How to use symbols to create clarity and understanding

“Do you really believe in that sort of thing?”  my friend asked, looking at me with an odd expression.

I’d just told her about a gift I’d bought for myself:  a tarot reading by someone who consistently gets rave reviews from people whose opinions I trust and value.  And I could tell she was trying not to offend me with her opinion of my superstitious irrationality!

Do I believe that a deck of cards can tell the future?  No.  And neither does the woman who did my reading, whose tagline says, “The cards tell a story, but you write the ending,” and whose home page states, “Tarot is not about revealing a predetermined destiny (news flash: it doesn’t exist).”

However, symbols have power.  Symbols remind us of things we need to remember.  They help focus our attention on things we might otherwise overlook or avoid.  And symbols are often exactly the tools we need to help our intuitive awareness click into focus, allowing us to put clear language to a previously inarticulate sense of what we want or what we feel is emerging.

Without that clarity and language, we can’t take action to bring our desires into reality.  And as you’ve probably experienced, the struggle to bring an intuitive sense of growth and creativity into enough clarity to begin moving towards the vision can be infuriatingly frustrating.

A tarot reading is an extended examination of symbols, and in the hands and heart of a talented reader it can be startlingly powerful.  But you don’t have to take that particular leap into using symbols.  There are other ways to tap the power of symbols to help you create new understandings about your life and your work.

Try this experiment with symbol and image

Page through a magazine – any magazine will do, though one with high-quality images such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, or glossy lifestyle publications are best – and tear out the first image that really grabs your attention.  Don’t pick one that speaks to what you think you want; for instance, even if you’ve got your heart set on a red Porsche, please don’t go hunting for photos of red Porsches!  And don’t try to figure out why a particular image is attracting you; this isn’t about an image being pretty (it may not be a pretty image that catches your attention), or about its being well-photographed or well-designed.

Instead of thinking your way through why you selected your image (or it selected you), let its story unfold.  Set the image where you’ll see it several times each day, and let it tell you what’s interesting about it.  Try writing about it, in a very open way; just ask yourself, “What’s this image trying to tell me?” and let yourself answer freely and spontaneously.

We know more than we think or say

We all know more than we think we know, and we all know more than we can consciously articulate in any given moment.  Symbols – and these images that I’m suggesting you work with are a type of symbol – give us the opportunity to tap into that wordlessly creative space.  Using symbols and images as our guides, we can bring conscious focus to our intuitive awareness, speeding up the process of finding the words that describe what we want.

And as I said, it’s only when we have the words to describe our vision that we can begin to bring the vision into reality.  Without the words, the vision remains stuck in an inarticulate, intuitive space.  We know there’s something important that we want to do, but we haven’t got the clarity required to take action.

Of course the inarticulate, intuitive sense of creativity is an important first step; without it, there’s no next step to take, no seed of vision to bring out and describe, nothing to work towards.

But if the vision is never described, it’s like the seed that germinates underground but never sprouts leaves and grows.

The tarot reader is Theresa Reed, at

gljudson Communication

Is it hard, or is it scary?

It seems like every article and marketing email coming into my in-box these days is playing some variant of the “it’s so hard” song.

Whether they’re harping on how hard it is to do some specific thing, or how hard it is to focus on doing anything at all, it seems like “it’s hard” is the current Hot Marketing Trend.

I don’t buy it.

Of course some things take skill, practice, time, and effort.  But there’s a difference between effort and hard.

That feeling of “hard” comes from three things.

  1. You don’t really want to do it.
  2. You very deeply want to do it … and it’s scaring you half to death.
  3. Or you just don’t know how to do it.  (As I said, some things take skill and practice, meaning knowhow and ability.)

The solutions that the people playing the “it’s so hard” tune are selling only solve the “how to do it” question.  But “how to do it” is the smallest piece of this puzzle, and the easiest one to solve.

In my experience, “it’s hard” usually means “I really, really want to do this, and I’m scared to death to put myself out there in such a big, vulnerable way with my work.”

What we’re really here to do is big, and that tends to feel vulnerable.  Standing fully in the knowledge and power of what we do best means being different, unique, and completely ourselves.

Yet being different is something our culture teaches us not to do.

