Is That Cup Half Full Or Half Empty?

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie

A strategy that is second nature to people who live life effectively is the use of paradigm shifts. It’s also called reframing or altered perception. Mary Ann Williamson in Return To Love defines a miracle as a change in perception. Sometimes we can’t change a situation or circumstance, but we can change how we view and perceive it. Always question the challenges in life by asking, “Is there a better interpretation? Is there a way that I can look at this that’s good for me rather than bad?” It’s a strategy that helps you be a more positive thinking person and see possibilities rather than limitations.

My favorite example of a paradigm shift occurred in Milwaukee at that city’s best German restaurant. The joint was jumping and the waitresses had to hustle to keep up. We had ordered dessert and when mine arrived, it wasn’t what I anticipated and I asked the waitress if I could change my dessert order. She said with a big smile, “No problem,” and I almost felt that I was doing her a favor. This really puzzled me because I knew how busy she was and that the waitresses were responsible for making the desserts. Most waitresses would be annoyed and resentful at a customer changing his mind at the last moment and creating additional work during their rush period.

When we were served our coffee, I asked why she wasn’t upset when I requested a different dessert. She smiled again and said, “All the busboys that work here are overworked and underpaid. Whenever there is a mistake on a dessert order, I get to give it to one of the busboys and that makes me feel good.” She had found a way to feel good about a problem that would be very upsetting to most waitresses.

I used to drive a 1984 Honda Prelude. I had two ways to view my ownership of an old car. I was driving a rusted out junker or I was the proud owner of an unrestored classic.

When Kathy and I started dating, we inadvertently walked through some wet cement and left footprints. Kathy was concerned that we were going to get into trouble. I said in my terribly witty and sometimes obnoxious way “Don’t worry. They will be looking for two men.” Kathy is a big gal and wears size 10 shoes. Instead of being shamed and becoming indignant, she chose to see the humor in the situation and laughed heartily. Kathy gives presentations to groups of large size women on body image issues. She tells this story comfortably and never fails to get a laugh.

Kathy not only has a large physical presence, but also projects a “larger than life” image with her high energy, desire to do everything quickly and passionate zest for living life fully. She is an Ethel Merman type who frequently bursts into song, singing some Broadway show tune that she has lovingly committed to memory. When I get up in the morning I love my quiet time and solitude. When Kathy gets up she is doing all those noisy, necessary things (blow drying her hair, doing a load of laundry or starting up the dish washer) that need to be done before she is off to work. This used to irritate me even though I knew it was temporary and I would get my solitude once she left for work. Now when I was a kid, I owned a St. Bernard dog. It was the most impractical pet imaginable for a family living in suburbia in a small house with a tiny yard. Bernie would howl at nighttime and leave the house in shambles with overturned furniture, broken vases and scratched up wallpaper. I loved that dog so much that his “minor shortcomings” just didn’t matter to me. (Mom and dad saw it slightly differently.) Whenever Kathy is noisily clunking around the house in the morning, I think of Bernie and realize that I love Kathy so much that it really doesn’t matter. It’s a small, small problem in the big, big scheme of things. We can learn to view things differently and in a way that makes us feel good rather than bad.

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Everyone has been made for some particular work and the desire for that work has been put in his or her heart.


Howard Gardener, a Harvard psychologist, believes there are multiple types of intelligence. Our school experiences have led us to believe that those who do well on IQ tests and have achieved high SAT scores are the smart ones and the rest of us are average or worse. The damage done by defining intelligence in a too narrow context is that it affects our self-esteem and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you are average you will act accordingly. You can never outperform your self-image.

There is a classic experiment in which a group of kids were told that those among them who had blue eyes were smarter and those that had brown eyes were mentally inferior. The kids’ performances were consistent with how they had been labeled.

There is an obvious bias in favor of those who do well on intelligence tests. They are considered smart, receive preferential treatment (sometimes not knowingly) and have a better shot at the more prestigious schools. Those who received lower SAT scores are labeled as average or damaged goods and labor under the illusion that they have nothing going for them because their skills, intelligence and potential haven’t been properly identified. Acing SAT tests just might say that you are good at taking tests and nothing more; some people are good at taking tests. Of course it may also say other things and I don’t mean to imply that scoring high on these types of tests is without merit, but it isn’t that strong of predictor as to how successful you will be in life. There are many underachievers and unhappy people who do well on tests and fare poorly in life. Let’s review the seven types of intelligences identified by Howard Gardener:

