An old adage says, “Tell me who your heroes are and I’ll tell you who you are.”  We all need living models of success—even if we have to look long and hard before we find those people who inspire us to do more and be more.

When we don’t  actively look for people who inspire us, we lose the capacity for genuine appreciation. That spills over into under appreciating our own gifts and achievements.

Whether you’ve got such a list of people or it’s time to start one, here’s a little exercise to help you pay closer attention.

For years I’ve been saying that my fantasy trip would be a very long train ride—perhaps across Canada—with a stack of books I’d been meaning to read. I decided to take that vision a bit farther and plan a dream trip aboard the Orient Express.

After a visit to their website, I chose the Venice—Prague—Paris route. Now I just had to fill up the train.

Who would I love to have with me? Why did I pick the ones I did? Take a look.

° My family—because we’ve already learned how to travel together peacefully.

° Anne Lamott—because she’s a rare combination of wise and funny.

° Bill Bryson—because he’s a brilliant storyteller who makes me laugh out loud.

° Richard Branson—because anyone whose motto is “Fun is Fundamental” belongs on this trip.

° Whoever writes the copy for Innocent Drinks because they’re wacky.

° Elizabeth Gilbert—because she might be ready for another trip and she speaks Italian.

° Billy Collins—because he turns stories into poems that I love.

° Paul McCartney—so I could gaze at him adoringly and he might give us a few tunes.

° Rick Steves—because he could fill us in on what we’re seeing.

° Alexander McCall Smith—because he’s one of the best storytellers writing today.

I realized as I was making out my list of fellow passengers that every one of them was selected because I wanted to hear their stories. I’d also love to eavesdrop on conversations between them.

You’ll also notice that there are no politicians or overexposed celebrities on the list. In fact, even though many of the passengers are quite well known (and McCartney more than well known), they each have a bit of mystique about them.

Imagine what five days on board with this group could be like.

If you were filling up a train or a yacht or a retreat center, who would you most want to have along?

Make out your list and then don’t be surprised if you find yourself in their presence. It might not be on the Orient Express, nor all of them at once, of course.

As it happens,  I’ve spent time with all but three of the people on my list—and I expect the others will show up in due time.

If you are a reader of Joyfully Jobless News, this may be familiar.  When I came across it again the other day, I decided it was worth a second visit. This simple idea has added enormously to my productivity and fun.

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The sky was overcast and the wind was frigid, but there we stood huddled together with hundreds of others for three shivering hours. It was our second day in Amsterdam and we were in line to see what we had come for—the Van Gogh Museum.

My siblings and I had been planning this trip for months. Hundreds of emails hammered out the details. Eventually, a theme emerged.

What began as a trip to Provence evolved into what I named Stalking Van Gogh. As it turned out, we not only stalked, we shivered.

My brother Jim is the painter in our family and had been an admirer for years. I had rather recently discovered my passion for Van Gogh’s work and wanted to see as many paintings as I could with my own two eyes.

I decided the time had come to finally read Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, a fictional account of the artist’s life. Of course, it added to my enthusiasm for the upcoming voyage.

After Amsterdam, we traveled by train (my favorite way to go) to Provence where we spent a week in St. Remy which is also the location of the asylum where Van Gogh did some of his most prolific work. We visited Arles, dined at the Yellow Cafe featured in one of his well-known paintings, saw other places he’d painted there.

We ended our stay with four days in Paris. Unbeknownst to us, a glorious surprise was waiting for us there.

On our first day, a Sunday, we headed to Musee d’Orsay, oblivious to the fact that an enormous exhibit was running with Van Gogh’s work gathered from around the world. Paintings from museums and private collections adorned several rooms in the museum.

It was hard to leave all that magnificence, but having spent all that time with Van Gogh as a focus, made the trip extraordinary. It was not the first time, however, that I’d taken a trip with a special focus as my guide.

When I first began traveling to London, I decided that instead of just going there, each trip would have a theme. One time I explored gardens. Another time it was architecture. Then there was one of my favorite visits when I scouted booklover’s London.