Our parents themselves are often afraid of the consequences of being different, and teach their children well (out of love as well as fear).  Our teachers tend to want all the kids in class to conform to a norm so they can manage – and score well on tests.  As for our peers:  high school – need I say more?   Then when we finally reach the work environment, we’re held to a standard dictated by our job descriptions and the HR staff, who generally have a mandate to score everyone on a so-called level playing field.

And moving into self-employment hits all the fear buttons.  Paradoxically, of course, it’s when we’re most completely ourselves that we succeed, but the need to get clients and make enough to pay the bills can make it seem impossibly risky to deviate from “normal.”

So we look at those people who have been different – Steve Jobs is an obvious example, of course, but there are many public figures in everything from business to entertainment to politics – and we think they must be special.  We think they must have talents, abilities, or advantages that we don’t have.

It never occurs to us that, for whatever reason, they were able to lean into the fear of being different, let go of the thought “it’s so hard,” and put in the effort required to learn what they needed to know that made it possible for them to do what they are here to do.

There’s nothing wrong with fear – if we recognize it and acknowledge it.  There’s not even anything wrong with letting fear stop us in our tracks – if we recognize and acknowledge that this is what’s happening.

It’s only in the recognition of the fear we feel that we can begin to see the possibilities that lie beyond it.

gljudson Self-awareness

Don’t accept your labels – especially if you like them

Labels are tricky things.

You can learn a lot about yourself from labels.

Personality styles, for instance – everything from Myers-Briggs to the Enneagram and a host of others – can provide powerful insights into why you do things the way you do, what you might enjoy and excel at, and even into what’s most important for you.

Personal attributes are another kind of label, and they can be sources of satisfaction and pride … or of frustration and shame.

Any label, whether we view it as positive or negative, limits us the moment we decide that it defines us.

The same label that offers “aha!” insights can quickly become a box we feel we have to fit into.

Don’t fixate on your labels.  Whether you’ve chosen them, whether you agree with them, or whether someone else has applied them to you, you have options and you have choices.

If there’s something you want to do or be, don’t let a label stop you from going for it.

If there’s something you don’t want to do or be, don’t let a label make you feel pushed into it.

If there’s something you want to change about your experience of life, don’t let a label keep you stuck.

Who you really are can’t be defined by a label, no matter how much you may like or dislike what that label appears to say about you.

gljudson Self-awareness

Sandwiches or salad? Goals matter!

At a party earlier this week, the hostess handed me a cutting board, knife, and a half-dozen tomatoes to be sliced.  “What,” I asked, “is the goal?”

She laughed at me. “Sandwiches!”

I asked for a good reason, no matter how funny it might have sounded.  If she’d said, “Salad!” I would have cut the tomatoes in different shapes than I did for sandwiches.

The goal matters.  It affects how you do the task, and therefore it affects the quality of your results.

When I work on website content for my clients, I always start by asking about goals.  Websites serve different purposes for different people.  Each page on a website has its own goal, usually to invite the reader (the website visitor) to do something specific – which could be anything from signing up for a newsletter on up to calling to book high-end services.

Whatever you’re working on, whether it’s slicing tomatoes or writing website content or anything else, don’t start until you know your goal.  Because if you haven’t clearly and specifically defined your goal, you risk never getting there.  

Tomatoes sliced in bite-sized salad chunks would never work for a sandwich.  Yes, they’d be sliced.  But they’d be useless for the actual goal:  sandwiches.  The same task, but very different end results.

Later that evening, someone came in muttering about the back seat of a car and the dog.  My friend started to answer his question, then stopped.  “What’s the goal?!” she cried.  Needless to say, she and I practically fell over laughing.  But his answer – “Dog slobber!  A towel!” – allowed her to give him an answer that was directly responsive to his need.

Whenever you start something, stop to think about the desired end result.  It will change how you do the task at hand.

gljudson Communication

What does it take?

Driving home this afternoon from having lunch with two of my favorite colleagues and friends, I was thinking … what does it take to be successful?

We’d talked about this at lunch – not directly, but indirectly in the things we said about our own businesses and about the people we meet at different types of networking events.

What does it take to make a difference?  (It’s the same question, really – just a slight shift in perspective.)