  • Linguistic intelligence is the intelligence of words. This is the intelligence of successful writers, storytellers and poets. People who are particularly smart in this area can argue, persuade, entertain, teach or instruct. These are the people we call wordsmiths.
  • Logical/mathematical intelligence relates to numbers and logic. This is the intelligence of the mathematician, accountant and computer programmer.
  • Spatial intelligence is the third kind of smarts. It involves thinking in pictures and images. It’s the domain of architects, photographers and artists.
  • Musical intelligence is the fourth kind of smarts. People blessed with this have the capacity to perceive, appreciate and produce rhythms and melodies.
  • Bodily/Kinetics intelligence refers to the physical self. It includes talent in controlling one’s body movements and also in handling objects skillfully. Good hand eye coordination is an example. Athletes, artisans, mechanics and surgeons possess a great measure of this kind of intelligence.
  • Interpersonal is the ability to understand and work with other people. It involves being able to perceive and be responsive to the moods, temperament and desires of others. An example might be a social coordinator for a singles club.
  • Intrapersonal is the intelligence of the inner self. Counselors and therapists have good intrapersonal skills. They can be very introspective, contemplative and enjoy various forms of soul searching.

You might strongly identify with one or two of the above descriptions, but you actually possess all 7 types of intelligence.

When these intelligences get way out of balance and one is highly developed at the expense of all the others, we get idiot savants like Raymond in the movie Rainmaker who could calculate numbers with lightening speed but couldn’t take care of himself.

The important thing to remember is that you should give all these intelligences equal billing when evaluating how smart you are. Book smarts get all the press, but I know many successful people whose street smarts more than compensate for any alleged lack of book smarts or formal education.

There are lessons to be learned from highly creative and extraordinary individuals. Highly accomplished individuals are able to identify their strengths and then follow a path that utilizes and exploits their talents. You don’t want to become an unhappy doctor or lawyer just because your father wanted you to follow in his footsteps when you were really meant to be a musician. It’s a prescription for frustration rather than happiness.

Oprah Winfrey has incredible talent in front of a camera or live audience, but she would be the first to tell you that there are innumerable talents and abilities she sees in her various guests each week that she herself does not possess.

Bill Gates said Microsoft would be only a fraction of what it is today if it wasn’t for the talents and abilities of his partners.

Steven Scott said that he only has four significant talents: he knows how to type reasonably well, he knows how to effectively and persuasively communicate, he knows how to direct on-camera talents and he knows how to market products and ideas. He can’t play a musical instrument. He doesn’t understand accounting or computers, possesses no mechanical skills and yet he has generated over one billion in sales and created multiple companies from insurance to cosmetics.

The lesson these examples can teach us is you have to identify your strengths (intelligences) and focus on them.

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Experience teaches us in a millennium what passion teaches us in an hour.

Ralph Iron

After you train yourself to capture all those creative thoughts, the next step is the storage and filing. One of my sons is terribly creative and always carries pencils, sketchpads and writing paper. He records oodles of brilliant and creative thoughts – futuristic concepts that are just beyond the cutting edge of technology. The only problem is he loses them!

You need some type of basic repository or an elementary filing system. A start can be an idea bank where you deposit all your notes, cocktail napkin doodles, etc. The idea bank could be as rudimentary as a file folder, empty desk drawer, shoebox or a card index file. Computers have great data base systems that can be used for information storage and retrieval purposes.

A word of caution for novice computer users: always back up your files with a second copy (hard copy, floppy disk, zip drive etc.). Hard drives can crash or be eaten by viruses. Further precautions can be taken if you truly value your intellectual property and you are engaged in some large creative endeavor such as writing a book. You might sleep better at night if you developed the habit of routinely storing a back-up copy off site. Kathryn Bates and Elizabeth Ross Kubler (both writers) lost years of research and notes when their houses burned down. I make back up copies of all my work every 3 months and store it at a friend’s house. Furniture and clothes can be replaced; research notes, class materials and current writing projects would be much harder.

For me, writing is both a means and an end. The act of writing and note taking are both therapeutic and a necessary part of my daily life. I love the act of writing and the feeling of accomplishment when articles and books are published.

