Parts of a Whole

No plan comes together all at once. Plans get put together piece by piece. Each piece gives you more information for the next step. It’s good to have a big picture to know where you are going, but over-planning can bring disappointment that you don’t need.

Some parts don't fit in a tidy box. Cactus grid © Quinn McDonald, 2015

Some parts don’t fit in a tidy box. Cactus grid © Quinn McDonald, 2015

If you love control, you think that planning every inch, every second will bring you what you want. Life doesn’t work that way. Life is messy, but messy is interesting if you let it be.

Keep the big plan in mind. Keep the goal in sight. But here’s the real secret. Stay flexible. Not every piece has to drop into the pre-determined box to make the final piece complete.

Leave yourself room to shift, change, and grow. Your problem-solving skills will not drop away. You always have the skills necessary to make the plan move forward. There will be many times the final plan didn’t come together the way you want, but if you keep problem-solving skills working, the final plan may be better then the first plan.

Control is not everything. Sometimes determination, patience, flexibility, creativity, and ingenuity trump control. Sometimes you have to dump the plan and start over. You can choose.

-Quinn McDonald knows the charm of asymmetry.

Surrendering to a Wabi-Sabi Life

Wabi-Sabi—Appreciation of the Imperfect and Impermanent
You are looking watching the big harvest moon rise in the September sky. You remember seeing this special moon–as big as your head–when you were a child and asking if this moon was the bigger brother of the regular moon. You smile at the recognition of the wonder of this moment.

MoonThat fragile moment of recognition is part of the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi– the beauty of things impermanent or incomplete. It contains a profound appreciation for things modest and humble. As an aesthetic, it honors things imperfect and impermanent.

A Different Approach to Success and Abundance
Wabi-sabi is the release of control. It avoids beating up the creative soul for not achieving perfection. Recognizing and embracing our imperfections allows room for growth. The only result of demanding perfection is certain failure. Perfection is impossible, and while we live in a culture that loves people who are “passionate” and “give 110%,” we seldom feel passion for our daily lives, and it is impossible to give more than all. Perfection is a cruel boss. It leads to giving up, depression and anger rather than eagerness for growth and improvement.

Standing up for yourself, from Annie's Ink.

Standing up for yourself, from Annie’s Ink.

Living a wabi-sabi life means letting go of the stress of competition, relentless achievement, and replacing them with a willingness to let life find its own pace. It allows for space to trust that opportunities will appear, and a willingness to let the world unfurl without having full control over every activity. It is a life stripped down to what is valuable, rather than randomly acquired. It is not living without, but rather within.

In a wabi-sabi life, you recognize all things are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. Once you open the door to imperfection, a creative force rushes into your life, making it possible to risk, to try different solutions, to explore your creativity fully. Which leads to living a creative life–work and business combine to create a full, rich and abundant life.

How to Live a Wabi-Sabi Life
One of the hardest things to do is live in the moment. We are always planning—what to have for dinner, what time to pick up the kids, what to do if that promotion doesn’t come through.

We live our lives in the past, reviewing our mistakes, and in the future, planning

From Lady Employed, in a post about standing up for yourself.

From Lady Employed, in a post about standing up for yourself.

on contingencies and how to handle what will happen next. The current moment is empty as we rush to control—ourselves, our lives, the lives of our children. We try to control our creativity, what we make, even our intuition.

Certainly planning helps organize our time and leads to action. But when we begin to plan for every possibility, guess at every motive, fill every second of the day with planned activities, meetings and obligations, we exhaust ourselves and our families.

We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Often we can’t influence the future. What we think of as failure is simply a lack of knowing. You don’t always have to know. And you don’t always have to be in control. Take off that heavy obligation of knowing and controlling and take three deep, slow breaths. Then decide right now. In this moment. To live and grow. And leave perfection behind. And let creativity take root in your life.

—Quinn McDonald is renewing her determination to live a wabi-sabi life.

Control v. Organization

As a working mother in my 30s and 40s, I was sure control was the key to success. I ran my life with lists and schedules. Nothing was unplanned, from grocery shopping to getting together with friends. Nothing was spontaneous because I was in control.

They never really get shorter, just change content, over a day, over a life.

They never really get shorter, just change content, over a day, over a life.