I started assigning themes to other projects and discovered that getting things done  got easier. You’ve probably used this yourself, perhaps when you decided to throw a party and then got the idea to give it a theme. Suddenly, ideas and resources became visible.

You may even discover that necessary, but boring, projects become less unpleasant once you give them a title. For example, I decided to begin a daily uncluttering project and although I knew it was a good idea, I wasn’t feeling a lot of enthusiasm about it until I named it Lighten Up.

A well-chosen theme reminds us of our ultimate goal. It gives us the big picture.

Whether you are starting a new exercise program or creating another profit center or building your speaking skills, start by naming the theme. Decision-making becomes easier. You’ll waste less time doing things that don’t fit. Focus comes naturally.

Best of all, a theme unlocks your imagination.

Life often seems like an endless series of decisions to be made. Chai latte or decaf Americano? Take a walk or sit at the computer? Plant roses or zinnias? Start a business now or wait until you get fired?

Given the fact that we are called upon to make decision after decision everyday, it would seem reasonable to assume that most of us would have given thought to how we make decisions. We’d have our own decision-making tools that we could employ when needed.

If we l lack such tools, too many decisions are simply based on habit. (Chai latte yesterday, chai latte today, chai latte tomorrow.) That’s not the road to living a creative and inspired life.

Self-doubt—simply not trusting ourselves—is behind much of the indecision we encounter. The sheer abundance of options can make it even more difficult, but living decisively is necessary if we’re to have the richest experience possible.

It may also contribute to our health. According to George Crane, “It is uncertainty or indecision that wears people down and promotes peptic ulcers, high blood pressure and nervous breakdowns.”

Since the decisions we make determine the kind of life that we have, how can we improve our ability to make wise decisions? It may be easier than you think.

My starting point is based on this observation from Stewart Emery: “Nothing in the universe is neutral. It either costs or it contributes.”

That bit of wisdom has simplified decision-making for me ever since I heard it. However, it’s fairly useless without a sense of priority. You need to be clear about what matters most to you and be determined to set up your life to support that.

If being physically healthy is a high priority, every food choice either costs or it contributes. If finishing your book in the next 90 days is a priority, every time choice you make either costs or it contributes. It all comes down to bringing your activities and actions into alignment with your personal goals.

Some decisions require gathering information in advance, of course. Wise leaders in all walks of life have sounding boards, people whose opinions they trust. The trick for us, whether we’re the leader of the free world or not, is to exercise wisdom in choosing the voices we listen to.

Often that means getting advice from strangers, not from those nearest and dearest to us. Then thoughtfully weighing that advice while keeping in mind your ideal outcome, can make the process smoother.

The more familiar you are with your own intuitive voice, the easier it will be to rely on it when it’s time to make a decision—especially a big important one. Even if that’s not your usual method of deciding, here’s an exercise that can be helpful providing you pay attention while you’re doing it.

How can you tell if you really want to do something? Toss a coin. Literally. It works—not because it settles the question for you, but, as the Danish poet and mathematician Piet Hein said, “While the coin is in the air, you suddenly know what you’re hoping for.”

Success, prosperity, all the good things in life only come to us after we’ve decided to let them in. Minute by minute and hour by hour, decide in favor of your dreams.

Last week I wrote an article for the upcoming  Winning Ways newsletter and mentioned that I’m not fond of the term self-help because it ignores the fact that it’s not truly a DIY project. It involves a teacher as well.

No matter what we call it, not everyone is getting the kind of results they anticipated. Here are some thoughts on how we can make the most of our personal growth excursions.

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When I first discovered the literature of personal growth and development, there weren’t many titles to choose from. Today there are thousands.

I always have a self-help book or two in my current reading pile, because there’s so much to learn.

However, the self-help movement has spawned plenty of dropouts. Why don’t all readers and seminar participants find this material helpful?

Here are some thoughts on that.

° Refuse to abandon skepticism. Hanging onto cherished beliefs is a guaranteed way to prevent growth.

“I tried that positive thinking stuff once. Didn’t work.” is the motto of the self-help dropout.

Simply reading a single book or attending one seminar is not going to produce visible change. It’s more a process of chipping away at limiting thoughts and behaviors that have taken hold over years.

