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From the Blog

Talk Doesn’t Cook Rice

In my community microbusiness class a while back, we were discussing the things that get in the way of making time to think creatively about your business. A popular topic was procrastination, another was perfectionism (no surprises here...). One of my students summed it all up with an expression from India, her home country: Talk doesn’t cook rice.

I love it. Talk doesn’t cook rice. When I googled it later, turns out it’s a big mantra in China, too. I think maybe it’s time it entered the Australian vernacular...

The expression resonated with me because I love colourful expressions and use metaphor  all the time. But it also connected because I am an expert at procrastination, at putting off the actions I know I need to do to grow my business. I love researching, thinking and discussing possibilities, coming up with endless ideas. There’s nothing wrong with this as such, it is an essential part of thinking creatively. But there is a stage where the idea is ‘good enough’ to put into action, and yet there I am, doing yet more lovely research, thinking and discussion. 

I know myself pretty well though, so I have developed all sorts of strategies that work for me in moving past this unproductive state of mind, including:

Doing very little steps towards my goal, every day
Rewarding myself after making that difficult call, or finalising that 
pitch, or whatever...
Telling myself I am stronger than my excuses
Working with my coach to keep me focused and accountable
Looking at my cash flow (this works a treat...)
Having a daily list of my top three priorities for that day
Asking myself whether something is ‘good enough’ to be put into 
Outsourcing the really tricky stuff (bookkeeping, IT, some 
marketing activities)

What about you? What stops you cooking your rice? How do you deal with it?
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Is Slow And Steady Best After All?

I used to be an ‘all or nothing’ type. I would only take on the all-consuming challenge. I would leave my bedroom until it was so messy that it took a whole day to clean up. If I needed to diet I would fast for a week. I believed there was no point doing something unless you gave it all your energy and attention. I never understood the hare and tortoise story - where was the fun in plodding on and on, a bit at a time? My school pencil case was adorned with the John Keats quote, ‘I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest’ and I had a T-shirt that said ‘No guts, no glory.’ 

Not any more.

It started when I became a mother, and my ‘free’ time was snatched in 5- or 10-minute chunks, often with no warning. Slowly, I discovered that you can in fact achieve a great deal in 5 minutes. And I discovered that ‘good enough’ is generally good enough. Now my son is almost grown, but I still use my 5-minute principle to get things (good enough) done.

In fact, I have come to realise that just doing a little bit each day towards your goal is much better than waiting until you can divert huge chunks of time to one project. It’s much less disruptive, and much more sustainable. It is also manageable, and much harder to procrastinate about.

I was reminded of all this now that it’s week eight of my gym program. Little by little, my fitness is growing. Little by little I am introducing new habits of exercise, eating and drinking. Little by little, I am meditating again. Little by little, I can see the changes. I like it. Tortoise is good.

And then I came across a couple of articles about continuous improvement at work, about how you only have to improve something by one-half of one percent each week, to achieve 26% improvement in a year. These articles then went on to do very clever things with maths and compounding and stuff, and conclude that this means you would double your performance or skill or productivity or whatever every 2.7 years. And apparently this also means (thanks to those very clever things with maths and compounding and stuff) that you would increase by more than ten times in ten years. It’s amazing, really...

So, what can you do just 1/2% better this week?
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Do You Know Too Much?

A while ago, Scientific American Mind magazine had a cover story on the latest research and insights into unleashing creativity. One of the research results shows that creative people are less likely to filter out peripheral information or irrelevant data from their minds than the rest of us are. (As you are reading this, you are probably not aware of the contents of the room you are in, the feeling of your bottom on the chair, the temperature... until I draw your attention to them, of course!)

We all rely on our brain's ability to screen the volumes of data that reaches us every second through our eyes, ears, taste, touch and so on. If not, we would be paralysed into inaction by overwhelm or, in extreme cases, descend into psychosis. However, those who are highly efficient at this screening may also, it seems, be missing the anomalies and curiosities that can lead to creative breakthroughs.

Related to this is the sometime drawback of being an expert, of internalising a body of knowledge and ways of thinking and dealing with the world, so you lose the opportunity to see things differently - you become stuck in your paradigm. You stop searching the world for new ideas or stimuli - often, you set yourself up to block them from your environment altogether.

This can limit your ability to find creative and innovative approaches to old problems... one of the reasons for the trend towards cross-discipline teams these days.

So, what to do about this?

