They’re baaaaaack! Those annoying Internet flashing banner ads that disappeared for a while have returned with a vengeance. They make my eyes cross and my head hurt.

They do not make me think, “Oh, that looks interesting. I’d better check it out and see what I’m missing.”

Same goes for local tv ads that are broadcast at twice the volume of regular programming.

And do you know anyone who adores automated phone systems?

Also rating high on my Annoyance Index is my local supermarket. I only shop there for a few things when I don’t have time to run to the delightful Trader Joe’s.

A few months ago, I noticed something strange was happening at Von’s. Perhaps they hired a customer service consultant who advised them to be more helpful. Or maybe their manager came up with a plan to endear the store to their waning customer base.

It’s not working.

Under this new policy, I can be browsing contentedly in the store—and then am startled when an employee swoops out of nowhere to ask me if I need help.

Scaring the daylights out of me is not their worst offense.

The other day I dropped in to pick up a few items. After I’d paid for them, I was asked, “Do you need help out with that?”

What I had just purchased was a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of ketchup and an onion.

An automated question like that doesn’t make me feel like they want  to be helpful; it tells me they’re not paying attention.

Or, perhaps, they are implying that anyone as aged and frail as I am, shouldn’t be trusted getting to their car with such a load.

In Fromm and Schlesinger’s The Real Heroes of Business, they say, “If you want to know how to give great service, find people who do it and watch them.”

If you want to know how to avoid giving great service, watch people who annoy you. Then decide which you want as your role model.

“We think much more about the use of money, which is renewable, than we do about the use of time, which is irreplaceable,” Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber warned. Anyone who is serious about building a business needs to be clear about both spending and investing their time.

Just as we invest money in the expectation of a greater return in the future, we need to invest our time in the present in order to see a bigger reward in the future.

Sometimes that means devoting large chunks of time to creating a product that won’t generate revenue for months. At other times our investment may be a demonstration of faith in ourselves and our vision.

It’s a practice I discovered in the early days of my business when out of town trips often involved staying in less than elegant hotels and driving Ugly Duckling rental cars. In my heart I believed I was a good investment and was willing to trade present comfort for a brighter future.

Here are some smart ways to invest your time whether you’re a new startup or simply want to keep your self and your enterprise invigorated.

° Take the boss for a walk. Any creative enterprise will profit from a frequent change of scenery. Have you ever noticed how diplomats often go for a walk together when negotiations break down?  Walking can both calm us down and stir up positive thoughts.

Even if your office or studio is the happiest place on Earth, moving around a botanic garden or browsing in a hardware store can rekindle your creative spirit.

° Hang out with some wise guys. Put yourself in regular contact with our best entrepreneurial thinkers who generously share their insights with anyone who cares to listen.

Seth Godin is at the top of my list, of course. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for his mailings and take advantage of his unique and profound insights at

Don’t try to listen to everybody who is offering advice. Find your favorites and pay close attention. Don’t just read and delete. Consider how you can put their ideas to work in your enterprise. Remember, too, that your team of trusted advisors may change over time.

° Reach out and connect. I am growing quite weary of folks who declare that they  can’t be bothered with social media or  building relationships.Yes, it takes time, but if you do it right, the rewards are huge.

It’s still true that we all like to do business with people we know and like. If people don’t know you, they can’t like you. Simple as that.

° Schedule 90-Day Inventories. Regularly invest time in looking at what’s working, what needs help and what’s ready to be discarded.

It’s easy when our business is growing to get swept along in the tide, but in order to create something satisfying and profitable, a regular evaluation is a valuable tool. Put it to work for you.

This is also a time to consider the ROI you are—or are not—receiving.

° Don’t be tricked by convenience. I once had a friend who was dating a most unpleasant man. When I challenged her choice of mates, she acknowledged his lack of character, but defended spending time with him by saying, “But he’s convenient.”

I’ve seen entrepreneurs use the same justification for hanging onto uncongenial clients or projects that no longer thrill them.

While there are certainly times when convenience makes sense, don’t give it a high priority when making decisions.

