A Different Take on the Idea of Feast or Famine

For the last three years or so, I’ve been having breakfast with my grandfather a few times a week. When I told him I was not going to be looking for another “real job” after getting laid off, he approved and told me that it is possible to work for yourself, but it takes a lot of discipline. He was a first class mechanic, with specialized knowledge about hydraulics and welding machines. Even though he hasn’t taken on any jobs at all during the last few years, people still call occasionally and ask for his advice.

A few days ago, he went into a little more detail about why he chose to work for himself, despite the fact he was offered several tempting jobs. He said:

I was convinced that not knowing how much money I would make the next week was the best way to accumulate the things I wanted. And it worked. I did.

This is a whole new way to look at the idea of “feast or famine.” Most people see the cycle of making plenty of money and making almost no money as a barrier to running a business, an aspect of entrepreneurship to fret about and to try to avoid. My papaw raised five children and had many adventures and not only didn’t mind the booms and busts of running a business, but looked at those cycles as an advantage.

He went on to explain that if you know you are going to earn $300 next week, you will probably spend $298, but if you aren’t sure how much you will earn next week, you will most likely hold on to more of your money, just in case. Modern day experts tell you to build an emergency fund, but very few people ever tell you that the specter of a bad week or a bad month could be the way to riches.

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7 Ways to Generate Original, Problem-Solving Ideas

Running a business requires creativity. You need to be creative to devise and implement systems that work. You need to be able to think creatively to solve problems – and solving problems is essentially what business owners do. Effective marketing requires creativity. Regardless of your industry or area of expertise, as a business owner, there will be times you need to generate creative ideas.

 

The problem is, that an over-worked, stressed-out, problem-beset business owner isn’t always a fountain of good ideas. Never fear! According to the Clifton StregthsFinder test, my greatest strength is “ideation,” which means I’m good at spouting off ideas. Unfortunately for me, I am not an Activator, which means most of my great ideas never come to anything.

 

However, I am happy to share a few of the things that help me come up with fabulous ideas:

1. Look at photos. Just browse around on flickr, or go visit your grandma and look through her photo albums. I find it particularly useful to look at photos of people I don’t know. I start wondering about who they are, what they do, what happened to them if the pictures are old and all that wondering seems to activate the creative part of my brain.

2. Doodle. Draw stick people, kitty cats, frownie faces, weird shapes or whatever. Again, this just seems to unlock something in my brain – coloring books work just as well, if you don’t like the idea of freehand doodling.

3. Do some word association. Make it like a game, though, not all formal. Start out with a word, any word, and write it on a piece of paper. Then, write other words that seem related all around or in a list or whatever you want. Do it with two or three words that are not at all related to your problem, then try it with a few words related to your current issue that demands a creative solution.

4. Crowdsource. This one can be tricky. There have been times that other people come up with such great ideas my own seem to just dry up, but other times other people fuel my own creativity.

5. Play with a toy. Those little desk toys and tiny zen gardens are popular for a reason. Doing something with your hands really can help free your mind. I don’t know if it’s a meditation thing or what, but it works.

6. Make lists. This one is probably not as much fun as some of the others, but it often works for me. As with the word association, I start out with a list that is unrelated to the problem at hand. Usually a few ideas relevant to the current problem will start popping  into my head, so I start another list to keep up with those ideas. Most of the time, I have to keep working on unrelated lists (groceries, chores to be done at home, items of clothing I’d like to buy, just whatever) in order to keep the random problem-related ideas coming. It’s almost like I’m tricking my brain into solving thinking up useful ideas.

7. Be open. When you are generating ideas, it’s important to think up as many possible solutions as you can. They won’t all be good or practical or at all useful, but don’t focus on that. Just think up as many ways to approach your problem as possible. You can go back later and cross off the silly ones.

 

This is a short list. There are probably a million more ways to spur your creativity when you need to come up with original ideas that can solve problems. Do you have any tried and true methods to help you prime the creative pump? Or, conversely, is there anything that stops the flow of ideas every time? 

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Being Amazing in Your Own World

Yesterday, I started writing a post to put right here. It was about all those posts that instruct us to be amazing, epic or otherwise phenomenal, and how they make me feel. You know the ones I’m talking about – they encourage ust to go out and do big things, to change the world, to make a difference. They always include some examples to inspire and to demonstrate that it’s possible, if you’re willing to sacrifice enough and to follow your dreams with enough dedication.

 

Writing it brought me to the realization that I prefer stories that are amazing on a personal scale. I like knowing about people who change their own worlds, whether the rest of us know about it or not. “Average” people put forth Hurculean efforts just to get by, and those stories are special, too.