1 Bring your awareness to your surroundings at least every now 
and then. Focus on the information from one of your senses for 
say 5 minutes... notice colours, or smells, or sounds.
2 Cultivate what Zen practitioners call beginner's mind - imagine 
how you might solve the problem if you knew nothing of the 
subject matter (or ask someone who does know nothing, such 
as a friend from another discipline or even a child).
3 Ask 'What would the Dalai Lama do here? Or Einstein? Or Paris 
Hilton? Or Luke Skywalker? Or Harry Potter? Or…?

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The One Thing That Makes All The Difference To Success

In many circles it is considered old-fashioned to be fully 'committed' in work or life...

But in the creative life, a fierce commitment to your work may be your most effective strategy to ensure you finish your project, or create that new career, or come up with a winning idea at work.

For any project that is challenging or involves you going outside your known universe, you'll need a fierce commitment to get through the obstacles - if you don't champion your work, who will?

A good model here is Robert Fritz's 'fundamental choice’. Fritz talks about serious commitment as a life orientation, not just making a decision or coming up with a new goal. A fierce commitment (or a fundamental choice) is not the kind of choice that is based on external circumstances, or moods or whatever and it's not about willpower. It's a much deeper choice to re-orient your life.

If you just 'decide' to give up smoking, it is really hard, no matter what system you choose; but make a deep, well thought-out, conscious choice to live a healthy life (including as a non-smoker) no matter the day-to-day challenges and temptations, & almost any system for quitting will work.

A fierce commitment is more important than the obstacles. It is something to hold you on course when doubts surface at 3am, the inner critic pops up inside your head, or other priorities intrude (be they sleep, socialising or that new TV program), or it just all seems to hard.

A fierce commitment or fundamental choice for creativity may be to orient yourself around the creative life, & use this as a litmus test for everything else of importance in your life. Once you have made the commitment, you can ask: 'Will this goal or decision or project move me towards a more creative life, or not? And if not, why do it?'

It's a way to reorient your life, to actually create your own life. It might take the form of a fierce commitment to your ideal career, to becoming a better problem-solver, to incorporating creative thinking into your life...or to getting your physical and mental health back on track.

It is a big shift - from reacting or responding, moving away from what you don't want, being dictated to by the circumstances of your life, to making a fundamental choice, moving towards what you do want.

A related idea that works well for particular projects (rather than a whole re-orientation of your life) is Eric Maisel’s 'provisional belligerent commitment'.

Maisel says it needs to be 'belligerent' because you must champion your project absolutely and full-heartedly; go into it with enthusiasm and determination and complete commitment.

But it must also be 'provisional' because your idea may not pan out the way you think; you may come to the difficult realisation that the painting or the novel you started is not going to work in its present form, or the great new idea you had at work is not of interest to your market - then, you must have the courage to abandon it and find another project to which you can give your full provisional belligerent commitment.

I found this concept very useful when I hit overlapping roadblocks in two projects a while ago - both hit rough patches at the same time, both needed long hours rethinking the work, dealing with difficult feedback or mismatches between my ideas & others. I asked myself: 'Do I have a fierce commitment, enough to justify the hours and emotional work to see these projects to the finish?' The answer was 'Yes' for one of the projects, but the other project (although it made rational sense) was not connected to my deeper values and not something I cared enough about. Although it took some time, I managed to extricate myself (with grace, I hope) from one and pour all my energy into the other.

I like 'fierce (provisional) commitment' for projects (as 'belligerent' was my mother's describing of my less than polished teenage behaviour) and fundamental choice for life changes, but whichever concept appeals, the idea is very sound and can make the difference between giving up and seeing it through to the end.

It is important that the choice, the commitment, be a conscious and deliberate act. It will only then form the bedrock of your work. So, how do you make a fierce commitment, a belligerent provisional commitment or a fundamental choice?

First, decide if you truly want this change, deep down. This may require some thinking, reflection journal writing or a walk along a quiet beach.

Second, know what you want. You'll need to get really clear on the vision and absolutely know how the end result will look, feel, sound etc.

Third, choose it, make a deep and conscious decision about where to place your energies. This may call for candles and a glass of wine, or it might happen on a walk, or just a shift inside that says, 'Yes'. Whatever, do it as a conscious process, make the time to think, then choose.

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How to Make Brainstorming Work For You

Whenever I'm running a creative thinking workshop and introduce the idea of brainstorming, at least one person will tell me that 'brainstorming doesn't work'. I always agree, because in fact 'traditional' brainstorming often goes awry, either because everyone shouts and it all gets chaotic (fun but not always useful) or because people feel inhibited form speaking up with their ideas, for a range of reasons (not fun and not useful, either). 