° Be willing to practice. I’m not sure if Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to master something is accurate or not, but it’s certainly true that those who become more than mildly adequate invest heavily in practice.

If you need encouragement to embrace this important activity, pay a visit to The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander.

° Become a No Excuses Entrepreneur. It’s astonishing how quickly we can offer excuses when a creative solution is what’s needed. Unfortunately, excuses are extremely clever at worming their way into our minds and won’t leave unless we consciously evict them.

It’s like this: we can either have our excuses or we can have our dreams. We can’t have both. It makes sense to choose wisely.

The late Jim Rohn was a huge proponent of investing time wisely. He said, “Fortunately, life has a unique way of rewarding high investment with high return. The investment of time you make now may be the catalyst for major accomplishment. It is precisely this effort that will open the floodgates to the place where great ideas can work their magic.”

I’m pretty sure I broke out in a big grin this morning when novelist Jonathan Odell posted a link on Facebook to an interview with him that appeared in today’s Huffington Post.

Of course, I’m always delighted when someone I know is bringing their dreams to life, but this particular dream is one I first encountered when it was a tiny gleam in Jon’s eye.

I’m not certain that I was the first person he’d shared this with, but years ago he told me about his dream of being a writer. The moment he said it, I knew he could be a terrific writer.

We often talked about writing when we were together and from time to time, Jon would send me a short piece he’d written. They were always wonderful.

Then we both got busy with our businesses and I didn’t hear from him for a long time. I did, however, keep holding that vision for him.

When his second novel, The Healing, arrived earlier this year, I bought a copy, but couldn’t read it right away. I loaned it to my daughter who finished it and urged me to do the same so she’d have someone to discuss it with.

When I had time to explore what Jon had written, I was captivated by his powerful story with an unforgettable heroine. I loved it as much as Jennie did.

Of course, I promptly wrote a fan letter to the author. I was surprised when he replied and said, “Thanks, Barbara. You got me started, remember?”

Thinking back, I wondered what I had said or done and nothing in particular came to mind. Then I remembered my secret occupation.

Several years ago, I read  Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. I have no idea how I came across the book or decided to investigate, but it introduced me to a fascinating character: the Electric Monk. I knew that’s what I wanted to be (in human form).

According to the story, an Electric Monk is a household appliance whose purpose is to believe something on your behalf until you’re ready to believe it yourself.

Don’t you wish you could get one at Best Buy?

Since that’s not yet possible, why not become the Electric Monk for somebody else? Hold their dream for them. Believe it. See it. Gently remind them of it from time to time.

And when they’re ready to believe it themself, join them in celebrating.

Then move on and find someone else who can use your services. After all, there’s no shortage of dreams in need of their own Electric Monk.

Public libraries have been with me every step of the way in my self-employment journey. I remember visiting the tiny Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, library when I was first dreaming about starting a business.

Compared with today, the offerings for would-be entrepreneurs were pretty skinny, but reading biographies of several pioneering women entrepreneurs inspired me and helped me believe I could create my own business, too.

Years later, when I was invited to give a talk at my branch library in Minneapolis about my book Making a Living Without a Job, I began by declaring, “The library is an entrepreneur’s best friend.”

I absolutely meant it.

In every place I’ve lived, I’ve gotten my library card before I got my driver’s license

So it always comes as a surprise to me when I talk to a would-be or struggling entrepreneur and discover that they don’t tap into the treasure trove that’s waiting for them.

If you haven’t visited a library for a while or you always head to the same section, check out all the ways a library can help you build your self-employment enterprise.

° Nonfiction titles exist on every aspect of starting and running a business. Besides personal accounts and biographies, how-to books abound.

Want to know what all the fuss about branding is? Thinking about selling articles to magazines? Want to tap into new trends? There’s a good chance that somebody has done you the favor of writing about it.

Unlike much of the information you can find online, library books tend to be edited and sources verified which adds to their credibility.

° Get inspired with a novel. Mysteries, especially, often feature entrepreneurial characters in leading roles. Often these entrepreneurs are amateur detectives as well.

You can learn a lot—almost accidentally—about antiquarian book selling from John Dunning or catering from Diane Mott Davidson while solving a murder or two.

