Measure What Matters in 2017

Yesterday, I turned on the Christmas tree lights, lit the candles and curled up on the couch for what has become one of my favorite activities of each year.

I don’t call it goal-setting anymore, though when the tradition began, that’s probably how I would have labeled the process. Now, I think of it as my Journey Project. This simple, meaningful project gives structure to my year in the way that goals might, but it is heart-centered rather than perfection-centered. Rather than being a laundry list of gold stars I hope to achieve, the Journey Project situates me as a character heading out on a journey, taking on some important challenges.

Here’s why goal-setting wasn’t working for me.

Maybe this happens for you, too. When you set a goal, you aim at an achievement. You become so focused on this destination that you don’t see the value of the steps between. You’re a hiker aiming for view at the top of the mountain, barely noticing the beauty that the rest of the journey offers. So much of what matters about pursuing goals in the first place … the growth, the connection with others, the daily joy … is lost.

What you measure matters.

If you measure life in words written, pounds lost, and to-do’s checked off, you’re setting yourself up for life on a hamster wheel. There are always more words, more pounds, and more to-dos. I’m an off-the-charts Achiever on the Strengths Finder scale, so it took me quite a long time to stumble across this truth. When I did, I realized I needed to make a change.

But I wasn’t willing to give up goal-setting.

If what I measure matters, not measuring anything is possibly worse than measuring the wrong things. So, I started reflecting, but I kept hitting dead ends. I had no idea how to measure courage or creativity or connection in any tangible way. One morning, I was writing a lesson about using the Hero’s Journey as a structural tool for plotting, and the realization hit me.

Life is a story.

And if it’s a story, it has a plot. Any writer can tell you that plots are unwieldy and difficult to plan ahead of time. Still, stories have a reliable general architecture at their core. Twists and turns are to be expected, but if a character keeps taking action without giving up on a heart desire, his or her journey arrives at a resolution. Often, the character achieves something beyond the original goal. In fact, the reasons a character sets out are most likely only a first step toward an authentic discovery that is much deeper, more thrilling, more growth-producing, and more satisfying.

So, my year is a story?

Yes, and since it is, your year can have a plot. Over the past few years, I’ve played with this idea and ironed out many of the challenges posed when using story as a planning tool. Tracking my journey has become a touch-point for me annually, monthly, and daily. I’ve experienced tremendous growth, and moved past blocks I would have told you were simply givens in my life. I’ve definitely achieved goals (Hooray, says my Achiever heart!) but more importantly, I’ve experienced the journey in a heart-felt way.

When I curled up on the couch to reflect on last year’s story, and to consider next year’s possibilities, I saw clearly how powerful this experience has been for me year after year. And I realized that it will only become more meaningful for me if I share it.

Would you like to set out on a journey of your own this year?

I’m inviting YOU to be part of a small group of travelers.

  • We’ll kick off the journey with a meeting to discuss the landscape.
  • You’ll receive a handbook and a series of videos to guide you along the way.
  • Plus, we’ll meet quarterly for campfire (ahem … Google hangout) meetings.
  • We’ll also have a private Facebook group to connect and share stories.
  • I’ll drop in from time to time for Facebook Live sessions to discuss questions, successes and discoveries.

Join this facilitated and supportive community of travelers:

  • $35 monthly (10 payments)
  • OR one-time payment of $315 (one month free)

The Journey Project will run through the year, starting the week of February 6, and ending the week of December 12. Because traveling groups will be kept small (6-8 members), we have limited spaces … don’t wait to apply!

Balance from a Graphic Designer’s Perspective

For a long time, I’ve had the secret wish to take a year and be a fly on the wall in workspaces other than my own. Wouldn’t it be interesting to witness first hand the way a chef or a sculptor or a parade float designer thinks about a challenge? And not only interesting … I’m positive that this expanded perspective would develop my thinking and give me new tools with which to face the challenges my own work presents.
I can’t really take a year off … not without leaving behind important goals. However, I realized that even so, I could still be a fly on the wall. Over the next year, as I explore a variety of creative concepts (such as balance, which I’ve been looking at over the past few weeks), I’ll also ask a friend who has experience in another field to weigh in. The questions they ask are sure to power a few a-ha moments for us, particularly if we ask ourselves: What are the connections to my own work?
And thus, without further ado, here is the first of that “fly on the wall” series. This set of five questions is from Tim McCanna, who speaks here from the perspective of a graphic designer. He’s an excellent real-world case of what I’m talking about in terms of bringing ideas from one field to another, because he is now a children’s book writer, and much of the thinking he developed as a designer has proven invaluable to him as a writer.

