It was a gorgeous, sunny day here today. OK, a bit windy and maybe on the chilly side. But still, gorgeous. I wanted to read on the balcony, maybe take a slower walk to get the kink out of my knee. But there was work to do. If nothing else, I am a “work first, play later” person.
The unexpected message: There is a glowing area that seems to be just below the front horizon line. It’s warm and comforting. Maybe it indicates play time.
Checking items of the to-do list makes me feel strong and powerful. I’m getting work done! And I did. And when I was ready to relax, the sun was on the way behind the horizon, it was Sunday night, and I still have a big chunk of list for tomorrow.
Sometimes a small machine in my head acts as if I will hit a magic end to the work, a big trumpet will sound and satisfaction will pour into my heart as money pours into my hands.
Yes, there is satisfaction in getting work done well, but there is a necessity for play in life, too. Play is more than goofing off. It is giving your brain a rest and your subconscious a chance to chew at ideas and creative play. That didn’t happen today. And I’ll regret it. Already am regretting it.
Maybe the only way I can get time to play is put it on the to-do list. It’s that important.
–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, writer, and a trainer who develops writing programs for businesses. She teaches them, too.
When you do what I do–help business people write more clearly so they can communicate better–the question comes up, “How fast can you teach a class to write better?” The answer is complicated, but let’s simplify: How much do you want to practice?
We live in an age of convenience. Easy, fast, cheap. It’s our national mantra. I’ve seen clients flip through a complex training proposal to find out how much it costs first.
Recently, I had a business that didn’t hire me explain, “I don’t want someone to teach us how to write, just bring us to a point of iterative completion.” The client wanted me to develop a template that employees fill in. A template to cover all types of communication, from emails to proposals. Templates can be useful, but only if most information remains static or requires no explanation. Writing is a skill that isn’t easy to learn. And it shouldn’t be. We explain ourselves through communication, we define ourselves. That should require some struggle.
Tim Wu, in a recent article in the New York Times (“The Tyranny of Convenience”), writes, “Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.”
Making our lives easy was the promise of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It brought us big-box stores, where we could find a lot of items at a lower price. Too bad it killed off specialty stores. Then we fell in love with instant delivery, which Amazon brought us. We pay for convenience in more than one way. True, struggling is not fun. But it is often more interesting than we think.
Online learning is easier than driving to a school. Of course, in-person training includes asking questions, instant updating, group discussions that share information, and the experience of hearing what other people think and how they got to that point.
We were collectively amazed at the skills of the Olympians–the daring snowboarders, the dazzling ice skaters, the wonder of the skeleton riders, whose concentration is so intense that breathing can change the timing of speeding blades. All of the people we saw on screen, both the winners and those who placed below the top three, spent years practicing, learning, failing, learning how to continue despite their fears, hurts, and defeats. None of them woke up one day, decided to go to the Olympics, packed and went.
It’s the same for any skill. Easy is not bad, but some things cannot be made easy. Relationships, invention, learning a language, writing–in fact, all forms of communication–need to have a level of difficult to make mastering them worthwhile. Convenience is outcomes. Learning is experience. Learning is journey, convenience is destination. That doesn’t mean there should not be short cuts. But there must be practice and failure, too.
When we do things right the first time, we are often rewarded. But failing allows us to re-think, learn from what did not work, and invent what will work. Or work better. Wu, in the article mentioned above, says, “Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are.” And it answers the question painted on the post in the photo at the top of this post: How do you create what is your magic?
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia, the author of “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads” and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
Quinn McDonald is a writer, training developer, and creativity coach who can’t imagine learning anything worthwhile without being inconvenienced.
Yesterday, I talked about how hard it is to re-build a habit (like walking) and how inventive your brain can be when it needs an excellent excuse not to pursue the good habit.
Not in any of the time we spent in the park did I think of taking photos. This was an accidental shot, while turning off my headset to use the speaker. It looks like a football-type diagram for freeing a cat.
No excuses today, not even with rain predicted. Off I went this afternoon, for a walk. I crossed into Steele Park, happy to watch migrating songbirds stop for a drink.
