Ask a better question…create a better world

Whenever I lose my glasses, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, happens increasingly frequently, my world devolves into a glasses-finding operation. Walking through my house, I stop seeing the art, the dog, or the freshly-picked apples on the counter. Instead, I ask, “Where the heck are my glasses?” and view each piece of furniture as a potential hiding ground. My question sets the stage for what I see as I comb through the house.

Once the misplaced item is found (hopefully), I could create a different future (if I were wiser) by asking new questions instead of hopelessly playing and replaying my game of lost and found. By asking, “Why do I keep losing my glasses?” and “What system could I use to keep me from losing them so often?” I could create possibilities for change, rather than staying stuck in reaction.

Questions shape what we see

The slogan Make America Great Again, continues to polarize us in the United States. Framed as a question, it sounds like, “Why isn’t America great?” with the embedded assumption that America is not great. Asking that question (and the phrase itself) invites us to look at America and find ways we are “not great.”

If we were seriously interested in manifesting the greatness inherent in phrases like “liberty and justice for all,”  we might begin with a set of questions that offer a different lens through which to view the country:

  • In what ways is America great today?
  • What values lie underneath our true greatness?
  • Where are we living those values?
  • What stories do we have that capture the essence of this greatness?
  • Why is being great important?
  • When we embody our greatness, how do we act?
  • What could we do to bring out more of our true greatness–and make sure it benefits all?

When we examine our world for signs of true greatness rather than its lack, we start finding lots of examples.

We also see the gap between our values and our reality. We’re provoked to act out of our desire to do more of what is good, rather than fixing what is broken.

How to change the narrative, one question at a time

Sometimes the cultural narratives we live in, our “big stories,” are outdated.

For example, the narrative that shapes how we look at growing older is usually some version of  “aging-as-something-to-be-avoided-as-long-as possible,” “aging-as-a-problem-to-be-fixed,” or simply “gloom, doom, and decline.”

No wonder as a society we’re not turned on about getting old!

If we started asking questions that offered a different frame, we’d kindle a more hopeful perspective.

Next week, after my talk at Sageing International’s Global Conference in Minneapolis, I’m going to invite audience members to try out a few questions. Sageing participants support positive, conscious aging, so imagine the energy if people started asking each other:

  • How are you thriving now that you are past midlife?
  • What are you exploring or discovering that inspires you??
  • How is your life vibrant today?
  • What is calling to you now?

The mere act of asking those questions subverts the old narrative!

“Questions are fateful. They determine destinations. They are the chamber through which destiny calls.” – Godwin Hiatshwayo

Let questions shape the world we want

Looking for what we want doesn’t require that we deny the shortcomings or problems in our society. We acknowledge the gap between our aspirations and values and our current reality, and then ask:

“What’s a change we could make today to bring us more in line with our values?”

The world orients to our questions.

Want to give it a go? You’re welcome to try out these:

  • What about life has pleased you today?
  • Where in your life are you feeling most yourself?
  • Where did you catch yourself thriving?

Or, you could always borrow mine:

“Where did I leave my glasses tonight?”



12 Great Quotes on Creativity (with a few you haven’t heard)

When I was moving into my fifties, I was consumed by an enormous hunger to express myself creatively. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been creative earlier in my life, but, up until then, creativity had been a byproduct of my work, an interest. Now, it became an intention, almost an obsession. After so many years of working to produce for others, my heart yearned to let my imagination out to play, to work more artfully, and to follow my creative yearnings.

Working on writing the story of this awakening, I inspired myself with quotes on creativity that I want to share with you. Here are some of my favorite quotes, chosen from the hundreds out there.

(I’ll provide the source of these quotes because it bugs me that so many quotes on the Internet are wrongly credited, misquoted, or can’t be verified.)

1. “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle

2. “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

John Cleese (lecture 1991)

3. “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Mary Oliver Upstream: Selected Essays

4. “To create anything…is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic…That magic…is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic.”

Tom Bissell, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation

5. “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Albert Einstein as interviewed by George Sylvester Viereck in the October 26, 1929 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

6. “In our later years, it becomes imperative to increase our capacity to hold creative tension, allowing far greater and more inclusive solutions and options to emerge. By befriending and strengthening our capacity to hold paradox, we can explore the realm of deep spiritual growth.”

