Psychology Today

Note: In another article, "New Year's Goals for No-Goals Creatives," I noted how I rarely consciously set goals. In that article, I offered, though, authentic ways to approach goal-setting. This follow-up article lays out a more intuitive skillful means that has guided my adult life - imagination. I risk going into personal material, but I hope it's of interest and use. Let me know.

Creativity is a revived currency in business.Yet what do we entrepreneurs, micro-business owners, and hybrid artistic practitioners-freelancers do when we make professional plans and goals? Some of us complain that we're not analytical or MBA-savvy enough and forfeit our innate creative tools. Analysis alone will not get you to the heart of your professional life and future. And for most of us motivated by meaning more than money, we must get to the core to keep our business's heart beat thumping through good times and bad.

One oft-forgotten tool, inherent to your creativity, can help you get to your professional heart and envision your professional year accordingly.

What the Lakota Taught an Unlikely Entrepreneur

Either indulge me a little personal back story or drop down to the next section.

At 22, fresh out of grad school and green in teaching students the nuances of literature & creative writing, I had no eye toward the future beyond a semester's end. But I found among Lakota literature wisdom that has guided my most significant professional decisions.

Most of what I wanted then is pretty much what I want now - to live each day with as much gusto with whatever work and play presents itself. My heroes then are who they are today - Thoreau, Zen masters like Dogen, poets whose gaze cracks open the ordinary moment's quiet splendor, bold yet unassuming innovators in all fields whose love of work for work's sake far outreaches any survivalist or competitive needs, and the anonymous Native American elders whose words I relished as tracks to a full life worth living.

The Lakota ways particularly interested me. A Lakota man could dream of a rock, and that dream would send him off on a whole new course of life. Like other tribes such as the Cree, the Lakota considered dreams and landscape forms and animals and signs for one's life direction to be part and parcel of the same language. I knew then that this language was far, far away from anything I grew up learning or comprehended within conventional learning institutions. I did sense, though, something kindred in making decisions more imaginatively than rationally.

And then I came across this gem from a Lakota elder:

Imagine your life richly.

I know that sounds like some New Age bumper sticker. But at the time I took it as part of my personal gospel right up there with the truths of Walden.

When I was in my mid-twenties, teaching full-time fatigued me. I'd drive for hours some Decembers to find a country cabin for peace and perspective. I'd climb a mountainside until I could catch a decent view of the scruffy valleys and desert-like terrain and horizons where sky meets land. And I'd imagine my future. I'd see only faint and fleeting images of my being outdoors more, of somehow teaching writing outdoors, of connecting people in the arts and business to the natural world, of teaching in ways that seemed far out of bounds for a university or academy. I felt myself less wired to meet other people's expectations. I held onto those images.

By my early thirties, I held a secure, well-paying position as English Department Chair at a prestigious academy and held part-time positions at another university. But the managerial responsibilities were taxing, the leadership lacked vision and ethics, and I sensed my best self suffocating. I had found my way to a yoga class, and soon this academic egghead wound up in a yoga teacher training. Scary stuff, that. I spent hours imagining another way of life cobbled together by part-time and consulting gigs, a life that might mesh this then-newfound thing called yoga with creative living. I sketched out hypothetical weekly schedules that had large chunks of free space in the days to wander, write, and act upon new ideas. Within months, I resigned forever from a full-time job and never looked back. Within a year, I launched the Yoga as Muse programs and the Center To Page business to mentor writers and artists, and a year later I moved to Woodstock, New York and sold a book to Penguin.

By my late thirties, my best self grew restless again. This time it had to do with wonder, specifically the desire to live a life with more of it. That's all I knew, then. I'd take walks in the woods and try to train my eyes to open up again. I've stayed steady on its tracks, have developed a series of practices to do so, and have grown a successful consulting, speaking, and training business around something as seemingly ephemeral and elusive as wonder. (I'm convinced, incidentally, that I've imagined my wife into my life.)

Yoga. Creativity. Wonder. These are not surefire ways to build a professional life. But they've worked for me, and they've worked for my numerous clients.