A car pulls into a parking space, a man in camo hurries out, carrying a bright pink cat carrier. (This catches my attention.) He runs up to the view fence, puts the carrier down, opens the door and races back to the car, where the driver, seeing me start to trot toward his car, screeches out of the lot as soon as his cowardly, cat-abandoning friend joins him.
A terrified black and white cat bolts under a nearby car. A thin woman appears, asking if I’d seen what happened. We both had. Neither of us wants to leave the cat under the car in a busy parking lot. The thin woman and I could not be more different: She is about my height, but bone-thin, no more than 80 pounds. Most of that weight comes from the various rings, stones, and rods hanging from the piercings in her nose, ears, and eyebrows, partially covered by her black and neon green hair.
I lower myself to kneel, and Thin Woman says, “Let me look under the car, you stand on the other side.” Oh, my cartilage-free knees thank you. She lies flat on the ground and spies the cat in the wheel well. I wrap my hand around a cat flank and tail and the cat lets loose its bladder contents on my hands, vest and pants. Oh, well. Then the cat vanishes. Into the car engine.
Thin Woman says, “Now what?” I suggest waiting to see if Car Lady will show up so we can warn her. A nurse from the nearby Veterans Hospital shows up and asks us what we are doing around her friend’s car. We explain. It sounds lame, even to me. She drives away.
Car Lady shows up and I explain there is a cat in her engine. Her friend had called her and told her that the unlikely looking scruffs hanging out at her car are not dangerous. Car Lady pops the hood and sure enough, way down there, I can see white whiskers. Car Lady honks the horn, to no avail.
Just then a mud-bog-style truck pulls up. Out comes Truck Guy, easily 6-foot 5-inches and well over 300 pounds. He’s tattooed and has his head shaved except for a spot in the center of his scalp. “You ladies need some help?” We do.
For the next 90 minutes, Fat Lady (that’s me, none of us asked for names), Thin Woman, Car Lady and Truck Guy each come up with ideas and work according to our skills, as a team. To free a three-pound cat. Absolute strangers. Each of us looking like people you would avoid eye contact with. Well, Car Lady is in nurse scrubs and looks tired, but kind. We do not talk about politics, guns, or how busy we are. All work is focused on freeing the three-pound cat.
I work the phone, calling the non-emergency fire department number (no help), animal control (endless loop of menu pushing) and the Sunnyslope Animal Shelter. It will take an hour for someone to come, and by then, they will be closed. It will be overtime. I offer to pay the overtime and whatever fee they charge for taking in a cat.
Thin Woman, Car Lady, and Truck Guy are fishing in the engine and under the car. I suggest going to buy some cat food at the nearest gas station. I can do that, so I head out.
Thin Lady has to go home when I come back, so we thank her. It sounds like the end of a polite cocktail party–thanks and well-wishes–not four strangers in a park.
By the time I walked home, it was raining.
The sky is now heavy with rain clouds. Dang. No one wants the cat to be rained on. The open can of cat food works. The cat drops out of the engine and follows the tiny shreds I offer to lure her closer to the bushes, away from the cars. Car Lady won’t leave the cat. It’s starting to rain.
Truck Guy blocks the way to the main road, I crouch on the sidewalk to block an end-run parking lot escape, and Car Lady takes the can of cat food and sits in the bushes. Totally still. The cat comes to her and she slips her hand around it slowly. She has the cat! We load the cat into the bright pink box, put the can of food with her, and I admit I’m on foot and don’t have a car.
I phone the shelter and beg them to stay open, Truck Guy holds the box, and Car Lady sets her GPS. We do a group hug. We can hear the cat scarfing down the food in the carrier between us.
Four highly unlikely strangers who have worked for almost two hours as a team with no arguments, no power struggles and no side eye. For a three-pound cat that someone abandoned.
It starts to rain harder. We’ll never see each other again. And we each have a story to tell, one that defies stereotypes.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and a creativity coach. She is also a woman who will give up her walk to help save a three-pound cat, with three strangers, and walk home in the rain, happy as can be.