So, whenever I use brainstorming I make sure the guidelines are very clear - and I use a very nifty idea called 'shifting' from a guy called Robert Epstein. He has long been a fan of having groups work together for a while, then shift out of the group to work on the problem individually, then come back together again for another group round, then shift out again, and on it goes.

His research and experience over many years tells him that if you have two groups working for 15 minutes on brainstorming names for a new soft drink, say, and in one group they stay together for the whole time and in the other they work together for 5 minutes then shift out for 5 minutes and keep working solo, then come back together for 5 minutes, the shifting group will on average come up with twice as many names as the togetherness group.

Why is it so?

Epstein sees 2 things at work here. Firstly, creativity is always an individual spark, although it can be stimulated in a group. Secondly, groups, while a positive creative force in many ways, can stifle creativity - dominant people control proceedings, junior people tend to edit themselves in front of those higher up, a maverick can hijack proceedings for their own agenda...the list goes on and on.

So when you shift in and out, you get the benefits of group stimulation and minimise the downside of group process. It could be worth a try next time you are planning an idea-generating meeting. As Epstein said in a recent interview for Scientific American Mind magazine: 'When people shift, everybody ends up working on the problem.’

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Can You Find Your Strengths?

I often talk with clients about the benefits that come from working with your strengths, in terms of feeling more satisfied internally about work, and also in helping you to do your best work, so your boss or clients are also satisfied - it's a great win-win. Clients readily see the logic in this, and agree that it's a good idea to use strengths more, but many wonder how they can actually FIND their strengths in the first place, so they can put them to work. (And yes, everyone has them, even you…)

First up, let's look at the question of what actually is a strength…

Strengths are not necessarily the same as the limited range of abilities that are praised at school or the skills you might traditionally list on a CV. Your strengths might include map reading, or soothing a frightened child, or matching colours, or sensing the mood in a room - or even (though I struggle to see this one) adding up a column of numbers and getting the same answer twice...

Strengths are the things you love to do, and they come from using skills you enjoy.  You love doing it, so you keep doing it, so you develop confidence and eventually, expertise. It's not just about things you are good at doing, it's about things that make you feel strong inside, things that uplift you, make you feel energised, things you look forward to and feel involved with.

So, back to the initial question: How do you FIND your strengths? You could start the search by thinking about the last week or two:

What activities did you do that made you feel strong? Be specific, what precise activities were they? (Work activities are great, but maybe there are clues outside your core working life, too..) What were the activities you looked forward to? Enjoyed, focused easily on, got into the zone, felt in flow with? If you have a trusted friend or colleague handy, ask them too - you may be surprised at the result!

Be as particular and specific as you can. I have long known, for example, that one of my strengths is sharing ideas with a group of people. Although I am fundamentally an introvert, I love sharing ideas so much that I have become quite practised at running group workshops and am now even comfortable presenting to large groups. A while ago I was asked to be the MC at an awards night. I accepted, as an experiment to see if this was an area I'd like to do more with. I was really quite apprehensive, but prepared well and went along feeling OK. I was adequate on the night, but no more. I couldn't see the audience, so I had no engagement of audience feedback, and I also had to quite a bit of filling in while people got ready to do their thing, so I was chatting (babbling, really) on about topics I knew nothing about. Most importantly, I realised that even if I practised for ever, I'd never love doing it and would never shine, either. My strength is around being able to connect with people, to share ideas I am passionate about - and without those 2 elements, it just doesn't click for me.

Take some time and get really clear - it will be worth it. And once you have your list of strength activities, think about how you can do more of these over the next week. 

What are YOUR strengths?

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What does Success mean to you?

As we mature, it becomes increasingly important to create an ‘internal’ definition of success, one that doesn’t rely solely on the stars aligning for you in the external world. It’s helpful to ask yourself questions like: What does success mean to you? What are the elements of a happy (or satisfying, or meaningful, or complete) life for you? 

As you move through your life and work span, it is a good idea to keep these questions in mind. 
That way, your plans and strategies will be not just consistent with your overall life aims, but will take you closer towards them. If you’re up for it, you can even add in the biggest question of all:

What is the purpose of my life?

Think about the elements of your satisfying life - work, family, community, friends, travel, finances, health, purpose, whatever it is for you. There’s no right or wrong here, but it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about the elements that you need to have in place, even if some of them haven’t happened yet.