In fact, the main characters of many novels are self-employed which suggests to me that people who work for themselves are simply more interesting.

° Make friends with a reference librarian. I am certain that if they didn’t love books so much, many of the folks running the library reference desk would be private detectives. They love tracking things down—the harder the better.

Got an idea for a research project? Ask the reference librarian to show you the grant directories. Want to be a public speaker? Inquire about Gale’s Encyclopedia of Associations to get ideas. Need statistics for a presentation? The reference desk is a great place to start your search.

° Make drive time more valuable. My library has an entire room devoted to audio books. Many wonderful fiction and nonfiction titles are available on CD and make fine companions for road trips or while running errands.

As Minnesota Public Radio used to remind me, “Get out of your car smarter than you got in.” Audiobooks can help you do just that.

° Visit a new universe. Browse in a section you don’t normally explore. Investigate some magazines that you’ve never read before. Spend an hour investigating materials in the reference section.

This is what Seth Godin calls “zooming” which he defines as “stretching your limits without threatening your foundation.”

° Attend a talk. If you have access to a fairly large library, chances are they offer free programs as part of their community service.

My library often features authors talking about their writing careers as well as programs on everything from finding your ancestors to travel talks.

° Create an in-depth research project. Build a passion into expertise by learning everything you can about a subject. Don’t just dabble; immerse.

Start with your library’s collection and see how far it can take you, but don’t stop there. Enlist the reference librarian to help you uncover addition information that you haven’t found on your own.

Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borge once mused, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until you get there to experience the pleasure a library can bring.

When I was in college, I worked part time doing clerical work in a farm implement shop. It was a fairly benign job most of the year.

Then December rolled around and I was sent to a dark cavern where the dusty parts bins were housed. It was my version of being sent to Siberia.

My assignment was to count the contents of each bin. It took a couple of weeks to complete and I often wept as I inventoried the metal objects housed in the bins.

Of course, it’s common for businesses to do an end of the year inventory to see where they’re at. Even if your business doesn’t have an inventory of products or parts to count, it’s a valuable exercise.

I faithfully do so myself, but it’s far more pleasant than counting tractor parts. My inventory only requires a journal, a pen and some thoughtful time answering the following questions.

° What can you do now that you couldn’t do (or hadn’t done) at the start of the year?

° Where have you been that you hadn’t been a year ago?

° What have you learned?

° What problems have you solved?

° What has inspired you?

° How have you celebrated?

° What investments have you made in yourself?

° What new profit centers have you created? Launched?

° What new books have you read?

° What new connections have you made?

° What did you instigate?

° Which of your ideas are coming to life?

° What are you proudest of?

° Where have you made the most progress?

° What disappointments have you overcome?

° What unexpected gifts appeared?

° What would you like more of next year? Less of?

For me, the real purpose of taking inventory is to answer the question, “Are you living in a bigger world than you were when the year began?” How I honestly answer that question determines my journey for the year ahead.

As Alex Haley, author of Roots, reminded us, “The person who doesn’t know where they’re coming from, can’t know where they’re going.”

Dreams are extremely fragile—especially in their early days. They need to be nurtured and surrounded by support. Here are a handful of easy ways to get your dreams off to a great start.

° Passion must be present. While a dream may be born in passion, it’s up to you to keep it alive. If you’re halfhearted and lukewarm about them, your dreams will never come true.

One way to keep passion high is to spend a few minutes every day visualizing the successful completion of your dream. How does it look, smell, taste, sound, feel? Allow your vision to keep pulling you forward.

° Take good care of the boss. It doesn’t matter how great a dream is if the dreamkeeper is too tired or uninspired to bring it to life.

Sometimes the easiest things to do are also the easiest to overlook—like drinking plenty of water and avoiding toxic people. Dreamkeepers have an obligation to create the healthiest and most balanced life possible.

° Make your workspace a place that inspires you. Whether you work on a beach with your laptop or in an extra bedroom in your home, make it inspiring as well as efficient.

Burn incense, play classical music, have a tabletop fountain, and/or cover your walls with art or an inspiration board that pictures your dreams. And if you’re sitting on a beach, pick one with a great view.

° Take responsibility for staying inspired. There are three ways to run a business: Inspired, Uninspired or With Occasional Flashes of Inspiration.

You can identify those things that inspire you and expose yourself to them frequently. Whether it’s music or the words of a particular author or the company of another entrepreneur, know where your Inspiration Well is and go to the Well often.

° Create your own Hall of Fame. Ask a successful actor or musician who inspired them and they’ll probably answer quickly. Ask a would-be entrepreneur the same question and you’re apt to be greeted by a shrug of  the shoulders.

If you’re going to succeed, you need to be inspired by real people. Read biographies or interviews of successful people and pay attention to the philosophies they share.

° Be open to being inspired at all times. You never know where a great idea or solution to a problem will come from. Carry a notebook with you at all times so you can jot down ideas as they occur.

If you spend a lot of time driving, you may want to carry a voice-activated recorder to capture your thoughts.

° Notice what catches your attention, what makes you happy, what causes an emotional response. These are all clues. Don’t miss them.

° Collect entrepreneurial friends. There’s almost nothing more rewarding than spending time in the presence of kindred spirits who can add their own creative ideas and encouragement to what you’re doing. Cultivating such friendships will be one of the best investments you can make.

° Change the scenery. There’s nothing that dulls the creative spirit more quickly than daily routine. You can counteract the dulling effect of that by taking a field trip or creative excursion at least once a week.

Take your laptop to a coffee shop, visit a museum or walk in a Japanese garden. Challenge yourself to come up with new backdrops that feed your soul.

Writers talk about (and agonize over) a condition they call Writer’s Block. When this occurs, even experienced authors report feeling stuck, unable to work, to come up with anything to say.

Any creative endeavor can get bogged down when the creator feels blocked, of course. Psychologists  suggest that we can shorten our down time by doing something unrelated to the project that has us stymied.

In other words, we can solve the problem by walking away from the problem…for a  bit.

With that in mind, I polled several people and asked them, “What do you do when you need some fresh inspiration?”

Many of their replies included old favorites, tried and true nudges. Since I think it makes sense to have a portfolio of remedies for getting unstuck, take a look at the list and note any suggestions you aren’t currently using .

The next time you need a creative jolt, try one or more of these:

° Keep an inspiration journal filled with quotes, stories of people you find inspiring, pictures of beautiful places. Page through it when you need a lift.

I also keep a file labeled Make Me Laugh so I know where to go when I’m getting too serious.

° Go to a busy place like an airport or shopping center and watch people. Make up stories about the folks that pass by.

° Dance or exercise. Walking is a proven way to slow down and open up.

° Brainstorm with other people and pay attention to even the silliest ideas.

° Do needlework or make something with your hands. Give your mind a rest.

° Meditate. Stare out of a window. Browse in a bookstore. Be very quiet.

° Practice mindless motion—like vacuuming the rug. I am convinced this is the secret weapon of creative thinkers.

° Call a friend. Ask questions of someone who might have insights to share, but isn’t emotionally invested in your project. Listen.

° Read a book. Take a class. Bump into good ideas that have nothing to do with the project that has you stumped.

The key, this poll would suggest, is to shift gears.

The late Ray Bradbury would agree. He said, “There shouldn’t be any difficult moments. As soon as things get difficult, I turn on my heel and let the idea percolate on its own. I pretend to abandon it!

“It soon follows and comes to heel. You can’t push or pressure ideas. You can’t try, ever! You can only do. Doing is everything.”

What skill can put you at ease in social situations, make your business memorable and  keep your curiosity on high alert?

You probably grew up with it and are still drawn to it.  It is, quite simply,  a universal connector that helps us understand each other and ourselves, makes us desire things, gives us a sense of possibility.

This magical tool is storytelling and it belongs in every entrepreneur’s toolkit.

So what does it take to be a great storyteller? The fundamentals are pretty simple.

° Curiosity. Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, who not only wrote innovative ad copy, but also trained many successful copywriters, wrote, “I have never known anyone who bounced out of bed in the morning, delighted and astonished by the world in which he found himself, who was not a success. A vibrantly alive curiosity and a perceptive awareness will put you right up there with the best of them. This intense interest in people and things—this sense of wonder—can be acquired.”