Tim’s Graphic Design Questions on Balance:

This question constantly informs my decision making process as a designer. If I’m not keeping the client’s purpose front of mind, then I risk misrepresenting them to their audience. Every designer comes to the table with their own tastes and ideas. Our job is to balance our own creative influences and input with the client’s wants and needs.
Whether it’s a logo, advertisement, or brochure, the moment I catch myself overcomplicating a design, I know it’s time to step back and re-evaluate how I’m approaching a project so that the message reads quickly and clearly. The trick is balancing form and function.
Sometimes a client doesn’t think they know what they want, but they actually do. Other times a client thinks they know what they want, but they clearly don’t. Either way, you have to listen, be open, and offer them options to help them determine what works and doesn’t work for their needs. It’s a balancing act between gently coaching a client so they can communicate their needs while stepping back and just listening without intervening.
Any creative job has several moving parts. There’s the timeline and the deadline. There’s the amount of work hours the designer can invest in the job. There’s the budget the client can afford. There’s the creative expectations on both sides. Communication channels must be open. The designer must be honest about how they can best achieve the client’s goals, and the client must be able to respect the designer’s creative process. And the more people involved, the more complicated it all becomes! Setting up a clear plan from the start will ensure a balanced agreement between all parties. It’s crucial for the success of the work.
A muddled, overworked, or disorganized design will surely hinder the clear message a client needs to convey to their audience. A designer is constantly keeping in check the balance of text, graphics, and images. Every choice from font size to image crop to logo placement impacts the overall aesthetic of the project. No stone can be left unturned. Every choice must be specific and deliberate. Design is art, and a designer must use an unwavering artistic eye to achieve a balanced end result that satisfies the client and connects with their audience.

Who’s Tim McCanna?

Tim McCanna has played many creative roles including those of actor, musician, musical theatre writer, graphic designer and dad. Now, he’s combining all those experiences into being a writer for children. He has several picture books under development. BITTY BOT, with illustrations by Tad Carpenter, is his most recent release. A sequel to BITTY BOT will follow in 2018. You can learn more about Tim at

Goals: When a Sprint is More Powerful than a Marathon

If you’re like me, you have more than one priority.

Now, I’ve read Essentialism and The One Thing, and heard many experts discuss why focusing matters. I don’t disagree, but I’m also a creative thinker. When I tell myself to stop exploring options, to stick to what truly matters, my world closes in around me. I wonder: do you feel this way, too? Do you hear people talking about focus, and wonder what’s wrong with you? Have you labeled yourself as undisciplined or unfocused after failing to stick to a short list of priorities?

Let’s take a look at an example.

Which is more important to you: a healthy body or your relationship with your best friend?

There are a lot of books out there that urge you to prioritize your own physical health over your relationship with your best friend. Logically, they’d claim that if you’re not healthy, you can’t be a good friend anyway. However, in a real-world scenario, most of us would choose our best friend over our health. Say our best friend calls us in crisis at the exact moment when we’ve suited up to go for a run. It’s not just any run. We’ve been putting off our exercise for weeks, and we know we need to get ourselves back in motion to get back on track. We’ve finally motivated ourselves to do it … and now our friend is hurting. Even though exercise is important, most likely we’ll delay our run and spend time talking with our friend.

Or consider the end of our lives. When our health is no longer in our control, which will matter to us more: our health or our best friend?

My point is this: your health and your relationship with your best friend are likely both important to you. Forcing yourself to put them in an ordered list creates a false choice. You likely have goals for both of these important areas of life … and those simultaneous goals don’t cancel each other out.

A priority is singular.

The reason people have begun talk about priorities, plural, is because life is complex. We need a word to describe the categories in our lives that don’t get checked off a list by a certain completion date, the way goals do. I’d like to propose a writerly word to fill this gap: theme. A story generally has an overall theme, with related motifs woven into it. I think our lives have a similar structure. Let’s explore a practical application. The overall theme in a life might be connectedness. If so, what actions must I take personally and with others to live into this theme? By considering theme, I avoid forcing myself to make a false choice between my friends and my health.

