Category Archives: Coaching

Creative people get stuck. Coaches get them unstuck.

When Authentic Isn’t Enough

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value.

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value.

Digging through my journals, I came across a story I want to include in the book I’m working on. (For now, the content of the book is not important.) The story is about my mom’s struggle with authenticity. She stewed in the perpetual heat of anger. One day, I asked her, “What is it that makes you so angry all the time?” I asked it in the softest voice possible. I really wanted to know; it was a key to our Gordian-knot relationship.

She looked at me and explained, “This is who I am. You always say it is good to be authentic. This is me, authentic. If you can’t deal with it, it is your fault. I am being true to myself.” The fable of the lady and the asp flashed through my head, but I remained quiet.


To this day, I still feel anxious when I hear anger–even if it is not directed at me.

She had a point. Except her anger was so damaging, so painful. But most of her friends–those whom she liked–didn’t feel the sting of her anger. She did have another side. I rarely saw it.

Fast forward to now, when we encourage people not to change, to be happy as they are. What makes me think this? Listen to the language we use:

  • It is what it is
  • That’s you being you
  • Be yourself, everyone else is taken (attributed to so many people I’m not even trying to be sure, although I like Oscar Wilde.)
  • Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” –Bernard Baruch

We love being ourselves without excuse. “Don’t judge!” we warn. But somewhere there has to be a difference, a line, a distinction between back-stabbing gossip and being authentic.

When we say, “it is what it is,” or “haters gonna hate,” we are not excusing others, we are justifying ourselves and writing everyone else off as envious–lesser. There is then no cause or reason for criticism. We win. And so does everyone else, in their mind.

I beg to differ.  Language shifts our culture, so let’s be clear about the definition of “authentic.”  It is your deepest best self, not the shallow way we behave without thinking. Being authentic takes some reflection, asking, “Who would I like to be seen as? My character is my reputation, how do I want to present it?”

That’s the person we want to be. The person who builds a reputation; the person who is loved by dogs.

–Quinn McDonald spends a lot of time watching how language and culture influence each other.


Starting Over


The gallery is in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts

Starting over. Starting fresh. It sounds like a new coat of paint over a tired life. The messy slate of the past is wiped clean, and ahead is a shiny new start. We can put on a new face, a new attitude, a new effort. It seems like we can create a whole new identity with as little effort as a new website.

Soon enough, that new effort is overwhelmed by the old ideas, old habits, old behavior–the old us. Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out years ago when they said, “If you are a drunk in Cleveland, moving to Peoria for a fresh start isn’t the answer. You’ll be a drunk in Peoria, too.” It’s a wise saying, although a tough one. (AA never pretended to have easy answers.)

When I went to Catholic school (I’m not a Catholic, but that’s another story), I loved seeing my friends go to confession. They’d say their prayers and their sins were wiped away. Poof! Just like that, they were brand new and sin free. Unfortunately, the old habits didn’t vanish, and my guess is that the same sins got repeated in the confessional time after time. And since there were different priests, no one really noticed or cared, and little personal growth resulted.

Teresa Jennings Robinson read this post and sent me the gorgeous hand-lettered quote she made for her art journal. See more of her work at

Teresa Jennings Robinson read this post and sent me the gorgeous hand-lettered quote she made for her art journal. See more of her work at

And that’s the danger of new projects. They seem free of the past baggage, but they are not free of us. We show up with our past, and relive it because it’s familiar. In a few days that new project takes on the fingerprints of the old us. If we don’t like the old us, we’ll hate the new project, too.

I have friends who are start-up junkies. Addicted to new beginnings, these eager people will start up a company with the fervor of Ron Popeil selling the Veg-O-Matic. But they aren’t good at running a company, which seems tedious and boring, so they dash off to do another start-up, leaving the clean-up team to handle the rest.

Any beginning feels like the creative part. And it is. But the road-test of creativity is showing up every day to do the hard work. The book I am writing is hard work. It’s satisfying, and I enjoy it, but it’s not riding rainbow unicorns. It involves saying “I can’t go to the movies with you, I’m writing,” or thinking, “I need to re-write this chapter, it’s not working, even if it is the fourth re-write.”

