Archive for March, 2014


Photo credit Ulrik S.Christensen on Flickr


“I never dreamed of so much happiness when I was the ugly duckling.”
–Hans Christian Andersen

The ugly duckling

Do you remember the story of Ugly Duckling?

The ugly duckling was told to be ugly by his Mother Duck, siblings and even the hens on the farmyard. The Mother Duck was shocked by how big and ugly he was. The other ducks were teasing and pecking him. They were making fun of him until one day the ugly ducking flew away. He believed he was the ugliest bird under the sun. He wanted to die.

He wandered around looking for a place where he belonged. Yet, he was an outcast in everywhere. He was clearly different. And even though he was intimidated, he chose to respond with kindness.

In the spring, he saw graceful swans on a lake and felt an urge to join them.  When he was approaching them, he suddenly noticed his own reflection in the water. And he was taken back by what he saw. He looked alike. He was a swan, not a ducking. What a surprise! All other swans welcomed him warmly and appreciated him. And suddenly … they found him to be beautiful.
Even the kids playing around the lake complimented on the majestic look of the new swan.

How happy was he!

The metaphor

This little story is a metaphor how we feel when we are different from those around us. Even though these are lonely and painful times, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with us.

Being different is about being an individual. And even though we long for confirmation and acceptance, our difference makes us special. It allows us to explore our unique traits and talents.

When we are different, we will likely not be understood, or appreciated. Perhaps we may even be intimidated or laughed at.

When we accept and embrace our difference with courage, we can better focus on seeing the value we bring in. It is a difference, not the norm, that sparks creativity and leads to progress.

When we find we are different than the people around, let us remember that there will come a time when we will find our flock. All the loneliness we have felt will help us appreciate the acceptance when we find it.

And in meantime, let us bring this difference into the world!


How can I appreciate the ways I am different from others today?



Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available on Flickr.

You are what you focus on” is the title of a chapter from the “Accidental genius” book by Mark Levy. There are two important points I will be making here, so please pay attention.


Your focus has defined who you are today. Your focus is now defining whom you are going to become. Clearly, your personality, skills and achievements reflect the areas of life to which you have dedicated your attention. This means effort, work, time or enthusiasm. Certainly, things hardly ever happen overnight. Time and effort are required.

Becoming healthy, developing a skill, working for purpose or having a fulfilling relation is not an event but a process. Maintenance is required too. Whatever resources and gifts you have got, these are yours to put in use.

An easy way to investigate how to put your skills to use is to do it with writing. Writing is a funnel through which thoughts are de-cluttered and organized.Writing is an easy anchor to attach weight to thoughts so that they are born in this space for a possible manifestation. Once thoughts are out of the head and visible on the paper, they can be easily explored.

Clear writing leads to clear thinking.

Conscious mind and subconscious mind

Before we talk more about focus, let us discriminate between the conscious and subconscious minds. Ultimately, there is one mind, but it helps to see it through its different roles. The conscious mind (related to self-consciousness as well) lives in the moment of now and is limited to, what some estimate, 4-10 bits of information per second. It practically means that in any given moment you can focus on a few things only. The subconscious mind, a connected network of cells with specialized tasks and functions, is capable of computing somewhere between 10 and 40 millions of bits per second.

In analogy, the conscious mind is the CEO of a huge company, say of 100 000 employers. The subconscious mind consists of all the workers and organizational levels. There is no way the CEO can be made aware of all details of the business, product development, customer issues, complaints, missed targets and so on. She can’t also be involved in all low-level decisions or tactics. These are being made through systems and managers. Only essential information is filtered out and presented to the CEO for planning, developing strategies and execution. The CEO defines the filter, the kind of information she is interested to receive for evaluation and action.

Selective attention test: how fast can you count?

If you have already encountered one of such tests in your life, just show it to someone else and find out how they perform. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the video below.

Can you accurately count the number of times that the white team passes the ball?

Pay careful attention and find out whether your conscious mind can keep up with the counting.