As we’ve been discussing recently on the Writerly Play blog, the questions that we ask inform the answers we discover. By asking a more expansive question, we avoid losing our way in a question that may be splitting hairs rather than helping us live our most fulfilled lives.

Why does all of this matter?

If you struggle to create an ordered list of priorities, perhaps it might help you to think about your life’s theme. What motifs weave into that theme? Which ones fit now, in this season, and which might fit later? Which are lifelong habits that deserve ongoing attention?

Pursuing your life’s theme is a marathon, but the most effective way to meet goals along the way is to think of them as sprints.

We will never check off a box and no longer need to brush and floss our teeth, to eat healthy food, or spend time with loved ones. Similarly, if we want to play an instrument, participate in a sport, or maintain a creative skill such as drawing, creative writing or improvisation, we need to carve out a certain amount of regular time to practice.

Here’s where the idea of a sprint becomes so useful. Most of these practices can be done in a few minutes a day. However, developing the foundational skills can take many hours. If you set out to learn to draw and do it in five minutes a week, you’re not going to have much fun with your drawing for quite some time. You’re likely to get frustrated and give up, honestly, because your progress will be so slow.

The best way to make true progress on one of these kinds of projects is to set a goal, focus tightly on that goal in a “sprint,” and then once you’ve achieved a certain level of skill, maintain the practice at a more steady pace. It may be that for a week, you set aside all of your practices so you can develop a new skill. But after that week, you can pick them all back up, adding the new one.

You don’t have to give up everything you love in order to try something new.

If you need a kickstart for a project that’s been calling to you, try a sprint. Give yourself room to experiment and find the ways of working, creating and living that work best for you. Your life’s theme is expansive, and will continue to play out in surprising ways. Allow yourself room to grow.

Naomi’s Playlist: Launcher


My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.

Object: Having the right tools at hand for the project at hand.

What Didn’t Work: Trying to remember the tools I had for various tasks, scrolling through iPhone screens filled with apps and getting frustrated or distracted, spending more time finding apps than using them.

My Aha! Moment: One day, I took out my bead kit, opened it up, and started working on a bracelet. There’s something so satisfying about a kit with compartments to hold each type of bead and each type of tool. Rather than spending time running around the house looking for scissors, thread, or the findings, I could clear the table, relax, and create.

As I worked, I began thinking about work projects, such as making the social media rounds. If I could have a kit for those tasks, how much more effective might I be? I imagined putting various apps in a basket, laughing a little at the absurdity of the idea. But as I kept thinking, I realized the idea wasn’t out of the question. I finished my bracelet and started researching. Finding the iPhone app, Launcher was a delight. This app allows you to create customized widgets that you can access from your notification screen. Abra-cadabra … little baskets for my apps!

How I Play:

  • I started by thinking of activities that require a number of apps as well as focused attention.
  • I created a widget for each of these activities and added the apps so they quick-launch when I tap their logos.
  • I played with the custom timing so that when I go to the notification screen, I see the most relevant widgets based on the day of the week and the time of day.

Player’s Notes:

  • There are many options with the Launcher app. Some apps have supported actions. In this way, you can shortcut key actions. Explore options, but don’t be overwhelmed by them. Don’t feel the need to be a power user … use what helps you most.
  • If you’re not an iPhone user, there are likely similar apps for other smart phones. Explore and share if you have great options!

Take it to the Next Level:

  • Consider how this concept might relate to other parts of your digital world. I’m exploring ways to use my Macbook dashboard in a similar way. My goal is to be able to open a screen and see all the tools needed, but none of the ones that might distract me.
  • Consider how this concept might relate to other parts of your non-digital world. What kinds of “kits” might you make yourself?

Three Thoughts about Balance


Creativity often shows up at the intersection of various thoughts. Here are three to ponder … what do they spark for you?

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”
― Henry Green


“In each of us lie good and bad, light and dark, art and pain, choice and regret, cruelty and sacrifice. We’re each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion fighting to emerge into something solid, something real. We’ve got to forgive ourselves that. I must remember to forgive myself. Because there is a lot of grey to work with. No one can live in the light all the time.”
― Libba Bray


“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Giving Thanks


They say courage is feeling afraid and acting anyway.

The trouble is, when we feel afraid, our hearts race, our adrenaline spikes and our prefrontal cortices give way to our amygdalae. Depending on the intensity of our fear, we may completely lose access to our logic and reasoning. And while some situations call for a “get out of here now!” type of response, many do not––particularly those situations that call for courage.