Angeles Arrien The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom

“Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”

Gretchen Rubin, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

7. “C.G.Jung once wrote that creativity is an instinct, not an optional gift granted to a lucky few. If you don’t find a way to be creative in life, that instinct goes repressed and frustrated, You feel its loss as a deflation, the spirit leaking out of your sense of self. You feel empty, disengaged, and unfulfilled.”

Thomas Moore, A Life at Work

8. “There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Thomas Berry, Standing by Words

9. The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”

Denise Shekerjian, author of Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born

10. “At every level of life – from personal to political – our creativity is being shut down because we are so vulnerable to fear. And there are so many forces out there working hard to manipulate our fear to keep us shut down, in line, and under control.”

Parker Palmer, in Yale University Reflections on-line magazine.

11. Creativity or talent, like electricity, is something I don’t understand but something I’m able to harness and use. While electricity remains a mystery, I know I can plug into it and light up a cathedral or a synagogue or an operating room and use it to help save a life. Or I can use it to electrocute someone. Like electricity, creativity makes no judgment. I can use it productively or destructively.

The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.”

Maya Angelou conversation with Bill Moyers in Conversations with Maya Angelou

12. The picture below is from Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.

Let the beauty we love be what we do!

Does your work make you better?

In her stunning collection of essays (highly recommended) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett offers us this simple, yet profound question about marriage she received from her friend, Edra. Quoting Ann:

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked…I had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” she said, running down her list. “Does he make you better?” 

That last question could be applied to many things in life–including our work.

We need a new word for “work”

I’ve been struggling this week to find a more uplifting word to replace the word “work.” In writing a book on thriving in the 3rd Act of life, I’m asserting that engaging in creative work is one of the keys to staying vital.  But “creative work” could mean working a job, making art, serving your family or community, creating a business, fixing a car, or ???  In wanting to stay open to so many creative possibilities, I figured that I’d better define what the heck I mean by work.

I checked the dictionary’s synonyms for work and found: labor, toil, drudgery, and exertion–not an uplifting array. Is work really synonymous with  “ugh?” (As in “It’s Monday and I have to (ugh) go to work.”)

No wonder people want to leave “work.” Who wouldn’t given the negative overtones?

A more positive way to look at work

What if you could engage in an endeavor where:

  • you applied devotion and discipline and showed up regularly.
  • your creative juices flowed freely.
  • you experienced a sense of wonder, curiosity, and continual learning.
  • you felt a sense of rightness, as if you were doing something that was truly yours to do.
  • you felt a sense of purpose and passion.
  • you might be paid or not.

What would you call that?

The way to know what qualifies as a right endeavor might be by asking a question like the one Edra asked Ann Patchett.

“Does it make you better?”

Not richer, more successful or likely to show up in Time Magazine’s top 100 People of the Year. Just better. You know what I mean.

“Are you more vital, alive, compassionate towards others, a more fulfilled human being?” “Do you feel like your being is expanded as a result of your engagement?”

Another word choice could be your “creative practice.” It comes with less baggage. (I’d love to know if you have a better alternative!)

The nature of a creative practice

You know you have a creative practice when you feel like it has you.

There’s a bit of a master-devotee feeling in it, combined with the above-mentioned devotion and discipline, When I was studying photography during my year as a college student in Paris, I couldn’t wait to get into the darkroom to see what miracles could happen next. My accredited “work” for the year was studying French and passing a number of courses, but my real work-as-practice was allowing myself to explore photography and cinema with eyes of wonder.

I can still remember that cool, blue-lit darkroom, where the shallow troughs of water and chemicals bubbled. We students spoke in subdued voices as we awaited our turns to print our films, swooshing our papers through their chemical baths, while holding our breaths to see what would emerge.

I’d leave the studio in wonder, my eyes captivated by the Art Nouveau curves of the Parisian Metro signs; my curiosity piqued to study the faces of subway riders, my time on the trains absorbed in dreaming of what I would shoot next.

