Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sometimes a chronic problem is really the solution to a worse problem.

You can battle a chronic problem forever, or you can sit down and figure out why it's hanging around and start from there.

On the first morning of one of my Big Cheap Weekend Workshops last year (not in New York, like the one coming up Nov 19 - and it wasn't called a Big Cheap Weekend either but it was the same thing exactly) we had a perfect illustration of that principle. A woman I'll call Hilary stood up and told us how her inability to lose weight was the obstacle to her dearest, most treasured dream. She told us that she had a good voice, that her teachers had all agreed and she knew there was nothing she loved as much as singing; that she did it at home, in private, as often as she could. Nothing made her happier. But taking lessons can only go so far, and Hilary had dodged every chance she'd gotten to actually perform on stage, in front of a live audience. She explained that she couldn't get on the stage unless she looked better, and her attempts to diet had the usual results.

'If I get up on a stage looking like this all I'll be able to think about is how awful I look, and how people must be laughing at me, and I won't be able to sing a note.'

Now there are a lot of reasons people aren't slim, and there might be a lot of reasons they shouldn't be slim. Who knows what's health and what's fashion when advice changes every few years. But the point is she felt she couldn't sing if she didn't lose weight, and she couldn't lose weight. And I didn't want to send her home with the same 'blame the victim' advice she'd clearly gotten from friends and teachers and diet coaches, which was: 'Well, if you want it enough, you'll lose the weight.'

First of all, I don't think that's necessarily true at all. Sometimes when you want something too much, you stop yourself from getting it. Second, I don't like that kind of advice. People too often blame the victim when they feel unable to help her. She said she couldn't seem to lose weight, and I believed her. Instead, here's what I told her.

'Sing fat. Don't lose weight. Give that up. You want to sing, so you have to sing. Book a date wherever someone will let you sing, wear black, look gorgeous above the neck and below the hemline, and get up there and sing your heart out.

'If the weight is protecting you from some danger involved in singing -- maybe going back to your childhood -- and you sing, the weight might give up and just go away and you'll lose it without working at it. And if it doesn't go away, who cares? You're singing!'

What happened then only happens in a workshop. Someone raised his hand and said he had a piano club in a nearby suburb and she was welcome to come sing that night. There were always very good amateur pianists who could accompany her. You could feel the excitement start building in the room.

'I don't have the clothes or the makeup...' she stammered.

Just like every Idea Party in every workshop, when people heard the sincerity of her wish, and the clarity of that particular obstacle, they stepped forward. One woman who lived nearby had a 'shiny' black dress she knew would fit Hilary. A makeup artist stepped forward but didn't have her materials. A glamorous woman standing next to her handed her a bag packed with makeup. One woman held up a spectacular pair of green, glittered shoes and shouted 'What's your shoe size?'

Everyone else wanted the address so they could hear her sing that night after the workshop ended. Rides were set up. She was to sing in 3 hours. (I think if she'd had more time it would have actually been harder -- or she'd have fainted.)

It worked. I couldn't be there but the reports were glowing. She got up on stage, lost her voice for about 5 seconds, ran her hands down her sides and the slippery black dress (which fit perfectly) and started to sing. Her first song was very nice and everyone applauded. Her second, and every one after that, was spectacular. People in the audience were crying.

She wrote us all a few months later in our email group. She said she sings regularly now, and she has lost some weight, but she'll never be as slim as she thought she had to be. And it doesn't make a bit of difference. People love her singing. And she loves to sing.

Try it yourself with any chronic problem. Any sentences that go like this: "If I could only do x, I'd be able to do what I really want to do. But I keep trying and can never do x." This method doesn't always work as well as it did with Hilary, but something good always comes of it. If she'd been on her own and booked a performance date and gotten ready for it, she could have raised her danger level so high that it would reveal itself and she'd have discovered what she was really dealing with.

I once had a client who continually sabotaged her singing career in a different way. She sang professionally, everyone loved working with her and called her in for jobs, but she always stayed just under the radar, never broke through the way she wanted to. Her chronic problem: smoking.