There is nothing mystical about what I do. I stuck with those images. Or they with me.

The Necessary Angel of Creative Innovation

Images are the currency of creative innovation. That capacity to take in an image from our senses, remember it, make meaning of it, and even speak of it is part of what distinguishes our species from Neanderthals, according to at least one prominent archaeologist. Designers parlay in images. Marketers know images move you to buy. CEOs like Mickey Drexler of J Crew know that images of a way of life influence decisions. Architects build on images and in turn create buildings that create images. Novelists create what John Gardner calls "fictional dreams," whole continuous worlds that inhabit readers' imaginations.

The Lakota way strangely reflects what a lot of new science reflects. Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, reviews what is at once a whole new way and an ancient way of viewing how we human beings make decisions. We might think we're rational when we lay out our New Year's Resolutions and our annual business goals, but our rationality - according to Wilson as well as cognitive scientists such as Mark Johnson - is built on a deep foundation of emotional irrationality, gut feelings, and impulses. Our rational awareness is but the tip of our mind's iceberg.

This science ties right into other new dream science that suggests that a good night's sleep of dreaming can help us assimilate what we're thinking about during the day and even solve creative problems by priming the brain's associative networks. We just might dream about a rock one night and the next day, boom!, make a decision unconsciously influenced by that dream. Researcher David Watson discovered that creative people who think in images during the day are more likely to recall dreams vividly (Ask my poor wife, who obliges my dream recollections over oatmeal, for confirmation of this finding.) But Watson also discovered these dreamers were more prone to openness, novelty, and different points of view - all essential qualities for the right-brained people successfully innovating in business and creative fields. The Lakota were onto something.

So why not rally this most essential of all faculties to imagine your year - professionally and personally - richly?

Imagination will help you navigate fertile confusion and periods of deep ambiguity, whether for yourself, your work, or your business or corporation. Imagination helps you learn to live in the space of not-knowing, wonder's province.

But images also are the currency of how we create our lives. So, I come back to the Vision Questions I mentioned in the article, "Goals for No-Goals Creatives": How do you imagine your best self acting and being in 2011? What is calling you to act well in the world in 2011? What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel?

Poet Wallace Stevens called the imagination a "necessary angel." He explains, "The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us."

3 Ways to Engage Vision Questions Intuitively

1. Let your body answer. Run with the question. Exercise with it. Swim with it. Practice yoga with it. Immediately following your physical movement, be still for a few minutes. Then listen and watch. It's no accident that members of Jump Associates, the successful creative consulting firm featured in The New York Times piece, perform yoga stretches before their brainstorms: Since 1999, research has shown unquestionably that exercise stimulates new brain cells and new neuronal pathways. With physical activity, you prime your mind to receive a deeper answer.

2. Go to a favorite spot, quiet or crowded. A client of mine who runs her own micro-business loves to sit in Union Square Park on a sunny Saturday when benches and lawns brim with people. She says that's where she takes her big questions. Sometimes a sidewalk jazz quartet or the man who feeds a hundred pigeons or some conversation she overhears triggers a response. Find your spot. Sit. Listen. Watch. Repeat each day for several days in the beginning of January.

3. Dream your year. Tell yourself before sleep to dream about something, and you have a 50% chance of being a lucky dreamer. That's the general finding of Deridre Barrett, Harvard psychologist and author of The Committee of Sleep. So you might repeat your 2011 vision question to yourself before you fall asleep during the next week.

Leave Your Tracks

How do you engage your imagination to improve your professional life? To make critical decisions? To prepare the ground of your creative professional future? I know we have a lot of artists, entrepreneurs, and professionals of various sorts in this group. Share your wisdom, experiences, and perspective.

See you in the woods,


Are you hungry to make 2011 a year of wonder? Check out the two nifty Tracking Wonder Handbooks I've made. You can download them free. Just spread the word in return.
A Hut of Questions
Tracking Wonder Events



Take this test about what type of family you and you siblings are in after spending the holidays together.