There are a lot of things one could say in answer to this question.

For me, it all boils down to one thing:  Follow-up.

Whether you’re following up with a person, an idea, a project, or a routine task, it’s the presence and quality of your follow-up that enables success and helps you make a difference.

What do you think?

gljudson Success & failure

Your Mom Was Right (and why that’s relevant)

There are things almost every mother ends up saying to her children.  We recognize these pieces of advice and instruction as amusing mom-cliches simply because they’re used so routinely.  And like most cliches, these bits of motherhood wisdom hold a certain kernel of truth.

I noticed recently that many of them also apply to running a business.

So whether or not your mother ever said any of these things to you (and I’ll bet she said at least one or two of them!), I hope you enjoy this little journey through three pieces of “mom wisdom,” and that you find them helpful in your own business.

“If all the other kids jumped off a bridge…”

I have to believe that every child, at one point or another, says, “But Mo-oooom!  All the other kids are…” (fill in the current hot activity)

And Mom’s infuriating reply? “Yes, dear.  And if all the other kids jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?”

It’s natural to want to go with the crowd.  It makes you feel warm and secure and like one of the cool kids.  And if everyone else is doing it, it must be a good thing to do – right?

Not necessarily!  Just because you see others taking a particular approach or a fellow business owner recommends that you do something – whether it’s blogging, social media, creating video, or any other apparently hot must-do activity – doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Before you start any new tactic – or even continue an activity you’ve been working on for a while – stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it.

What result do you want?  And will this activity actually achieve that result?

A colleague asked me recently about a networking group a friend of hers had recommended.  I asked, “Who will you meet there, and are they your best audience?”  As simply as that, she saw through her urge to follow the crowd and recognized that although the group was right for her friend’s business, it might not be right for hers.

What are you doing – or considering doing – just because everyone else is doing it?

“Just be yourself, dear.”

I think we all remember the painful teenage desire to be popular.

And when we agonized about dates and dances and the prom, Mom’s advice was often, “Just be yourself, dear.”

Just be yourself.  As another old saying goes, everyone else is already taken!

Trying to be someone you’re not, in business as well as personally, simply doesn’t work.  We all know that, yet it can be difficult when you’re putting your business out there in the world.  It often feels startlingly vulnerable to just be yourself – and to just let your business be itself.

But the best way to gain customers’ trust is to let them see that you’re a real person, running a real business.  You have expertise; that’s what you’re offering to them, whether in a product or through your services.  And of course they expect you to know what you’re doing within your area of expertise.  But they don’t expect, don’t want, and will never believe that you’re flawless.  The drive for perfection is, ultimately, a drive to be someone other than who you actually are.

Being yourself doesn’t mean revealing private personal information.  It just means letting yourself be seen as a complete a human being – the unique and individual human being that you already are.

Which leads me to the third and final Mom-ism.

“There’s no one else just like you, my little snowflake!”

Okay, maybe she didn’t put it exactly like that!

Yet it’s more than just wishful parental thinking or rah-rah boosterism.  Every one of us really is unique, different from all the other billions of people on this planet.  We have our own unique brilliance, as well as our own unique flaws.  We may share skills or expertise with others – but how each of us employs those skills and implements that expertise is completely our own.

As a business owner, you bring your work to your customers in your own unique way.  Identifying what that unique way is – identifying the value you provide simply through that uniqueness – is what makes you stand out from the crowd of others who do similar work.  When you’re clear for yourself about that value, you can be clear in how you communicate it.  And then you send an unerring signal to your best clients that you’re the one for them.

I attended a conference session last year led by someone who does apparently similar work to mine.  Yet it was obvious to me that the people who are his best clients would be dreadfully unhappy with me – and vice versa.

Our styles are completely different.  Even though his customers and mine appear to be looking for the same results, the value we bring to our customers is uniquely our own.

Knowing the uniqueness of your business, the individual ways you provide value that no one else can ever match – that’s what makes your message ring loud, clear, and true for your best customers.  Whether you’re in touch with your own uniqueness or not, Mom was right:  it’s there.

She was right, too, that identifying that uniqueness requires stepping away from what everyone else is doing … and definitely requires being yourself!