It was a dark and stormy night. It was followed by a chilly and windy morning. My habit is to get up every morning and walk five miles. Some days walking is easier than others. This day I decided that “just this once,” I was going to walk later, when the wind died down and it warmed up. It didn’t seem like a difficult decision. In fact, the decision was amazingly easy.
Later in the day, however, I got busy. Didn’t check the time, didn’t set a time to walk. Before I knew it, it was dark again. Oh, well, what’s one missed day?
The next morning, I was filled with resolve–to try the later time again. Skip to the end of the day: no walking.
Day three: step on scale, see I’d gained two pounds, reminded myself of having to walk, but really enjoyed getting into an email exchange with a friend.
You know how the rest of the week went, right? Total weight gained: three and a half pounds. No walking.
Routine is one way to get things done. Taking an action at the same time in the same way makes it easier. The instant I break routine, my creativity really kicks in and it is much easier to discover an even better fake excuse to not walk. My knee hurts (my knee has hurt for the last 20 years of walking; generally, it stops hurting around mile 2.) I’ve taken a shower already. (Water conservation is good, but a fast shower after a walk is proof that I should have walked before showering this morning.) It goes on and on.
Metaphor alert. In any practice: meditation, writing, painting, singing, even going to work, the instant you stop following your practice, the easier it gets to break the practice entirely. Never have to do it again. Listen to your great, inventive excuses. Believe them.
One of the reasons I leave my desk ready to work is that I don’t have to figure out what to do. It’s a habit to start checking the to-do list and get to work.
It’s the mental equivalent of “tie shoes, go out, and walk.” Once the habit is broken, the new habit is “Don’t do it anymore. Ever.” And you have to start the long, uphill slog to get back into the habit of walking.
“Just this once” rarely pans out. Creative people develop creative excuses. It’s hard to build a habit, easy to break one. So now I’m up and walking again. Just for today. Not thinking about tomorrow or if I will want to. Just walking. Keep walking. Get ‘er done.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches business writing, helps people whose creativity stalled, and walks.
Now that I am neither fat nor skinny, neither too young to be listened to or too old to hold attention, I am teaching kindness. Not in class, not online. By having fun. In person.
So much information, so many instructions. Even on the street, we are being told that there are potholes to come, difficulty lies ahead. I want to make navigating life a bit easier for people.
I will step in front of a sliding door at a grocery store, and make a sweeping gesture from my left shoulder, toward the right, as if welcoming people from the store to step out into the world. “Please,” I’ll say, “After you!” The person in the grocery store will startle, then look at me warily, and walk in front of me. They may think I’m fooling them, waiting to smack them with a jellyfish, but I’m not. I’m offering them the space to walk in front of me and doing it with a smile.
On the light rail, younger men (and occasionally women) will offer me their seat. It would be rude if I did not let them feel good about their offer, and I’ll accept the seat, saying, “My feet and I thank you for your kindness.”
The language is slightly old-fashioned, and I always make eye contact and smile. Rarely does the other person not smile back.
One woman said, “Don’t accept that seat, he’s treating you like a baby.”
“He’s being kind and I’m grateful,” I said, and sat. The young-ish man winked at me. I winked back.
A senior citizen was ahead of me at the grocery store. He put a divider after his groceries. I caught his eye and said, “Thank you! Now I can put down my groceries instead of holding them.” He was surprised (he didn’t do it for my comfort, but I acted as if he did) and then said, “The world is so angry, who is going to be nice in the future?” Valid question. I smiled and said, “Well, both of us will, and that’s already two!”
He waited a beat and then said, “It’s up to us, isn’t it?” I nodded, still smiling. “It always is. If we don’t do it, who will give good example to the rest of the world?” He asked if I’d like a hug. It’s flu season. I wasn’t sure. But we were surrounded by people to give example to, so a quick hug was in order. It worked fine. He said, “You could have said nothing, but this is turning out to be a good day!” That was 10 days ago, and I feel fine.
Small kindnesses startle people. I would not have done this in my 30s. But now I can, and I’m taking advantage of it. People might hurry away, they may not react in the moment, but a small kindness can be a light on a dark day.
Of course the people getting off a metro or an elevator should be let out first, but making a small gesture that shows you know this and are letting them hurry off by choice is an uplifting second. It often surprises people, sometimes startles them. It’s a risk, but one I’m happy to take.