Then there’s the woman I know who dismisses any personal growth suggestions with a quick,”I’ve already heard that.” With great discipline, I resist saying, “If your life doesn’t show it, you don’t really know it.”

° Exercises are too much trouble. Most of us think of reading as zooming from the beginning to the end of a book.

Self-help books invite us to slow down and take a slower journey. Exercises are like rest stops along the way, causing us to pause, reflect and apply.

° TMI Syndrome. It may seem like a good idea to gobble up as much information as you can.

Sign up for every guru’s mailing list. Be a perpetual seminar attendee.

However, too much information is as dangerous as too little. It causes confusion and leads to inaction.

° Right book at the wrong time. Personal growth is an evolutionary process and we expand our receptiveness one concept at a time.

Sometimes a book arrives ahead of our readiness. When that happens, don’t abandon personal growth. Try a different book.

° Miss the point. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

During the years that I lived in Santa Barbara, I always looked forward to the annual writer’s conference. Although I never attended the entire program, I often showed up for the evening talks given by successful writers.

The highlight for me was opening night when the legendary Ray Bradbury was the conference kick-off speaker. He was so popular that he held that distinction for years.

Members of the audience were often treated to personal information such as the fact that he refused to travel by air and would only go places that could be reached by car or train.

It was also not well known outside of Los Angeles that Bradbury and his wife supported an amatuer theater. He said that when they sat down to plan their new year, he’d ask her, “Is this our year to lose money on plays?” Most often, the answer was, “Yes.”

Even after all this time I recall him telling us that the way he wrote was simple. “I sit down at my desk every morning and ask my characters, ‘Where do you want to go today?’ and then I just follow them around with my typewriter.”

One year, I arrived early enough to get a front row seat. Surprisingly, nobody sat down next to me until Bradbury arrived and grabbed the empty seat. When it came time for him to speak, he handed me his notebook and asked if I’d hold it for him. It was most difficult to resist the temptation to peek inside.

I fervently believe that anyone sincerely interested in personal achievement has an obligation to themselves and their dreams to pay attention to wise folks who are farther down the path.

Bradbury was such a person for me.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from him. I hope it’s obvious to you why I admired him so much. By the way, you don’t have to be a writer to learn from his wise words.

We are an audience for miracles.

Write a story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad ones in a row.

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: ‘Am I being joyful?’ And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it.

If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.

Julia Cameron calls them Artist’s Dates. Sarah Ban Breathnach calls them Creative Excursions. Whatever you call them, they are worth making a regular event in your life.

“The Artist Date need not be overtly artistic,” says Cameron, “think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration.”

The purpose of such solo events is to take time every week to make a visit to a new place to gather ideas or just feed your imagination. Although it’s easy to find new destinations, it’s equally easy to find excuses not to do so.

When people tell me they have no idea what they want to do with their life, I’m pretty certain that creative excursions have not been on their agenda.

With that in mind, here are a few idea starters to get you thinking about potential excursions of your own.

° Visit a Japanese garden or arboretum. You don’t have to be a gardner yourself in order to find pleasure in beautiful landscapes.

° Spend a couple of hours browsing at a flea market or community festival and imagine yourself as a vendor. What kind of booth would you have? How would you welcome visitors?

° Go to your public library and explore an area that you don’t normally browse in. Read a couple of unfamiliar magazines while you’re there. See what resources are housed in the reference section.

° Explore the scrap booking aisles at a craft store. Start a scrapbook of favorite cartoons so you’ll always know where to go when you need a laugh.

° Slip off to the movies on a midweek afternoon.

° Gather travel brochures and pictures of destinations still to be visited. Make a collage for your office.

° Make or buy a card of congratulations and send it to yourself. Then send another to someone in need of encouragement.

° Take a nature hike. Gather seashells, if you are near an ocean or wildflowers or weeds for a bouquet if there’s a woods nearby.

° Visit a place like Home Depot and investigate gadgets you’ve never seen before.

° If you haven’t visited your local museum or art gallery, it’s time you paid a call.

° A great junk store or antique mall is a perfect place to stroll.

