A curious girl’s ethnographic quest for stimulation, knowledge and the least common denominator…
(originally published on

Sure, I’m running late. Extremely late. And it’s not like this isn’t a recurring event. And I’m sleepy. If I had to assess my inner state right now, I’d say it’s an emotional cocktail of guilt, exhaustion, hunger and restlessness. Shaken.You might be thinking, ‘Hey, why don’t you get off your ass and just go wherever it is you need to go?’

And to this I must reply: Because I am not a slave to my emotions… I can choose to become calm. Using my trusty new NLP skills, I can summon a feeling of complete focus, relaxation and creativity… one that I haven’t felt since that one time way back in, like, 1997.

At least that’s the theory. I sit watching the clock. I’m breathing. Summoning. Remembering. But still… feelingguilty as hell.

Okay, so I only learned this NLP stuff last week. I haven’t had much practice.

NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming. No big semantic jumps there: These folks observe connections between thought processes, language and behavior patterns. The idea is that all patterns are changeable, and by altering them, you can can truly be all you can be. Basically, it’s like cognitive behavioral therapy with fewer facts and more hugging.

Apparently, there’s little if any empirical evidence to support NLP’s claims- and, the group’s tendency towardpsychobabbly terms like modalities and expansions and problem/resource/trance states has made it less-than-respected by the scientific community as a whole. But still, I can’t dismiss it.My first exposure to Neuro-Linguistic Programming was at a Learning Lunch at an old job of mine (yes, I went to a Learning Lunch). The title of the class was something like Make Conflict More Fun With NLP! And I ended up learning something in that class that I’ve actually used quite a bit. Basically, if you’re in a stressful situation, you try to picture the whole thing from ten feet away. You imagine watching the scene from a perspective outside of your own head, and somehow everything seems less intense. And the thing is, it actually works for me.

So I was excited to attend another NLP workshop last week, especially since the class was all about defining and attaining goals: These are not my strongest skills.

I arrived relatively on time, and Mr. Fail was just getting started.

[Did I mention that our instructor’s name was 
Mr. Fail? And that he’s a life coach? Just making sure.]

“Your unconscious mind senses everything going on around you. Part of its job is to delete the extra stuff so your conscious mind can focus,” Mr. Fail said. “This is obviously important- and good- except when it deletes the wrong stuff. It’s important that you pay attention to the right things… ones that are in line with your goals and your life purpose. That’s why it’s important to define our goals. Then we can asses whether or not our actions and thoughts support them.”

Sounds good so far.

“First, we’re going to do an exercise in Dreaming Big. Think back to a time when you felt wildly creative. How did it feel? What happened?”

“Time went by really quickly,” I said. Participation point for me.

“Time goes by quickly! Yes!” Mr. Fail said, turning and pointing and smiling in the special way that only a motivational speaker can. I’m sure there’s some name for this, like Positive Reinforcement Openness Strategyor something, but still… it worked on me.

He asked, “What were you doing when you felt this way?”

“Well, I do graphic design. Sometimes I’ll sit down in the morning, and then I’ll look up and realize it’s 5 p.m. and I haven’t moved or eaten or talked to anyone all day.”

“What Wendy’s describing is something we call flow state,” he told the class. He’d scoped out my name tag, too. Call People By Their First Names Despite Having Never Seen Them Before Strategy perhaps? Once again, it worked. He seemed like a cool guy.

“You hear artists and athletes talk about flow states a lot. You’ve probably heard the term being in the zone? This happens when you’re engaged in an activity that’s challenging enough that you don’t get bored- but not so challenging that you get frustrated. So what other types of creative states are there?” Mr. Fail asked.

One man threw in another suggestion: brain-mapping.

“Yes! Can you tell us more about what that means?”

“Like free association of words,” the guy said.

“Exactly! So I say apple, and you say…”

A smattering of responses: Jacks. Red. Orange. Pear…

“Yes! Okay, so there’s also another type of creativity. It’s when you use analogies. When you describe one thing by calling it something completely different. Like a metaphor. Let’s try a few. How about taking a bath? What’s the wildest analogy you can think of for taking a bath?”

“Bubbles,” a woman said.

Um, not a metaphor, I thought.

“Yes. There are bubbles in a bath… What else?” I admired his restraint.

“Jumping in a river,” someone else said.

Closer, but still…

“Okay, now we’re getting warmed up,” he said, again skirting the issue. “Let’s try a different one. How about driving a race car? What’s the wildest analogy you can think of?”

“Rough,” someone said.


“Well, it is rough… That’s a characteristic… but can you give me a metaphor? Say it’s like something else.”