Ready? Steady? Go!

If this is the first time you see it, you might be surprised with the result, especially if you missed the obvious. On the other hand, it is trivial when you know where to direct your focus, isn’t it?

This test demonstrates that attention is selective. You will only pay attention to what you have decided to focus on. Your subconscious mind will filter out “unimportant” information that your senses report to you so that the conscious mind, the CEO, can do the task. There is no way that your conscious mind can ever keep up with your senses.

The learning point is this.  Focus is discriminative. When you choose to focus on one thing, you have to neglect all others.

Attention alternation test

This test comes from the “Accidental genius” book.

Whenever you are, just look around for 5-10 seconds to spot all red things in your neighborhood. Close your eyes and mentally create a list of all red objects you recall.

How many are there?

Open your eyes and look around again to confirm whether you spotted them all.

Now, let’s make a slight variation. Suppose I offer you 1000 pounds (dollars/EUR) for a list of 100 red objects in your surroundings. Suppose you really need this money. Now, chances are that you will not only list all the obvious red objects, but you will also become creative in rediscovering them behind the veil. For instance, you may mention red lips, red letters on a tag of your jumper, red blood coming from your finger jabbed by a paper clip, a red flashing diode on your mobile or a red-colored strip over the clouds from the sunset. Have you made to 100, yet?

If you have done this exercise you can discover how “hidden” the objects may be even if they sit in your plain view. The difference between these two small tests lies in the precision of your focus (“How many red objects are there?” vs “Find me 100 red objects”) as well as your motivation/willingness to perform the task.

The learning point is this. The quality of your focus (precision plus motivation) influences the quality of your answers.

If you are looking to get unstuck, improve an aspect of your life or find a solution, an important idea or a resource may be hidden in your plain view without your active and dedicated effort. In other words, as with internet searches, the context, the right question, defines what you will find.


The tests above clearly demonstrate the importance of the right focus. What you focus on will determine how you lead your life. If you choose to pay attention to grumpy people, annoying situations, self pity and miseries, surely you will encounter them in your life. Your lenses of focus define what you see. If, on other hand, you choose to concentrate on happy moments, kindness or smiles, you will experience them in your life.You are the one with the power to alternate your attention.

Both sides, sadness and joy, ups and downs, difficulty and solution, have always been there. Why? Because the pendulum of life swings between the polarities. It is what you choose to see, hear and experience will color your life happy or not.

This is all great, but …

Where does freewriting come into the picture?

Freewriting has a special role. Under time limit and through continuous writing, you can reach your vast inner space beneath your daily chatter-box or critic. This is the space where creative solutions happily live in.

A good and precise question is your point of focus. Your practice of freewriting is a way to dig deep and discover what matters to you. When made actionable, the discoveries will lead you to success.

Final exercise

If your life vision is buried under the tasks of the daily routines, use freewriting to elaborate on this. Set the timer for 20minutes. Ask the question:

“What is necessary for me to have a fantastic life?”.

Write continuously, without editing, to answer this question. Include all the criteria, and the three aspects of “being”, “doing” and “having”.

Choose  one item from this exploration list. Take an action in the next few hours.




Automatic writing for problem solving

Freewriting, also called automatic writing, is a fantastic tool for problem solving. Even more than that, it is a wonderful tool for generating creative ideas, organizing chaos in your head and getting unstuck. I’ve got really hooked to this practice when I read “Accidental genius” by Mark Levy.

I consider this book a must-read, especially for visual learners, who want to become effective in their problem solving. The book is full of valuable exercises and methods for generating ideas painlessly and having them well organized. Although it reads as a workbook, it can certainly be appreciated without making the exercises step by step. You can  jump into freewriting directly. Even though the book is geared towards a business world, the concepts are directly applicable to these who want to use their brains creatively. Be prepared, though, that it is a dry or cynical read, at times.