—Quinn McDonald teaches communication to businesses. And practices it in everyday life.
A familiar fable: Decades ago, my boss warned me about a powerful man in the corporation where we both worked. My boss, a kind and intelligent man, told me (in well-couched terms) that Mr. Powerful had a reputation of being handsy and inviting women to his hotel suite on business trips. Here’s the kicker: I was being warned because I would be blamed if anything happened. Yep, it was up to me to be responsible for Mr. Powerful’s behavior, without having any authority over him.
I asked, baffled, if Mr. Powerful had been told not to ask employees to have sex with him. My boss looked at me as if I were particularly stupid. “That’s not how it works,” he said, and then explained that I would be fired if I were groped, willing or not. In fact, if I turned down Mr. Powerful, and he became petulant and lied for his own ego’s satisfaction, I would still be fired.
To summarize: If Mr. Powerful hit on me, I would be fired, whether or not I refused. Whether or not he lied. It was, simply, up to me to navigate around Mr. Powerful’s lust, as his position was safe and mine was not.
This is a hold-over from the teenage years, when a boy who got his girlfriend pregnant would swear that his friends had also slept with her, and paternity suits dissolved. The boys smirked their way to the future as Mr. Powerfuls while the girls were sent to a “home.” Yes, this happened. Often, in the days before DNA testing was possible. The memories linger for 40 years and more.
Our culture is steeped in unequal treatment. It is not going to be easy to change a whole culture when old habits (which can be dressed up as “traditional”) start early and die hard. None of this is about sex or lust. It is about abuse of power. And women want the authority that goes with their increasing responsibility. Without authority, the abuse of power can continue, unabated.
Here are reasons we stay silent about sexual abuse for 40 years:
Birth control is a woman’s problem. But access to birth control belongs to the men who make the rules about insurance and whether or not the workplace will cover birth control.
Sex in the workplace is about power, rarely lust. A woman might say Yes because she is the only breadwinner for her family, and retaliation is not just a threat, but a reality. Power is a big tool, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds.
Men have bragging rights to sex. Women get slut-shamed for participating.
Men think sex is a perk of power, rank, or celebrity. Women vie for salary or jobs.
Abused children (and adults) often try to please their abuser. It’s a form of control, to keep the abuser pleased to avoid harsher treatment. No matter how much we know harassment and abuse is outside our control, in some tiny place in our heart, we still feel shame that some part of it might possibly have been our fault. And that shame is easy to use against us.
Women have had to behave in counter-productive ways for centuries. Culture and peer pressure are powerful tools. Behaviors small and large. We wear stilettos to be attractive, although they hurt our feet. We skip the foods we like in public, although we’d like to indulge, so not to be called fat or greedy. We wear clothing because it is a current fad, although it is not flattering. Better to be safe. There are thousands of examples, from minor to life-changing decisions.
We have long been on the losing side of power. We’d like a crack at it without condemnation or ridicule.
Men: We know you won’t believe us or have our back. You will claim sex was consensual to protect yourself. You say, “It’s your word against mine.” You excuse your behavior as “boys will be boys.” You will always have your high-ranking male friends back you up.
That’s why we keep quiet for 40 years.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She has also heard enough unequal sex-in-the-workplace stories to last a lifetime.
The leaf says, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart,” –Confucius. Photo from my book, The Inner Hero Creative Art Journal.
When I started writing about the Word of the Year about 10 years ago it was a fresh idea, interesting and creative. (The idea was not originally mine.) A decade later, it needs a rest. 2017 was a tough year for many, judging from social media. I lost friends, had a new, profitable business idea pulled out from under me, lost income and, in general had a tough year.
But still, Solstice and New Year are a time to reflect. Some learning led to a new ritual.
1. Happy, easy, healthy, and problem-free is not the norm. It’s not even the old-normal. Good times and bad times happen.
2. Opposites can be compared, so we can see growth, change, and make more changes. Looking back is as important as looking forward.
3. Bad times challenge us to make decisions and take action. Like mistakes, they keep us awake, aware, and in the present.