Creative work is hard. We want to give up, we get bored,  we want to do something fun and new. Yet what gets the work done is moving steadily ahead, when it’s not fun and not new.  Learning from your mistakes and getting up every time you fall is what the real work of creativity. And it pays off.

—Quinn McDonald is working on a re-write of a trio of chapters. She has done it before, and she may well do it again.

It’s Random

Consider this: The Raptors, a baseball team, has won the last four games played on a Tuesday, but only if it rained. No rain, no win. Rain? They win. Today is Tuesday, and it is raining, and the Raptors are playing. Should you bet on them to win?

It's not rain, but a forest fire behind a high-school game in Colorado. I found it randomly.

It’s not rain, but a forest fire behind a high-school game in Colorado. I found it randomly.

Of course not. Winning and the rain are not related. It’s a coincidence. Correlation does not imply causation. Which is a compact way of saying that the rain, Tuesdays, and winning are not related to each other. Even if it happens four times in a row. It’s random.

Random is much easier to accept if it’s in your favor. When things go your way for a while, it’s easy to pat yourself on the back, tell yourself how much you deserved it, and how you are smarter than your idiot competitors.

When things go wrong, of course, we look for the idiot who screwed us up. Sometimes we blame ourselves and beat ourselves up.

This is a good time to make sure what went right and what went wrong wasn’t random. If you were involved, good to see how, admit it, fix it, take credit for it, or cheer.

© Scott Adams

© Scott Adams

If it was random, and it often is, don’t spend another second looking for secret reasons, lessons from the universe, a ghost in the machine, or divine retribution. Correlation does not imply causation. What’s your next best move? Time to get busy.

-Quinn McDonald knows that over-thinking “random” resulted in the Salem Witch Trials. They could have spent the time better overcoming fear of outsiders.


Questioning Your Motives

When I was first married, I had to learn my husband’s family’s Christmas customs. There was a lot of gift buying, and because we didn’t live close, a lot of gift shipping.

As December flipped onto the calendar, I began to panic. My husband hadn’t purchased gifts for his family yet. We had decided it was his job to do that. He enjoyed it. Because Christmas starts in August, by early December I was in high panic. My husband has a different view of time than I do, and he wasn’t concerned.



Finally, in week three of December, he said he was finished shopping. I took a day off work, and, unasked, spent the entire day furiously wrapping, labeling and packing boxes for his family members. I then loaded the car and stood in line at UPS for hours waiting to ship his packages. My credit card took a serious hit on rush charges. I came home feeling virtuous. He owed me now. He would look at me as the hero I was and heap praises on my head. I could taste my victory and it was sweet.

I strode into the house, filled with more that a touch of vindication. “Your packages went to your family today, and they will make it in time for Christmas,” I said, pausing for praise. When it didn’t come, I prompted, “I used a vacation day to get them all out.” When I looked at him, I saw. . . hidden anger.

Available as a poster from

Available as a poster from

“What’s wrong? I took a whole day off to do this for you! I stood in line and put a lot of rush shipping on my credit card!” He looked at me and said simply, “I didn’t ask you to do that. I had planned to take tomorrow off to do it. I like doing it. You don’t. But mostly, you did something you hated so I’d appreciate it. And instead, you deprived me of the joy of listening to Christmas music and wrapping presents while you were at work.” I was furious. How could he be so selfish?  I had taken a day off and done a whole day of furious work for him, and I did not get one word of appreciation.

With time, I realized my totally inappropriate level of control and, well, wrong thinking. My husband was right.  Wrapping and shipping the presents was not my work to do. I took it on without asking. I did the work not because I enjoyed it, or even because I wanted to do it. I did the work to be appreciated. Instead of focusing on holiday joy, I focused on what I didn’t have: time, appreciation, enjoyment.

And the trouble with focusing on “What don’t I have?” is that the answer is always “I don’t have enough.” Always a sad realization.

In the years that followed, I learned to do things for others because someone asked me to help, or because I wanted to. Occasionally, I did things because they needed doing and no one else was available. But I no longer do things to be appreciated. It’s a losing proposition, every time.