“My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.”  Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain (1835-1910), American author and humorist.

gljudson Self-awareness

The potential cost of poor communication

I got an email from American Express on Thursday.  Seems my account had been compromised and there were fraudulent charges on my card.

Theft, in other words.

But this isn’t a story about theft, or even about my overwhelming curiosity about how in the world did they know those charges aren’t mine?  (Kind of creepy, really, even though it’s nice that they do know.)

In fact, it’s not a story about American Express at all, though I will say that their customer service is superb.

It’s about the ways businesses communicate with their customers.

There was one charge on my account that I couldn’t place.  It wasn’t very much – a $6.50 purchase through PayPal.  But apparently credit card thieves use small charges like that to test whether they’ve got a “live” card number or not, which is why the AmEx representative wanted me to verify it.

I couldn’t place it.  The company name wasn’t familiar to me.  The item purchased?  Not a clue from the transaction record.

I told AmEx it wasn’t mine, because I didn’t have any idea what it was.  Later that night, though, it suddenly dawned on me:  I’d bought a knitting pattern online over the weekend.  Oh, yeah.  I called AmEx back and told them to release that transaction from the fraud inquiry.

The point here is that you want to be crystal clear about who you are in every instance when you’re communicating with a customer – and especially when that communication has anything to do with money!  If I hadn’t remembered what that charge was and called back to reclaim it as something I should pay for, the author of the pattern would have been out his fee.

The chances that this will happen to your business – that your customer’s credit card will be hacked and that a payment to you will be denied – are obviously very slim.  And of course in this instance, $6.50 isn’t all that much.

But there’s much more at stake than just a $6.50 transaction.

Because ultimately this is about credibility and visibility.

You want to be viewed as a serious business – and you want your customers to know who you are.

Whether it’s your caller ID when you call them, the entry on their credit-card statement, your email address, or any other touch-point, you want them to be absolutely clear on who you are.  And you want them to be absolutely clear that who you are is wholly professional.

Where are your communication touch-points?

Are they completely clear?

And what are your experiences with other unclear communication from other businesses?

gljudson Communication

Why ask why?

There’s an old saying:  when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Of course it’s obvious how ridiculous that is.  Anyone knows there are also screws as well as nails – and that screws don’t respond well to hammers, but work quite nicely with screwdrivers.

But as obvious as it is when we look at hammers, nails, screws, and screwdrivers, it’s all too easy to lose track of this in your business.

Recently a client mentioned that a colleague had told her she should sign up with a service to track social media exposure.  My immediate response was, “Why?  What does this achieve for you in your business?”

Like all of us, she has limited time, and she’s committed to putting that time where it will do the most good for herself, her business, and her clients.  Right now, social media is not a marketing tactic she’s interested in.  She prefers to focus on developing in-person relationships through networking events and fostering existing connections with clients and colleagues.

With this in mind, she agreed that signing up for a social-media-tracking dashboard didn’t make much sense for her.  And her comment was telling.  “The person who recommended it is a specialist in social media,” she said.  “That’s what he does for his clients – helps them establish a social media presence.”

If you’re interested in establishing a social media presence, it makes complete sense to hire someone to help – and to sign up for a dashboard to monitor your success.

But to suggest that she should sign up for that dashboard was a classic case of “everything looks like a nail.”  To push the metaphor just a bit, her colleague is a social media hammer, and therefore to him it makes sense that everyone ought to monitor their social media dashboard!

She’s not a social media expert, and although she’s been in business for years, she’s actually just beginning to establish an online presence with her website and blog.  So she was unsure enough – and as she’d be the first to agree, uneducated enough – to wonder (since he’s the expert!) if this dashboard was something she really did need.

This is natural.  As humans, we love authority figures – especially when we’re uncertain or anxious and trying hard to learn and succeed.

The difficulty arises when we love those authority figures so much that we forget to trust ourselves.  We forget to trust our own instincts and our own understanding of what our business really is.  We lose sight of our strategy, and we allow our priorities to be set by something other than that strategy.

And that’s why you must always ask why, even when that means challenging an authority in areas you feel you know nothing about.

Here are some ways to approach asking why in your own business.