° Pretend you’re an investigative reporter and visit stores secretly making notes on their customer service…or lack thereof.

° Start a new collection and begin a treasure hunt.

Get going and find all the treasures hidden in your own neighborhood.

And if you have a favorite creative excursion that’s not on this list, feel free to share it in the comment section below.

When Marla decided she wanted to leave her high-paying corporate job and start a small business, she feared it would be difficult to convince her musician husband of the wisdom of her plan. She carefully outlined her vision to him and waited for his response.

He considered what she said about living on a tighter budget and rearranging responsibilities and then replied, “Oh, so you’re saying we’ll move ahead by going backwards first.”

His insight is one that many people, unfortunately, lack.

But almost every dream worth going after demands a willingness to step back. That step can take many forms.

It might mean living with less money for a while or taking time to acquire skills and experience. It may demand a less cluttered life. The step back might look like mini-failures on the way to greater success.

Psychologist Irene Kassorla learned this lesson during her days in graduate school. “When I was doing the research for my doctoral thesis,” she writes, “the walls of my office were covered with charts depicting the results of my experiments.

“The learning curve never climbed straight up from zero at the bottom to 100 percent learning at the top, as a steep incline might climb toward the sky. Rather, each graph looked like a series of mountains and valleys reflecting how irregular learning patterns really are.

“Learning is a slow process. People who become winners work at it over long periods of time, failing and trying again before mastery is attained.”

It’s also important to remember that stepping back is not the same thing as quitting. Neither is it failing. It’s more like shifting gears.

It could mean moving to a better position, a position that gives you a running start in building momentum as you move forward again.

So give up all thoughts of staying in a worn-out situation simply because you’ve spent years in that place. As Barbara Sher reminds us, “It’s only too late if you don’t start now.”

Even if it looks like a step backwards it may be the necessary first step to move ahead.

 

 

On July 15, 1993, I woke up feeling excited and apprehensive. The cause of this emotional turmoil had been years in the making. It was publication day for Making a Living Without a Job.

I had spent much of the previous year writing and rewriting and writing some more. But the story truly began decades earlier when I set out on my own rather lonely journey in self-employment.

My experience was very much like Paul Hawken’s who said, “When I started the natural food business in Boston, my business knowledge was scant. I did the best I could and began reading everything I could lay my hands on.

“I subscribed to The Wall Street Journal. It confused me. I read the major business magazines. Their Fortune 500 world seemed irrelevant.

“I sneaked into classes at the Harvard Business School. Their case studies were lunar in their usefulness to my enterprise.

“The more I searched, the more confused I became. The more exposure I gained to the official world of business, the more I began to doubt that I was in business at all. “I seemed to be doing something entirely different.

“I get that same feeling today when I read most of the standard business literature believe that most people in new businesses, and some in not-so-new businesses, have the same problem.

“They don’t feel connected to the conventional wisdom…as if a small business is just a flake chipped off the larger corporate world.”

Like Hawken, I figured it out for myself and created the kind of enterprise that felt like a perfect fit. After years of happily working on my own, something quite unexpected happened.

When I was a newcomer in Minneapolis, I kept meeting people who seemed both fascinated and envious of my Joyfully Jobless life. One day it dawned on me that I might be able to help them if I shared my experiences.

Fortunately, the local independent adult ed program, Open U, agreed to run my class which I thought was a temporary project, too radical to be popular.

I was wrong. Dead wrong. I had found my genuine right livelihood.

Making a Living Without a Job not only became a regular offering of Open U, it attracted curious learners from around the US and, eventually, Canada and Britain.

Almost from the start, people inquired if I’d written a book. I knew that eventually there would be one, but was not interested in writing it until I had evidence from the field (i.e. seminar attendees) that my ideas worked for others.

When it felt like the time had arrived to work on a book, I decided that it should happen in an unorthodox way. Instead of approaching publishers, I got the crazy idea that I wanted a publisher to find me.

To my delight and amazement, that’s exactly what happened when not one, but three, publishers contacted me. After sorting through the offers, I decided Bantam’s was the best fit for me.

So here I am twenty-one years later with an anniversary to celebrate. Making a Living Without a Job has been in print the entire time, with an updated version appearing in 2009.

