Take a visual approach to solving problems

There’s an old saying that goes: If you can dream it, you can achieve it.  That’s a good start, but I think that statement needs a qualifier.  I would add a few words:  If you can dream it, you can achieve it if you are truly determined.

Visualization is an important strategy for accomplishing dreams large or small.  I believe it is an essential tool for projecting your potential.  But it needs to be workable.

For example, I can imagine myself competing in the Ryder Cup, the biennial men’s golf competition between teams from Europe and the United States.  I’m a pretty fair golfer, and I would love to represent America in winning style.  Sadly, even though I was a competitive golfer back in high school and college, my glory days are long over.  So I will be content to watch the competition and cheer on my countrymen.

And therein is the difference between fantasy and visualization.

I have used visualization throughout my life as a means of seeing my dreams realized.  In business, I saw myself running a factory even though I had modest means and little experience.  But I was willing to work myself to exhaustion and slog through the trenches to achieve.


Part of the reason my visualization was effective was that I also visualized some of the problems that I would encounter, which were abundant at the beginning.  Foremost in my mind was how to work through challenges and still come out on top.  I imagined what could go wrong, and how I could take charge of the situation.

I tried to prepare for every possible hurdle, because wrestling with a problem isn’t always the best way to generate a creative solution.  Step back and quietly visualize the answer you’re looking for.  These are the steps I follow:

  • Focus on what you want.   This sounds easy, but keeping your mind free of obstacles and distractions can be difficult.  Try to clear your thoughts of everything but the outcome you need.  Don’t fight negative thoughts – just let them flow out of your brain so you can concentrate on the positive.
  • Make a movie in your mind.  We tend to see things in pictures more strongly than we can visualize abstract concepts like numbers and theories.  Think of your problem in visual terms and try looking at it – and your solutions – from different angles.  Bring your senses into play:  Imagine what your idea would feel like, sound like or even smell like.
  • Take your time.  The solution may not come all at once.  Give yourself time to get used to the process so you’re not forcing ideas too hard.  With practice, you’ll learn how to quickly relax your mind and let it explore problems and situations without effort.

“Losers visualize the penalties of failure.  Winners visualize the rewards of success,” says sports psychologist Rob Gilbert.

Two-time Olympic pentathlete Marilyn King provides a very moving example of how powerful the conscious use of picturing what you want can be.

When King was preparing for the 1980 Olympic trials, she suffered a severe back injury and was confined to bed just nine months before the trials.  She was determined not to let this injury keep her from performing, so she spent the next four months doing nothing but watching films of the best performers in the pentathlon events and visualizing herself going through the same events.

Amazingly, she placed second at the Olympic trials despite her lack of physical preparation. She credited her psychological state, not her physical condition, which resulted in her victory.  She said, “If you can’t imagine it, you can’t ever do it.  In my experience the image always precedes the reality.”

I know several real estate developers.  They have amazing powers of visualization.  They can look at a piece of property and see skyscrapers, apartment buildings, schools and a host of other construction projects.  They can see the placement of the roads, the style of the streetlamps, and the people who will populate the newly built space.

They can also see the issues they will face with city planners, construction delays, and environmental assessments.  But they are undaunted, because they have seen all this in their mind’s eye.  And they know that they can make it work.

As Thomas Edison said, “Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with preparation.”  I’ll take his word for it – I suspect Edison’s power of visualization was immense.

Mackay’s Moral:  Seeing is believing – if you believe in yourself.

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Get positive results when giving negative feedback

Lucy, who constantly criticizes Charlie Brown in the comic strip “Peanuts,” is one of my favorite characters because she always says exactly what is on her mind.

Peeved at Charlie, she once told him, “You are a foul ball in the line drive of life.”

She is just as tough on her little brother Linus, who always has his security blanket clutched in one hand and his thumb resting safely in his mouth.

“Why are you always criticizing me?” Linus asks Lucy.

“Because I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults,” Lucy says.

“What about your own faults,” replies Linus?

Without hesitation, Lucy answers right back, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”

Criticism, even when offered as a helpful suggestion, is often unwelcome.  It’s hard to accept that your efforts are unappreciated or fail to meet expectations.