From who brings what dish to the holiday dinner, where holidays are celebrated, do you do a secret Santa or not - how much money to spend on gifts - adult siblings can lock arms or pit themselves against each other. 

Holidays are a great test for families and individual sibling relationships.

When you and your siblings ran  up against problems over the holidays you were:

  • compatible or conflictual
  • cohesive or fragmented
  • productive or non-productive
  • stable or rigid
  • flexible  or rigid

All families are unique, including in their ability to collaborate, make decisions spend time together, especially during the holidays when everything tells you should get along and be happy.

Nearly-normal families, as I call them, are close-knit, well integrated, highly functioning, and sufficiently resilient. These family members can communicate well enough with some help at times and can they can make wise decisions about complex problems. Nearly normal families accept differences of opinion as inevitable and a normal part of decision-making or, in some cases, as opportunities to expand their individual thinking, thereby enabling them to make better-informed decisions. They “lock arms” to address the problems they encounter. 

Dysfunctional families, and individual family dyads like siblings, at best, simply cannot collaborate. They have old  intractable, interpersonal conflict that create additional problems every time they spend time together. Instead of viewing any decision as a problem to be solved together with locked arms, they pit themselves against one another, assume they are right and the others are wrong, and assume the roles of adversaries in their individual quests to solve the problem.

If you and your sibling - or siblings - pitted yourself against each other instead of locking arms over the holidays, maybe your New Years resolution should be fixing your sibling relationship. 

This can start by looking into sibling forgiveness - and the ten steps to achieve it -



The New York Times of Dec 20, 2010 carried an alarming story. It seems that during the past decade, college students have suddenly become much more mentally ill. The rate of severe psychiatric disorder among those seen in school counseling services used to be 16% - now it has reached 44%. Ten years ago, 17% received psychiatric medicine - now it is 24%. This "epidemic" of severe mental illness has overwhelmed the understaffed student health services around the country. 

The article provides two causal theories. Perhaps the availability of highly effective psychiatric medicine allows youngsters with mental disorders to improve enough to go to college. Or perhaps counselors are recognizing serious illness that was previously hidden.
No support is offered for either suggestion and there is a much more plausible third alternative. The sudden exploding rate of "severe" psychiatric illness on campus is most likely caused by over diagnosis - not by a decline in the mental health of the college students. Psychiatric illness is elusive and difficult to define and there are no biologically based laboratory test.
The presence or absence of any given mental disorder is determined by a checklist of symptoms establishing thresholds that are necessarily to some extent fallible and arbitrary. Requiring the presence of six symptoms rather than five (or a duration of four weeks rather than two) can dramatically change the rates of a disorder - who gets diagnosed as ill, who is considered normal.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the severity and duration requirements included in DSM IV were set too low, particularly in the criteria sets that define the milder forms of the depressive, anxiety, and attention deficit disorders. These border upon, and are difficult to distinguish from, the commonly encountered and expectable everyday aches, pains, sufferings, and performance problems that are an inherent part of college life. Not all difficulty is disorder.

And it gets worse. Thirteen years ago, the drug companies lobbied successfully for the right to market their wares in massive direct-to-consumer advertising campaigns. Such profit motivated, skewing of public information about illness is rightly prohibited virtually everywhere else in the world. The primary strategy of the drug company "educational" pitch was to "sell the ill" in order to "move the pill". Attractive actors or celebrities would demonstrate just how easy and common it is to have an unrecognized and readily treatable psychiatric disorder. And the advertisement would usually end with the helpful entreaty to "ask your doctor".

The drug companies could feel comfortable that most doctors would be quick to the prescription pad in responding to patient questions and requests. They had already lavished physicians with industry sponsored conferences, free trips and meals, free samples, biased research, and co-opted thought leaders. There was one drug salesperson for every seven doctors - sometimes outnumbering the patients in waiting areas. Not surprisingly, diagnosis and medication sales have skyrocketed and profits have risen astronomically.

