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From the Blog

Success and Satisfaction



I often talk about the importance of creating an ‘internal’ definition of success, one that doesn’t rely solely on the stars aligning for you in the external world. This is particularly important in changing times, allowing you to maintain equanimity an leverage new opportunities.

Along the same lines, from time to time it’s good 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 career 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 your 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 career 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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Have You Met The Procrastinator?



I am pretty excited to have been given a contract by Harper Collins for my upcoming book on working past 50. Of course, that means I now have a high deadline to deliver the completed manuscript, so I am busy making space to actually finish writing the thing…

First thing on Monday morning, I fired up my computer, opened Scrivener (the best book-writing software I know) and pulled out my notes and mind maps. My work was mapped out for the week - I had a few new interviews to add and edit, a chapter to rework and some research to nail. Easy.

After staring at the screen for five minutes or more, I went and did a load of washing. I came back and looked at the screen again, then made a pot of soup. More screen staring, then I went for a walk for an hour.

Lunchtime. So I ate the soup, then checked my emails. At about 3pm, I started work. Once I had started writing, it was fine, and the rest of my time went well.

Clearly I had survived an attack from my old friend, The Procrastinator. I am quite familiar with this pest, and generally manage to deal with it much more quickly than I did this time. In my experience, the more creative or scary the project, the deeper the hold of The Procrastinator. Whatever form it takes, in the end it comes down to fear - of failure, of finding out you have no talent, of people laughing at you, of not being able to live up to your own expectations. Or maybe fear of finding out your idea wasn't as clever as you had thought, or that you have fallen out of love with it. The list is pretty long, and I'm sure you could add to it, too.

So, what can you do about this?

  • Find some simple and mechanical tasks – housework, cleaning out a cupboard, organising your office or studio, cleaning out the shed, gardening. These work on multiple levels – they get you moving, let you start and finish something (with the sense of achievement that comes from that), they take your mind off things…
  • Get moving – dance, walk, swim, jiggle, shake, breathe. Believe it or not, these feelings exist in the body and they can be removed by moving the body and letting the feelings find a way out.
  • Stop for a moment, relax, and explore what you are feeling. Is it overwhelm, pressure, frustration, indecisiveness, anxiety, panic,? Whatever it is, accept the feeling and make friends with it. You can journal, walk with it, breathe through it, meditate… there are many ways through this, but naming the feeling and accepting it are crucial. 
  • Finally, my favourite, which is to bribe yourself: 10 minutes (or whatever feels possible) on the dreaded project and then the reward..

If you need more than a quick fix, then try some baby steps. I first encountered these when trekking in the Himalayas, where I was told that the way over a (seemingly endless) mountain crossing was ‘baby steps, baby steps’ – it worked then, and whatever the project, it’s a very powerful way to get from here to a (seemingly unreachable) there.

You just do a very little bit of your project (open a book, find that phone number, sharpen the pencil) then leave it for an hour or a day, then do the next step and so on… it’s simple, but it really does work. Try doing 5 minutes at the same time each morning, and 5 minutes at the same time each night – it sounds like nothing, but can add up to real progress over a relatively short time.

What are your procrastination-busters?


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Energy and Focus



I mentioned last week that I was busy, and this week I have decided to take a proactive approach to my energy and focus. I remembered that a few years ago I heard Andrea Culligan speak at a most excellent event (She Business’s annual Fearlessly Creating seminar and celebration).

I really enjoyed her tips for staying sane and managing your energy in a most hectic world, so I revisited my notes and thought I’d share them with you.

She had five main points:

  1. Identify what gives you energy and takes it away. Do this for both your work and personal life - then allocate time accordingly. Sounds simple, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who persists in activities that leave me feeling depleted and would be best minimised or even avoided altogether...
  2. Set your people priorities, based on who gives you energy and who you should share with. Be kind to the others, but don’t put them in the centre of your life. I find this quite challenging, but have made great progress this year in working out who’s best for sharing my triumphs and challenges, and who is best for a more low-key relationship. It works a treat.
  3. Where attention goes, energy follows. This is another obvious but oft-overlooked suggestion. If you put your energy into reading celebrity magazines and watching re-runs of NCIS on TV, then you will get to a quite different place than if you put that time into reading something well-written or watching TED talks. Enough said.
  4. Spend time alone - every day. Meditate, journal, take a walk, just ‘be’- even a few minutes is helpful. For me, this is essential, it’s the space that makes the rest of my life work.
  5. Surrender to the things you can’t control, and don’t give them energy. This is the well-known serenity prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’. I think developing the capacity to surrender is one of the most helpful life habits. It changes everything, and frees you up to focus on what is possible, rather than being a victim to your own life.

I’m going to consciously ensure I (re)establish these habits. What about you?
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Time For Some Mini-Breaks?