It may help to imagine that you are at your own 80th birthday party. Someone close to you is making a speech - what will they talk about? (I tend to shy away from coaching cliché exercises, but this one does rather concentrate the mind...)

You can also think of this in connection with your values. There are no ‘correct’ or ‘better’ values for your happy life, that’s entirely up to you. For example, which of these would make you the most excited:

  • making $1 million in your business
  • receiving an Order of Australia award
  • becoming famous or a celebrity
  • gaining the respect of your peers or community 
  • or?

One good way to work with these questions is by doing a mind map of the elements of your happy, successful life. If you haven’t mind mapped before, check it out by Googling - you guessed it - ‘mind map’. If you want to mind map your life, try this:

  • Put an image in the centre for the main idea - add a few words that will give your map a focus (‘My Happy Life’, ‘My Meaningful Life’, ‘My Successful Life’ or whatever).
  • Use a colour to draw a branch line out from the centre...add a word or two that relates to an aspect of your life (‘Family’ or ‘Financial Security’ or…).
  • Keep it to one idea per branch, and make sure each branch is connected to the central image.
  • Add sub branches to cover further detail about each element 
  • Draw pictures or symbols to prompt your memory and bring your map alive

You can hang your map up somewhere that you’ll see it every day, or write about it, or just ask yourself the question from time to time, ‘What would it take for me to have a successful life?’.

As you work towards your plan, you can check your ideas against your map, to make sure that your plans will help you to flourish in every part of your life.

What does your satisfying life look like?

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Are You A Late Bloomer?

You often see articles in the press about finding success later in life. Apart from the common (and rather strange) assumption that age 30 or even 40 constitutes ‘later in life,’ they usually have some inspirational examples and useful tips.

They remind me of something Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book What the Dog Saw

The relevant chapter is called ‘Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius With Precocity?’ and his argument is fascinating - that while some people ‘get’ their career direction and their talent very early on, many people do not. In particular, Gladwell reckons that we assume genius is obvious from an early age, but the truth is that it can come to fruition at any age. Gladwell (relying on research by a bloke called Galenson) distinguishes between two types:

  • ‘conceptual’ talents, people who have a very clear idea from the start and just jump in and  execute it with total confidence; and 
  • ‘experimental’ talents, people who have a much more organic approach, with imprecise goals, incremental progress - and often a great deal of self-doubt.

They’re not better or worse than each other, just different styles.

As a decided late bloomer, I LOVED this distinction. Gladwell tells stories about a number of people who came into full flower later in life, and whose work was the better for it. People who stumbled towards a finish line they couldn’t see or define, who let each project shape and define the next, people who changed careers or even their sense of self more than once.

(So, there’s still hope...)

Often, experimental types have a sense of lack of progress or even failure because they don’t get it together in their twenties (or even their thirties). The thing that distinguishes the late successes from the never-successes is of course persistence - and, I think, the willingness to try new things, to learn and change and slowly accumulate people who believe in you. What you don’t need is unshakable self-belief, which is a really important point...

I see clients like this quite often. They come to me almost in despair, as if I am their last staging post before giving up entirely. Occasionally, they seem to be daring me not to believe in the possibility of late blooming, of true satisfaction, even worldly success in middle age (or any age, for that matter). They seem to want me to tell them it’s too hard, not possible, that there’s no hope. To let them give up their dream and justify a life of quiet desperation.

But I always have hope. I always believe.

I always hold the possibility of finding your abilities or talents or potential and turning it to something tangible in the world. I hold the possibility because I’ve done it. Many of my clients have done it. 

Maybe you can too. Do you have an unlived dream, or even a vague sense of unfulfilled potential? Then keep inching towards the light, and never say die! And if you want to have a chat with me about fertilising your potential blooms, you can book a free intro session face-to face in Sydney or by phone/Skype elsewhere. I’d love to hear from you!
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Do You Dance Across Your Own Work?

The other day I was talking to a client about her sense of being bogged down in her own work -  she had lost perspective on her career, and everything felt heavy and difficult. I could relate to her story, and I am sure I am not alone. We all have patches where things get out of whack, sometimes because we need to spend time on our personal wellbeing, and sometimes because we need to make changes in our work. 

My role model for perspectives on my work is the rather wonderful William Yang. Maybe you have seen this photographer and storyteller in one of his one-man shows, with their focus on family, Chinese-Australian themes and gay life? I have seen him perform a couple of times, and what struck me each time was the lightness with which he wove his stories and his photos together. This is a man who has mastered his crafts - photography and story performance. The show is clearly structured and the product of much thought. The scaffolding is invisible but there is never a danger of him falling off the edifice he is creating. (Though he leans a fair way out at times...)