—Quinn McDonald appreciates giving help and asking for help, which allows others to feel generous. She does the work that is hers to do.


Know Yourself, Be Yourself

The girl was walking toward the river when she saw a snake sunning itself on a rock. The snake was beautiful, but the girl knew it was a viper whose bite kills.

0The snake spoke to the girl, “Little girl, I cannot swim across the river, and I cannot row a boat. I need your help. You are kind and generous. Will you carry me across the river in the boat?”

The girl was taken aback. “No, you are a poisonous viper, and if I pick you up, you will bite me and I will die.”

The snake looked aggrieved. “Little girl, I must cross the river to get back home. You would offer me a kindness if you helped me. What reason would I have to bite you when you are helping me? If I bite you, we will both die.”

The girl thought for a moment, then agreed. Kindness is the best choice, she thought. She picked up the snake, laid it around her neck and headed toward her small rowboat tied to a post in the river. Before she could untie the boat, she felt a sharp pain in her neck. The snake has bitten her.

The bite was deadly.  The girl was confused. “Why did you do that? I offered to help you!” The snake dropped from her shoulders. Before he disappeared in the grass, he hissed, “You knew who I was when you picked me up.”

That fable always upset me when I was younger. Kindness was not rewarded, generosity and trust was punished. But there is another concept at work here. The snake stayed true to form. The girl, who was smart, ignored her own brains and let the snake sweet-talk her into doing something she knew was a bad idea. She acted against her own character.

Had the girl remained true to whom she was, she would have trusted her native intelligence and walked away from the snake, no matter how charming it was.

Know-YourselfThe real point of this story is the importance of self-knowledge. You know who you are. You know your skills. You know what you do well and what you are horrible at. And yet, it’s still so tempting to take the wrong job because the money is good, to start a relationship with the wrong person because of looks or wealth, to try to fit into a group that you have nothing in common with.

Make the most of who you are. Honor your own wisdom. If you aren’t sure of your values, there are tests like Via (you can take a free test here) or Myers-Briggs (you can take a free Jungian test here) that can help make it clear. Play to your strengths.

Knowing yourself is the first step to being yourself. Fighting against your true nature is a hard battle. You can choose to grow, to change, to become who you want to be. But start with who you are.

–Quinn McDonald helps people know themselves and thrive.

Dusty Studio

I’ve been out of the studio so long, it’s dusty. Easy fix. As I’m dusting, I’m thinking about what I want to do next. The pills have finally worked, and I can’t wait to get back to work.

Random phone-call doodle tree. With words.

Random phone-call doodle tree. With words.

Words. My first love. What should I do with words? Ah, found poetry. Love that SO much. Oh, found poetry on a collage background! Yes! Oh, no, on a watercolor background! And get the poem first, so the background works with it!

But, but, gelli plates! I should do that first. I’ve really forgotten half of what I learned. That great way to put down a layer then put a color over it and pull part of it off! The batik effect! And then do found poetry on it! Yes!

No, wait. Carve some stamps. I’ve always wanted to do it and never have. I keep hesitating. I have the material, and it’s not so expensive, it’s a tragedy if I mess up. In fact, if I mess up, it can become part of something else. Yes, I’ll do that first!

Oh, I still have leftover homework from the class I was taking when I got sick. I should do the homework first. Maybe something will inspire me there.

Discarded piece of gelli-plate print.

Discarded piece of gelli-plate print.

It was a drawing class, and I want to incorporate words in drawings. Oh, that idea I had about using cut-out words to shade drawings. And then move on to hand-lettering words to shade drawings. But just random letters. No, real words. Different sizes. That would be fun.

Hm. Journal is a bit small for experimenting, I should do this on bigger paper. But what about my abandoned journal? Shouldn’t I be catching up in that?

Help! I’m feeling better and don’t know where to start!

–Quinn McDonald has a well-dusted studio and needs to get started doing something delicious.


The Past Is Not Your Future

Love the past? Have tons of photos of your childhood, high school and college days? Photos are great reminders of who we were, but so many times, we mire ourselves in the past like an old station wagon with its wheels dug into a snowbank.

Who still holds the strings that allow you to move?