This worked well at work, except for days when the schedule called for leaving work promptly. In those days,much of the political part of work took place in bars and restaurants after work and for moms with children, the glass ceiling often looked more like the carved wood door to the club bar door. But I stayed ahead with strict schedules–often I’d organize my to-do list by day, week, and project.

It worked most of the time. When something unexpected came up, I would make a list for it, prioritize it, and schedule it. Rarely, I’d work around it. I often went to work sick. I truly believed that the cure-all tool was control. Self-control. List control. If it could be organized and controlled, I was on it.

The trouble with control, of course, is that it doesn’t allow for life to happen. It doesn’t allow for good problem solving either, or a flexible process. Unless I could predict the future, or control it, my life was sliding downhill. Uncontrolled. PIcking up speed.

As I got older, I realized that we are less in control than we think. We are not in control of the weather, when we will get sick,  when or how our family members will die,  or be broadsided by a driver who is on the phone and runs the red light.

As I get more experience, I prefer organization. Organization keeps an eye on projects, but doesn’t derail if something comes up to change the outcome.

Organization allows you to be flexible and re-solve a problem if the goal changes or the process has to change to solve the new problem.

Organization allows you to carry an umbrella and sunscreen, cold water and hot coffee in the same travel bag.

There is a difference between control and organization. Organization works with what you have. Control tries to place (or nudge, or force) people, plans, processes into step with where you are at the moment. With varying results. Often disappointing.

When organization doesn’t work, there is room to change the process. When control doesn’t work, we have to blame and crank up the rules some more. We are not capable of controlling as much as we’d like. Organization works pretty well, though. Most of the time.

-Quinn McDonald knows the futility of control. Confidence and credibility come from another direction.

Fear Factor

On July 4, I wrote a blog post about fear-based culture. It’s an exhausting way to live, and it creates a circle of anger, resentment, control, and giving up.

Because I work with words, and words are an easy weapon, I looked around to find titles and situations in our popular culture that ignite the fuse on the anger circle. The words we use casually become part of our lives.

“War”  We now have a war on women, a war on religion, and yes, Craft Wars on TV.  It’s offensive to use the devastation of war to describe a disagreement and a competitive TV show. Remember when “awesome”  meant extremely impressive or daunting? Now it’s used as a filler word, used to mean “I heard what you just said.”  Soon “war” will be another shrug-off word. We’ll be mildly interested in the collateral damage, but it won’t shock us.

Every successful TV show spins off a competitive one, where one team has to demolish the other. The winning team gets to lord it over the losers. Apprentice, American Pickers (the competitive version), Cajun Justice, Fear Factor,  all the competitive cooking shows, all the race-from-one-place-to-another shows–it’s not just about winning, it’s about making the other team lose. The leftover resentment, anger, ridicule is now part of the American Dream. If you are on the winning side.

From the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller List: 50 Shades of Gray (a trilogy on sadomasochism), Wicked Business, Wild, Cowards, Killing Lincoln. Don’t forget the softcover selections: Explosive Eighteen, Afraid to Die, In the Garden of Beasts.

Best Selling Video Games:  Total War, Bioshock, Mortal Kombat.

Words are important. In the movie Iron LadyMargaret Thatcher ‘s attributed this wisdom to her father:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.

I know that violence is more interesting than compassion, drama has more frisson than contemplation, and reading about tragedy is more exciting that reading about self-awareness. It does us no good to avoid gluten if we are stuffing our minds with gore.

Do the hard thing and give up your anger, your control, and your threats. Fill your time with creativity. It soothes, heals, inspires and makes you feel like you have achieved something worthwhile. Because you have.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who is giving up control, one day at a time.

Control and the Fig Tree

It’s the same battle every June and early July. The birds begin to eat the figs in the tree, just slightly before they ripen. They don’t eat the whole fig, they just poke big holes in them, ruining them. They don’t eat the figs just at the top of the tree, the ones I can’t reach. They eat as many as they can.

Netting the tree isn’t possible. Hanging CDs or strips of foil in the tree makes no difference. The first two years, I’d get up at 4:30 a.m. and stand guard with a broom. The second day, the birds figured out the length of my reach and ate just out of it.

I don’t mind the woodpeckers and hummingbirds, but I hate the starlings and grackles.

This year, I realized it was futile to fight, and silly to prefer some birds over others. They are professional wildlife who are hungry, and there is available food in a time of scarce food and water in the desert. Now I rise at 5 a.m. and pluck whatever soft, sweet figs I can snatch from the birds early in the morning. At the end of the day, I pick up the detritus of figs, the fruit already dry and hard as walnut shells from the sun. Cleaning up controls the bug population. I don’t mind the ants, but there are three-inch crunchy bugs I don’t want to encourage.