Today’s practice

My work-as-creative-practice these days is writing, although I hesitate to say that because I still love any chance to teach leadership storytelling and coach my clients. But the master who calls me to attend is intangible, not measured by money or external rewards, rather elusive about what she or he wants from me, and very demanding.

I’ve learned that in showing up for work, I will be challenged, altered, and rewarded if only by the satisfaction of launching a few ideas that someone else might read. As a result, I walk in the world differently.

Heeding the master

Years ago, when I was in a period of high obsession in the garden, I had a similar sense of commitment to a master with whom I was in regular dialogue. The rules were similar: show up consistently, maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder, structure my life to support my endeavor, and wait for orders.

When I’d garden in those days, a world opened up for me. I’d spend hours on my knees getting to know my garden by weeding, digging and pruning before it would start to “tell me” what it wanted next. Then I’d enter an altered space where I followed the orders I was hearing: remove this hellebore, transplant that Japanese maple, trim the lower branch, pave the path with logs, etc. I only left when night descended and I couldn’t see to work.

Similarly, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I needed devotion and discipline to work on my research while managing a full-time job. At first, I felt like I was slogging uphill, but as the project continued, a voice started emerging from the pages, talking back to me, and encouraging my work. Its directions weren’t as assertive as my garden’s, but I was in dialogue with a force and my work was to listen.

I smile to myself when I hear people complaining about the process of completing a doctorate, knowing that mine was a delight. Hard work, of course, but a practice that “made me better.”

What’s your practice?

Am I’m crazy? I’d love to hear from some of you who know what it is to surrender to a creative practice. If you have a better word for work-that-allows-you-to-thrive, please let me know.

What is your creative practice and…does it make you better?

The Secret Key to IGNITING Performance




Picture this: a lively audience of 500 hooting and hollering. A group of twelve competitively selected speakers, all with a lot of gumption and varying degrees of speaking experience. The challenge: to present an idea, message or story in five minutes, make it entertaining and keep it short. 5 minutes. 20 timed slides. Then you’re out.

Last week, I had my five minutes of performing fame:  How I Dumped Denial: 60 is NOT the new 40. I had a blast!!!

Always on the lookout for what makes a performance or event great, I made some observations about why the Ignite model works so well and offer them to you along with one secret key.

Why it works

Ignite Seattle is run by a staff of volunteers, who work together as an energized, well-organized team. Special bonus: they appear to like each other!

After hosting 36 events, the team has their procedures down–although at Ignite Seattle #36 they weren’t afraid to innovate or stir things up a bit. This Ignite included a make-your-own art section of the lobby as well as a play-with-a-costume photo booth.

The staff took care of us speakers, helping us to relax and prepare. Whereas some event organizers might say, “You’re selected/good luck,” Ignite offered us two advance opportunities for workshopping/practicing our talks–along with FREE DINNER and wine! Free food and great coaching is a winning combo! We were on an accelerated timeline to prepare our talks, and at the rehearsals, I watched as topics transformed, including my own. I can’t tell you how useful it is to try out material on a real audience rather than that not-always-agreeable face in the mirror.

The organizers take care of their audiences as well. They know their typical audience demographics and interests, and they take time to welcome everybody and then set up expectations. Ignite is not the MOTH (that quasi-professional story-event out of New York City, where people ultra fine-tune their talks). Nah, we were regular folks with something to share, and our Master of Ceremonies invited the audience to really support us.

They did that in spades. I’ve never experienced a more positive audience. I ended my talk with a little audience participation exercise; they complied with gusto–without missing a beat!

Now for the Secret Ingredient: Make it fun!

The audience was primed for fun–you felt it in the air. They entered the theatre after socializing and making art, and their mood was upbeat. The organizers were playful as well. They handed out a little box of dates to everyone so we could all break a Ramadan fast with one of the speakers; we closed with a bit of improvisational comedy.

One of the secrets to having fun as a speaker is to practice a lot. I did. Not just endlessly repeating a script, but walking my talk, miming my talk, finding ways to mix it up until the essence of what I wanted to say settled into my bones.

I can focus more on fun when I don’t have to worry about my words.