 

People who give up jobs to care for aging parents may not be doing something that the rest of the world stands up and applauds, but you can bet that, to the parent being cared for, the sacrifice is huge. Contributing food to a shelter might not be worthy of the national news, but for the person who gets to eat dinner, it’s plenty important.  Overcoming addiction or losing weight or getting a higher education are the most personal kinds of accomplishments, but for the individuals who do those things, the world becomes a different place and thus, they have “made a difference.”

 

Have you saved a stray kitten recently? Provided dinner for a neighbor? Loaned a friend $10? Contributed to a charity? Donated blood? Complimented a stranger? Let someone go first in line at the store?

 

Everyday kind gestures and actions might not rock the world on a grand scale, but they do make a difference. Good deeds on a small scale deserve recognition and appreciation. Leave a comment and tell us about something small you’ve done or observed lately and let us applaud it.

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Do You Notice the Amazing Sunset or Worry About the Flat Toothbrush?

You know those people who never quit smiling? Who sugar coat even the worst news and serve it up with a vacant mask of a smile? Those people are just icky. Equally intolerable, though, are the ones who  always expect the worse, can’t stand kids or puppies, have innumerable health problems that they don’t mind talking about, hate their jobs and their spouses – should they be so lucky – and whine about how they just don’t have any good luck, ever.

 

Most of us fall in the middle of the miserable to happy spectrum and tend to lean to one side more one day than the next. In my life, I’ve been lucky to know two people who were able to gently remind everyone around them to look on the bright side. One was my mom and the other my aunt Betty. They were sisters-in-law, and passed away years apart, but both of them had amazingly wonderful attitudes without being falsely cheerful.

 

The world is a less shiny place without the two of them in it, but they did leave some lasting reminders to pay attention to the good stuff. People share their favorite stories about those who are gone and a couple that I’ve been told about these two cross my mind regularly. Stories about Mary Ann and Betty almost always bring smiles, just like the two of them did in actuality.

 

My mom and one of her friends, Nancy, had been shopping one afternoon and were on their way home.  Nancy said that as they were riding along, she was complaining about all the stuff everyone always complains about – kids, bills, work, all the things that make life hard. It was right at sunset and my mom interrupted her to say, “Would you just look at that sunset? Have you ever seen anything so pretty? Wow. Just look at that!” We lived on a mountain, so no doubt, the view of the sunset really was stunning. Nancy told me that now, every time she catches herself complaining, she thinks about that day and remembers to look up and see what kind of amazing beauty she is missing.

Just yesterday, someone told me that Betty gave her a similar reminder. Our entire family, probably 60 or more people, took a camping trip to Dauphin Island one year on Easter weekend. A trip like that is rare for us – in fact, it’s the only one I remember – so it was really special. Nellie, another aunt, said that she got up on Saturday morning, and walked to the bathhouse with Betty, complaining about how her tooth brush got flattened in her bag, how a pine cone poked her through the tent floor all night, how yukky showering in a bathhouse is, and on and on. Betty looked at her and laughed and said, “Well, Nellie, you’re just not a happy camper today, are you?” Nellie said just that simple question reminded her of how nice it was to be with her family, at the beach, camping with a bathhouse and everything else that was good about that moment.

 

Right now is an easy time to be angry. Most of us have something to legitimately complain about. The ridiculousness of the United States congress, the insanity of the stock market, the fear of a “double dip” recession, and so many more events happening all over the world have many of us on edge. If your business is down, your income is down, and it’s possible that your attitude is down, too – with good reason.

 

While I don’t suggest that you slap a fake smile on or pretend to feel something you do not, I do firmly believe that your business will benefit if you take some time everyday to appreciate the good stuff. When you do your work fully cognizant of the beauty all around you, every person you interact with notices. It is seriously doubtful that either Mary Ann or Betty was aware of the lasting lessons they taught us just by being themselves.

 

Small talk is inevitable. What does yours say about you? Are you fearful or angry? Do you have a positive outlook that your customers or prospects can pick up on and feel good about? No matter how tough things are there are still sunsets to appreciate.

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Unpacking the Cluttered Closets of Your Mind

I am working on several new projects, that are a little scary and a little exciting. These things have been in the back of my mind for a while. I haven’t really talked about them or thought about them in any kind of practical way until the last week. They are the sort of projects that are in danger of becoming dust-covered clutter in the closet of my mind. The kinds of things you can just put away until later.

 

We took a short (and wonderful) trip to the beach last week. We left on a Thursday night and came back home Sunday. I took along my iPad and a notebook, thinking the time in the car would be perfect for doing some work. On the way there, I just read and napped. Then, on Friday and Saturday, I swam, ate, played in the sand, read a little more, swam some more, went for a very long walk and napped.

 

Doesn’t sound like much work got done, does it? On the way home, a work-related thought crossed my mind, so I got out my notebook – and ended up with pages and pages of notes. In fact, the skeleton of a plan for a couple of those projects turned up in all those notes. I got further in an hour or two in the car all sun kissed and beach-tired than I had in a month at home.