'It's totally crazy that I smoke. I stop when there are no gigs on the horizon, but I start again when I get hired for something!' We discovered it was because her mother, a wonderful singer, stopped singing after a family tragedy that occurred when the client was only 9. Every time the client got close to singing with everything she had inside her, she got terrified and we found she was afraid of feeling the grief of that child she was so long ago. She always dodged the grief by smoking, which hadn't yet hurt her voice, but was her way of not giving her whole self to her performing. But that was when she didn't understand what it was. When she realized it was grief, she let the 9-year old inside her have a real cry. And when the tears stopped, the fear was gone. So was the need to smoke. Her singing career took off big time.

(Her mother started singing again too! But that's another story.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010



I just finished running a 6-day Scanner's retreat for 15 people in a beautiful medieval village in Tarn, not far from Toulouse. (I won't take time to explain what a Scanner is but you'll find photos and explanations at I love running these retreats. The people, the inns, the food (!) are all heavenly. But today I'd like to share one specific thing that invariably comes up, usually by the second day. It's one of the major obstacles that prevents us from turning dreams into reality: memories and expectations of hurtful criticism. No one criticizes dreams at my retreats. We figure out how to make them come true. But hidden in the back of everyone's mind are memories of critics past and the dread of critics waiting at home who could have the power to take our dreams away.

But they don't call me The Resistance Whisperer for nothing. I'm on a mission to save the dreams of every dreamer I meet. Now our good Anne-Claire at My American Market, () a wonderful newsletter from her Toulousian business that gets me my peanut butter fix whenever I need it) is giving me a chance to save some dreamers I haven't met by sharing one of the simple methods you can use to identify and protect yourself from destructive critics, in all their guises.


You just got a fine idea for an internet business, or came up with a really useful invention or wrote a great letter to some editor, and you rushed to share your enthusiasm with someone you know -- only to get the wind knocked out of your sails. Instead of becoming excited, your friend/boss/partner/brother tossed off your idea as worthless, even ridiculous. Or they did something subtle you can't quite put your finger on, but your delight disappeared and was replaced by uncertainty or defensiveness, or both.

You've just brushed up against a critic.

Now the shine is off your idea and you're wondering if it's any good after all or if you're just a moron. What you might not realize is that this might be exactly what the critic wants you to do. Because certain critics -- the destructive ones -- are a special breed. They're not just meanies. They're up to something.

If you're someone who is curious and inquisitive by nature and takes a child-like joy in discoveries, you're often the target of critics. Chances are good that you're far from stupid (curiosity is a sign of intelligence). Maybe you're not an expert, but you have a good eye for something fresh and you love sensing potential. You might even have plenty of experience and knowledge to back up your discovery, but that's not always protection. Destructive critics are on a mission, and they're never stopped by their own ignorance.

All critics aren't destructive. Some are wonderful.
Sometimes you'll come across a genuinely constructive critic, and that's a person you want in your life. These people know what they're talking about and sincerely believe that your idea has flaws. Hearing that a favorite idea is imperfect is never fun, but these people are willing and able to explain what's wrong with your idea and either offer some solutions or point you in the right direction. This kind of critic can save you endless time and keep you from traveling up one blind alley after another. If you find someone like this, you're very lucky. The other name for a constructive critic is 'Mentor.' Constructive criticism is a treasure.

But even the most venomous critic will insist he's only trying to help. And who knows, maybe he's sincere and you're just being too sensitive. So how do you tell the difference?

Stop being the Fallen Hero and turn into Sherlock Holmes.
First, try to drag yourself out of the role of the Unjustly Injured and take a good look at the critic. Ask yourself some questions, like 'How typical is their behavior? What's behind it?' In other words, instead of being hurt or angry and fantasizing about how rotten they'll feel when you win the Nobel Prize, it's time to start scratching your head and wondering why they just did that mean thing. Nothing else will protect you from random slings and arrows of outrageous critics.

