really? Or that the beautiful, loving and inspiring friends I’ve lost to cancer didn’t think positively enough about their healing? (Don’t get me going on this one!)

Although tapping into our our imaginations and dreams and setting intentions are powerful ways to draw forth the future, just hanging out with dreams without acting upon them can have negative results, according to Oetinger. It can make us complacent and less likely to achieve them,

What she discovered over her twenty years of research was that a dream is more likely to be realized when you vividly imagine a positive future and then contrast it with an image of an obstacle that might get in the way.

She writes:

The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”

She offers us a fourstep process called WOOP in which imagining positive outcomes is contrasted with possible obstacles and plans for overcoming them.

Attracted to her evidence-based approach, I decided to put this idea to the test during a recent horseback riding lesson.

My goal was to successfully jump an obstacle that was, frankly, scaring me. My aging body has felt the impact of the ground too often to enjoy it anymore. The prospect of falling off my horse has made me more timid jumping than I was twenty years ago.

Now, if I used an approach based in setting an intention and visualizing success, I could imagine successfully clearing the jump. Rather than focus on the obstacle, I’d repeat some affirmations, hold my breathe (most likely) and head for the jump. Results uncertain.

I didn’t like that option. Instead I tried Oetinger’s simple instructions for her WOOP process. (Despite its simplicity, she has extensively tested it scientifically.)

1. Wish“Something you really want to accomplish. A wish is exciting challenging and realistic.”

I pictured clearing the challenging jump successfully, my horse obedient, my riding seat secure.

2. Outcome – “The best outcome that would result from accomplishing your goal. How would the outcome make you feel? Let your mind go and imagine this outcome.”

I imagined patting my horse, feeling exhilarated and proud. I see my horse asd happy, too.

3. Obstacle –“The personal obstacles that prevent you from accomplishing your goal. Let your mind go and imagine this obstacle.”

I imagine the jump. I assessed its size and whether my horse had jumped anything like it. I felt what it would be like for my horse to jump clear and whether I would be likely to stay with her without  falling. (Oetinger says its all right to change your goal if you see it’s not accurate—and I’m not pushing myself towards the Olympics these days. I realized that the biggest obstacle wasn’t the size of the jump, or my horse’s ability, but my fear.

4. Plan. “What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Name one action you can take or thought you can have. Make an if/then plan and imagine it.  If / When _________ (obstacle), then I will __________ (action to overcome obstacle).”

Now that I’d identified fear as an obstacle, there were some things I could do to stick in the saddle. Breathe and let the weight of my body sink into my heels. Keep my eyes up and forward. Press my calf firmly into the side of my horse. Grab a bit of her mane and hold on when we go to the jump.

When it came time to face the jump, my heart started beating fast. I was still scared. But I remembered my plan and headed resolutely towards the jump. We cleared it—not elegantly, but, hey, I was still in the saddle and exuberant!

There’s a lot more behind Oetinger’s research, and it’s worth reading about. (Including this easy guide for students.)

She offered me a secret that the movie The Secret didn’t provide: combine creative, embodied visualizations about the future with equally vivid data about the obstacles you will face and the steps you will take to overcome them.

You can use your creative imagination to envision an outcome, an obstacle and a plan—and greatly increase your chances of success.

Imagination, intention and action can all dance together. Killer!





7 Questions to Ask When Challenged by Evidence

Chalk rubbed out on blank blackboard background.

Last week, I heard a chilling term for a world where facts get distorted, taken out of context, and manipulated at will: “The Post-factual World.”

Have we moved into a world that doesn’t care about evidence? Is there a way to deal with our own pain and fear, so that we can face the facts without jumping to conclusions that can hurt ourselves or others?

I began writing this blog after hearing a story on National Public Radio about the systemic persecution of the LGBT community in Russia. The reporters described how politicians were twisting facts into bigoted propaganda with devastating results.

The Russian scene is grim. But don’t we have reality distortion here in the States as well?

How can we make friends with facts and pursue the truth, even when we we’re caught up in difficult emotions?

The situation in Russian is painful and alarming. Politicians are distorting facts, feeding on fear, and using the state controlled media to send out bigoted information designed to terrorize the public about the LGBT community. Broadcasting this information has led to loss of jobs, humiliation, and even deaths. The reporter from Reveal News covering the story described how politicians had created a “parallel reality” of false facts about the LGBT community and used fear to justify invading the Ukraine. It’s a disturbing and powerful piece of journalism.

Listening to the story, I couldn’t help thinking about how there are “parallel realities” going on in the United States, where the public’s pain and fear is being manipulated through systematic distortions of the truth, leading to dangerous conclusions and alarming, if sometimes ludicrous, platforms for change.