I am busy at the moment, really busy. (Actually, REALLY REALLY busy is more like it…)

So a few days ago I went off on one of my recurring fantasies, which is about taking a year-long creative sabbatical, or even a three-month gap trip, or even a month of reading and gardening and…You get the drift.

Then reality kicked in - I actually love my work, and the last time I took a week on my own at a health retreat I was utterly bored after three days.

It got me thinking about a middle ground, some 5 minute 'spacers' I could put into my day, in order to survive the coming weeks with some grace and dignity - and stay fresh enough to actually deliver competent work!

Here's my list, in no particular order, and each taking about 5 minutes:

  • Meditate
  • Pranayama breathing
  • Move my body...jiggling, dancing, shaking, whatever
  • Scan my body and relax the muscles that are tense
  • Make a cup of tea and vague out while the jug boils
  • Drink the cup of tea in my garden
  • Pick some fresh herbs to add to dinner, and really smell them
  • Write about my day
  • Write about my fears
  • Write about my favourite places
  • Do some juggling (this is only relaxing if you can already juggle, though!)
  • Visualise a favourite place, somewhere that makes me feel relaxed and spacious
  • List 10 things I am grateful for
  • Arrange at least one fun activity with friends or family over the next week, and spend time looking forward to it
  • Call a friend for a chat (OK, that one will take more than 5 minutes…)
  • Remind myself that this time will pass

So, that's my list - and I am going to make sure I do at least two of them a day.

What about you? What do you do for a quick refresh?


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Are You In Flow?



I’ve been doing some talks lately about using your strengths, and on each occasion I include a discussion on that state called 'flow'. It's an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused and pleasurable state of consciousness where you are in your element and performing at your peak. If the pursuit of each activity is more important than the recognition or results you get from it, you generate an internal sense of satisfaction and pleasure that is not dependent on external success, sweet though that may also be.

If you're in flow, it's a pretty sure bet that you are using one or more strengths.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done plenty of research on this, and has found that flow generally includes these 9 elements:


1. Having clear goals every step of the way

This is about knowing what needs to be done, being sure like a surgeon how things need to proceed step by step. Or the goal may be to solve a work problem, or to find a way to increase production, or...



2. Having immediate feedback for your actions

The musician knows instantly if they have played the right note - in a flow experience, we know in ourselves how well we are doing..

3. Balancing skills and challenges

In flow our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. If the challenge is too far above our current skill level (like being promoted too soon), we become frustrated and often anxious. On the other hand, if the activity is way below our potential (like being stuck in a job way below our training), we become bored.


4. Action and awareness are merged

Awareness is focused on what we are doing, not on what we have planned for the weekend, or the chores we need to do, or even whether we are performing the current activity well or badly..

5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness

We are aware of only what is relevant to the here and now - our consciousness is entirely in the present. You may become so immersed in your project that you aren't even aware someone is standing in the doorway of your office.

6. There is no worry about failure

While we are in flow, we are too involved to be concerned with failure. It may feel like being in total control, but in fact we have no awareness of control - the issue does not even arise.


7. Self-consciousness disappears

In everyday life, most of us spend a lot of time monitoring how we appear to other people, and whether we are making a good impression. In flow, we are too concerned with the activity itself to care about this.


8. Our sense of time becomes distorted

We forget about time, and hours may pass like minutes. Or the opposite: a skater may execute a turn that in reality takes a second or two, but to her it seems like 10 or 20 seconds. In other words, clock time and experienced time are no longer the same.


9. The activity becomes autotelic

This is a Greek word which means something that is an end in itself. In flow experiences, there is generally a sense of doing the activity purely for the experience it provides, even though there may be larger goals as well (like earning a living!)

The direct relationship between flow and work is complex - Csikszentmihalyi found that most people experienced more flow at work than in the rest of their lives, but he also found that many workplaces were set up to make flow very difficult to reach or sustain.

What is clear is that we will be well on the way to a satisfying life if we learn to get flow from as many of our daily activities as possible, in or out of work. The easiest way to do this is to use our strengths as often as we can.

And for more on flow, check out Csikszentmihalyi's excellent TED talk. Well worth 18 minutes.
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Is Collaboration Useful For Creative Thinking?



Many people believe that all creative genius is a solo affair and that to involve a group at best dilutes the process and at worst risks ridicule or outright idea theft. Whilst it is true that private space is vital for the imagination to roam unchecked, don't underestimate the importance of timely group discussion.