Have I given up? No. I have adapted. I cannot change the nature of birds, nor do I want to deprive them of food at a hard time of year.

And this adaptation has seeped into other parts of my life. I no longer expect to change client behavior. I no longer become frustrated and wish that my aggressive and harsh clients would become interesting and appealing. I learn to accept them, or I don’t work with them, weighing the consequences carefully.

And I appreciate the small amount of fig jam that I can make each year. I am grateful that I have the tree, and that the magic of fruit calls the birds. You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you get what you need. The Rolling Stones must have known my fig tree.

Quinn McDonald is slowly giving up the need to control both the fig tree and the birds. She’s still working on herself, too.

The Control Issue

As a working mother in my 30s and 40s, I was sure control was the key to success. I ran my life with lists and schedules. This worked well at work, except for days when the schedule called for leaving work promptly. In those days,

They never really get shorter, just change content, over a day, over a life.

much of the political part of work took place in bars and restaurants after work and for moms with children, the glass ceiling often looked more like the carved wood door to the club bar door. But I stayed ahead with strict schedules–often I’d sit with my to-do list for the day, the week, and each project.

It worked most of the time. When something unexpected came up, I would make a list for it, ignore it, deny it, or rarely, work around it. I often went to work sick. I truly believed that the cure-all tool was organization.

The trouble with organization, of course, is that it doesn’t allow for life to happen. It does allow for good problem solving, a regularly planned process and a good idea of what was going to happen in the future.

As I got older, I realized that we are less in control than we think. We are not in control of the weather, of when or how our family members will die, when or if we will get the flu, or be broadsided by a driver who is on the phone and runs the red light.

On Monday, I was coaching a client when my teeth began to chatter. I felt OK, but my teeth were knocking together. The chattering got so violent, I had to end the call. I began to shake uncontrollably and feel cold–an odd feeling in August, when the house is 85 degrees and the outside temperature is just over 100 degrees. I found a quilt, piled it on the bed and crawled in. I shook so hard, I cracked a tooth filling. Within an hour, I had a temperature of 104 degrees.

The next day, I was scheduled to teach. Years ago, I would have said nothing, gotten up, and staggered to work, done poorly, checked it off my list and heard about it at the next performance review. This time, I notified everyone that I was ill, and was amazed to find that my clients were concerned for my health and agreed to postpone the training. Not hire another trainer. Wait for me to get better. I was stunned. Happily surprised, but stunned.

For 24 hours I slept. When I woke up, I drank water. I had a pain in my left leg, which I ignored. The next day I discovered 3 small puncture wounds on my left shin. The skin around it–most of my shin–was hot and tender and swollen. Spider bites are rare–and I hadn’t been in places where spiders hang out. I don’t know and I’m not in control.

That is what surprised me the most. Not in control meant I didn’t post a blog, didn’t change the kitty litter, didn’t water the plants, didn’t change the hummingbird feeders, didn’t cook supper, put gas in the car, pay bills, call clients. The world went on without me while I slept and sweated. I gave up control and lived to tell about it.

There is a difference between control and organization. Organization works with what you have. Control tries to place (or nudge, or force) people, plans, processes into step with where you are at the moment. With varying results.

I don’t know what bit me, it’s unlikely I’ll ever know. I’m not in control of what bit me. I’m catching up and grateful for my immune system that took control without asking me. Now, to get back on schedule.

-Quinn McDonald is beginning to believe in alien abductions by secret poisonous spiders.

The Power of Not Knowing

If you work in a corporation, you may have noticed how dangerous it is not to know something—the latest office news, your boss’s thoughts, your own job’s newest development. You may spend a lot of time gathering information so you can be in the know. Someone who admits to not knowing is branded as ‘stupid,’ ‘not ambitious,’ or, more dangerous in a corporation, ‘someone not vital to the team,” which means, roughly, “someone we can lose in the next layoff.”