But you'll need some special techniques because belittling someone who's enthusiastic isn't in your bag of tricks. You have no idea why anyone would want to be a destructive critic.

Step One: allow yourself to suspect that a destructive critic is up to something.
Criticizing requires no special expertise but it does require a special kind of motivation. When someone like you runs up to a destructive critic with your face full of excitement, the critic gets very cranky. Of course, some recipients of your fine idea are innocent enough; they really just don't 'get it.' But you can tell the difference between the innocents and someone who wants to see the joy leave your face in a minute: the latter are always angry.

But what did you do to deserve anger? You meant no harm. How can you make sense of this?

Step Two: look at yourself with the critic's eyes.
There's no other way to understand what motivates people who return delight with anger except to try to see what they're seeing. There's always a chance you've been insensitive or unaware of their mood when you bounced into their world full of jolly news. Maybe they just lost money in the stock market or kicked their toe against a door, in which case you might owe them an apology. But that's not who we're talking about. The people we're talking about people are typically putdown artists. Now, why would they be offended by your happiness? What is it you're doing wrong?

To find the answer, change the question to this: What do they see when they look at you? If you can imagine yourself in the position of a destructive critic watching you bubbling over with a childlike delight, the answer usually hits you right between the eyes: he won't give you the credit you're hoping for because, plain and simple, he doesn't want to. It has nothing to do with the quality of your idea. It has everything to do with his resentment.

Here's how one encyclopedia defines anger: 'Anger is a feeling related to one's perception of having been offended/wronged and a tendency to undo that wrongdoing by retaliation.' That is to say, you had no way of knowing it, but you just offended someone. But why would it offend anyone to see you enthusiastic? After all, you're not kicking his dog or slashing her tires. What's going on?

Because we pick up subtle clues, we know people better than we realize. You can get some amazing insights with this simple exercise:

Discovering a hidden drama
You're going to write a short dialogue between two people. Pick up a pen and on the top line of a blank sheet of paper write your name and after it, start writing down your discovery. Enjoy yourself. Write about your new great idea as if you were a kid. When you're done, move to the next line and write 'Critic:' See if you can become this angry critic and write down your reaction to the first lines of the drama. Then be yourself again, and answer the critic with your typical defense.

If you can keep up the dialogue for a few rounds you'll start to understand the critic's motives better than you ever imagined you could. More often than not, you'll see that you walked into a drama that has nothing to do with you -- but the critic believes it does. He feels wronged and has you mixed up with the culprit who wronged him. Often the critic is jealous. You might have a hard time believing that, because jealous people see you in a way you never see yourself. Sometimes, the critic wants the attention you're unwittingly demanding when you say 'Look at what I found!!' You might understand the critic's viewpoint in a flash. Or you might never know what set the critic off. All the same, looking for the motive behind the blow a critic dealt you is always useful.

What will all this get you?
Even if you don't figure out what made a critic do a really mean thing, you've shifted the attention to the right place. Instead of feeling uncertain, foolish or injured, noticing the oddness of a critic's behavior means you're acting like someone with very high self-esteem. People who keep their self-esteem continue to value their ideas even if a critic has tried to trash them because they sense the critic's anger and protect themselves. That means that by focusing your attention on what the critic is really doing, you might have just saved a really good idea. Too many quality ideas have been thrown into the trash for no good reason at all, just because their inventor got caught in the sights of a critic.

For that matter, a critic who is mean day after day can actually make you sick if you don't protect yourself. So how do you protect yourself?

Summary and Solution:
Good critic or bad critic, you should try hard to respond in the same way: put aside your sensitivity and try to replace it with curiosity. Instead of 'Ouch!' or 'No fair!' try thinking, 'What is this guy doing? And why?' With that in your mind, you'll be safe when you ask a critic the right questions. They're simple enough: ask them, without attitude, what they think is wrong with it, and what they suggest you do instead.