One of my favorite sayings is, “No one ever kicks a dead dog,” which means you have to be doing something to get criticized.  My point is not to take criticism personally.  When a coach or a friend or a boss is criticizing you, that usually means they really care, and even though it may not feel like it, they want to help you.

Greek philosopher Aristotle said:  “Criticism is something you can avoid easily – by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.”

Obviously that isn’t an option for anyone who wants to be successful in business or as a leader.  Good leaders are active, and their actions frequently put them out front.  Of course that often draws criticism.

Even when it is meant to be constructive, criticism is sometimes difficult to deliver effectively.  When you have to correct a mistake or improve an employee’s performance, it is critical to get your message across without creating bigger problems.

Before you offer any criticism, think about what results or changes you need.  Telling an employee, “You were totally ineffective,” may be accurate, but it doesn’t tell the employee what your expectations are.  Your goal is to correct the problem, so think through what the employee needs to do differently.

Employees need to know exactly what they did wrong in order to improve.  Explain the problem in precise terms:  “You didn’t bring the right equipment, which meant you took longer than necessary to complete the work.”

Point out mistakes and problems, but don’t dwell on them too long.  Then start talking about how the employee can improve.

When an employee’s performance improves, make a point of recognizing it.  Reinforcing improvement will reduce the need for you to revisit the problem.

Ted Engstrom tells the story about a group of bright young men at the University of Wisconsin, who were blessed with remarkable literary talent:  aspiring poets, novelists and essayists.  They met regularly to read and critique each other’s work, which became progressively more contentious.  So merciless were their criticisms that the members of this exclusive club called themselves the “Stranglers.”

The women of literary talent in the university started a club of their own, which they christened the “Wranglers.”  They also shared their work with each other, but the criticism was softer and more positive, even encouraging.

Twenty years later, an alumnus of the university did a study of the successes of the Stranglers as opposed to the Wranglers.  None of the Stranglers could claim any significant literary accomplishment.  The Wranglers boasted six or more successful writers including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote “The Yearling.”

The talent and education levels were comparable, so why the difference?  As Ted concluded, the Stranglers strangled, while the Wranglers highlighted the best, not the worst.

Successful leaders know better than to strangle, because they understand that results reflect their management skills.  Constantly belittling or blaming means that either the employee isn’t a good fit, or that the criticism isn’t being delivered effectively.

Instead, good leaders follow the example of the Wranglers.  Positive results start with a positive environment in which employees know that they will be treated with respect even when they make mistakes.

Consider the advice from the late Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay cosmetics:  “Never giving criticism without praise is a strict rule for me.  No matter what you are criticizing, you must find something good to say – both before and after. . . . Criticize the act, not the person.”


Mackay’s Moral:  Constructive criticism should always build up, not tear down

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Wisdom for the ages

When a lesson can be summed up in a few well-chosen words, the message often stays with the student.  A little tool to jog the memory, a clever saying to remind you what is truly important – that’s why “Mackay’s Moral” appears at the end of each of my columns.  All of my books also have aphorisms to sum up chapters, as I find it a great way to teach.

I file away helpful sayings and use them to drive home the point when the occasion presents itself.  I know this method is effective, because my readers often cite these witticisms in their letters and emails to me.  I love that they remember these little nuggets and find them so useful.

For today’s column I am pleased to offer up some of my favorite aphorisms not used in my columns or books.  They are self-explanatory and can stand on their own without a longer explanation.  If you prefer, think of it as quick columns all in one.


  • Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.
  • Goals are like stars; they may not be reached, but they can always be a guide.
  • A mistake proves that someone at least tried.
  • If we are facing the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.
  • What you build easily will fall quickly.
  • When life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile.
  • A word and a stone once thrown away cannot be returned.
  • It isn’t hard to make a mountain out of a molehill; just add a little dirt.
  • Of all the things you wear, your expression is the most important.
  • Friendship is like a bank account.  You can’t continue to draw on it without making deposits.
  • A positive attitude is a magnet for positive results.
  • The key to keeping your balance is knowing when you’ve lost it.
  • Remember:  It’s not what you have; it’s what you do with what you have that makes all the difference.
  • Life is a continuous process of getting used to things we hadn’t expected.
  • There’s only one endeavor in which you can start at the top, and that’s digging a hole.
  • You have to take it as it happens, but you should try to make it happen the way you want to take it.
  • Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.
  • The trouble with self-made people is that they worship their creator.
  • If you always give, you will always have.
  • You can’t get ahead when you’re trying to get even.
  • The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.
  • No matter how much dirt you throw at someone else, you’ll always be dirtier.
  • Judge other people’s faults by their effect on the work, not by their effect on you.
  • The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.
  • Too many people stop to think and forget to start again.
  • If you’re not sure where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.
  • Ten out of nine people don’t realize they’re weak in math.
  • Try not to become a person of success, but rather a person of value.
  • The grass isn’t greener over there.  It’s greener where you water it.
  • Hire for character; train for skill.
  • You know you need a change when all you exercise is caution.
  • The person who makes no mistakes usually doesn’t make anything.
  • Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themself.
  • Nursing a grudge is bad for your health.
  • Life is a bumpy road, and laughter is your best shock absorber.
  • Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
  • We could learn a lot from crayons:  Some are sharp, some are pretty, some are dull, some have weird names and all are different colors … but they all exist very nicely in the same box.


Mackay’s Moral:  In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make.

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Branding should be fascinating

“You can’t stand out if you’re trying to blend in.”  That’s the message Sally Hogshead drives home in the updated edition of “Fascinate,” her how-to handbook for making any brand impossible to resist.

“In any crowded marketplace, you have to make a choice.  Either have the biggest marketing budget… or be the most fascinating.  Otherwise, your messages will be ignored and forgotten.

Her research shows that a product or service can charge up to 400% more, without changing the product, by identifying how to fascinate buyers.  She goes on demonstrate how anyone can make anything fascinating.  Her book gives the tools to prove it.


In her original version published in 2010, Sally explained how our brains become captivated by certain people and ideas.  She shared the seven ways in which brands fascinate people, or as she puts it, “the why, but not the how.”

Her new book includes more than 60 percent new content.  Most exciting is the introduction of her Brand Fascination Profile, a process that enables you to measure your own product or service and to measure your advantages.

Another new feature is TurboBranding, a step-by-step process that shows you how to create brand messages in about an hour.

Sound like useful information?  You can’t begin to imagine how many ways you can apply this advice.  After all, as Sally writes, “Corporations don’t create brands.  People do.”

What attracts people to certain branding messages and not others?  “Every day, in every relationship, you’re ‘marketing’ your ideas to be heard,” Sally says.  “You want clients to hire you, or customers to recommend you. . . .Your influence will be measured by your ability to fascinate.”

The word “fascinate” comes from the Latin fascinare, which means “to bewitch or hold captive so that others are powerless to resist.”  Fascination is the most powerful force of attraction, drawing customers into a state of intense focus.

How do you harness this fascination?  “If you master the forces that influence human behavior, you win,” she says.  “You can win bigger budgets, more time, better relationships, greater admiration, deeper trust.”

But if you don’t attract people, you lose the battle.  She cautions:  “As a business, if you can’t persuade customers to act, you might as well donate your entire marketing budget to charity.”

You will know that your brand is fascinating if you are provoking strong and emotional reactions, creating advocates and inciting conversation, or forcing your competitors to realign.

The examples and stories that Sally shares offer convincing evidence.  One example describes how women who were given the choice between sunglasses with a designer logo and plain sunglasses were willing to pay more for the logo, although the functionality of the product was the same.  The experiment showed that they weren’t concerned about buying something that was better, but something that was different.

“That’s the heart of differentiation,” she writes.  “It’s tough to be better.  But far easier to be different.”

Fascination goes beyond rational thinking, she says, “transforming customers into fanatics and your brand’s products into must-have purchases.”

But what if your marketing budget is limited?  “The goal here is not to spend more money on marketing.  It’s actually to spend less money by marketing more effectively,” Sally advises.

“Spend less but see better results.  Outthink instead of outspend.  If you don’t have the biggest budget, then be the most fascinating.”