In the theatre, I had one job: to enjoy the audience. I knew if I had fun, the audience would have fun. That worked!



Unleashed, and



I coach presenters, and I’m going to underscore this secret: whether your topic is serious or light–if you are enjoying yourself, that spirit will radiate and help people connect with you.

And when audience members are having fun, they just might remember what you said.








How to start that big project (or how to get the camel to stick his nose under your tent)

Do you have a big project waiting in the wings that you can’t get started?

Maybe it’s de-cluttering part of your house, writing a proposal, redesigning your website, or fixing that piece of equipment that’s been out of commission for two years.

But when you contemplate starting, all you can say is “Ugh!”

Remember that proverb, “Don’t let the camel stick his nose under the tent.” The idea is that once the camel gets his nose in, he’s going to keep coming in.

Although this is usually spoken about as something NOT to do, it might be a GREAT idea if you want a camel in your tent.

Using similar logic, perhaps we can stick our noses into our big project a bit at a time until we find our groove with it.

Big projects can be daunting.

Sometimes our brains resist “big.” We may need to trick them to get started.

In an interview in CU Boulder Today  Colorado University professor of psychology and neuroscience Randall O’Reilly, was quoted as saying:

“The brain is wired to be very cautious and conservative in starting big projects, because once you do start, it takes over your brain.

The brain, researchers think, is wired to track progress towards whatever it is you’ve decided to do, like spring cleaning, which is hard work. You have to make a lot of difficult decisions and the outcome is uncertain.

Your brain recognizes that and says, ‘Maybe I won’t start on that project after all.’

It’s an adaptive property of the brain.”

In other words, your brain smells something BIG and, as a result, puts up a natural defense.

Which is probably why I have found it so hard to get started weeding my mammoth garden.

There’s an alternative: Start small.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating the art of taking very small steps. I invent ways to use the breaks and cracks in my schedule, rather than waiting for the perfect moment when I have time to tackle a project that I’ve tried to ignore.

I tell myself, “you can do this,” and take a bite of work – for maybe ten or twenty minutes. Once I’ve faced the project and begun to chew on it, I’ll probably discover it isn’t as distasteful as I thought.

Think small bites.

At the Pacific Northwest’s famous Bite of Seattle, local restaurants lure you with petite servings you can purchase from their food trucks. They hope that a taste will entice you to try their fuller fare.

In starting your project, ask yourself what you can do to gather momentum so that your brain can relax its defenses, you can earn a little dopamine (feel-good) booster for having achieved something,  and you end up wanting to do more.

In my garden, I gave myself the assignment to  “Go outside and weed for ten or twenty minutes, max.”

In that time, I could only do one thing, so I chose to weed the front walkway. I stayed focused on the weeds that had grown between the bricks, rather than on the jillion other tasks awaiting me in the garden.

It was very satisfying.

I neither exhausted my body nor overwhelmed my spirit.

Ten-minute projects

I’ve become curious about what can be done (or at least started) in the small chinks in my schedule.

I can begin a writing project by composing a few paragraphs, even if I trash them later. With the proposal waiting for me, I can open the document and read the requirements (done in ten minutes!).  With de-cluttering my bedroom, I can start with one drawer. (Yes, I know that some organizers like Marie Kondo want you to tackle a whole area of your house at once…but that can come later.)

I’ve begun to make a cool list of things I can do in ten minutes as I lure myself from avoidance into action.

Now to go find that wandering camel and invite him to put his moist and furry nose under the corner of my tent.

What to say when you don’t want to say anything


I woke up this morning thinking about what to write and…and my brain was empty.

What do you say when your brain has gone blank?

This is what introverts face all the time (self-included)…when we have to say to people that we don’t have anything to say (or talk about not wanting to talk.)

This is also an issue when my husband comes home and wants to greet me and I’m in the middle of writing a sentence that will fly away forever if I even murmur a word…and he say’s “Hi, Honey…”

(We’ve developed a code.)

To help us introverts and others, I’m designing a line of T-shirts you can wear to avoid this problem. (You can send me your order…we don’t even need to talk.)









Do you have any suggestions for the line? You can post them below…quietly.

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