Image from

Image from

How did knowing everything become so important? Particularly since not knowing is the way we get information, the way we learn how to do something new. In the business world, the importance of knowing could lie in the time- and money-cost of training. It takes longer to train someone who doesn’t know than someone who already does. And for a beleaguered supervisor, training takes time away from the job, so hiring someone who already knows the job seems the best route. A reasonable shortcut is on-the-job training. To the person looking for a job, it seems reasonable to exaggerate skills, education, and experience. That makes us know more and get hired. And then perform poorly. How much more exciting if we could admit we didn’t know, but were eager to learn.

The problems start when the job expectations are out of reach of what we know.
This is no different for an artist than a corporate employee. An artist who tells a coach, “I know how to work with galleries,” or “I know what I need to do,” may be covering over an important part of their life that needs work.

Knowing and not knowing is closely related to control. The more we try to control every minute of our lives, the more we have to know. Not knowing relinquishes control. Not being in control can be a big relief, less responsibility, less worry. But it’s scary to most people. Control can help you avoid what you don’t know.

What a relief the phrase “I don’t know” can be. It opens the door to getting more information, to new experiences, to new perspectives. There is a great release of pressure when you are not in control of every second of your life. You are not so disappointed all the time when you don’t know, when control is not the driving force in your life.

In the next few days, when you feel as if you are being pecked to death by ducks, try saying “I just don’t know” to yourself. Take off that heavy backpack of knowing and controlling and instead take three deep, slow breaths. Not knowing is freeing. It allows for knowing something new. Controlling every second slams the door on exploring. If you can’t be comfortable with not knowing, try seeing it as choosing what to know next.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and writer. She helps people explore their “not knowing” how to draw through (c) Quinn McDonald 2007-9

Read A Newspaper Before They’re Gone

More and more newspapers are disappearing. Not enough young readers. Not enough middle-aged readers. Not enough advertisers. “We can read it on line,” I hear. And, “I’ve given up reading newspapers, they just overwhelm me with bad news.”



Would you give up going to the grocery store because cinnamon rolls make you fat? Didn’t think so.

Reading on the Web takes 25 percent longer than reading on the newspaper, so it’s not the time it takes to read a newspaper. It’s the depth of the news. We don’t want to know the details, we want the overview or the bottom line, the stuff in the middle is too hard to figure out.

Oddly enough, it is not too hard to figure out the complexity of celebrity coupling, uncoupling and sniping–in 2008, according to Yahoo, Britney Spears was the most searched name. Barack Obama came in second.

What about the bad news accusation? We can’t read the newspaper because off all the bad news? Why are we scooping up magazines that roll in bad celebrity news? Why are reality shows–the worst of the bad news–so popular? It’s not the bad news we fear. It’s the lack of control.

In the end, the Brangefer triangle is worse than our lives, and we can walk away from it, but we can’t walk away from rampant disease, political treachery, and endless, groundless wars. We are part of them. We voted, we didn’t vote. Either way, we had a hand in it. And we can’t control it all. We can’t even control some of it. So we don’t want to know about it.

Our need for control works when we over-schedule our own time, our kids time, our pet’s time. But we turn away from the news because we feel we have to fix this mess and don’t know where to start and don’t want it on our desks. Or worse, our conscience.

I’m in full agreement that if you are too plugged in to news, reading headlines, catching up on reports on your cell phone or PDA, a break is necessary. No would blame you for turning off the TV, radio, CD and DVD players and crawing into bed. A little rest is good for everyone.

The next day, however, it’s time to start thinking. Maybe you can’t solve the world’s problems, but not knowing is different from not wanting to know. Being informed keeps you from blaming yourself, but it helps you make better choices, better votes, and a better environment. And while you can’t solve the world problems, you can do tiny things with enthusiasm. They add up. If we all do it, we can save the world.

In this super-connected world, wouldn’t you pay to have the latest news brought to your doorstep, complete with interesting photos, summaries in the first paragraph, readers leaving comments, and gossip? It’s not out of your reach, a daily paper delivered is less than $5 a month in most cities. Before they become extinct, before you lose control, grab a newspaper. Read it. Do one thing.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and life coach. She reads newspapers at the kitchen table every morning, then reads a few more online.

Coaching: Price and Value

In the life of a person being coached, there is a question that raises its head. More than a few people have accused me, in a moment of anger, of being in it for the money. Of talking to them only because they pay me to.

plain jarOn the face of the accusation (it’s never just a statement), they are right. My clients find me, they call me, we talk, and they pay me. Because coaching is intimate work, it is often easy to confuse coaching with talking to a stubborn friend who is totally involved in you and keeps asking questions about things that interest you. I’ve disappointed people who want to be friends after they quit coaching. I’m not totally involved in their lives anymore. It can be a shock.