The real meat of this book comes in Part II, “The Seven Fascination Advantages:  How To Make Your Brand Impossible To Resist.”  She describes the creativity of innovation, the emotion of passion, the confidence built by power, the new standards set by prestige, the stability of trust, mystique’s language of listening and the rules of alert.

She next moves into tactics, a practical system to customize your message.  The seven advantages are coupled with specific tactics to position your message more effectively.  Sally also shows how to combine the seven advantages with each other to customize your branding.

The closing section sends you on your way with a five-step action plan.  The “Fascinate System” is not a substitute for a full-service agency,” she says.  But “it condenses the time-honored marketing process into a streamlined and straightforward process for identifying your brand’s message and key competitive advantage.”

In a nutshell, “Fascinate” is fascinating.  Your brand can be fascinating too.


Mackay’s Moral: Big time branding doesn’t require a big-time budget, just a commitment to fascinate.

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A little fear can be a good thing

A small village by the sea depended on fishing to survive. Each year the boats they sent out had to go farther and farther from shore to catch enough fish to feed all the villagers.

But as they ventured farther away, they encountered a problem. Their usual practice was to put the fish they caught in big tanks to keep them fresh until they returned home. But the fish grew lethargic in the tanks, and many died before the boat could reach shore again.

After much thought, one of the crew hit upon a solution:  On their next fishing trip, they caught a small shark and placed it in the tank along with the fish.  The shark ate only a few fish, but the rest swam frantically around the tank trying to keep away from the predator – and made it to shore fresh and healthy for the villagers who depended on them.

The moral of this story is that sometimes a little fear is what we need to stay active and alive.  I certainly find that to be true.  If I begin to coast, I lose concentration and focus.  I perform best when I have a little anxiety or fear.  I am sharper and more on my game.

A little fear can be healthy.  But fear can hold a lot of people back and stop them from living life to the fullest.  I understand that feeling of being afraid.  However, there is only one thing worse than a quitter, and that is a person who is afraid to begin.  There are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them.

I have a friend who told me “There are 365 ‘fear nots’ in the Bible – one for each day.”  Never be afraid to try something new.  Remember, amateurs built the ark … professionals built the Titanic.  Think about it.

Dale Carnegie said:  “Inaction breeds doubt and fear.  Action breeds confidence and courage.  If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Don’t let fear block your success.  If you truly want to learn to control your fear and advance in your career, I have some ideas that have worked for me.  They can work for you too.


  • Explore your memories.  Look back over your career.  What situations have made you feel afraid?  Do you see any common denominators?  When was the last time you were afraid to do something and did it anyway?
  • Look at your responsibilities.  You have a lot of priorities in your life.  Which ones make you fearful?  Why are you afraid of them?  Dig deep, and keep asking “why” until you are satisfied that you have found the root of your fear.
  • Construct a worst-case scenario.  When a certain situation makes you nervous, try to think of the worst thing that could realistically happen.  Chances are the reality won’t be as devastating as you think, and examining the possibilities ahead of time will prepare you to avoid the potential pitfalls.
  • Shift your focus.  When you’re confronted by a task that makes you fearful, stop and think about all the positive benefits it will produce in the end.  Focusing on the outcome helps to put the small worries aside.
  • Try new things.  At every opportunity, take on a new task or a different responsibility.  This will increase your capacity to take risks.  It will also expand your skill set and build your confidence.
  • Review your risks.  Look at some of the risks you’ve taken recently.  Chances are, most of them turned out OK.  Figure out what made them work.  Can you duplicate those decisions that led to success and apply them to other situations?
  • Know that your fears will resurface occasionally. Accept this fact, because there will be times when you feel like you are out of control.  Outside factors can influence situations adversely. Prepare yourself to handle disappointments and unsettled situations.  Stop and assess the circumstances so you can decide whether further actions will help or hurt.

Not knowing how to control your fear can have disastrous results.  Consider the great tightrope walker, Karl Wallenda.  He died many years ago in a tragic fall.  His widow was quoted as saying: “All Karl thought about for three straight months prior to the accident was falling.  It seemed to me he put all his energy into not falling – not into walking the tightrope.”


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t let your fears get in your head – get ahead of them.

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