Before assuming that distorting evidence is only happening “out there,” I needed to look at how my own fears shaped conclusions I draw about my work and finances.

When I had to face the numbers

This week, I finished my taxes for 2015. If you want a great way to look at what you value and how you run your life, take a look at your checkbook and credit cards. Believe me, it can be confronting.

Reviewing my accounting, I didn’t like what I saw. 2015 was a year in which I moved my business in a new direction, invested in development, and, frankly, didn’t make the money I’d have liked. And because my concern about money was painful, I had barely dealt with my accounting over the course of the year, except for the minimal, required, bill paying and invoicing.

Hidden within the numbers, and my unwillingness to face them, I recognized signs of pain.  Beneath that pain was a chorus of verdicts and conclusions:

  • “You went unconscious with your money.”
  • “You didn’t succeed.”
  • “You’ll never make it.”
  • “You’re too old to rebuild your practice.”
  • “You don’t have a clue what you’re doing.”

Ouch. Facing the facts was painful! After a night’s sleep, I decided to pay another visit to the “Factual World,” (which I still believe in!) and re-visited the evidence. I couldn’t fault the data: unlike some public media information, my data were reliable. I needed to re-examine my conclusions. Using the questions below, I came to some different ones:

  • I hadn’t gone unconscious. I had simply let some things slip. I had been inattentive.
  • I had worked hard, clarified my direction, launched a podcast, and produced weekly writings.
  • I had served great clients, done work I was proud of, and knew I was doing my “right work.”
  • I had launched friendships with special new colleagues, and stayed in touch with friends and associates.
  • I had covered my business and health expenses but not my living expenses.
  • I had brought in revenue, just not as much as I would have liked. That hurt.
  • I had a fabulous trip to India.
  • I had developed both empathy and tools to help others who wanted to generate new work after age 60.

These conclusions were also based on facts – but I could only see them when I was willing to face the pain – and keep examining the evidence.

Here are 7 questions that can help you face the facts (even if they are confronting):

  1. What is the source of my evidence? (A balance sheet, hearsay/talk radio, my inner critic?)
  2. Is the evidence complete? What else do I need to consider?
  3. Are the conclusions I’m reaching true? Could alternative conclusions also be true?
  4. Where am I letting a strong emotion – like fear – bias what I’m seeing?
  5. How can I interpret the data in a way that is life affirming?
  6. What else do I know/what other data can I add from my own experience?
  7. Can I accept the pain that this data triggers in me without letting it dictate my conclusions?

When it comes to the larger global politic, Russia and closer to home, I’d add: Who’s manipulating the data and to what end? What’s happening in Russia is sobering and affects us all more than you might know. As does what’s happening with our own election cycle.

Here, in my life, I need to be aware of the intention with which I review the data.

Because when I examine evidence looking for how to create a positive future for myself and others, I don’t need to ignore, sugarcoat or distort the evidence in order to find the courage to keep creating.

Are You Counting What Counts?

So God just sent his chief publicist down to help Jesus and he says, “You’re doing good work, Jesus, but I’m worried about your counts. You’ve got twelve committed “followers” but rumor has it that one’s about to drop, and a couple seem kind of flaky. Now you’re doing OK with the female demographic, but all those Mary’s are like family – so maybe we shouldn’t count them.  My count puts you at about 20 followers, so I’m sorry old boy, but we can’t get the sponsorship you need with those numbers. Not this lifetime. But don’t give up….maybe you could still pull off some kind of big event at the end!”

It’s hard to imagine, but there might have been life before counting “followers,” “friends,” downloads, and clicks.

Are we click-obsessed to the point where superficial hits on a website means more than absorbing knowledge?

What gets counted counts. But are we counting what matters?

Clicks drive the internet economy. Sales count, but everything online starts with a click. During the 30 minutes I just spent researching on-line, (aka surfing), I fed the click-monster hundreds of cookies.

His appetite is veracious.

The monster gobbles up clicks on various sites, without being all that discerning.

monster-768x768He doesn’t care about great ideas, beautiful writing, or breakthroughs in intergalactic science. In fact, he knows that he can find more action on sites that feature puppies, kittens and Kim Kardashian.

This monster eats what he can count, so he devours statistics for sign-ups, memberships, downloads, etc.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on him. After all, measurement is key to marketing. Counting audiences is a fact of life in many industries – just ask my magazine publisher friend!

I’m not throwing out counting, this is just a plea for balance.