I admire my clients. It takes guts to call on someone for help. I appreciate all of them. The struggle is almost always worth it—I’ve got the letters of amazement to prove it. “You didn’t give up on me.” “You showed me how to believe in myself.” And I do, with the constant work of the client who does all the heavy lifting of examining their lives and making changes.jar with light

Coaching is a calling. I didn’t have a divine light come from the sky. I wanted to help creative people be comfortable with their creativity in a world that often values compliance over exploration; I wanted to help people deal with change, because change is a constant in life and control isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And I wanted to allow people the space and support to re-invent themselves, as employees, writers, illustrators, parents, leaders–whatever life they choose.

Re-invention is not an easy path, but I’ve walked it with excellent results and I enjoy helping people make the choices they can live with happily.

And yes, I charge for doing this. In our culture, time is money. We get up and go to work in the morning because we need to eat, pay a mortgage, and drive a car. If you didn’t need to earn money, would you still go to your daily job? If you could do whatever you wanted in life, would you still go to your office? Exactly.

And so I charge for my talent, my education,  my experience, my time and effort. For years, I had clients whom I coached for free. I wanted to “give back.” Over time, I noticed that many clients who were receiving free coaching often weren’t invested in their own progress. They missed calls. They called 15 minutes into the hour, then complained when I ended their session on time. I began to focus on their shortcomings, not on their abilities, so I chose not to continue coaching for free. “Free” has no value. “Free” is easy to not take seriously.

I still give back. I volunteer in high school helping kids who don’t know how to prepare for the work of being a writer. I help people write better, I volunteer my time to organizations. Just not to my practice.

And for my clients–they have unlimited emails between sessions. If they are in a spot that needs more work, there is extra time. And that is wonderful for both of us. It’s the reason I coach–you can change, if you want to do the work.

-Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and a life coach who concentrates on change, meaning, and re-invention.  (c) 2008-9 All rights reserved. Image–Q. McDonald.

The Delight of Surprise

Control. We love it. We control our schedules and to-do lists, and those of our kids. You know that in three weeks you’ll be driving to a soccer/softball/dance recital and you know what you’ll have in the car to amuse/distract/keep busy all the team/screaming kids/weepy ballerinas. You know what you’ll wear and who will call to congratulate/console you and who will not.

We clutch the porcupine of control to our chest and march forward, hating the pain, but loving the  order we think it  puts in our lives. At some time, we come to realize that there is no control, that much of our lives happens with no regard to our wants. A child throws up in the car on the way to the soccer game, and no one has a clean uniform anymore. One week later, everyone in the car comes down with the same virus. We feel like failures when we can’t control what we can’t control.

The Storm of Revelation

The Storm of Revelation

There is some joy in the element of surprise, but only if we allow it to happen. I noticed it again today while teaching. Showing the “rule of thirds” to a collage class, i quickly sponged a dark portion over a light portion, demonstrating that the light area could take up two-thirds and look like a huge field of wheat against a small sky, but when I sponged in dark to take up half the field, the image lost interest. I continued dabbing, until the dark covered two-thirds of the image and was now a dramatic storm approaching. The students went on to work on their own collages, and I decided to play with the sample.

I’ve been watching the weather now that it’s monsoon season in Arizona, so I thought the image would work well if the storm revealed the power of nature over humans. Or if the storm revealed something in its wake. I set out to add a tiny human about to be caught in the storm.

The image I found had the word “revelation” under it. Ah, perfect. What would the storm reveal? While wondering, I cut out the letters for the word “storm.” I found the letters ‘a’ and ‘s’ and was preparing to glue down “the storm as revelation” when I noticed that the oncoming storm wasn’t revealing anything. It left too much unexplained. And then I had a thought. If I changed the “as” to “of” it would read, “The storm of revelation.” Now it made sense. The understanding that suddenly drenches us, leaves us feeling exhausted, yet refreshed is the ‘storm of revelation.’ We know what we did not before. It catches us by surprise, but if we let it drench us and we sway in the wind of change, we grow, become stronger. It is revealed and we know. One tiny word of change, and a whole change of meaning. All because I didn’t control the creative journey.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who lets the world surprise her, and finds it teaches her more than if she spends her effort controlling the world. See her work at