Who still holds the strings that allow you to move into a free world?

Yes, the past shaped you. Maybe even hurt you, distorted you, and damaged you. But that does not mean you have to stay stuck there. You can turn your back on the past and face forward. Look ahead. Plan ahead.

Getting Rid of the Past by Cleaning Out
One way to help you let go is by cleaning out the stuff that is holding you back. There is a difference between old photos and photos that zap tears into your eyes–tears of regret, shame, and anger. Take a look around your living space. What are you hanging on to that is not supporting the you that you want to become?

This is particularly true if you are suddenly living alone, about to move in with someone, an empty nester or simply still hanging on to painful memories and memorabilia.

Pile everything that’s painful on the bed. Throw out all items you won’t need for taxes or legal reasons. There will still be a big pile left–memorabilia, some of which you feel guilty about. “I can’t throw out my wedding album,” I hear you wail. OK, you can use one old suitcase or Rubbermaid container to hold those items you feel have historical or genealogical value.

What holds you back needs to be given away, burned, donated, or trashed.

What holds you back needs to be given away, burned, donated, or trashed.

Be ruthless. Toss out, give away, transfer ownership, donate, but get those painful objects out of your house. Do not stack them in the garage. Do not rent a storage locker for them. Paying to hold on to your painful memories is worse than having them underfoot in the house. Under all those pieces of your past your are clinging to are the basic values you need to start over. The big dream. The enthusiasm. All that stuff is crushing those values. Making them small. Making you sure that you don’t deserve a big, happy, interesting, creative future.

The next thing is an exercise from my upcoming book. I’ve found it to work in many cases:

Re-write the future as you are living it now to what you would like to do. Do not allow yourself to stay stuck in old patterns. Instead of “I always wanted to be a writer, but because my mother told me to get a career, I became a teacher. Maybe when I retire in ten years, I can do some art,” write down, “I want to live my life out loud as an artist. I want to [paint, write, sing, dance] and do it out loud and in public. In five years, I can see myself [having a solo show, singing in a musical, publishing a book]. When I do that, here are the friends that will celebrate with me [list]. Here is how we will celebrate [describe it in detail.]

You don’t have to worry exactly how to move from A to B yet. You have to have a clear vision before you can walk toward it. Carrying around the blame and shame will not lighten your walk, it will barricade it. Take the first step and clean the past out of your home. You will feel lighter and more prepared for the future you want.

[There are many steps to creating the life you want. Small ones, big ones. But facing what you are holding on to and what is holding you back is an excellent place to start discarding the unneeded, unnecessary, and unlovely. ]

-Quinn McDonald helps coaching clients leave their past behind and walk toward a lighter, brighter future.

Timing, Timing

dandelionThere are days that I am in top form, ready to go, loving what shows up. And then there are days when I have a cold. It’s been a week now and the snot fairy has moved into my head with a long-term lease and the cactus is firmly ensconced in my throat.

Feeling sick is a normal part of life–no one is healthy all the time. I am tremendously lucky that I haven’t been seriously sick in many years. And a cold–even a bad cold–is just that. It’s not life-threatening. But there is something that does happen when I don’t feel well, and I bet it happens to other people, too.

I catastrophize. Small upheavals become giant, and small efforts don’t work. Everything requires huge effort. And yesterday, my Plan B because my only option. Because I let it look like my only choice. Although I know “you look where you go,” feeling sick made me look more closely at failure, at not making it, at playing small, crushed and defeated. And headed right into that direction.

So I stoked up on cold medicine and went to see the client. Ready to be defeated and go home and eat worms.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 3.05.58 PMThank goodness for smart clients. This one turned me away from Plan B and steered me right back to Plan A. The Big Game. Some sense seeped into my stuffy brain. I pushed back the highly polished Plan B and pulled out the A Game. And it worked. The client was pleased. Encouraged me. And way against my expectations, Plan A glowed and Plan B (what to do if I fail) crumbled.

So, one more time: when you aren’t feeling well, don’t let that define you. Don’t go for the worst scenario. Intense self-care, even if you think you don’t deserve it, if vital if you own the business, stand up for yourself or represent your work.