The results can be amazing. Often the critic is exposed: he has no idea what's wrong with it, and no suggestions for what you might do instead. You'll just get a lot of bluster and the critic will know he's been exposed. But even if someone manages to come up with some disdainful answers, all you have to do is nod with interest, even write them down. (That always gets a satisfying reaction. Try it and you'll see.) In any event, you're running the exchange, you're watching them, and your enthusiasm won't be dampened, just put aside and protected for a little while. If someone really tries to sabotage your enthusiasm when you're alert, they'll be disappointed when you stay cheerful. (Disappointing bad guys feels really good.)

Even if the critic turns out to be one of the truly constructive ones, curiosity is called for. You might get some great help launching your idea. In any event, defensiveness would be the wrong move entirely. You never want to make a good guy work too hard when they're of a mind to help you.

Don't be shy about asking the critic, helpful or destructive, aways with respect and curiosity, 'How do you know that?' If your critic is a deflator, he'll give a stupid answer and walk off in a huff. But if you've found a truly knowledgeable critic, you'll get a real answer. If that happens, you've gotten a gift of high value: the attention of someone who can tell you what you need to know -- and might actually enjoy seeing you succeed.

Such people are rare, but if you find any, listen to their words with care. They could change your life. And when you're rich and famous, you can become one of those rare good critics yourself and do the same for others.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

I disagree with Seth Godin about Genius and Lizard Brain

Do you ever get a great, inspiring idea so good it's thrilling? And you start thinking about how good it is, and start thinking about the steps you might take to make it happen, and you really are high.

And then something happens. You slow down, or someone hears it and puts a pin in your balloon, or you get weary thinking of the amount of work it will take, and here you are barely keeping up with your existing To Do List. And that turns into a feeling that the idea wasn't really as good as it looked. In fact it was unrealistic. You almost think that whenever anyone's that happy about something they're probably being foolish. At least, you are. Self-doubt takes over. That great idea looks like it will never actually happen. Never could have happened.

If so, you're facing a very common experience. Everyone goes through it. And lots of people try to solve the problem of the slump. There's a huge industry based on Motivation. Football coaches try to rev up their teams at half-time, and speakers try to persuade you to be positive. Some call this slump your 'Lizard Brain,' the part of you that's primitive and scared, and everyone comes up with some kind of solution, because a slump in motivation, the presence of what I call 'the Resistance Monster,' can cause big problems. If you can't find a way to get that motivation back again, you could lose your job, flunk out of school, or let your business die on the vine.

One of my favorite writers, a very smart, innovative thinker named Seth Godin, gives his advice on how to deal with it. He says that when the lizard brain kicks in and the resistance slows you down, the only correct response is to push back again and again and again with one failure after another and sooner or later, the lizard will get bored and give up.

I wrote and told him I think he's got this one wrong. I said that I think we should save the calories and let the synapses rest. Because I believe that we're programmed to crash after a high as a way of keeping us out of danger and letting us build up some energy. (He answered very graciously, suggesting that my ideas were very interesting and probably come more from a woman's thinking than a man's. I just might agree with him on that.)

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my Theory of The Three Stages of Excitement:

Excitement (caused by one of those delicious fits of inspiration we all have from time to time) is actually half fear and half joy. When a good idea hits you like lightning, it's fabulous. I do believe it's definitely, by any definition, a flash of genius, but one that's available to everyone.

So, first you get high on the joy, and then, when you get past familiarity, you suddenly realize you're too far out there for safety (according to your inner survival mechanisms) and you get scared, or you lose confidence, and that's when you crash. Then you usually give up. I think a lot of really good ideas get unnecessarily wasted this way

I see excitement as having 3 stages and no one seems to mention the third. (It's not a return to the excitement.) Here's one way to describe it:

Phase One: You're on a real high and when you're high, it's almost exactly like falling in love. When you're in love, you're a genius. You can see, hear, smell, understand what no one else can. That's why no one else seems to get it that your newborn baby is the most beautiful baby that has ever existed. You're not crazy. You can actually see details that they miss. Their babies, because you're not in love with them, look rather ordinary to you. Nature is no fool. She's got survival down pat.