The idea of automatic writing is to define your problem first, set a timer to say 15min ans start writing continuously and as fast as possible until the timer beep. The fast paces forces your mind to reach for its internal resources and partial solutions, hidden from the plain view.

According to the author, there are six secrets for a solution-focused freewriting.

1. Try Easy.

“A relaxed 90% is more efficient than a vein-bulging 100% effort.”

Just relax and start scribbling. When you do automatic writing, your goal is not to produce a breath-taking piece of prose, but to jot your ideas down on the paper, instead. That’s it. You are to collect your ideas, as if you are collecting leaves, flowers or conkers with your kid for some home-make projects.

Before you start freewriting, it’s good to have a small ritual where you remember to be easy with yourself and stay centered during writing. When you allow yourself to relax, your mind will set itself free. It will maneuver through the maze of thoughts the way it likes.

2. Write fast and continuously.

When you write fast you actually ask your mind to operate closer to the speed of your thoughts than to the internal critic or perfectionist inside you. By uncensored writing you put the editor on hold so
that the creative part of you can have a better possibility to emerge through the process. If you don’t know what to write just keep repeating the last word.

With experience, your mind will know that you will not stop writing so it will relax on opening the gate to half-baked or inappropriate ideas. These are your golden eggs as such ideas are usually brutally honest and in-depth insights, observations, or knowings.

The goal of the continuous writing is to have a brain-storming session with yourself with the exception that you don’t hold the judgement. The judgemnt will only come later when your writing time is off and when you can inspect your thoughts, and refine them when needed.

Your best ideas, similarly as the most beautiful diamonds, will show up in rough, unpolished stones.

3. Work against a time limit.

“The timer enforces a self-imposed behavioral contract”.

In brief, the time limit makes you more resourceful. The analogy is to sprinting. If you are to sprint over a short distance, you can certainly commit to it. However, if you only know that you are supposed to sprint for some distance between 1 and 20 miles (km), you will have a hard time to keep your focus on. The goal is too vague and too demanding. In contrary, the limitation, the deadline or the barrier will challenge you to think outside the box and explore unknown paths.

4. Write the way you think.

This is a good one, because your imperative is to get the raw thoughts.  These will later become your material for creating the solution. When you write the way you speak, thoughts have already been polished or digested. The novelty is hidden behind the horizon.

Thoughts are super fast and your goal is to use writing to record yourself thinking. Use your own slung or strong language, words abbreviation or whatever words come to your mind. Your ideas are flowing in your head and they need to flow easily on the paper too.

 5. Go with the thought.

Write your thought down and extend it. Don’t edit, don’t contradict yourself to disagree with the idea. Even when your thought is provocative or crazy, go with it. When a thought is written down, accept is as it is and continue to explore it further down. Your task is to explore the path where the thought leads to, to exhaust all the possibilities that show up in your mind. If A is true then B comes next. If B is there then C must happen etc.

If you can happen to explore on line of thinking in depth in the given time, just set the timer for an additional 5 min and ask yourself where another path lead. “What is a different direction I can take for an effective solution?”

6. Redirect your attention.

In automatic writing, your objective is to explore the problem  and the solution at depth and at width. The later means that you want to travel as many thoughts as possible (within the time limits). When When you feel that you may become bewildered on not knowing what to write next, redirect your attention.

A good focus-changer is an open question related to what you have just written. It may challenge you to explain this particular point of view differently, or to look for holes in your thinking. This redirection oftentimes comes in the forms of an open question such as “How else can I say that?”, “What am I missing here?”, “How can I describe this situation to X?” (where X becomes kids, a friend, the boss, a bookshop seller, a sportsmen, a Disney character etc), “What is the best case scenario?“, “How can I implement it fast?”, and so on.

When you feel you have explored a direction, just ask an open question to start a new conversation with yourself.

Thinking without anchor is poorly utilized

As explained in the previous post, thinking needs a physical anchor to make it a laser-concentrated focus towards a solution. Paper or a computer screen provide a powerful focusing force. Without the physical outlet, prolonged thinking often gets circular, or degenerates into daydreaming.