Many of the greatest creative minds have relied on open discussion and interaction with colleagues (and those from outside their own field). Einstein, Nils Bohr, Socrates, Jonas Salk and numerous others credit collaborative thinking as part of the reason for their breakthroughs. Socrates even developed 'rules' for these discussions, which he called 'Koinonia', or 'spirit of fellowship'. These guidelines included:

  • Exchanging ideas without trying to change another person's views. He believed it was vital to listen careful, without interrupting or arguing
  • Suspending your assumptions and judgements and staying as open and unbiased as possible (this will be a work in progress for most of us...)
  • Being honest - even if your thoughts are controversial

Coming together with others in this way allows the synergy of different paradigms and viewpoints to work together, leading to new combinations and ideas that would not be possible for one mind alone.

Now, there is clearly a huge place for the individual creative thought process, and this will always be so.

But it is also vital to think whether the time is ripe for sharing ideas and problems. One way to do this is to form a 'mastermind' group, which might be colleagues or friends from different disciplines. (Diversity can be vital - the DNA code was cracked by a collaboration between a microbiologist, physicist, X-ray crystallographer and chemist, among others). You can come together as a team to solve a specified problem, or form a regular ongoing group as a sounding board and creative think tank.

If you don't have 'real world' colleagues at the moment to perform this function, why not compile a group in your head - those who inspire you, or who have qualities or achievements or ways of thinking you would like to emulate. Imagine them all (or just one at a time) with you and ask them how they would solve this problem, or which course of action they would take. (How would Frank Lloyd Wright, or Edison, or your mother, or Jack Welch, or... deal with the situation you are facing today? Better still, how would their conversation go if they were to meet together to discuss it?)

Suspend your disbelief and try it at least once - you may be surprised by the results.


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What Are Your Questions?



Whenever I work with a client, I talk about the value of curiosity - it's one of the 4 elements in my '4 habits' model for creative thinking. Curiosity, and asking questions, are also central to a search for a new job, or even a whole new career. 
OK, so it's all very well to tell people to 'be curious' - but unless you offer some practical tips, it's about as useful as saying 'be happy' (and just as irritating). 
Here's a clue: All kids are naturally curious, but often we 'sediment' as we grow up, develop patterns (in my case, sometimes ruts…) and stop looking around for new ideas and inspiration. Makes life easy in some ways, but it can get very very dull.
So, how to (re)develop your curiosity muscle? One of the best ways is to get into the habit of asking lots of questions. This tip comes with an impeccable pedigree - Leonardo da Vinci apparently made lists of questions and things he was curious about in his journal, and then proceeded to answer them...

What follows here is a list of questions I use with people whose project has got stuck, fallen into a heap or just lacks its original sparkle. You can run through them systematically or just pick one at random (or even come up with your own list).

Here are my questions:
What is missing?
What is niggling in the back of your mind? Do you have a hunch 
                about what needs to happen?
What are you prepared to do to make this work? What are you 
                prepared to give up?
If you could wave a magic wand, how would your project change?
What is working well in your project? What is not?
What is in the way of your momentum here?
What if you broke all the rules?
How would a fish solve your problem? How would your worst 
                enemy do this? What would His Holiness the Dalai Lama do here?
What assumptions are you making?
What are the implications of your idea? How far can you take it?
What if there was an answer, what would it look like?
What if you worked backwards from the finished product or 
                solution, reverse engineered it?
How are you judging this idea?
How can you champion your idea?
Do you need to protect your idea? How?
How can you make a prototype of your idea / act it out / make an 
                ad for it?
What can you drop or postpone to give you more time for this 
                project?
What if you were really courageous, really sure this idea would 
                work - what would you do differently?
Are you pushing your comfort zone here? If not, why not?
What are you telling yourself about this? How can you change the 
                negative talk?
What if you knew nothing about this project...where would you 
                start?

If you'd like some questions to power up a career search, contact me with 'essential questions' in the subject line, and I'll send you a heap of them to get you moving.

If you'd like more questions in the creative project area, take a look at our creative thinking card sets - 100 ideas and questions to kickstart your creativity, and keep it going.

What are your questions?
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Looking To Kickstart Some Fresh Thinking?



Whenever I run a creative thinking workshop, I generally include my two fave processes, mind maps and 'reverse goals' (or LAOGs).

LAOGs is a more complex process than some others that I use, and takes a bit of explaining. But it is well worth it. The results people get from it during a workshop are excellent - and I get occasional emails from attendees months later saying that they have since used the process to revolutionise their marketing, or solve a problem that's been haunting them for months or even years. Very satisfying.


This tool is a great way to jump-start your ideas. It works like a double negative, and interrupts brain patterns to force you into some new thinking. It is also fun, which encourages the brain to be creative. You can use it on your own or as a group technique.

So, how does it work? 

Start with a goal. For example, if you were a meeting organiser, a goal might be 'To start all our meetings on time'.
Write it as a reverse goal. 'No meetings should start on time.'