College students confront what will probably be the most stressful phase of their lives. It is no cinch all at once to have to leave home, enter a world of strangers, develop an independent sense of self, confront new temptations and challenges, and perform in a highly competitive academic environment. Many students experience (usually brief and self limited) periods of sadness, worry, trouble concentrating, performance difficulties.
Psychiatric diagnosis and treatment can be enormously helpful for those who have severe and persistent symptoms. By all means, let's diagnosis and medicate those students who really need it. But, the huge and sudden rate increases reported in the article (occurring simultaneously with the drug company marketing blitz) almost surely represent a medicalization of the expectable difficulties many students have in adjusting to college life. Student health services would do well to avoid premature diagnosis and the rush to prescription. Diagnose only those who are really ill, provide counseling and watchful waiting for the rest.

What are the costs of over diagnosis and overly aggressive treatment? Medication prescribed for milder conditions has little superiority over placebo and adds the risks of side effects and complications. Then there is the stigma of having a psychiatric disorder, its possible impact on job and marital prospects, and in getting insurance. To say nothing about the way a falsely diagnosed student sees himself at a crucial moment of identity formation- the reduction in the sense of personal efficacy, resilience, and responsibility. Finally, the ready availability of stimulant drugs used to treat attention deficit disorder has encouraged the growth on college campuses of a large secondary illegal market, supplying pills for recreation and performance enhancement.

Human nature and psychiatric illness are pretty constant - but diagnostic labels are subject to fashion swings, wild fads, and market manipulation. Whenever there is an "epidemic" of psychiatric disorder, assume that it has been exaggerated and is likely to do more harm than good.


There is one ritual I really hate during the holidays: taking down my tree. It's a sad job, as it marks the end of the season. It's also messy. Dragging out a month-old, dried-up balsam means sticky needles everywhere. Most of all it leaves the house with this big empty hole in the corner of the living room. What was there before the tree? I can't even remember.

But I took it down. And here I sit, feeling sad, staring at a bare spot in the living room and a house strewn with needles.

I really need to get over this annual trauma. January is supposedly the month of moving on, cleaning out, and lightening up, right?  Perhaps if I thought of taking down the tree as a New Year's resolution exercise, it would be easier.

New Years invites us to think of things like my tree; things like the old, dried up parts of our lives that need clearing out. Maybe it is an old grudge that we need to release or a lingering sense of self doubt or even a dream that has died.  Whatever it is, like taking down the tree, letting go can bring a renewed sense of possibility and freedom.

For example, the hole in the corner of my living room can now accommodate a floor lamp to light the room, or a plant to bring life and energy to the house.  What things in your life are past their time?  What things are taking up room without bringing light or life?

Of course letting go can also leave a hole we're not sure how to fill. If we let go of anger, for example, then what goes in its place? If we aren't mad, then who are we?  Clearing out is an opportune time to revisit our priorities and sense of purpose.  What blessings and good things do you want to invite into your life ... now that you have room? 

Clearing out an old Christmas tree can also be messy.  When you leave the tree up too long, needles begin to fall everywhere.  Worse they end up in strange places we didn't expect -- like the needles I found in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator last May.  So too when we let a painful or difficult issue sit too long, the "needles" or fallout from that issue can find their way into strange places, like anger or tears at unexpected times.  Best to deal with the issue now.

Hard as it was, I'm glad I took down my tree. Sure I have a lot of needles to sweep and furniture to rearrange. But if I didn't take down the old dried-up tree, where would I find room for the new tree - and the new joy - next year?   



ScienceDaily (2010-12-27) - Scientists have found that a genetic variant of a brain receptor molecule may contribute to violently impulsive behavior when people who carry it are under the influence of alcohol.

The researchers sequenced DNA of the impulsive subjects and compared those sequences with DNA from an equal number of non-impulsive Finnish control subjects. They found that a single DNA change that blocks a gene known as HTR2B was predictive of highly impulsive behavior. HTR2B encodes one type of serotonin receptor in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known to influence many behaviors, including impulsivity.