The more research and writing you do, the more interested you will become learning better, more creative and efficient note-taking techniques. I’m always trying to lessen the drudgery and make the recall and retrieval process easier. I bought a lap top computer thinking that instead of writing notes in long hand and later entering them into the computer, I could combine two steps into one and type instead of write. I discovered that typing inhibits my creativity. I focus more on the process (OOPS, I hit the caps lock key and now I have to backspace to the beginning of the line and start all over) rather than the essence of what I’m writing. When I just let it rip, flow and spew out in my barely legible writing, trusting that I’ll by able to interpret and decipher at data entry time, I seem to establish a direct line to my creativity. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is an unequivocal must read, if you are serious about unlocking your creativity. She makes this same point. She recommends that you do your “Morning Pages” in long hand (3 pages of daily journaling). The real value and joy that my lap top computer provides is portability. I can do my data entry wherever I choose – Barnes and Noble bookstore, any comfortable chair at home or my favorite local coffee cafe.

Here are some note-taking tricks that might work for you:

  • Next time you go to a seminar or workshop, try this strategy. Establish different categories. For each category, write its name on the top of a different sheet of paper. This will help you decide what type of information you are interested in collecting and will ensure that it will be better organized afterwards. It’s OK to have a misc. category for all that data that you discovered you needed and didn’t plan for.
  • Check out a concept called Mindmapping. (If you have a background in data processing you might remember a similar process called entity diagramming.) Mindmapping incorporates the use of symbols in note taking and allows you to place all logical and relevant information together. It’s easier to define complex relationship with symbols and connecting lines rather than the exclusive use of text or narrative. If you were interviewing a busy executive with limited availability and were trying to understand the organizational structure of his company or his department, you would be able to grasp complex relationships involving ideas and people faster and easier. It also facilitates the process of adding and documenting new relationships. Written narrative operates more on a first come first written down structure and evolves into a less logical structure. If you want more information, refer to The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan.
  • Here is a technique that really works for me. I visualize the blank page as having 5 different sections (top, bottom, right margin, left margin and the center). The center is the core and where I place the majority of my notes. I designate the other sections for specialized note-taking requirements or reminder areas. I use the left margin to record other books and authors that I might want to investigate further. The right margin I use to jot down inspirational sayings that I might wish to use in a book or article. The top section is used to list tasks that need to be done ASAP. The bottom is used to jot down notes that are out of context or flow with what I’m writing in the center section. This technique allows me to easily locate sayings, book titles and other specialty data without having to pore through all my notes. It’s a real time saver for me.
  • Another variation of the practice is to color code what you write. Maybe red could be used to convey a sense of urgency and blue for topics related to long range planning or projects with no deadline established. If this appeals to you buy yourself a 4-color pen and experiment with it. If it doesn’t work out you still have an unusual pen for only a couple of bucks.
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No pessimist has ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

Helen Keller

Creativity can be induced and frustration can be minimized, if you understand the natural flow and dynamics of the steps within the creative process:

Preparation – This is the data gathering phase. You collect all the information, do the research and analysis.

Yet when you are done, the answer to your problem or dilemma often will not immediately come forth. You feel stymied, frustrated and stumped. This is when you need to walk away from the problem; take a break and do something different.

Incubation – All the raw material and information gathered in the preparation phase begins to percolate on an unconscious level and insights begin slowly to seep into your consciousness. It’s a critical phase, which involves letting go of the problem (consciously or unconsciously), putting it on the back burner and letting your subconscious chew on it for awhile. When you have studied a problem and you say to yourself, “I’ll sleep on it,” that’s the correct strategy. Allow your subconscious to take over and process the data you have collected in your conscious state.

Illumination – This is the “AHA!” stage in achieving breakthrough insights. You never know when it’s going to occur. Albert Einstein said, “Why is it, I always get my best ideas while shaving?” Remember the Boy Scout motto – always be prepared? Be prepared at all times to catch ideas. There is no way to predict exactly when a great idea is likely to pop into your mind. Some of my best thoughts have occurred in the most unlikely place or at the most inconvenient time:

  • Dreams can be a great source for insights and creativity; I keep a pencil and paper on my nightstand to capture those middle of the night ideas.
  • The shower, bathing, brushing teeth, the toilet: Creativity knows no boundaries and doesn’t punch a time clock.
  • In the kitchen while cooking, commuting, out to lunch (both interpretations are valid – eating or daydreaming), at a coffee shop, playing sports or working out at the gym.

Ideas are thoughts and thoughts are ephemeral. Unless you make the effort to capture your ideas, you will lose many of them. If you are serious about not letting your good ideas escape, carry a recording medium with you at all times. A starting point would be a pencil and paper. You could also use 3×5 index cards (they are easier to sort and categorize.) After having a near miss while driving, I learned that it’s not always convenient to take written notes. I decided to augment my basic system of note taking. I purchased a little micro-cassette-recording device that’s much smaller than a pack of cigarettes and has a chip that can record up to 5 minutes of dictation or conversation. This makes for safer driving.