Brainstorm strategies for reaching the reverse goal (not the real goal). Your list for our meetings example might include:

        • Don't include meeting times with agendas
Make everyone wait for the last arrival
Make it clear that time is not a priority for meetings
Encourage people to double-book meetings
Make sure you arrive late yourself most of the time
Give the last arrivals a special reward for their lateness

Now, try to reverse all the strategies. It may not work with some, and others like the last one in my list, may work in two or more ways:

        • Emphasise meeting times on agendas
Start meeting exactly on time, don't wait for the last arrival and 
                don't fill them in on what they have missed
Make it clear that time is a priority for meetings
Punish people who double-book meetings
Never arrive late yourself
Give the last arrivals a punishment for their lateness (or reward 
                early arrivals)

Review your list of reversals, looking for good ideas. In our example, I like the idea of rewarding early or on-time arrivals, as well as the one about starting on time no matter who has still not arrived.

Why don't you try LAOGs this week, on a problem or dilemma in your life, either at work or home?


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Gratitude Can (Really) Change Your Life



Today’s blog is about gratitude. I have been into gratitude for years, but used to feel a bit squeamish about blogging about it. Silly, really, but I felt it was a bit hippie-herbal and not at all workplace or corporate. But actually it is a really simple practice that can have a profound effect on your work time capability, so we should all be sitting up and taking notice. And I have recently gotten back into reading Marchs Aurelius, and found that gratitude is a pillar of stoicism, too.

So here goes...

Did you know you can feel up to 25% happier, get better sleep and improve your mood for days, just by counting your blessings? It’s true - there have been a number of serious scientific studies  recently that show the power of being grateful.

All it takes is a regular practice of listing 3 to 5 things you are grateful for in your life, most days. It sounds really trivial, but I have been doing it for years, and it makes a real and measurable difference,

They don’t have to be big things, either. Recent things on my lists have included:

A sunny day
Seeing a puppy out walking
Getting a phone call from an old friend (and having a friend in the 
                first place...)
Having light and heat at home
Finding an interesting new book to read

I do my practice every night in bed, as soon as I turn the light off. Many people write their blessings into a journal, and sometimes I do that, too. When my son was younger, we would do ‘the three blessings game’ as I tucked him into bed. You can also do lists for work things as well as general life blessings. I keep a (somewhat sporadic) work journal that includes wins, challenges and gratitude.

Other ways to bring the quality of gratitude into your life include:

Writing ‘thank you’ notes
Saying thank you to at least one person a day
Stop every now and then and appreciate the present moment
Showing appreciation for a kind word from a friend, or good 
                service, or a helping hand

Try this: Every day for the next week (or two) make a list of at least three things you are grateful for, three blessings. Remember, small is fine!

What are you grateful for?
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Need A Fresh Idea? Find Three…



It's a great technique: Whenever you have a problem to solve, or need to come up with a fresh idea, challenge yourself to come up with at least three ideas, not just one. Or if you are a team leader, challenge your team to find three ways of doing something, not just settling for their first plan.

I had a client who has been landed with the job of liaising with his company's European offices by phone, which from Sydney means late night phone calls, often for two or three hours, sometimes more. He gets limited time off in lieu, but the main problem is that he has a young family who miss out on his company at night, and he is left feeling both tired and resentful. When I quizzed him, it turns out this has gone on for over four years, up to four nights each week!

I challenged him to find a way of stopping it, and soon. His first solution was to write an email suggesting they find someone in Europe to give this support (though he already knows there is no budget for this). His second solution was simply to refuse to do it any more, effectively threatening to resign. A high risk strategy, that one.


When I explained that I always ask for three solutions, he thought for a few minutes and said, with a look of dawning possibility on his face, 'I could tell them I am not available after next week for phone discussions outside Sydney business hours, but if they summarise the top three (there's that magic number again) challenges or concerns at the end of their phone meeting and email it to me, I will respond by email within 24 hours'. He left soon afterwards, already drafting his memo in his head...


That was a few years ago now, but I have never forgotten the speed with which he solved his problem one he was introduced to this tool - or the profound effect the solution had on his life.

The thinking behind this most excellent technique is that we often settle for the first halfway decent idea, either because of time pressure, laziness, or lack of belief in our ability to come up with a really innovative winner. By being 'forced' to have at least three ideas, we give ourselves a fighting chance of digging deeper to something really fresh. 


The trick is not to edit yourself at this early phase, to be as wild as you can. It's not as if every idea has to be practical, a proven winner, or even cheap or legal - those considerations kick in later. For now, the wildest idea is likely to be the one that contains the seed of the really brilliant solution.

Of course, we don't always need to dig this deep; often, what you did last time, or a small variation on that, is just fine. But when you do need some fresh thinking, this is one of the speediest and most effective tools I know.

So, what are your three ideas?


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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:

http://joannamaxwell.eventbrite.com.au/