Save that vision! In Phase One I advise all my readers/listeners/audiences to write down each and every detail, not in notes, diagrams or outlines, but in long declarative sentences that explain how you came to each conclusion. You'll need to understand them later when you're in a different mood, so don't assume that brief notes or outlines with mean anything to you later.

Phase Two: Fear trumps Joy. Or someone hurts your feelings and takes the wind out of your sails. When your primitive survival mechanisms begin to wake up, you become more sensitive than usual to fear, doubt, hurt. Your survival gear is crude but it's powerful and it knows how to stop you from doing anything reckless -- or anything at all! It gives you what can be called a micro-depression.

You experience it as a crash. And when you crash, you have all the attendant frills of any 'real' depression: you lose energy, you lose interest, and you no longer calculate or plan in action terms, or in the present at all. And something funny happens: you suddenly feel very wise, all-knowing, far-seeing, even cynical. You feel you understand everything and see life in long, philosophical terms. You start to speak in terms like 'never,' 'always,' and 'how could I have been so stupid?' 'It has always been so. It will ever be so,' or even, 'Those who hope are fools."

That's what's being called Lizard Brain these days. That's where motivators tell you that you have to become positive again. And they tell you to believe in yourself and get back into action or the universe with turn its back on you. Some say yo must try really hard to make yourself positive again. In all honesty I believe that, unless it's half-time at a football game, that doesn't really work very well. Seth Godin, thankfully, doesn't ask us to try to rearrange our brains and force positive thoughts.

What he does do is advise us to battle this phase. I can see why: it appears that you either fight it or you give up. But beware of appearances because I don't think those are the only two alternatives at all.

Another look at The Crash
At Phase Two of excitement, the crash, I think we're supposed to (temporarily) give in. Relax. Feeling stupid? Call yourself stupid and despise happy, excited people for not realizing that life sucks. Lay about watching disgusting TV shows and eating crackers in bed. Whine to your friends on the phone. Bathe less.

If you give in to Phase Two without holding back, you'll find yourself soon getting bored with it. When your energy begins to build up a little, and all that delicious self pity starts to bore you. You're ready to pick up the empty food cartons and tidy up a bit, and you start feeling a bit better. But you try to remember not to fall for another sucker punch and to stifle your unruly tendency to enthusiasm and excitement.

Of course, that never works, what typically happens instead is that you wait until you get excited about another great idea and go through the process over again. If you're someone who has a lot of good ideas, this could happen over and over again.

But I believe that you're not finished with the original genius idea you had in Phase One!

Because when you've had enough of Phase Two, and almost as if nature meant for it to happen this way, you will move into a very important, almost never mentioned phase - what I call Phase Three. And that's the best phase of all. But if you don't know about Phase Three, you could miss it and waste a lot of your best ideas.

Phase Three: Now you've gone through two of the three phases of excitement and now the process pays off. Because Phase Three is the payoff. That's when you're in the right frame of mind to lay out a plan, roll up your sleeves and execute it. Without the high, without the crash, but with real respect for a good idea and the steady energy that makes things happen.

But I believe you won't have that energy unless you crashed when you were supposed to. I think that's what Phase Two is for.

If you wrote them down the way I hope you did, you now can dig up those carefully written, completely understandable notes you wrote in Phase One and read them in sober daylight, with real interest -- and with neither a negative bias, or heart-banging excitement.

Because Phase Three is where all the work actually gets done. It's always been like that: slow and steady. The Genius has burned bright, burned out, and left great instructions. The Burned Out one has hibernated and gathered energy. And now the Intelligent Hard Worker is ready to get to work.

Why is this so important? Because I'm convinced that once you realize there's a Phase Three, you won't wear yourself out battling Lizard Brain anymore. And you won't discard really good ideas, either.

My two cents.