The process of freezing your thoughts onto paper is invaluable because:

  1. it helps you to create order from chaos
  2. it centers and grounds you
  3. it provides perspective and context
  4. it enables you to understand (over time and practice) of whom you are becoming
  5. it pushes you beyond your comfortable thoughts
  6. you access knowledge you have forgotten and consult inner knowing you were not aware you had
  7. it allows you to track the associative line of thinking back to its origins
  8. and  give you a solid, raw material to explore, expand and create from

Make freewriting a daily habit. Your genius is waiting to be consulted 😉


Photo copyright by Ian Sane, available on Flickr under the Creative Commons.


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problem solving

Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under Creative Commons on Flickr.


You love your problems, don’t you? They are your little friends that push you towards growth.

Problem solving vs thinking

Before I’ll talk about great approaches to problem solving, first I want to explain how not to solve your problems.

Do you know how?

By thinking alone.

“What?”, you may say, “You must be crazy. I need to think about my problems!”.
For sure, you do. No doubt about it. However, in order to tackle your problems you need other modalities alongside your thinking.

Thinking through your problems is a necessary ingredient for a successful solution, but it is usually insufficient. Thinking may work for simple problems, but it fails to buckle down complex ones. I don’t need to tell you this because, I bet, you know it from experience.

How many months (or years) have you thought about being in a job, relation or a situation you are unhappy with and yet little has improved?

How many months (or years) have you thought about being fit, becoming an entrepreneur, or traveling the world, yet little has changed?

How many months (or years) have you thought about improving your social skills or learning a new one, yet with no progress?

Perhaps you have analyzed some or all the aspects of your problem and decided that the “I don’t care” state is your safe haven. The comfort zone of inaction is, for sure, attractive. If this is your solution, you have convinced yourself to ignore the problem. If not, …

… thinking is not the way out


Because thinking may continue for a very long time without any dedicated action. Some perfectionists want to see the problem from all possible angles in order to find the best solution. The best solution, similarly as the best decision, can only be judged if there is a simple criterion or rationale, which is often not the case. Others want to understand the problem as much as possible. However, you don’t need a full understanding of your problem to actually solve it (ok, unless you tackle a complex math or physics challenge).

For instance, you don’t really need to fully know how an engine works, all the construction details and how to repair a car in order to drive it. You need to understand some pieces about the context, though. Similarly, you don’t need to know all the details of running a business or a project as you will learn while doing it.

There are two aspects of thinking that will keep you stuck in your problems.

1) Long-term thinking about your problem keeps you exactly in the reality of your problem.

What you think about, expands. In other words, whenever you think of what you lack, you are perpetuating the very state of experiencing lack. You may even deepen the experience.

Thinking about the job you hate will help powerlessness to root stronger. As a result, it will become increasingly more difficult to find another job.

Thinking about your stagnant relation will strengthen your feelings of self-pity and influence your overall well-being. As a result, you will have less attention, focus and love for your kids, friends and work.

Thinking about the lack of money will prove to be true. As a result, you will have less ambition and less courage to create new streams of income.

Long-term thinking with the premise for gaining understanding is only an escape from taking action.

2. Thinking alone may prevent you from finding intelligent solutions.

The first limitation is that your conscious span can only handle a limited amount of information. Therefore, it is difficult to hold different perceptions or views at the same time. (To realize that just think whether you can hold in your mind just four different views of a given object: front, back and two side ones). The second limitation is that you will look for patterns and ways to simplify things. As a result will tend to overgeneralize or make a hasty generalization. Finally, thinking often moves around a vicious circle circular by following the same types of thoughts.

In brief, thinking gets into a self-perpetuating mode, where with time, little novelty is allowed.

To have a fresh perspective, even if you need to tackle a problem that is similar to the ones you encountered before, it is still important to consider the whole context: raw facts, emotions, circumstances and obstacles. This means that any time you want to apply your problem solving skills to a problem that is similar to the ones you tackled before.