He throws out threads of stories, moves from topic to topic and then, like a fisherman gathering in his nets, brings enough of them back to shore to leave you satisfied - and delighted.

Never suffocating, never manipulative. Nothing over-produced or flashy. Always assured. Authenticity before spin or gloss.

I like this as a model for presentation, and for storytelling, whether you are speaking or writing professionally, or just trying to make sense of your own life story. But it also applies to any kind of work - having enough mastery to make things look effortless.

I like watching someone so skilled that they dance across their own material. And when I feel I am out of balance in relation to my work, I reflect on how I can do more dancing across my work, how I can add some 'Essence of Yang' to my days.

This interview and this performance extract will give you a taste. Catch him live sometime if you can.

How might you develop your own mastery, your own assurance, lightness and skill in whatever you do?

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Is Your Workspace set Up For Creativity?

I often find myself in conversations about the importance of spaces and places. One was with a friend who had a strong and unexpected emotional reaction when driving through a particular region overseas, only later discovering it was the village where her ancestors came from. Another friend has a strong connection to nature and especially rivers, and for me it is places where sea meets land.

All this is just as relevant to our working lives. Where we work and what it feels like has a measurable impact on our mood, job satisfaction - and creativity. I recently moved offices and noticed how much focus I had on having the new space set up the way I wanted...

Scientific American Mind article some time ago told the story of Jonas Salk (who developed the oral polio vaccine) struggling with his work and so going to spend time in Assisi at a mediaeval monastery, where he had the breakthrough that led to the vaccine. Of course, it might not have been the lovely surroundings, but Salk himself credited the space with the return of his creativity - and because of this, he teamed up with a renowned architect to build the Salk Institute in California, designed as a scientific facility that would stimulate breakthroughs and encourage creativity. 

There have now been a number of serious research studies examining what it is about certain spaces that fosters harmony and creativity. While most of us cannot build our own ideal workspace, we can generally have some control over our immediate surroundings, whether it is bringing in a flower, having a lamp to counteract the bright neon lighting, or putting a special object within view. Read through this list and see if you are inspired to make even a small change to your surroundings:

Greenery: This makes an enormous difference, whether it’s a view of nature from your window, or bringing a potplant or flowers into your workspace. When I moved into my current office, I rented two big plants to keep me company. I didn’t know about the research, but did know that I need to feel connected with nature...

Light: Natural light is great, neon light is not (but you already knew that, right?). Interestingly, brighter light is good for focus, and dimmer light for conversation and creativity...there are also different kinds of light that tap into our circadian rhythms and keep us either awake, or help us feel sleepy. This is a VERY big subject, Google for more if you’re interested!

Ceiling Height: A 2007 study found that higher ceilings encourage creative thought, while lower ones are better for focused, detail work. (This is probably something you have little control over, but it is interesting anyway...)

Personal Stuff: Having your own things around is relaxing, and it can also stimulate creativity - we all have a sense of what might work for us here. (One of my essentials is shelves of books, another is one or two treasures collected on my travels.) The opposite of course is also true - a sterile, impersonal, bare or institutional space is not good for anyone...

Creative Props: It used to be thought that creativity was guaranteed if you just put up lots of whiteboards with colourful markers. Er, no. Some people love public and communal creative activities, but others would die rather than start scribbling in public. For many people, a computer, or even a sheet or two of paper and a pencil, is fine. Which leads straight into my final item,

Zones: it is great to have a mix of communal and private spaces, so people can move in and out of different zones for different activities or states of mind. Even in my small office, I have a table and chairs set up at one end, and comfy red chairs by the window. I move in and out of both spaces, on my own as well as when I have clients there. Talking of furniture, studies consistently show most of us prefer round edges (the thought is that we may be hardwired to associate sharp edges with danger...intriguing).

So, what could you do to make your workspace more conducive to some creative thinking?

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News & Events

Dangerous Minds

Check out Dangerous Minds, an article I wrote for BOSS on corporate culture and creativity. Do some cultures encourage creative thought and innovation? Do other cultures kill it stone dead?

Taking Charge of Your Work. 
Joanna is speaking at the Network Central breakfast in Sydney on 20 September on Taking Charge of Your Work. Do you have a strategic plan for your working life (or even for 2012)? Whether you run your own business, or work for someone else, you need to take charge of your career development. If you'd like to find out more, why not come along? Use this link for the discount rate: