For the past several years, I’ve been urging seminar participants (and anyone else who will listen) to take the initiative in starting conversations with total strangers. It’s something that comes naturally to me, but when I started getting questions about how to actually do it, I analyzed how I go about it. Some of it is purely intuitive, of course, but there are also some behavioral components.

Whether you’re standing in line at the post office or waiting for a train, here are a few ideas to help you uncover the fascinating folks around you.

  • Make it a game. Decide ahead of time that you want to find an interesting story or inspiring stranger. I have been on long flights that seemed to pass in a moment because I had landed next to a great storyteller. I consider that a fine compensation for the annoyances of contemporary travel. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s not about you; shine the spotlight on them.

  • Don’t wait. Instigate. Be willing to be the one who takes the first step. A friendly smile is a good way to test the water. If it’s not reciprocated, move on.

  • Look for common ground. I often open a conversation with a compliment or observation about something the stranger is wearing or carrying or something that’s happening around us.

When I hopped into a London taxi that was covered in promotional material for the Rolling Stones, i suspected I had a fascinating chat ahead of me. And I did. I learned that my driver was the only cab in the city promoting the Stones, that he earned an extra £750 a year by putting advertising on his cab, and that he’d once advertised for the South African Tourist Board and got a free trip to the country as a bonus. He was hoping he might get tickets to the Stones concert this time around.

° Be politely curious. Our reluctance to talk to strangers may be caused by thinking it’s about us. Wrong. It’s about them. Yes, you might be subjected to a tedious story now and then, but it’s worth the risk.

One of my most memorable conversations was with a young man who was a linguistic professor who spoke seven languages. (How do you think I learned that?) I asked him the best way to learn a language and his reply was, “Be a kid.” I laughed and asked him, “What’s the second best?” The entire trip turned out to be an interview with me learning a lot about linguistics.

Those are the moments that keep me talking to strangers who unknowingly enrich my life. And like everything else, it gets easier with practice.

By the way, you don’t need to be on a trip to do this. Social networking provides wonderful opportunities every single day to start up a conversation with someone who is about to stop being a stranger. If you’d like to develop some ease with that, join Christine Gallagher and me for our upcoming teleclass, Conversation Transformation. We were strangers until we met on Twitter.



 Like many cities, Las Vegas has an annual Housekeeping Olympics with teams from different hotels competing in challenges such as laundry folding, bed making and the ever popular obstacle course. The coveted prize? The dirty toilet brush. 


This year’s competition was nearly canceled due to economic considerations. Happily, sanity prevailed and the event went on as usual. Teams dressed in matching uniforms cheered wildly for their mates as they zipped through their events. When I saw the story on our local news, I couldn’t help but think this had to be a highlight for the participants and a real bonding experience for coworkers. There’s not much that seems playful about the work that they do everyday.


My grandchildren arrive later this week so I’ve been thinking about play more than usual. One of the great gifts that children bring to a family is granting their adult kin permission to play, to be silly even. I still have a huge cardboard box that was transformed into a hospital, house and veterinary clinic the last time Zoe visited. I had no idea that a box could hold so many possibilities for the imagination.


When I was growing up, I suspect my German relatives were equally delighted  when playing with me. At the same time, a popular family slogan––repeated in German––reminded us that work must come before play. Arbeit kommt zuerst dann Spiel. It  sounded like a warning that we must keep our priorities straight. Play was not at the top of the list.


Don’t tell that to Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play. In his brilliant new book, simply titled Play, he writes, “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression. Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul.”


Dr. Brown goes on to say we need both. “Work and play are more like the timbers that keep our house from collapsing down on top of us…The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects.”


How does play figure into your life? Are you giving it its due? If not, I highly recommend tracking down Play and letting Dr. Brown convince you.


As for me, I’m heading for the beach with Zoe and Zach later this week. I’m sure it’s going to be very good for business.



Now check out this brilliant article from Zen Habits on  Work as Play: Turn life into one gigantic playground. 

Here are some obvious and not-so-obvious ways to build a better business.

Study with the best. Writers need to be readers; speakers need to be students. You get to pick your own faculty. Whatever your field is, find people who are ahead of you and doing well. Then pay close attention. Even without analyzing what and how they do what they do, you’ll be exposing yourself to great role models.

Act your age. If you’re a beginner, do beginning things. Sounds logical, I know, but I see lots of upstarts getting in trouble by trying to act as if they’ve been around for decades. Not acting your age is as unattractive (and dangerous) as an elderly woman dressing like her granddaughter.

It’s important to take inventory regularly and move up as your business grows up. There are many ways to assess the age of your business besides profitability. Consider things like higher confidence levels, potential collaborations and new profit centers, too.

Save those testimonials. When someone sends you a note or e-mail raving about your services, save it. You can use these raves in your marketing, if permission is obtained. Even verbal kudos can be permanent if you write them down—or ask the person giving them to send you a written version.

Testimonials also serve another purpose. On the days when resistance and self-doubt rear their ugly heads, having a file full of kind words can restore your sanity quickly.

Let Craigslist help build your business. An entrepreneur surprised me when he said he’d advertised—with great results—on this free Website to find a CFO for his company.

Spend a little time on Craigslist and see what it can offer your business. While lots of people use it to buy and sell used goods, there are also opportunities to promote seminars and/or services such as translating, music lessons and coaching. You never know who might be looking for what you have to offer.

Conduct a poll. Hardly a day passes when I don’t see the results of a poll on the Internet or cable news channels. The media loves them and you can take advantage of this fact by conducting one of your own.

Garage Sale Fever author John Schroeder polled 100 garage sale sellers, asking them a few simple questions about their reasons for holding a sale, their own garage sale shopping habits and plans for the money they earned. He compiled the results, sent it out as a press release and found himself quoted almost instantly.

There are an endless number of possibilities for polling people and sharing the results.

Get clear about your ideal customer. Too many newcomers are vague about this and think their ideal customer is anyone willing to spend money with them. Not so. The more you know about the people you want to reach, the more ideas you’ll get about how to connect.

Start by asking yourself questions such as:

  • Do they share a common occupation?
  • Are they living in a particular area?
  • Do they have a life situation such as being new parents or aspiring
    authors that you can identify?
  • What do they read? Where do they hang out online? Offline?
  • Are they a niche within a niche (i.e. not just life coaches, but beginning coaches wanting to focus on wellness)?
  • What kind of personal qualities does your customer exhibit?
  • What problem do they have that I know how to solve?

As Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne discovered, “A strong imagination begets opportunity.” That’s precisely what using these six easy tools will beget for your business if you put your own imagination to work.

According to the dictionary, to be resourceful means able to act effectively or imaginatively, especially in difficult situations. Of all the skills and qualities that enhance the joyfully jobless journey, none is more valuable than resourcefulness.

The poster child for resourcefulness was Angus MacGyver, hero of the television series that captivated audiences in the late eighties and early nineties. MacGyver dazzled audiences with his inventive use of common objects—including his trusty Swiss Army Knife—to foil the bad guys and get himself out of desperate situations. MacGyver was the master of improvising solutions in a matter of minutes.

While MacGyver was fascinating he was also fictional. Less dramatic, but equally effective, resourcefulness goes on everywhere, every day. Consider Walter Swan, a retired plasterer and eighth grade flunkout who harbored a dream of his own.

For years, Swan had entertained his wife and their eight children with stories about growing up in the deserts of Arizona. Although he could barely read or write, Swan had a dream of turning his memories into a book. He taught himself to type with two fingers and began writing down his stories. His wife corrected and retyped the book and Swan optimistically sent his manuscript to several publishers. They all turned him down.

Discouraged by the rejection, Swan packed the manuscript away for ten years. But the dream of publishing success wouldn’t go away. Then Swan got the idea to publish it himself. He mortgaged his house, bought a computer which his wife learned to use, and bravely ordered 1,000 copies of Me ’n Henry. His exhilaration dimmed somewhat as he tried to interest bookshops in carrying his beloved journal. He found few takers.

He managed, however, to sell his first 1,000 copies and that was all the encouragement he needed. There’s got to be a way to sell even more copies he reckoned. What if he opened his own bookstore? He scouted around the near ghost-town of Bisbee, Arizona and found an empty space next door to the town’s only bookstore. It was just what he was looking for.

This bold move turned him into a bit of a celebrity. His One Book Bookstore brought him loads of national publicity. His days became filled with chatting with the numerous tourists who stopped by to purchase his book and have their picture taken with the author. Forty years after he first began working on his dream, Swan’s personal resourcefulness made it come true.

“If I were to wish for anything,” mused Soren Kierkegaard, “I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.” That’s the essence of resourceful thinking. The eye which sees the possible becomes the means to start things moving.

A simple way to expand your own resourcefulness is to give up any thoughts that begin with “If only,” and replace them with thoughts that begin with “What if?” “What if” questions open the door to new possibilities, while “if onlys” keep us stuck and helpless. It’s astonishing, really, what a difference two little words can make. “If only I had more customers,” can become, “What if I tried one new marketing idea every week?” “If only I could spend a month in Spain,” becomes “What if I found someone in Spain to exchange houses with in September?” You get the idea.

The resourceful person approaches problem-solving with the belief that there’s never just one way to accomplish anything. There’s an amazing spectrum of ways to do even the simplest things. The same is true for the complex. Be focused on what you want and flexible about how you achieve it. Like Walter Swan, the resourceful person knows that the possibilities are endless and like MacGyver, proves it.


Although the description for Follow Through Camp doesn’t mention resourcefulness, that’s really the focus of that event. You’ll discover that you’re even more resourceful than you may have thought and leave with more options than you had when you arrived. There are still five spots available in the upcoming Follow Through Camp which happens on September 11 & 12 in Chaska, MN.

Demonstrate your own resourcefulness by taking advantage of the Early Bird enrollment which expires on August 15.

Years ago, I read a wonderful book by Alan Lakein called How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. One of the things that stayed with me from this nifty little manual was the question, “What’s the best use of my time right now?” It’s a question that helped me regain my focus when I felt scattered, reminded me about priorities and, most importantly, pointed out that I was in charge of how I was spending my time.

Anyone who spends time with a toddler knows that their exploration of the world is filled with a steady stream of questions. Annoying as that can be to an adult, it’s also an essential learning tool for the child. 

As common as the humble question is, I don’t think we’ve given enough attention to the importance of asking good ones. I certainly hadn’t thought much about it, although I was acutely aware of the all too familiar dream killing question, “How are you going to do that?” which greets millions of new ideas. 

Several years ago I read The One Minute Millionaire by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen which gave me a new perspective. In their chapter The Size of the Questions Determines the Size of the Result, they write, “The wrong question will generate the wrong result or a less than outstanding outcome. Questions predetermine the answer. The size of your question determines the size of your answer. Few people ever ask million-dollar earning, inventing, generating and creating questions. They are yours to ask.”

How can you learn to ask better questions? For starters, notice the ones that stop you dead in your tracks. Notice, too, any thoughts you may have that asking questions is a sign of weakness. (Fanatics don’t ask questions. They make pronouncements.) Listen, too, to good questions and see how they open up creative thinking.

Last year, I decided to try a little experiment. Actually, it wasn’t so little. I adopted a question that I asked myself over and over all day, every day. It sounds ridiculously simple, but it produced an endless stream of joyous results. That little question is, “How can I make it better?” “It” usually meant whatever was in front of me. Sometimes the answer was rather ordinary…along the lines of, “Make order on the top of your desk.” Almost always, the answer directed me to taking small actions, things I could accomplish immediately that led me closer to bigger achievements. 

I urge you to adopt this question for yourself and see where it leads you. As Hansen and Allen point out, “As you ask yourself and others better questions, your results will vastly improve, the world will be better off, your quantity and quality of service will expand, the difference you make will experience quantum change, and you will leave a profound legacy in the footprints of time.”


If you’ve been wondering how your can make your business better, join Alice Barry and me at our upcoming Follow Through Camp, September 11 & 12, and leave with answers that you can turn into action immediately.

This is the tale of Ken and Barbie. The stories are true, although the names are not. It’s a cautionary tale. Let’s start with Ken.

A talented cartoonist, Ken created a popular Website that drew thousands of visitors every week. Eventually, he decided to self-publish a collection of his favorite cartoons. So far, so good. Like many authors, he was delighted to learn that his books could be sold on Amazon. He put a big banner on his Website announcing that the book could be purchased online. It appeared that he thought this was an endorsement for the book and refused to sell the books directly himself.

And sell they did. Ken’s fans snapped up the book the moment Amazon made it available. They sold thousands of copies. This could have been cause to celebrate, but let’s take a closer look.

Ken not only had production costs for the book, he also had to pay to ship them to the bookseller. When his costs were subtracted, his total profit from each Amazon sale was 76 cents. No amount of urging could convince him to sell directly. He didn’t want to be bothered shipping those thousands of books.

Had he sold directly to his customers, his profit from each book would have been closer to $8/book. In the first three months after publication, he would have cleared close to $20,0000–ten times what Amazon paid him. He could easily have hired someone to handle the clerical chores and still come out ahead.

Then there’s Barbie. She, too, is losing thousands of dollars. Sadly, she’s also spent thousands of dollars to have an exquisite Website built for her business. She, too, has self-published books and produced  DVDs. There’s a sign-up box on her Website for a mailing list, but no one who signs up ever hears from her again. Her site is mostly promotional so there’s not much reason for anyone to visit it more than once. While she travels around the country wowing audiences with her speeches, she refuses to connect with those fans once she leaves the auditorium. You won’t find her on Facebook or Twitter or blogging. She can’t be bothered. And while her products sell briskly at her events, she hasn’t made a trip to the post office in months to ship anything from those cartons filling her garage.

Question Ken and Barbie about their reasons for shortchanging themselves and they’re quick to say that they simply can’t be bothered with minutiae. They’ll even hint that their creativity precludes them from doing anything as routine as building a relationship with their customers. After all, they sniff, they’re on their way to becoming a star.

Or maybe not.