Has our click-obsession led us to counting superficial contacts, rather than worrying if we’re making any kind of difference in the world? What about increasing compassion, insight, or the quality of relationships on the planet?

To paraphrase an old saying: “It’s unlikely at the end of your life, God is going to ask you how many clicks you got.”

Is this just sour grapes on my part? Probably. I’m not immune to the click-obsession-disorder. It really came up for me when I re-launched my consulting practice. When I wanted to start presenting talks again after a ten year hiatus from public speaking, the first question I heard was “How large is your following?” How to answer? (“Well, there’s my mother…)

I cringe when people start bragging, in my online podcasting support groups, about the hundred thousand downloads their podcast has achieved. I feel like the little kid in first grade who’s comparing lunches and has to admit, “I got peanut butter.” Does that mean my podcast doesn’t matter? Do I obsess with downloads or focus on how thrilling it is to create an interview with a fascinating guest and share it with listeners?

Here’s how our click-counting disorder can affect your life:

  • You’re an author but you can’t just write a great book, you have to create an on-line platform and attract a following.
  • You’re a good journalist but writing a daily news story is no longer enough. You have to send out three Twitter tweets a day.
  • You spend hours composing a blog each week that you think is interesting. Then you hear that your favorite on-line guru has millions of followers and despair when the next person drops from your list.
  • You distribute little packets of content (aka posts) all over the internet hoping to magically entice people to your website and mailing list.
  • You meet someone at a digital commerce conference, and the first thing they ask about are your download statistics.
  • You find it consoling that POTUS (President of the United States) also has to count his (or her) online hits.

As I said this is a not a rave against counting. But I think there’s something more that people are searching for online and I want to give it a name.

Maybe it’s connection.

What would you call it???

Please let me know.  I’m getting ready to create a manifesto and I’d love your help to write it.

To be continued next week…

Finding the space for spaciousness



This week I’ve been working on deadline, caught between two big projects I love, primed, a bit more than I’d like to admit, with big cups of yerba mate. (I’ve promised my better self that I’ll wean back from caffeine soon.)

As the pressure of the work turned into compulsion, I started seeing side effects: I stopped playing, slept less, felt a band of tension lock up my back, and had to remind myself to breathe.

Fortunately, I found an antidote listening to a great interview that Krista Tippett did with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

I learned a new word I needed in order to make a shift: “yutori,” the Japanese word for spaciousness.

Naomi discovered it on a recent poetry-teaching trip to Japan. As she told the story, before every class she’d write a phrase on the board for students to contemplate:

“You are living in a poem.”

Then she’d open up discussion, eventually sharing her thoughts:

“When you think, when you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem. That’s what a poem does.”*

One of her students understood this idea: when you live in a poem you enter into it, hold it, allow it to move you, and fill you, so that it can shape how you see the world. She related it to the Japanese concept, “yutori.” She wrote Naomi Shihab Nye:

“Here in Japan, we have a concept called yutori. And it is spaciousness. It’s a kind of living with spaciousness. For example, it’s leaving early enough to get somewhere so that you know you’re going to arrive early, so when you get there, you have time to look around.”*

I could feel myself breathing more as I took in the beauty of this idea.

Listening to a poet and living in a poem is one beautiful form of spaciousness. I’ve known others – moments of living with enough time and enough space that I can allow the world to fill me, often in simple ways. It’s having a meeting cancelled and finding yourself with two, bonus, unexpected hours. It’s lying on the beach with time to finish your favorite novel. It’s clearing space in your closet and garage so that you experience ease instead of clutter. It’s taking extra moments at the top of a mountain to gaze into the horizon.

Zen, health, calm.

It’s whatever brings you space and room for wonder.

When I get too pressured, bludgeoning my way through a project, the delight leaches out of my work. If I can approach the same project remembering yutori, something shifts and new room for artistry emerges.

We almost always have options about how we do our work. When I become so stressed that I knot up inside, I forget.

This week, while writing this blog, I decided to make a change. I’d been going too many days without a break. The pace felt relentless. Then I saw a possibility: maybe I didn’t have to co-facilitate the group I was going to do with my friend and colleague, Kate. Maybe she could do it alone.

I asked if she’d do it without me, and she was delighted – in fact she even thanked me for asking and being willing to take care of myself. I almost cried in relief.  Suddenly, I had half a day to myself.

I returned home, put on a pair of PJs, and crawled into bed. I spent an entire luscious afternoon finishing an amazing novel (The Unseen World.) And started breathing again.

*Quote from the interview.

Spaciousness. Yutori.

Now to you, where do you find “yutori” for yourself?
I found an experience of yutori in a beautiful poem, Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.