I have heard of creative people that have a device that allows them to jot down their thoughts while taking showers.

My wife and I purchased some software from 3M that allows you to paste “Post It Notes” on the computer monitor. This is real handy when you are in the middle of a computer session and you think of something you need to write down or the phone rings and it’s a message for your spouse. The post it note reduces the risk of the message being lost (it’s also legible; sometimes I’ve hastily jotted down a phone message which was indecipherable even to me.) Kathy and I always know where to find our phone messages.

Kathy also mails herself emails from work to home as reminder notices for things requiring further attention. If you have a cell phone, you can leave messages on your voice mail system or answering machine.

When you become rich and famous, you can hire a personal assistant who follows you around recording all the profound and creative things you are thinking. If you haven’t achieved that level of success, maybe you can con your spouse or one of your kids to play the role of dutiful assistant. (I shudder to think what would happen if I made that suggestion to my wife.) The point is to be prepared at all times to catch ideas.

Once you have established the habit of carrying idea-catching material, you will be surprised at what your mind produces and how creative you are.

A final word on the illumination phase. Have you ever had an insight or creative idea while driving to work and said to yourself “I’ll follow up on this tonight when I have more time.” Evening comes and you discover that you can’t recreate or connect meaningfully with what you were previously thinking about. Emerson said, “Look sharply after our thoughts. They come, unlooked for, like a new bird in your trees and if you turn to your usual task, disappear.” Sudden flashes of inspiration or insights have a vividness and certainty, that is lost if you try to recreate or reconstruct the moment at a later time. This is why it’s essential to capture the thought in its original and most creative form.

Verification – This is the last phase and simply involves trying out the solution to make sure it works.

When you understand the 4 steps of the creative process, you become more attuned to and find it easier to go with the creative flow. It also gives you confidence not to panic or become overwhelmed when you are stuck in the data-gathering phase.

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The greatest goal in life is not the attainment of fame. The principle thing in this world is to keep one’s soul aloft.

Gustave Flaubert

We are all creative geniuses. As children we are spontaneous, highly imaginative and creative. Children sometimes have “make believe” friends. Kids don’t need expensive toys; they know that a plain cardboard box is really a castle. They understand some minor remodeling might be required such as creating windows by punching holes in the box. All kids know that a good castle requires windows.

When I was a kid growing up in South Carolina, nobody ever bought me a kite. Flying things in the air is fun, so I had to improvise. I used to catch large June bugs and bumble bees, attach thread to them and “fly” them. In retrospect, I think it was a breakthrough in kite technology; I never had to wait for a windy day.

As we grow up, we lose our innocence, spontaneity and creativity. We cease to trust our instincts as to what will bring us joy. We begin to march to the beat of other peoples’ drums. We no longer do what is right for us; we become warped by societal expectations, misguided parental guidance and other external influences. Over the years, we begin to forget who we really are and lose touch with what brings us happiness and joy. Our creativity becomes buried and suppressed. It’s no longer reflected in our work or daily living. You need to know that it’s still there. You are still a creative genius. The question is how to get in touch with your creativity. Some us of just have to dig a little deeper than others do to find it.

We often define creativity too narrowly, thinking of it as being the exclusive domain of the artist, writer, painter, sculptor, etc. Creativity can manifest itself in all walks of life by a whole variety of people engaged in all kinds of activities. To me, creativity is just growing and realizing more of your untapped potential in a way that makes your life work better. It could be problem solving at work, creating more intimacy in relationships, better parenting solutions or other ways to make your life or job more fun and joyful.

Creativity is a mindset, a skill that can permeate all areas of your life.

We underestimate the power of creativity to enhance and improve our lives. If you nurture creativity in one part of your life, you’ll soon discover that creativity begins to flourish in other areas of your life. Studies show that creative people possess many positive qualities:

  • Getting along better with others
  • Better planning and problem resolution skills
  • Greater enjoyment of life
  • Seeing and understanding better the big picture

All our lives we have been gathering information through our 5 senses and storing the memories. Think of your mind as a huge data bank with all this data carefully filed. The conscious mind has access to about 1% on this mental database and the subconscious has access to the rest. If we can learn ways to access all the data we possess (e.g., questioning the status quo, brainstorming, certain forms of meditation, the use of affirmations, communing with nature, stream of consciousness journaling techniques, visualizations exercises, etc.), our creativity will soar. Creative people have more faith and trust in their gut instincts, hunches and intuition. They knowingly or unknowingly use strategies that routinely access all parts of their mind.