“Fast”, someone else said.

Wow. Mr. Fail is a very patient man.

“Hmm… Let’s switch it up and little. I want you each to think of a specific instance when you were creative. Try to visualize that Aha! Moment– when something existed that didn’t exist before. Hear the sounds you heard. Maybe you can even remember what you were wearing. Feel what it felt like to be in your body. Where was your sense of self located? Where’s your center? In your chest? Your legs? Your head? Is your energy expanding or contracting? Are there any temperature changes?”

I decided that brain-mappers and analogists had a lot more fun, so I chose an example of one of those. By process of elimination, I decided that my sense of self had been in my head. The rest of it was kind of easy:Energy expanding outward. Brown shirt. Green jacket. Face flushed. Cheeks red. Talking quickly with no filter. Collaborating. Focusing.

“Where is the energy vibration? Is it fast or slow? Warm or cool?”

Face. Fast. Warm.

“Are you able to step back into that experience on demand?”


One woman looked pained. She couldn’t think of an example.

“This will be harder for some people than others. Some of you may have to think all the way back to childhood, but that’s okay,” he told her.

“Well, I do remember taking an art class when I was little, and I was having fun… but then I found out we were going to be graded on it and I got scared.”

“Do you remember what you were doing, and how it felt before you became afraid?”

“Yes, it was nice. I was making something with wax and jars and feathers…”

So we all got the point. We are all capable of accessing past states and bringing them into the present. Great. Awesome. But hey, what about this poor woman? She’d done nothing creative since she was nine years old? Nothing at all? I mean, wrapping a present? Hanging a picture? Choosing a channel on TV? Do any of those count?

“Okay, great, so let’s move on,” Mr. Fail said. “So now think about how that experience would have looked if someone was watching it from the moon?”


“How about from inside a cell in your left elbow?”

More silence.

“What are other ways you might see the day from a different perspective?”

“From under the table.”
“As a bug.”
“As an extra-dimensional creature.”

“Great! So these are all visual. What about an auditory way?”

“Hearing it from inside a bath tub.”
“With a glass up against a door.”
“As a deaf person.”

“So what about a kinesthetic way?”

“You’re upside down”
“You slide everywhere instead of walking.”

“So you see, then, that if we access our creativity, there are actually a lot of different perspectives- not just the ones inside our heads! We can choose to look at experiences in a lot of different ways.”

We moved on to some more Dreaming Big. He asked us to quickly list a bunch of things it’d be cool to do orhave or be.

“Don’t think, just write what comes to mind. Make sure you have at least seven.”

As he said this, I was at fifteen and counting… have personal trainer, have different job every month, have free Manhattan apartment, have brilliant collaborators, get Lasik, be in grad school, be a volleyball coach, hang out with Bill Clinton, find a new pair of boots, never have to eat, never have to sleep…

“Now pick one, no matter how impractical, just for the sake of the exercise. If you were going after it, how would you know you got it? Write down what would you see, hear, feel…”

I would see Bill Clinton across the table. He would be eating a banana sandwich. He would talk about… stuff… There would be lurking secret service agents.

“Make sure you frame the goal positively. Don’t say I have to quit smoking. Say, I will be happy when I can breathe clearly.

I will be happy when Bill Clinton is eating a banana sandwich while sitting across the table from me... He will talk about… stuff. There would be lurking secret service agents.

“And make sure it’s something you can influence. It can’t be I wish he/she would do such and such. It must be initiated and influenced by you.”

Re-frame: I will be happy when I am eating a banana sandwich and Bill Clinton is sitting across the table from me… I will talk about… stuff. There will be lurking secret service agents, but I will make them go away.

He continued walking us through a list of questions: What resources do you already have available to you? What’s the first step and when will you take it? How will you know when the step is complete? Cut the big goal into smaller and smaller goals… And so on.

It was not until the very last question that he asked about the problems we might encounter on the road to success.

“We think about barriers last for a reason,” he told us. “But they’re important. They are a big part of the feedback loop, and you have to be realistic about them in order to change them. So take a moment to write down your biggest barrier.”

Eek! I am allergic to bananas. Dammit! I knew it! I knew this wasn’t going to work...

But thankfully, with my new-found skills, I had all sorts of perspectives to consider. Perhaps peanut butter and jelly would work just fine? Or ham and cheese. Fried eggplant. BLT… And as I walked home, the list grew longer and longer until I was overwhelmed. But calm.


8 males, 7 females

Likelihood that I will attend another NLP meeting (scale of 1 to 10):
10 (I already went to this. How could I resist?)

Current Bill Clinton Awareness Index: