On setting intentions and manifesting dreams


I have a love/hate relationship with the word “intention”. I feel similarly about the word “manifest”. In the coach-y personal development world that some of my work fits into, people like to say things like “you have to set your intention in order to manifest your dreams”.

That kind of statement always makes me cringe a little.

The cringe comes from years of experience that has taught me that, despite what we want to believe, the universe is not an ATM machine that will spit out crisp, beautiful, unwrinkled dreams if only we punch in the right code. There is no simple magic – unless you’ve put something into the account, the ATM machine has nothing to pump out.

It also comes from the part of me that is fed up with the me, me, me culture we live in that I wrote about in my last post. We can’t expect our dreams to come true unless we are willing to invest in the collective dreams of our community.

In addition to those reservations, I also continue to believe that there is a God who orders the universe, and most of the time, we don’t get to see the big picture the way God does. There are times when we’re going to have to live through devastating disappointment – when our dreams come crashing at our feet – and we won’t understand the value in all of that heartache until we’re far into the future looking back in the rearview mirror.

All of that being said, I haven’t entirely given up on the word “intention”.

About ten years ago, I read a book about naming your personal mission and setting the direction you want to head in your life. At that time, I was employed in a government job that made me miserable and I was looking for some path out of it and into something more in line with who I am and what I’m passionate about. In the book was the suggestion that you should write out a “day in the life” journal page as though you are writing it five years in the future. The author of the book claimed that nearly everyone she knew who’d done that ended up almost exactly where they wanted to be.

I wrote my journal page, and you know what? The things I wrote about doing are almost exactly the things I spend my time doing now – teaching, hosting workshops, and writing. It took a few more than 5 years, but I landed where I’d hoped to land. The only part that didn’t come true was my wish for a house with a front porch and a porch swing. (I’m still holding out hope.)

There is definitely something about naming and owning your desires that helps you move in their direction.

So, despite my reservations, I still believe in intention-setting. I just believe in a little realism thrown in for good measure.

Here are a few of my thoughts on intention-setting:

  1. Your longings and passion are there for a reason. God gave you a desire to do the things that you love to do and it’s not selfish to want to do them. It’s only selfish if you keep them to yourself or if you do destructive things with them. Explore the deep longings in your heart and set an intention based on who you truly are and what you have to offer the world.
  2. Be prepared for a lot of detours on the path. Just because you set an intention doesn’t mean you’re going to get a straight path to its realization. Like I often tell clients, your journey is like a labyrinth. You always know that the centre is your destination, but sometimes you turn the corner and find yourself further from the destination than you were before. A few years after my journal-writing, for example, I found myself out of government and in a non-profit job that I loved, but that wasn’t quite where I expected to be. I learned a lot from that job though, so I have no regrets. Keep following the path and one day you’ll reach centre, though centre might not always look like you expected it to look.
  3. Hold your intentions lightly. Sometimes, on the path to making your dream come true, you’ll realize that there’s actually a bigger and better dream in store for you, or that you were dreaming the wrong dream, or that your dream is rather selfish. The things I teach in many of my workshops now are actually even more close to my heart than what I wrote about in the journal because I’ve done a whole lot of learning in the intervening years. Much of that learning came in the form of really tough lessons and disappointments. Be prepared to adjust your dreams or let some of them go.
  4. Even when you go through the dark night of the soul, trust that the light will return in the morning. In the past couple of years while I’ve been building my self-employment dream, there have been many, many times when it’s been so hard I’ve been tempted to give up. And yet there continues to be this driving force in me that hasn’t given up hope that I’m doing the right thing. It takes a lot of trust to get through the darkness, but once you’re through, you begin to realize the value in that dark path. I have learned, for example, that my work in the world is partly about helping people navigate in the dark. I couldn’t do that work unless I’d been in a few dark places myself.
  5. Be a gift-giver. Don’t make the realization of your dreams be solely about you and what you have to gain. Be a community-dreamer – set intentions for the collective good instead of your selfish good. Give your gifts to the community and be prepared to let your dreams change in the face of what your community needs. In my journal page dream, I was rather ego-focused, dreaming of the kinds of workshops I wanted to facilitate on my own. Since then, though, I’ve been immersed in the Art of Hosting and I realize that the work I now love to do, and the work that I believe will change the world, is more about co-hosting in circle and getting my own ego out of the way.

Follow the hunger

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. – Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.


You can be mediocre.

You can fail to capture the attention of hoards of admirers.

You can struggle all of your life to create a masterpiece and then leave it, at the end of your life, unfinished.

You might never get your book published.

Your business might never bring in more than $1000 a year.

You might not get that masters degree you always dreamed of getting.

You may not make it to the Olympics.

You might die without a penny to your name.

It doesn’t matter.

All of those measures of “success” are not important. They are the measures that we have arbitrarily attached to our efforts because we feel the need for yardsticks and goalposts.

But what if there are no yardsticks and goalposts? What if life is not a competition? What if the only winner is the person who lived well? What if the journey is the destination?

What if, at the end of your days, the only thing that matters is that you were faithful to your gift and your calling?

What if the only measurement you need to concern yourself with is whether or not you kept walking?

What if the only thing that’s important is that you let the “soft animal of your body love what it loves”?

Yes. This.

It’s about love. It’s about the wisdom of the bumblebee as it follows its hunger to the next beautiful flower. It’s about the trust of the wild geese as they follow the migration patterns that call them to their next home.

It’s about the soft animal of your body – the part of you that knows nothing about goal-setting or success, but knows everything about love.

It’s about writing and painting and dancing and laughing and connecting and counting and inventing and problem-solving out of our deep and passionate love for that thing we do. It’s about doing it because we can’t be happy any other way. It’s about trusting the gift to lead us where we need to go. It’s about sharing what we do because we feel compelled and it doesn’t matter what other people think.

The outcome is not your responsibility.

The path is the only goal. One foot in front of the other. Winding, dipping, trusting, falling, surrendering, picking yourself up from the ground and stepping once again.

Your only responsibility is to love what you love. And to be who you are. And to dream what you dream.

Now stop telling yourself you have not succeeded. Are you in love with what you do? Then you have succeeded.

Go ahead and ask the soft animal of your body what it loves.

Goals are for sissies!

I’m done with writing goals. Good-bye. Good riddance.

I used to write them faithfully – at least once a year and sometimes in between. A lot of smart people told me that they were good and necessary and vital to my success, and since I have a habit of listening to smart people, I not only wrote them but I told other people to write them too. (After all, I wanted people to think I was smart too!)

But I’m done with goals. I’m kickin’ them to the curb. Because they’re not the most effective tool in my tool kit.

You want to know what works better than goals?


Yup. You heard me right – questions work better than goals.

Here’s a short section from How to Lead with your Paint Clothes on that explains why…

To get stuff done, ask good questions.

We have all been taught the value of effective goal-setting, but rarely have we been taught the effectiveness of curiosity. Research has shown, in fact, that curiosity and openness help us get MORE accomplished than determination and goal-setting do.

Three social scientists once conducted a series of experiments to determine which was more effective, “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) or “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in “sauce” to spell “cause”.) Before the participants tackled the problem, though, the researchers asked half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task. The other half of the group was instructed to tell themselves that they would complete the task.

In the end, the self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.

The researchers – Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi – then enlisted a new group to try a variation with a twist of trickery: “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretense, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”

This experiment resulted in the same outcome as the first. People primed with “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as people in the other three groups. In follow-up experiments, the same pattern continued to hold. Those who approach a task with questioning self-talk did better than those who began with affirming self-talk.

My nine-year-old daughter Maddy figured this out before I did. (Or perhaps I had it figured out at nine too, but somewhere along the way I let smart people convince me otherwise.)

Not long ago, she started her first journal. “Mom,” she said, “I’m going to call it ‘A lifetime of questions.'” And then she proceeded to write pages full of all the questions she has about life, leaving blank spaces after each question in case she finds the answer and wants to fill it in. Sometimes she shares her questions with me and sometimes she doesn’t.

The other day, she was waiting in line at six in the morning to audition for The Next Star, a TV talent show that’s like Canadian Idol for kids. After the original giddiness had worn off, she plopped herself down on the ground, pulled out her journal, and started writing her questions. She didn’t show them to me, but there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them was “will I be the Next Star?”

The answer to that question was, unfortunately, “No” (she didn’t make it past the first round of auditions), but if you ask me, she’s a pretty big star just for having the guts to do all the research about how and where to audition, practice her songs relentlessly for weeks on end, get up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, wait in line for five hours, and then march off alone into an audition room full of strangers (I wasn’t allowed to watch) and compete against kids who were mostly a few years older than her – all at the risk of failure. (One of the first questions she asked me afterwards was “Mom, can I take singing and dance lessons so I’m more prepared next year?”) That little girl is a hero in my books!

So I’m taking the lessons I’ve learned from Maddy and those researchers, and I’m living a lifetime of questions.

Remember that black canvas I painted when I was in the depths of despair over my long surrender? I decided to fill it with a bunch of hopeful questions.

I’ll let you know what the answers are when I find out!

Note: For this and other unconventional wisdom about how to take a more unique and powerful approach to life and leadership, check out How to Lead with your Paint Clothes on. There’s still room in the learning circle (along with the fascinating people who’ve already joined) and we’d love to have you!

Let go of the ground & taste the sky – a new series

skydiving 1

me, tasting the sky

“How do you get to be so free?” Caterpillar asks wistfully of Butterfly.

“Surrender,” Butterfly whispers as she flutters by.

“But… I’ve read all the books, taken all the classes, and I just can’t seem to get off the ground.”


“What do you mean – surrender? Surrender to what?”

“To the Mystery. To your Creator. To your own DNA.”

“How do I do that?” Caterpillar frowns.

“Climb up in that tree, let go of the branch, and spin.”


“Yes, spin.”

“But I don’t know how to spin. Do I need to take a course? Is there a manual?”

“You’ll know. Once you’re up there on the branch.”

“I’ll know? How will I know?”

“It’s written in your DNA.”

“What happens next? Do I have to spin my own wings?”

“No, silly,” Butterfly giggles. “You spin a cocoon.”

“A cocoon? I’ve never heard of that before. What do I do with it once I’ve spun it?”

“You don’t do anything. You just wait. Inside the cocoon.”

“What good does waiting do? I have too much work to do to sit around waiting in a cocoon. I have housework to do and children to feed and… well, that’s just ridiculous.” Caterpillar turns away, her eyes back on the ground.

“Well, then you’d better give up your dream of flying, because that’s the only way to get up here.” Butterfly’s wings carry her a little higher.

Caterpillar glances back at the sky. Her eyes fill with tears. “But… I really want to fly. Can you tell me a little more? Please. What comes next?”

“The hard part. The surrender.”

“So we’re back to surrender again. That doesn’t seem very helpful. And it’s kind of confusing. What am I surrendering?”

“Everything you ever knew. Every cell of your body. Every story you’ve ever told yourself.”

“I have to give up EVERYTHING?! Isn’t that asking a bit much?”

“Yes, but it’s worth it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Oh yes. It hurts.”

“How do you handle the pain?”

“You won’t like the answer.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“Surrender. And trust. You have to surrender to the pain and trust the process. You have to give up control and let your body turn to an ugly gooey mushy substance while you wait for transformation to happen. Your friends (those who haven’t learned to spin yet) will turn away because they won’t recognize you. It will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”

“I don’t know if I can do it. I can’t handle that much pain.”

“You can.”


“Do you want to taste the sky?”

“Oh yes. I really, really do.”

“Then you have to let go of the ground.”


I’m excited to announce a new series called “Let go of the ground & taste the sky”. I’m gathering stories of people who’ve learned what it means to surrender (in big or small ways) to the Mystery. I’ll be sharing those stories here in the coming weeks. To get this off the ground, here’s one of my own stories…

p.s. If you’re learning to surrender, I’m cooking up an offering (I hesitate to call it an e-course, but it’s something like that) where we can learn and practice together. Look for details soon!

A few of the stories I mention in the video:
Committed to love, tethered to pain
Birthing Sophia Leadership at ALIA

I wish…

It’s been an emotionally heavy month in an emotionally heavy year. Some days, it feels like my heart doesn’t know where to land anymore. I have been torn apart by some pretty significant work challenges, relationship challenges, leadership challenges, parenting challenges, marriage challenges, and any number of ordinary day-to-day life challenges.

It hasn’t all been bad, but sometimes it feels like I would do almost anything for just a bit of good news for a change, or just a few weeks of carefree, easy living.

With that in mind, when Jamie asked “what do you wish to experience” for this week’s Wishcasting Wednesday, I thought “oh my – it’s Spring, with Summer just around the corner – and I want to experience SO much of what is good and easy and light-hearted and beautiful in the world.”

I don’t need blow-your-mind big moments, I just need a good long series of simple, good things. So here are some of those things I wish to experience:

  • A retreat. A few days of delicious, non-guilt-inducing, non-heavy-thinking, simple, refreshing retreat.
  • A few dozen long, luxurious, wind-at-your-back bike rides, with or without companions.
  •  Some photo walks, where I get lost behind the lens, staring at bees landing on flowers, broken glass on the sidewalk, or the way the setting sun sets the leaves aglow.
  • Campfires. A drink in hand, the ingredients for s’mores nearby, the crackling fire, and some of the easy people in my life relaxing in lawnchairs around the circle.
  • Spontaneous beach days with my daughters. Sand between the toes, ice cream treats, sunshine.
  • Quiet moments with a paintbrush and an idea, hiding in my studio/sanctuary.
  • A road trip. Laughing in the car, stopping for snacks and pee-breaks, hours and hours of staring out the window.
  • Time to write this idea that keeps burning in my brain.
  • Lovely little Folk Festival moments – listening to music, hanging out with my sister, watching the dragonflies flutter past.
  • Positive changes. Something shifting in the areas of my life that feel stuck. Emerging from this tunnel into the Summer sunshine.
  • Connections. A few deep and honest conversations with safe people who wake me up to new truths.
  • Rest. (Can we get back to that retreat? Oh how I long for it!)
  • Mostly I just want to experience an easy stretch on this “journey” I’m on this year. A straight stretch of road, with lovely scenery where nothing jumps out on the road ahead of me and no storm clouds blur the view.

That’s enough for now. It doesn’t seem like too tall an order, does it?

What do you see when you close your eyes and daydream?

Not long ago, I wrote about how Maddie loves to build magical worlds under the dining room table. Recently I found her there, lying on her back, staring up at the bottom of the table. When I asked her what she was doing, she said “oh, I’m daydreaming. I have to do it here because Madame doesn’t let me at school.”

Now, I’m a big fan of daydreaming, so I told her to go ahead and do it at school – just hide it by pretending she’s reading! (I got away with that many times when I was in school! I still do!)

Well… what do you think I did this morning? I climbed under that table, where Maddie has her boxes, her magical stool, her stuffed toys, and now her Little Lovely painting from Connie at Dirty Footprints Studio, and I daydreamed! Because what’s a better way to spend a morning when you’re still hiding in your cocoon waiting for your energy to come back?

About five years ago, I worked my way through a book called The Path, by Laurie Beth Jones. Laurie believes in daydreaming too (though I think she calls it “visioning” – a grown-up version of the same concept). She suggests that you sit down and write a vision for the future, a fairly specific “day in the life” of the person you dream of being in five years. She says that in her experience, a lot of people who do that kind of visioning end up very close to what they write about – maybe not in five years, but somewhere along the way.

Yesterday I pulled out my five year old daydream. There are a few parts of it that have come true – like the part about my husband coming home after teaching in his first classroom and feeling good about having gotten through to at least one student. He’s finally got a full time teaching job and I don’t remember when I’ve seen him happier. It’s a pretty tough school, but he’s in his element, helping inner city kids realize the value of education.

There’s a big part of the vision though – the part that’s mostly about MY dreams as opposed to my husbands – that hasn’t been fully realized yet. If I wrote another “five year vision” it would probably contain essentially the same thing. It’s the long held dream of making my living as a full time writer/speaker/consultant.

It’s closer to coming true (now that Marcel has a full-time job), but I’m not quite ready to quit my job yet. I’m not in one of those “just putting in time to bring home a pay cheque” jobs, so it’s not one I have to run away from. A few of the blogs I read are about people who are excited about quitting “the man” and launching their own businesses. Well, I wouldn’t really be quitting “the man”. I did that six years ago when I left a secure, fairly high level job in federal government for non-profit. For me it would be more like quitting “the woman” – by which I mean the marginalized, impoverished women who are being supported by the incredible organization I work for.

I keep wrestling with it, in fact. There are times when I can hardly WAIT to walk away from a 9-5 job and sink my teeth into a life of writing, speaking, traveling, and teaching leadership and creativity workshops. But then there’s that little voice that pipes up and says “Hello!? Remember how lucky you are to have a job that gives you such a great opportunity to use your gifts in leadership, creativity, writing, etc., that fits so well with your passion for justice, and that lets you travel to some of the most interesting parts of the world in search of a good story and photograph.” And lately I’ve been excited about the new staff I’ve hired who bring lots of great energy and ideas and who are a pleasure to lead. There’s a lot of exciting potential going on that I would be sorry to leave.

The truth is, though, when I lie under the table and daydream, that old familiar dream comes back to me every time. I’ve got a book (or two) published; I’m traveling to conferences and retreats to speak to people on topics related to leadership, beauty and justice, and leading a creative life; and I’m writing, writing, writing.

The past six years at my job have been truly incredible. I’ve stretched in incredible ways, I’ve met some of the most amazing people in the world, I’ve slept in a tent on a farm in a remote part of Kenya, I’ve held hands with a young teacher with a beautiful soul on a tiny island in India, I’ve taken incredible photos all over the world, I’ve gotten to write lots of stories, I’ve learned more about leadership than I could have imagined possible, I’ve lead film crews through Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, and I’ve been reminded time and time again that some of my greatest lessons come from my failures.

I remember six years ago, when I first got the job, I said to a friend “this job will stretch me” and I couldn’t have been more right.

I don’t know for sure when the time will be right to leave this work I love. I’m not really in a rush. But I can’t let go of the idea that the past six years have been preparing me to step even more fully into my calling. The possibilities are endless, and I’m ready to ride the wave wherever it takes me.

What about you? I’d love to hear what would be in your daydream if you sat down and wrote about a day in the life of the person you want to be in five years.

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