How to be successful at problem solving?

The simplest strategy is to get your thoughts out of your head into the world. Then, you use dedicated tools to release emotions and organize thoughts.

There are two good approaches to problem solving and both of them focus on moving from the non-physical world (thoughts) into the physical one. Thoughts and emotions are attracted to physical anchors, which are basically forms of expressive outlets. In general, your body acts as such an anchor but it holds all the thoughts inside. Once you want to move the thoughts and emotions into the world, you need to attach them to another anchor. It has to be a tangible one.

The spoken word is a step in the right direction, though not long lasting. A better anchor is created by the written word, or even an artistic expression (drawing, painting, collage, etc). Both the written word and the art expression can last for a long time, hence they are purposeful modalities. They can direct both emotions and thoughts from chaos to order.

These two approaches are:

  1. Talking-modality: coaching or talking through
  2. Writing-modality: self-coaching, journaling or automatic writing

Talking modality: coaching, talking through or a role play

In this modality, the role of the anchor is played either by a human or an object.

Women often talk about their problems, or rather they talk about their emotions (of course, I realize this statement is a generalization ;)). They hardly ever want an advice, but instead, they want to be heard and appreciated.

Women can perfectly describe the tiniest details and feelings. First, it helps them to relieve the tension. Secondly, it helps them to organize the thoughts. In fact, hearing yourself explaining the issues to another person is of a great value. And … If there is great active listener, he/she may direct them towards a solution.

The task of the active listener is to ask open questions that help the person to clarify the problem. In addition, the listener helps to challenge some fixed points of view, shift perspectives and reframe. An active listener is a blessing.

If you want to solve your problems effectively, one way is to talk through them with a willing and gentle soul. This person, however, should refrain from giving advice unless you explicitly ask for. He/she is there to be a genuine listener, caring for you and offering you full attention. Your goal is to be heard and understood. If you miss such a partner, you can still become successful at problem solving by creating an imagined anchor-partner.

The pillow exercise

For myself, I choose a pillow as a prototype, but you may choose any other still object/plant you like. The choice of a pillow is of course intentional. A pillow can offer a great service as an object to cuddle as well as to hit or cry to. It’s good for reconciliation too 😉

The best is to imagine that the pillow is a specific person, alive or not. It should be a person whom you admire and/or respect and whose traits you know. It can be somebody such as your beloved grandma or a friend. Alternatively, you can just imagine a certain kind of a person with a few specific traits or values such as honesty, kindness, courage, independence, etc.

Then you simply imagine a role play between yourself and the pillow character. You begin by explaining the problem, and then you project yourself into the mind of the anchor person, who is going to react to what you are saying by asking open questions. In doing so, you pretend to be the pillow character listening to you with empathy and total interest. You keep taking roles (while you remember your pillow is a gentle soul indeed) until you have said everything it was to say and your mind has become empty.

Of course, you may imagine such a role play directly in your head but it will stay in the realm of thoughts. It makes a tremendous difference whether you have a physical object that you can touch or cuddle and when you use a spoken word (in your normal voice). You will arrive at calmed emotions, clarity and the feeling of power.

However silly it may sound, I’ve found this exercise to work extremely well for a few complex problems involving lots of emotional baggage. As I my preferred learning style is a mix between visual and touch-and-feel approaches, I personally prefer the written word or an artistic expression. Nevertheless, it was my pillow exercise that helped me through when other modalities couldn’t. As such the talking modality is especially beneficial for people whose main learning style is auditory (i.e. they organize knowledge and learn mainly by listening).

 Automatic writing, journaling or self-coaching

In this modality, paper (or computer screen) plays the role of the physical anchor for thoughts. It works especially well for people whose dominant learning style is visual. However, when paper is used and doodling encouraged, the power of paper proves its worth for those with the touch-and-feel learning style.