How can we fight back when fear threatens to swallow our courage?

We can name the people, the situations, the moments and the beauty for which we give thanks. Giving thanks is even more powerful when it is made tangible … in spoken or written word. In image. In musical notes or in movement.

While today is a day on which we collectively give thanks, I’m pausing to remind myself that thanksgiving is not a box to check off once a year. Thanksgiving is a daily practice.


Today, I’m thankful for

The Society of Young Inklings

And the passion of young writers

The powerful way they express their vision of the world around them


The questions youth ask

Which challenge and stretch me

How they turn ideas on their heads and teach me something new every day


The dedication of SYI’s staff and instructors

Who endlessly seek ways to give, inspire and empower

The commitment of our Youth Advisory Board

Giving back to the writers coming up after them

The expertise of our Board of Directors

Who are willing to ask tough questions and dream big

The generosity of our donors and patrons

Who give of their time and resources

All in service of a vision


A world in which stories are shaped and told

In which stories are heard and valued

In which stories help build connection and understanding

Solutions where before there were only obstacles

Solutions where they are desperately needed


I’m thankful for the way that the SYI community

Encourages me to wake up every day

Filled with hope

Study a Process to Become a Streamlining Superstar

Study a Process to Become a Streamlining Superstar

There aren’t many things in your life that you only do once. However, most of us don’t take the time to consider how we might streamline routine activities. For instance, how often do you:

  1. Sort the mail
  2. Do the laundry
  3. Go grocery shopping
  4. Pay bills
  5. Pack your bag for the next day’s activities

These activities are only the tip of the iceberg. Research shows that on average people spend one hour a day looking for stuff. Those little frustrations add up, and make the difference between a settled or scattered day.

We know there’s a better way, but we feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the little issues to solve, that we decide to ignore them. Or, we shrug our shoulders and figure this is just the way things are. We have no vision for how our days might go differently.

Now, imagine that you worked for Disneyland, and you were assigned to do a routine activity, such as help people board a ride, serve people lunch, or remove litter from the sidewalk. Would you do your job differently each time? Absolutely not. Not only would you have a system, you and your supervisor would have given thought to how you could not only make the task efficient and manageable, but you’d consider how you could add a little “magic.”

What if you used this approach in your daily life? What if you asked yourself: “How could I not only sort the mail more efficiently, but with a little magic?”

Try this:

  1. Choose one routine task you’d like to revise. Give yourself permission to choose one, even though you’re sure to have a number of options. Start with one, and use your success to move on to the next.
  2. Seek out an inspiring process to study. Many times, unusual connections can yield helpful results here. Rather than trying to find someone else who has the perfect mail-sorting routine, you might find inspiration in the way a Kindergarten teacher helps students organize take-home papers, or in the way a librarian sorts returned books.
  3. Identify the key steps of the process. If you’re a visual thinker, consider drawing a diagram.
  4. Consider why the process works. How might you apply the success of the process to your own task?
  5. Sketch or write up a template for your new process. Experiment and stay open to revision as you try out the new approach. Aim high. Don’t stop until you achieve inspiring results.
  6. Build on your success by working on a new task.

Writerly Play offers a framework for creative thinking. In each mental room, we tackle different thinking tasks. This activity is a tool for your Library, where we analyze resources, identify strategies for specific solutions and play with them until we make them our own.

Expand Your Perspective with Twenty Questions

Expand your Perspective

When you need to move a heavy piece of furniture, you examine it from multiple angles to figure out the best strategy. In problem-solving, we’re more likely to identify helpful strategies when we explore multiple vantage points as well.

Try this:

  1. Identify the problem. If you need help clarifying what the problem is, exactly, try running your vague issue through this helpful clarification exercise.
  2. Start with a clean piece of paper, and list twenty questions that relate to the problem. If you come up with more than 20, excellent! Do push yourself to come up with at least 20, even if you stall out around 12. The questions that aren’t first to mind often end up being the most compelling or innovative.
  3. If you’re struggling for questions, spur yourself on with question starters such as “What if…” or “Why does…” or “How can…” or “Where can…” or “When might…”
  4. Once you have a list, go back and decide which you’d like to explore. You may feel the whole list is helpful, or it may be that one or two stand out.
  5. Make a plan for how you’ll address your list. Some next steps might be:
    • free-write
    • brainstorm in mind-map form
    • create a collage
    • research via google
    • research via the library
    • research via an expert (friend, colleague, blogger, podcaster)

Sometimes the most important step in problem solving is simply starting. Once you’re in motion, it’s much easier to ask, “What’s the next step?”