4. Blessing someone is not the privilege of priests, shamans, or holy people. Anyone has the power to call a blessing on anyone else. It’s healing.
So what about the word of the year?
Well . . . it’s a little different. Probably, I’m not alone in clutching insults, hurts, and slights to my heart and letting kind words, compliments, and smiles drift away. That diminishes the power of kindness.
On a recent morning walk, I gathered the long, thin leaves from a eucalyptus tree. The leaves get pressed between watercolor sheets until dry and flat. (Flat is important. Dry is not.)
Decorated leaves, which have other words, designs and purposes.
This is a variation of an idea I used in my book, The Inner Hero Creative Art Journal. Using a Stabilo “All” pencil, I write the things I want to let go on some of the leaves. Worries about money, health, relatives, vanishing friendships, anger, loss, lack of control over my own life–all the existential dread I can call out. All the pain gets written on one leaf at a time. It is quite a pile.
Then I use more leaves to write down blessings I’d like to leave to the world: kindness, compliments, generosity, forgiveness, appreciation of what I have, the blessing of seeing another full moon, another dawn, enjoying a meal. More blessings than I thought. Another pile of leaves.
When I go walking through alleys in Phoenix, on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, I’ll scatter the leaves, blessings and worries both. I let go of the worries, drop them from my hands, knowing that letting go will allow more room in my soul for blessings. I release them by saying, out loud, “I am releasing myself from X, this worry cannot darken my soul.”
But I also let the blessings go, fall into the world, with the phrase, “May there be more X in the world, and may I see it and be aware and grateful.”
The leaves do not damage the environment, they belong to the environment. It’s a form of communication between nature, the future, the past, and me. It’s simple. It feels good.
What if you live in an area where there are no leaves at the moment? You can buy eucalyptus from a florist. Or use Alstroemeria, that cast-iron-tough flower, also called Inca Lily. Press the leaves. Just don’t use fabric or artificial leaves. Connecting yourself with nature is the healing here.
While the leaves are drying, think about what you want to let go of, what you want to keep. That alone is worthwhile for 2018.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She is also a creativity coach who helps people heal trauma through writing.
Homeless people, travelers, strangers, grocery shoppers–when I write about people I meet, Facebook comments trend to: “You sure meet a lot of interesting folks,” or, more directly, “You seem to attract weirdos.”
They are correct. Hundreds of ordinary people pass through my life. It’s the interesting ones, the incomprehensible, the downright odd that make the cut for a story.
What sort of a read is an article about the woman ahead of me in the grocery line if she puts bacon, eggs, milk, and bread on the belt, pays with a debit card, and leaves? But if she had bourbon, Bloody Mary mix, bleach, extra-large trash bags, and a carving knife, that creates potential. And I’d probably start up a conversation.
Communicating is a skill honed by practice. From the people I see walking, staring at screens, it’s likely that communicating by spoken word will die out soon. All of us crave connection. We want to tell our stories. We want to talk to those most likely to advance our career, our love life, our goals.
In the streets of downtown Phoenix every day, I meet the day homeless who are waking up and getting ready to keep moving and the night homeless, who are looking for a safe place to bed down for the day. I walk past light rail commuters, dog walkers, runners, parents dropping kids off at day-care centers, school crossing guards, construction workers who are already busy. I probably pass more potential stories than the average office worker meets in a week.
Here’s the real twist: I’m not looking at a screen as I walk. I am not wearing earphones that block out noise and conversations. I see, hear, and smell whatever shows up.
Staying non-electronic has allowed me to meet the lady who thought I was a drug dealer because my sweatshirt says “Columbia” on it. (It’s a university in New York; the country with Medellin and Cartagena is spelled Colombia, and she didn’t know the university. Or how to spell the country.)
The homeless person at whom I smiled and said, “good morning,” was delighted she was visible. Most people ignore her, bump into her, turn their heads away, so she thinks no one can see her.
These stories and experiences change my view, enrich my life, and allow me to hear amazing stories told by real people with real, if not always happy, lives.