Writing down thoughts as they come, especially in an uncensored way, is a great tool, often overlooked for problem solving. Writing helps for gaining understanding, releasing negative emotions and achieving goals. The majority of us hardly writes down about own problems, yet it is such an easy way to move forward.

Automatic writing exercise

In an automatic writing, called also freewriting, the idea is to open an editor or take a piece of paper (paper works usually better) and write about your problem. You need to have one or two good questions about it, such as “What is really my problem about?” and “How can I solve my problem in/while X?” (where X is used to specify your other constrains, e.g. “in the next three months”, “in the most effortless way”, “for the highest good of all involved” etc).

Write the first question down and set your timer for 10-15min (the old-fashioned egg timer is perfect for this, but you can also use this one). Begin to write your thoughts down as fast as possible. Even if you don’t know what to write, just write “don’t know what to write” or “this problem bothers me” or whatever else is in your head. The idea is to get all these annoying thoughts out. You may use single words or half-baked sentences.  Keep writing continuously in an uncensored way, i.e. without taking any care of spelling, punctuation, and a neat look. Write big or small, whatever suits you at the moment. Don’t pause to read what you have written or stare before you. “Keep writing” is the idea!

The idea behind writing fast and careless is to release the junk thoughts (“i can’t”) and pass your inner critic until you relax. Once the waste of your thoughts is out of the way, you will relax and open up to the stream of quality thoughts. You will notice that different words become to flow. Just keep writing until you hear the timer beep.

Then you work on the second question (concerning your solutions). Set the timer for another 10-15min and start to write again.

Of course you can ask any other relevant question, such as “What stops me from working out the solution?” or “Which resources do I need to solve this problem?”. Similarly as in the pillow exercise, you can also hold a conversation on a paper about your issue with a real or imagined friend.

Please know that this approach may not work well for the first time, as your inner critic may act too strongly. If you are persistent, however, with little practice you can be surprised by the quality of answers from your inner wisdom.

Why do you need a timer?

Without the time constraint there is no external push or force to make you work to find the answers. The limitations, when set, inspire your brain for activity and creative thinking.


Journaling usually involves a longer time of writing and inspecting a few well-structured questions. It can be a method to use daily before or after the day to write about your goals for the day, the expected or experienced progress, disappointments etc. It is a way to get the perplexing thoughts out of your head and leave your mind empty for a creative work.


Self coaching is a powerful modality that helps you to work towards improvement through a series of well-structured questions. Although it is imperfect substitute for a 1-to-1 coaching, it can nevertheless deliver great results with a small price. What you need is a way to phrase your problem as a goal or target and then explore the context, identify possible solutions and the obstacles and decide for the way forward.

This again works best when explored in a limited time frame (say 40-60min) and involves the written word, in answer to the questions.

Example questions include:

  • What is exactly your problem?
  • What tells you that there is a problem?
  • What is your key challenge that you need to overcome?
  • What are you afraid of when the problem remains unsolved?
  • What would you do if you had no fear and no limitations?
  • What is the first simplest step forward?
  • What is the most effective way forward?
  • How can you create, borrow, learn what you need?
  • What are your obstacles that you need to address?
  • How can you motivate yourself to work towards a solution?

If you coach yourself regularly, alongside the automatic writing, you will gain clarity and liberate yourself to taking action.

In summary

In order to move both the emotions and thoughts towards manifestation in the world, you need to find a physical anchor for them. All approaches to effective problem solving rely on getting the thoughts out of the head and make them explicit.

When thoughts are talked through or written down, the release of emotions leaves the mind with the partially organized thoughts. They are labeled, hence born to existence into the physical world. In fact, the thoughts are not ephemeral any longer; they become things, as they are anchored to reality. Inspecting the maze of the shaped thoughts, your solution to a problem boils then down to an intuitive insight or a recognition of what a good idea is.

To employ both modalities, write and repeat your solution loudly every day.
Keep taking the necessary action.

The power of the spoken and written word will surprise you.