Writerly Play offers a framework for creative thinking. In each mental room, we tackle different thinking tasks. This activity is a tool for your Attic, where we collect life experiences, sort them and crystallize them into a question or set of questions to guide our creative exploration.

How to Make the Most of Feedback

How to make the most of feedback

In order to make the most of feedback, you must be a strong translator.


Feedback doesn’t come gift-wrapped with a solution.

In fact, feedback generally points out holes, problems or weaknesses. As the creator, your job is to not panic, to hear past the comments, and to identify the true problem that’s being raised.

Take this scenario, for instance:

Meg signs up for a critique with an editor for the first ten pages of her manuscript. The editor has read the pages and sits down with Meg to discuss them.

Editor: I love the premise in this story, and in particular, am drawn to your main character, Frankie.

Meg: Thank you!

Editor: I don’t think the dog works, though. He’s sweet, but I don’t know. I think I’d rather focus on Frankie.

Meg: Ummm… (she’s completely baffled, because the dog is essential to the entire plot)

Editor: (nodding, warming up to her idea) Yep. I think if you took the dog out, we’d connect with Frankie more quickly.

As the conversation wraps up, Meg tries to hear the rest of what the editor says, but she’s stumped. All she can think is that her story doesn’t work. If she takes out the dog, the story doesn’t have a plot. So, maybe she should just start over with a new idea. This kind of scenario happens far too often.

As creators, we can be too literal about the feedback we receive.

We take a comment such as “I don’t think the dog works,” to mean that we need to remove the dog. If we take a look at the conversation though, looking at it as a translator might, we can see that something deeper is happening. The editor has pointed out that she likes Frankie, and that the dog is a distraction. She has said, “I’d rather focus on Frankie” and “If you took the dog out, we’d connect with Frankie more quickly.” Maybe the problem isn’t the dog, exactly, but the way the dog is pulling the reader’s focus in the first ten pages. Maybe the dog needs to be a little less compelling. Maybe we need some time to get to know Frankie before we meet this super-star dog.

When we receive feedback, we must identify the underlying question.

In this case, the question “how can I remove the dog” leads to a complete unraveling of the plot. But the question, “how can I tone down the dog in the first few pages so the reader can focus on Frankie,” is productive and absolutely solvable.

When your ego is on the line, it’s easy to spiral into a tailspin. We freak out, and jump to worst-case scenarios. Our work has a flaw, and we have no idea how to solve it. We should toss it out and start over. Or, worse, we should stop believing we can create at all. Who are we to think we’re a (fill in the blank).

Becoming a translator takes practice. The same is true for learning how to translate feedback. The good news is that there are simple steps to the process. We can practice these steps ahead of time when our egos are not on the line. That way, when we are ready to seek out feedback, we can make the most of it.

Here are five steps for making the most of feedback.

  1. Write down what the person says. Write down the good, the bad, and the in-between. Try to capture as many words as you can.
  2. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand something that was said, but avoid defending your work. You need time to process what has been said, and the person offering feedback doesn’t expect an answer on the spot. Thank the person for his or her time and insight.
  3. Find a quiet space and read over your notes. Don’t trust your memory. You’ll over-emphasize the drama. The key to translation is reviewing everything that was said.
  4. Look for clues as to the reason why certain advice was given. You were told to “get rid of the dog,” but what were the supporting reasons? What issue do those reasons point out?
  5. Frame a question that highlights the issue to solve, and then brainstorm workable solutions that deal with the heart of the problem.

What kinds of projects are you working on? How might feedback help you? What thinking challenges can you give yourself to practice these five steps? Build up your translation skills through a few low-risk practice sessions, and then try asking for real feedback to see how you do.

Remember, learning to be a translator is a skill. Expect a learning curve. Motivate yourself to push through the tough parts by focusing the benefits. If you can alchemize feedback into useful revision, you can take your work to the next level. Challenge yourself. The results are worth the effort.

Three Thoughts about Questions

Three Thoughts about Questions

Creativity often shows up at the intersection of various thoughts. Here are three to ponder … what do they spark for you?

“It’s not a silly question if you can’t answer it.”

― Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“Which would you rather be if you had the choice–divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?”

― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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