Don’t brush off your self-care. It will always reward you. I learned to ignore self-care from years of working in businesses where being sick was not an excuse to stay home. Now it’s my business. And self-care comes first.

—Quinn McDonald will be getting better any moment now. Please.

Drama: The Soul Eater

“But it was so wrong,” my client said angrily. And it had been. The next step was going to determine how much drama was going to enter her life and change it. There is a natural urge in some people to fix whatever they find in front of them. Not just lend a hand, but insert themselves into situations that are not their making and try to take them over. This is the flashpoint of drama.

letter to dramaDrama may seem like fun, a break in your routine, a chance to get involved in some juicy problems and watch other people struggle. A larger and larger number of women enjoy drama. If they don’t find it, they create it.  That’s a dangerous game.

Drama is a time-waster and a soul-eater, often creating more trouble than the original problem. Drama requires three players:

The victim, who can focus only on what is missing in life, what she does not have, and what she does not want. She wants to remain the victim, so solving a problem may not be what she wants to achieve.

The Fixer is the person who is attracted to every victim like a magnet. The Fixer wants to rescue or save the victim, and the more effort it takes, the better the fixer feels about herself. She wants to appear selfless, strong, and a problem solver. Unfortunately, that means looking at life from a negative point of view, to show sympathy and alliance with the victim. Fixers are people-pleasers or martyrs, giving up a positive view to dwell in the negative. Of course, where you look is where you go, so the “solutions” the Fixer brings are often revenge- or fear-based. That never has long legs.

drama adviceThe Villain is far more like the Victim than we want to think. They have a huge need to be right, to gain control over every situation, and are particularly bad at seeing anyone else’s point of view. Villains were often victims who brought themselves out of victim-hood by controlling everything in sight.

What makes this situation dangerous is the similarity to every fairytale in our cultural span. The Villain must be defeated, the Victim saved, and the Fixer (or hero) admired. The flaw in the fairy tale is that life is not that simple. And worse, in most fairy tales the victim is thought of as helpless or weak until she is rescued by a man. Sleeping Beauty had to be kissed by a prince to be saved, Rapunzel had to have her prince climb up her hair to free her (although then they were both in the tower with all that hair). You get the point.

What makes drama a bad idea for relationships, work, and friendships? Drama is based on the idea that the victim is in crisis and helpless. Instead of stepping in as the Fixer and immediately looking for a Villain in every situation, allow the Victim to be resourceful, creative and whole. Many Victims use their Victimhood as a test to find people who will always prove themselves as friends. For a Victim, friends are always there to be manipulated.

Victims control their negative life by not letting go of their bad luck, hardships, or problems. Any Fixer in close proximity gets sucked in. Victims like being surrounded by Fixers. Fixers, on the other hand, do not like confrontation or other Fixers. Often Fixers will try to be the only person the Victim can trust. If you think that sounds controlling, it is. Remember, many Fixers started as Victims, progressed to being Villains and now want to be Fixers–controllers and the ones who hold the only solution. The price is a lot more than a kiss or climbing up a hair ladder.  It’s a no-win situation, a traffic circle of grief.

Ways to break away from drama:

1. Don’t give advice unless you are specifically asked for it. Don’t fish around by saying, “do you want advice?” because a victim will always want you to supply an answer. That way, when it doesn’t work (and it never will), it will be your fault. You told her what to do, she did (in her own way) and now it’s your fault that her life, once more, is a mess.

2. Allow your friends, family and co-workers to be creative in choosing a solution that works for them. Creativity is the key. Creativity is the ability to see positive solutions and put together a plan to create them. This requires a lot of patience and some professional training.

3. Walk away from drama. It’s much easier to walk away before you get sucked into the traffic circle of escalating drama.

4. Suggest a coach or therapist. They are different answers, but coaches and therapists are trained to deal with drama without getting involved in the problem. Therapists look to the past to find old habits and solve them. Coaches look to the future and help clients build their own solutions while teaching them to use new tools.

–Quinn McDonald is a coach who knows a lot about drama. Trapped in the Victim-Hero-Villain circle herself for years, she is now writing a book on freeing yourself from the trap.