 

I’ve never been the kind of creative person who is dependent on some mysterious muse to grant me ideas. Writing is work, and like any work, it’s something you just have to sit down and do. If you need to wait until inspiration hits, you should give up any thoughts of making a living writing.  At the same time, in order write well, you do need what I think of as “mental space.” There has to be room in your mind for your thoughts to move around and connect in new and interesting patterns.

 

My guess is that any kind of work requires the same sort of mental dexterity. An unusual marketing scheme will attract attention. A creative combination of flavors will bring customers through the restaurant doors. An unusual grouping of plants can make a display in a retail establishment. Creativity is necessary in every business because you have to be original and give your customers a reason to come to you and not the guy across the street.

 

While a routine is good and fosters creativity in its own way, doing something completely different (and in this case unplanned) can cause those “lightning strike” moments of creativity. I was worried about coming home to a big mess and feeling exhausted and needing a week to recover from a three day vacation. Instead, I came home with a notebook of ideas to implement and a renewed dedication (to make more money so there can be more trips to the beach!).

 

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to predict what will work the best at any particular time. When I’m “stuck” on a garden-variety Tuesday, a hard run or other work out might get the mental wheels turning, but not always. Time outside usually helps, but again, not always. Like last weekend, a short trip can be the key, but other times only lead to exhaustion.

 

Do you have a need to foster creativity in your work? Is there an activity that seems to spur your mental processes, or a time of day that is more conducive to creativity for you? Have you ever been surprised that something did or didn’t help you think creatively? 

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Fit It Under Your Umbrella

In the last month or so, several people for whom I have lots of respect, have asked me questions about generating ideas for blog posts. As a writer, I’m fairly good at thinking up things to write about so am going to share one technique that works pretty well. If you are just thinking about starting a blog or if you are trying to establish a new direction for your blog, you might find this post helpful.

 

Keep the idea of an umbrella in mind when you think about your blog. Choose a big topic – in my case it’s running a very small business – then write about whatever you want as long as you can connect it in some way to your big topic. In other words, make it fit under your umbrella. The best blogs out there do this extremely well. Copyblogger is probably the best. They have managed to connect everything from training dogs to The Princess Bride in some way or another to the topic of content marketing, and every post is relevant, entertaining and full of good information.

 

If you don’t think of yourself as creative, this might be hard. There are ways to make it work, though. You could try making a list of random observations throughout the day. Just write down things you observe – a crazy lady at the post office, a toddler pitching a fit, a jogger, someone making a complaint about your business, an angry co-worker, a sporting event, just anything you see or even thoughts that cross your mind. Don’t think about why you are writing them down.

 

Ignore your list for a few days, a week or even a month or more. Then get your list out and choose 3-4 of the events, observations or random thoughts and write them down on separate sheets of paper. You can go all English 101 and write them in the middle and circle it and do a textbook brainstorming session or, if you are more linear-minded, fold your paper in half and make two columns.

 

Then you just start making connections between the items on your list and whatever your umbrella topic is. It’s okay to really stretch here. Your connections can be completely tenuous. You aren’t writing at this point. You are just thinking and capturing those thoughts loosely. This should be a no-pressure, fun thing to do.

 

After your paper is full, or your brain is empty, or both, you are ready to start looking for something that might make a blog post. You might have already found a topic, or you might need to take one or two of the most interesting connections and repeat the brainstorming process in a more specific way.

 

The next part is easy (hahaha!): You write. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation or any of that at this point. Just write out your thoughts about your random topic and how it fits under your umbrella topic. Then put it away. Don’t look at it for a couple of days, a week, a month or however long you can wait.

 

After some time has passed, get out your very rough draft and read it. If it still makes sense, start smoothing out the edges. Correct any obvious grammar or punctuation errors, make word changes, move sentences or paragraphs around if necessary. If it doesn’t make sense, put it away until the next time you go through this process. If it doesn’t make sense by about the third time, just delete it.

 

I normally either polish the draft up and post it or put it away one more time at this point. If you go through all these steps once a week for a while, you’ll eventually have a rich source of ideas and posts just waiting. Some people end up with a nice backlog of fully written posts that they can schedule to automatically go up, and others (like me) just save a bunch of drafts and pick one that reflects my feelings on the day I post it.

 

If you don’t enjoy the processes of brainstorming and drafting, you probably are looking at this thinking that it seems a bit much. But really, it doesn’t take that much of a time investment, maybe an hour or two a week, to make it work. I am also a member of a group that meets to talk about blogging and those meetings help to generate ideas as well. I will write more about how that works later.

 

Do you have a sure fire method that helps you generate ideas for blog posts? Would you find a process like the one described here cumbersome? Do most other people write multiple drafts, or is it more common to write and post immediately?

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