Without curiosity, you’ll miss all the good stories happening around you that might be put to work on your behalf.

° Attention. TV  journalist Steve Hartman created a popular feature on CBS called “Everyone Has a Story.” He looked for his subject by throwing a dart at a map and then headed to wherever the dart landed. Once there, Hartman began calling people at random from the phone book until he found someone who agreed to talk to him.

Some of Hartman’s stories were funny, some were poignant, some were buried deep, but he never came away empty-handed.

Hartman’s premise is that stories exist everywhere, but only storytellers seem to be paying attention. Follow their lead. Listen for inspiration. Listen for evidence. Listen for material.

When someone says, “Your teleclass was so exciting that I was awake until 3 AM with all these new ideas,” weave it into your marketing.

° Edit.  Editing is critical in all forms of storytelling. The difference between a boring and an enthralling storyteller is in the editing. We all know people who start telling a story and then wander off to side stories about the characters or unrelated events or random thoughts.

So what does an editor really do? According to Sarah Tieck, the job of an editor is to ruthlessly look for what’s relevant and then eliminate the rest.

In many ways, editing uses the same skills as are needed to identify priorities in the goal-setting process. It’s also a bit easier to do in writing than in speaking where you don’t have the benefit of reviewing your words.

°  Bring it alive.  Don’t you just marvel at all the ways chef Jamie Oliver describes food? That’s what a great storyteller does. Passion and a good vocabulary are the fuel.

Except for Prairie Home Companion, there’s not much storytelling in radio anymore. If you listen to Garrison Keillor—a master storyteller—you’ll hear how he adds just enough detail so we can imagine the scene.

In marketing, part of the storyteller’s job is to help the audience of potential customers imagine how your products or services will be useful to them.

Storytelling can do that more vividly than just listing benefits.

°  Watch your audience. Bores do not notice their listeners fidgeting in their seats or gazing around the room looking for an escape. Alas, the self-absorbed among us are oblivious to this.

There’s a woman I know who is the personification of this. She’s not particularly creative and I suspect even Steven Hartman would have a hard time finding a story to tell about her, but that doesn’t stop her from talking about the only subject she cares about: herself.  She doesn’t notice that people can barely stay awake during her  monologues.

A good storyteller, on the other hand, understands body language and looks for clues. After all, storytelling always involves at least two people: the teller and the listener. Both are important. Connecting with your audience is a basic function.

In Funky Business, the authors make this observation: “True leaders are CSO’s – Chief Storytelling Officers. They provide the focus, inspiration and meaning that the organization has been crying out for…. Funky leaders give rise to and spread stories.”

Polishing your storytelling skills can be as good for your business as it is for your social life. Even better, it’s a fun and creative way to approach your marketing and promotion.

Last week was a whirlwind of Skyping with folks who had responded to my request for collaborators interested in organizing seminars for me in their part of the world. When I first proposed the idea, I expected four or five people might respond.

I underestimated. Five times that many people said, “Tell me more.” My 2013 calendar began to fill up quickly.

About the same time that this new project was being born, I received a request from a woman I didn’t know. She wrote, “I would love to share your book with our event guests this year at our New Year’s Eve Party. Would you be interested in sponsoring our event? We will be promoting to over 25,000 people and on top of that, 450 new people will be receiving your book and with the power of word-of-mouth advertising, it has the potential to reach 3 X more people with those efforts alone.”

I was puzzled and replied, “Frankly, I am not at all clear about what you’re proposing. Details, please.”

Her reply? “I would love to share your book with our event guests this year at our New Year’s Eve Party. Would you be interested in sponsoring our event?”

Now I’m really puzzled. Whose event is this? Who will be attending? What does sponsorship involve? Where are you located? Am I expected to donate 450 copies of my book? Pay for the champagne? Am I invited to the party?

Even odder, it seemed to me, was the idea of giving New Year’s Eve revelers a copy of Making a Living Without a Job. Obviously, I was missing some vital information.