No one is more surprised by that than me.

As I now point out to seminar participants, we aren’t always the wisest judge of what our best ideas might be. We’ve got to take them to the marketplace and see what happens.

Or as the writer Anais Nin once advised, “Throw your dreams into space like a kite and you do not know what it will bring back. A new life, a new friend, a new love.”

You’ve probably had the experience of coming across a new word, looking it up in the dictionary, then noticing that the word appears all over the place.

Or you start thinking about taking a trip to Paris and the next thing you know Woody Allen has a movie coming out called Midnight in Paris. A few days later, you strike up a conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop and they mention they’ve just come back from Paris.

While we often think of such happenings as synchronicity, I believe there’s another factor at work here. I call it selective awareness. Something grabs our attention and we continue to tune in on further encounters with that thing.

It doesn’t have to be a totally random experience, however. We can consciously decide to pay attention to things that will add to our adventure or further our goals.

It comes as a surprise to me, then, that so many would-be entrepreneurs don’t seem to be gathering stories and support for their own successful self-employment. As Caroline Myss reminds us, “We evolve at the rate of the tribe we’re plugged into.”

Here are just two  examples of things that have appeared on my personal radar screen

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 A couple of years ago, I boarded a  Southwest flight and promptly took the in-flight magazine out of the seat pocket. I was thrilled to see the theme of that issue was entrepreneurship and settled in to explore.

The first thing I read was Jay Heinrichs’ editorial. I loved it so much that I now share it in some of my seminars. Here’s how it begins:

“There are two kinds of people in the world: entrepreneurs and naysayers. I belong to the second group. In my own experience, one characteristic distinguishes entrepreneurs from naysayers. Entrepreneurs never follow the advice of people like me. Not to brag, but I’ve naysayed some of the finest business ideas of the past three decades.”

This amusing piece was a fine reminder to beware of dreambashers. The rest of the issue was filled with stories of people who had done just that and built terrific businesses.

Of course, I took the issue with me when I deplaned.

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My artistic granddaughter and I share a fondness for the work of Mary Engelbreit, one of the most commercially successful artists around.

One of my all-time favorite Engelbreit drawings is of a barefoot woman sitting at her desk wearing a straw hat and bib overalls. Through the window behind her, we see sunflowers and a red barn. There’s a cigar box on her desk overflowing with money.

The caption reads, “We don’t care how they do it in New York.”

In her book Artful Words, Engelbreit tells the story behind some of her best known drawings. Here’s what she says inspired the creative farm woman:

“I did this because in the early days, people (especially on the East and West Coasts) were always saying, ‘Oh, you can’t start a card company. You can’t do it this way. You can’t do it that way.’ Of course we did do it that way. The funny thing is this greeting card was a best-seller in New York.

“So many people in New York and California just don’t have any idea about the rest of the country. I’ve met people from the coasts who assume that because I’m from the Midwest, I live on a farm. So this was for all of them.”

 

My friend Chris and I loved an old cartoon in which Ziggy declared,  “My idea of prosperity is a checking account with commas.” We promptly adopted that as our prosperity symbol.

Feeling prosperous is a highly individual thing and each of us has a different notion of what constitutes prosperity.  For many people, alas, prosperity means having more than whatever they currently have.

It’s much healthier to find small reminders that we are creating abundance in our own lives. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

* You use up your deposit slips faster than you use your check blanks. (This may not count if you bank online.)

* You don’t have any bills because you pay them as soon as they arrive and don’t let them accumulate.

* You’re always looking for ways to maximize and utilize what you’ve already got rather than noticing what you don’t have.

* You notice and acknowledge your surplus. As Sondra Ray points out if you have even a few coins in your purse, you have a surplus, yet almost nobody gives themselves credit for that.

* You say thank you  a lot. Gratitude is not only a sign of prosperity—it’s the way to attract even more.

* You refine your taste by noticing the things you find beautiful and by uncluttering your life to get rid of things that are taking up space but don’t bring you joy. You’re not afraid to create a vacuum.

Do you have any personal ways you acknowledge your abundance that aren’t on this list?