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It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.

St. Francis of Assisi


People in counseling often begin with the mindset that the counselor is the expert and will fix them with minimal effort on their part. The reality is that the counselor or coach is merely a catalyst of change. The client has to do the heavy lifting. If you aren’t willing to do the work, the probability of meaningful and lasting change is remote. You can never be truly happy by evading or abdicating responsibility for your life.

Some people misunderstand responsibility to be blame. They blame circumstances (It’s my genes/upbringing/astrological chart!) or others (The Devil made me do it! My parents/spouse/boss are responsible!) or they blame themselves (It’s my fault. I’ll emotionally flagellate myself.) This concept of “responsibility” doesn’t admit any real possibility to change. True responsibility says we can change because we have the power to understand the consequences of different actions and power of choice over what actions to take. By consistently accepting that we do choose and accepting the consequences of our choices, we can increase our understanding and ability to decide.

Nathaniel Branden in his book Honoring The Self examines the value of taking responsibility for one’s actions in the moment of performing the action. He gives the following examples:

  • Right now I am choosing not to do the work I promised my boss I would do, and I plan to alibi later – and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing not to answer, honestly and directly, my wife’s question – and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing not to deal with the look of pain in my child’s eyes- and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing to steal this money from my guest’s handbag- and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing to stay home and feel sorry for myself rather than go out and look for a job- and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing to procrastinate rather than confront an issue with my friend/spouse/employee/employer/colleague that I know needs to be confronted -and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing to pretend that I am indifferent when the truth is I am hurting- and I take responsibility for that.
  • Right now I am choosing to act tough when the truth is I want to reach out for help- and I take responsibility for that.

This is powerful self-talk. It would be extremely difficult to have this type of dialogue with one’s self and not see the potential damage that one’s self-esteem would suffer by not taking personal responsibility. This type of self-talk forces us to see the negative consequences when we aren’t willing to take responsibility. When we aren’t willing to reflect on our actions and behavior while they are happening, it’s a form of denial or avoidance. When we habitualize avoidance of truth, it becomes a denial of life and a denial of the power of choice. That’s the worst form of being stuck. You and you alone have to take responsibility. A victim’s mentality believes you should rely on others more than yourself. It creates an unhealthy state of dependency. You must make your own decisions and live your own life. Assume nobody is going to come to the rescue. Your therapist will listen; he is paid to. Your doctor will write you a prescription; he is highly paid to. Your wife and your friends will listen and cluck their tongues in sympathy. But the unvarnished reality is that they have their own problems and agendas and their problems are always going to have priority over your problems. I honestly believe that writers of self help books and therapists do it as much for themselves as they do it for clients and others. We all need to be heard; we all crave recognition.

When I thought I had prostrate cancer, my wife and friends were sympathetic. However, nobody really cared like I did. Why? Because it was my problem and not theirs. How did I know it’s my problem? Because I am the one who will have to suffer the consequences. The doctor will see me dispassionately and determines the course of treatment based on probabilities and treat me accordingly. It’s really not his problem.

Once I took ownership of the problem, I began to be proactive and examined my options and selected the best option available to me rather than saying “Well, the doctors in my health care system know best,” or “What do I know? They are the experts.” I know that I am truly responsible for my health and I must have the courage to question, examine and select the best options for me. We must take responsibility for all aspects of our lives.

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If anything is to happen, it has to start with us, individually, in our own place and time.To wait for a leader to guide us into the future is to be forever disillusioned.

Charles Handy

We often become defined by happenstance and by default. Our career, important relationships and lifestyle just happen. We follow the path of least resistance, do what we comfortably know, repeat the same learned behaviors, travel the same path and accept the same disempowering and limiting beliefs. We are reluctant to engage in a serious process of self-discovery and are fearful of being authentic. We all need to continually work on discovering and honoring our core essence. It isn’t a one-time event; we change and circumstances change. It needs to be an ongoing pursuit of determining who you are, what you want and developing the courage to be that person.

The times in my life that I’ve really gotten myself in trouble and led a joyless, meaningless, shallow existence were when I was pretending to be other than who I really was.

Doing work that is consistent with who you are is absolutely essential if you want to feel fulfilled by living a purposeful and meaningful existence. Life without purpose doesn’t work. You will go through life coping rather than rejoicing. Whenever someone in counseling tells me that he is bored, I know the problem: lack of purpose. Boredom is often perched on the top of a very slippery slope that can lead to ennui, despair, mild depression and then deeper depression.

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