It’s learning, not arguing

Sometimes asking “Why?” can be perceived as being argumentative.

If that’s how it feels to you, take a moment and step back!  You’re not disagreeing.  You’re asking for more information – you’re asking to learn.  And if the expert in question isn’t willing to teach, then that certainly tells you something about who they are.

Trust yourself

Trust your understanding of yourself and your clarity about your business to guide you.  If you don’t feel like you’re getting a good answer to “Why?” – trust that.  Don’t second-guess yourself.

And if you’re not clear about your business, then get clear.  Because you can’t succeed if you can’t trust your own understanding of yourself and your business over that of all the experts out there. You are the best expert there can be about your own business strategy.

Please note that I’m not saying don’t trust the experts – nor am I suggesting there aren’t times when everyone needs help.  I’m saying, trust yourself first.

And ask yourself too

Don’t just ask those external experts “Why?”  Ask yourself.

When you make a business decision, ask … why am I making this decision?

It used to be that I’d say “Yes!” to any speaking request I received.  If they wanted me, I was flattered, and I’d agree to be there.

That was appropriate when I was getting started, but one day I realized that it was leading me to do talks for groups that simply weren’t right for me.  Lovely people, in groups doing good work, but not strategically aligned with my business objectives.

In asking myself “Why am I saying ‘yes’ to these groups?” I realized that I could start saying, “No, I’m sorry, that’s not right for me.”  And it was a tremendous relief.

Of course, as I’ve already said, in order to ask “why” – whether of yourself or anyone else – you must have real clarity about your work.

Because when you don’t, you’ll never know if the answer to “why” is aligned with your business strategy … or not.

“Strategy is different from other things in that if you mistake your way of strategy even a little, you will become bewildered.”  Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), Japanese swordsman, samurai, and philosopher.  From A Book of Five Rings.

gljudson Strategic thinking

Three Strategic Threesomes: 3 you need, 3 you don’t, and 3 ways you struggle

I was talking with a friend and colleague – and sometimes client – this morning about strategy.

He’s a Vistage chair here in San Diego.  (If you don’t know what Vistage is, you can check it out at  We were talking about the difference between strategy and tactics, and why some people struggle with making day-to-day tactical decisions that align with their strategic business objectives.

My contention is that when you know your foundational strategy, the day-to-day decisions become obvious.

He was saying that people don’t necessarily make the connection between their basic strategy and how it informs their decision-making process.

I agree – up to a point.

Because if your strategy isn’t informing your day-to-day decision-making, then you don’t understand your strategy at the level you need to in order to succeed.

You may have a conceptual or theoretical understanding – but it’s not “baked in,” so to speak, at the blood-and-bone level.

And if you’re in business for yourself, you need to have that blood-and-bone understanding.

Ultimately, strategy is more important than branding, or a business plan, or an elevator pitch.  Because ultimately, strategy requires you to understand three things.

  1. Yourself.  Why are you in business?  Why are you in this business?  What does it really mean to you, and do for you?
  2. Your business.  What is it that you do – really?  (And if you think this is a stupid question, just go to any networking event and listen to people struggle to describe their work in ways that make sense to the average listener.)
  3. Your customers.  Who are they – and what is it they really get from your service or product?  (Very, very few – almost no – business owners understand the actual value their customers receive.  You think you know, but I’d be willing to bet you don’t know half of it!)

You can brand yourself, you can write a business plan, and you can wordsmith an elevator pitch – without ever deeply understanding these three things.

And as long as you don’t understand those three things, you’ll struggle.

You’ll struggle to make decisions – because you won’t know how each decision brings you closer to yourself, your business, and your customers, or takes you further away.

You’ll struggle to market your business – because you won’t have the unswerving confidence you get when you  understand who your customers are and what you really do for them.

And you’ll struggle to make sales – because you won’t be conveying a crisp, clear message that speaks directly to your customers’ heart, gut, and mind.

What do you think?

gljudson Strategic thinking

Got time for that?

“Not enough time” is a reason for not doing an enormous number of things.

I’m convinced it’s 99% untrue.

Seems to me … we do what we really want to do.

So don’t tell me what you don’t have time for.

Tell me what you do have time for.

gljudson Self-awareness