I reread the initial message, but no fresh clues had appeared.

Then a terse message arrived asking if I wanted to promote my book. I replied, “I am still not clear about what the New Year’s Eve event entails nor what your expectations are for me. Intuitively, however, it doesn’t feel like a fit.”

So imagine my surprise when she promptly replied, “Good to know! I also feel that your priorities and attention span is far from looking into any new opportunities, so I wish you success and thank you for skimming my messages.”

I’m still not sure if this is an example of miscommunication or incredibly rude behavior.

I do know, however, that I’ll be welcoming the New Year celebrating my upcoming partnerships with the very kind and innovative folks who are busily making The Collaboratory a success.

I am totally clear about that.

Setting your life up to be lived as an on-going treasure hunt, can only happen if you’ve  identified things that enrich your life. Not all of those things are things, of course.

Here are some collectibles that enhance the entrepreneurial life.

° Testimonials. Happy clients and customers who take time to let you know that they appreciate your efforts do more than simply lift your spirits: they can also help you attract more happy clients and customers.

Develop a system for saving the e-mails, thank yous and verbal words of praise. I usually ask at the time I receive such things if it would be okay to share. Nobody has ever turned me down.

° Experiences. Different experiences are good for your curiosity, your personal growth and, often, the basis of  your best stories. Why, then, do so many people fail to put themselves in new situations?

Habit, routine and self-doubt are some of the culprits here.

While all new experiences aren’t necessarily planned in advance, it’s a good idea to regularly put some on your calendar. Without them, you won’t have many good stories to tell your grandchildren.

° Joyfully Jobless friends. It was Napoleon Hill who first brought attention to the notion of a Master Mind Group. That’s still a fine idea, but you also need informal relationships with others who are self-employed.

Start following entrepreneurs on Twitter. Organize a local Meetup group. Find out about organizations and informal gatherings of self-employed folks in your area. Go to workshops and conferences aimed at the self-employed.

Follow up on recommendations of friends who say, “Oh, you should meet So-and-So. You have a lot in common.”

Before you know it, you’ll have a tribe.

° Stories. More and more marketing gurus are  singing the praises of storytelling. Not only is this an overlooked marketing tool, many people overlook their own best stories.

Keeping a simple journal or file of stories you encounter—both in person or as a reader—is a good idea. When it comes time to  write a speech or spiff up your Web site or produce a mailing, you’ll have a pool of material to draw from.

Then there’s this from Michael E. Gerber: “I dare say, all successful entrepreneurs have loved the story of their business. Because that’s what true entrepreneurs do: They tell stories that come to life in the form of their business.”

° Portfolio of profit centers. There’s a line in the movie About a Boy that I love: “Two’s not enough. You’ve got to have backup.” They’re talking about relationships in the film, but it is equally true for profit centers.

As I’ve frequently mentioned, all enterprises go through cycles, but not all cycles are synchronized. If you have variety in your offerings, you can adjust, revamp, shift gears as necessary.

However, the flukes of the marketplace are only part of the reason for building a portfolio. You need outlets for all of your passions.

An evolving portfolio is how you create the pieces of our own particular puzzle.

° Resources. The abundance of information available to us is both dazzling and daunting. Knowing that useful resources exist  can do a great deal to dispel fear and doubt, but only if you take advantage of the  best resources you can find.

Go beyond a Google search and find resources in your community, at the library, and, perhaps, your local visitor’s center. Does your local newspaper do stories about small businesses in the area? Are there local radio talk shows that might enjoy having you as a guest?  What about adult ed programs that can sharpen your skills?

° Expertise. Almost from the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, I recognized that being regarded as an expert would be useful. Of course, if you’re passionate about something, growing into expertise is almost inevitable.

Using that expertise to expand your visibility, help others, make new discoveries, and create additional profit centers requires understanding the expert’s role and a willingness to value what you already have accomplished.

As I point out in my Establish Yourself as an Expert seminars, this isn’t something you do by the first Tuesday of next month. It’s an on-going, evolutionary process—one that keeps you stretching, exploring and growing. Doing so can also open doors of opportunity in delightfully surprising ways.