It’s not so much that I attract weirdos as I am willing to see everyone and listen to stories. When you stay off the screen, you develop communication skills again. Those lead to story ideas. Example: If my life shrank to a grocery cart of possessions, what found items would I keep? Yeah, it’s not a journal prompt you’ll get from your daily prompt generator, but your writing will get more thoughtful and colorful.
I attract stories of the heart, of the mind, and of the untethered soul. And I treasure them.
–-Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She is also a creativity instigator and creativity coach.
If your holiday is bright and warm, you are welcome here. If your holiday is sad, you are welcome here. If you are in a crowd, alone, happy, crying, making it through the holiday the first time after a loss, you are welcome here. Other people’s lives often look better than ours. But we don’t know what is happening behind that window. That door. Those eyes.
So welcome here. Put down what you need to put down. Take what I can offer: small comfort. The release of pain. And the sturdiness of a ficus with a history. This day will pass. Whether you want it to or not, whether you cling in joy or cry in unhappiness, it will pass.
Usually the furrowed brows and frowns come early in my business writing training classes. Maybe it’s when we discuss the convoluted phrases that won’t die, but don’t serve either the business writer or the reader. Phrases like, “As you may remember . . . ” (which is a signal you aren’t remembering what the writer wants you to remember) or “Per our conversation of this morning, attached please find . . . ” (You wouldn’t talk like that; don’t write like that. It’s much clearer to say, “Here is the X you asked about this morning.”)
Bringing new learning back from a class might make you feel like pushing up new growth from a dead spot. That’s a good thing.
True, those phrases (and all their relatives) have been used for decades. That’s part of the problem–they are dated, creaky, and not practical for the way we read.
There are many sections in my business writing classes where updates to language or communication meet resistance. “We’ve always done it that way,” or “If I change, I’ll be the only one who writes like this,” or, worst, “My boss won’t let me write that way.” The answer I want to say (but rarely do) is, “Your supervisor sent you to this class to learn something new, not to confirm that everything is fine. New ideas always cause a bit of a pushback, but that doesn’t mean you give up.”
Participants are sent to class to learn to communicate more clearly. To make their writing easier to understand. To get to the point. If their writing hasn’t used plain, simple wording, learning how can seem threatening. There’s nothing to hide behind.
After the lunch break, we have a discussion on how to talk about a training class when participants get back to work. It was surprising to discover that this important part of learning is something often forgotten by instructors. Without it, most learning is ignored or forgotten quickly. Here are some points worth digging into with clients and participants:
1. Learning is change. You learn because you want to do things differently. Improving anything signals change. You are learning how to change in class. It will work only if you carry the change back to the workplace and use it.
2. No one knows what you learned in class unless you tell them. So tell them. Bring up the topic with your supervisor and the people you work closely with. Do not make other people wrong because you learned something new. Instead, talk about what you learned that is new. “I was surprised to learn that good writing is using simple language.” Or, “I didn’t expect to learn that business writing is all about the reader.” Be ready to give examples. (Have that workbook handy.)
3. Schedule a meeting with your boss. Review three or four items that you learned and explain how they will improve (not just change) your writing. You were sent to class to learn; show that the investment in you paid off. This paves the way for change by showing you are transferring the knowledge to your work. You are signaling growth and change in a positive way.
4. Link your learning to the class. Someone paid for you to go to class. They expect results. Often, your boss might not link immediate change to learning. Feel free to use phrases like, “Until the instructor mentioned it, I hadn’t thought about X,” or “I’m glad I went to class. I learned X and Y, which should show up in my weekly project report this week.”
5. Start with three specific changes. In class, you practice and receive encouragement. Once back on the job, you are the new expert. Review three changes you want to make and get comfortable with them. You can’t change everything at once. Create a list of small steps and larger steps you want to take and put them in your private calendar or to-do list. If you go back to work, toss the workbook in a drawer and do things the way you used to do them, you will have gained nothing.
In my classes, participants are given my email and told that they can contact me with questions for the next month. The first three days back at work are the most fragile. Once participants start to apply what they learned, pushback is inevitable. Having support and confirmation is important. The most questions come up in the first two weeks. After that, change gains momentum and participants gain confidence. And knowledge sticks and creates change.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches business writing and shows participants how to make it work.
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