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Barbara Winter on Becoming an Idea Detective

Interview with Barbara Winter by Phil Bolsta

Listen to Barbara Winter’s interview:


Welcome, Barbara. Thank you for joining us today.

Oh, it's a pleasure to be here, Phil!

Allow me to introduce you. Barbara J. Winter is a pioneering self-employment advocate, writer, and teacher who has spent the last 30 years pondering the question, “Why aren’t we all self-employed?” Helping others discover the Joyfully Jobless life is her favorite occupation.

She’s the author of the bestselling book, Making a Living Without a Job, and publisher of Winning Ways newsletter, the longest-running self-employment publication of its kind. And I’d like to add that I attended your Making a Living Without a Job seminar 25 years ago that genuinely changed my life, so thank you for that, Barbara.

Oh my goodness! I'm glad to hear that. I was just reading some emails that I got years ago also from people telling about what happened as a result, and it's really wonderful.

Well the best part about what you were saying at that seminar that resonated with me was the idea of multiple profit centers, in the sense of, so many people think, "If I want to make x amount of dollars a year, I have to do this one thing." No, you can do three things that add up to that, and then one of those might drop away, but one will get more. And it's a lot of variety and shifting and it's a real nice way to live.

And it's a very popular idea with students too, because for most of them, just like you, Phil, we kind of grew up with the idea of the single lifetime occupation. And so it's pretty exciting for people, especially if they have been wrestling with things that they love to do and think they’ve got to pick one and ignore the others.

Exactly. So I highly recommend Barbara's book, Making a Living without a Job, and I'll link to that at the end of this transcript. And speaking of another one of your seminars, Becoming an Idea Detective, you say that the two most frequent complaints you hear are "I have too many ideas" and "I have no ideas."


Those appear to be opposite problems, but you say the results are the same, which is what?

Inaction. We kind of just freeze in place. And it does sound like they're very different kinds of problems. “Oh, I have too many ideas”... well, that's the good problem. No ideas... but there are all sorts of ways not only to become an idea detective, but to realize that when you say "I have no ideas," you're actually kind of lying to yourself, because ideas are everywhere. Sometimes it's just a matter of learning how to recognize them and pay attention.

Well, you said that neither of those two conditions clears up by itself. You can't outwit idea overload, nor is waiting for an idea to drop in your lap particularly effective.


A change in behavior, you say, can work wonders. So, what behaviors do you suggest need changing?

Well, one of the things that I think is really important is, first of all, to give yourself permission to trust your own ideas. And I think a lot of us grew up with ideas kind of being pushed aside, probably by overworked adults that didn't have time to listen to them. And I really got an insight about that when my grandson, Zach, had come for a sleepover. And I was putting him to bed, and he said, "Let's talk about ways to decorate outside for Halloween!" I said, "Okay. Whadda you got in mind?" And he had a... I can't remember everything, but he came up with a couple of good ones. And I remember one involved hanging a skeleton and spraying silly string in a bush, but that's all I remember about that.

Anyway, after we had discussed a couple of things that he could do to decorate the yard for Halloween, I said, "Okay, it's time to go to bed now." And he said, "No! I want to talk about ideas!" And when he said that, I thought, "I am going to make sure that grandma's house is always a safe place to talk about ideas." Okay, so he's also trying not to go to sleep yet. But at the same time, I want him to know he is being heard, and ideas can be... You know, start a conversation like we had, and not be afraid to talk about them.

So I think a lot of us had that experience early in our lives where we got excited about an idea, we saw something that we thought could be really cool to do or to have, and we got shushed. And so over time, we just kind of start keeping it to ourselves. And then maybe eventually we just stop paying attention at all.

And so, ideas haven't always gotten a lot of support from the people around us. And I think that's important for us to know as adults, that we don't need to have everybody loving our ideas and getting everyone's approval before we set out to start bringing things to life. We need to be willing to, from the moment we have an idea that really gets our attention, to really start giving it some thoughtful attention about, well, what do I need to do to start bringing this to life?

That's wonderful. I love the way your grandson articulated that.


And so that's a main reason that may keep people from generating ideas in the first place. Are there other reasons that could stop people from generating ideas?

Well, often it comes from a general lack of self-esteem or trusting ourselves. It might be that we've had one bad experience, and like, okay now I'm going to just stick with what's dependable. And I think that we don't realize that our curiosity is like a muscle, and if we don't keep using it, it just kind of goes to sleep. And so, very often it's about re-activating our curiosity. And in order to do that, that often requires that we put ourselves in a different environment. It's why, when we travel, we often see possibilities everywhere. It's like we suddenly start seeing things with a whole different set of eyes than we do when we're on our regular, daily routine and schedule.

And so, ideas are more apt to come and knock on our door if we are in the midst of doing something else. And I like to say "mindless motion" is a great way to invite ideas. Just going for a walk can be a great idea stimulator, because we don't have any distractions. We're just out enjoying the world around us. I've had the same experience on road trips, where I'm alone in the car with public radio, but all of a sudden the idea machine starts working. And so it's really wonderful that we now have devices that we can record with, but I tend to pull over and write things down.

And that's another thing that's really important as idea detectives is to realize that carrying ideas around in our head isn't nearly as effective as if we write them down. Then we can start really getting clear about which ideas really make sense for us right now, which ones maybe would be better to postpone for a while. There are probably a few on the list that maybe you could give to somebody else who could run with them. That sort of thing. And really giving them that kind of mindful attention.

I can attest to all it takes is once to have a great idea and not write it down because you think, Oh, I'll remember that one, and then when you go to retrieve it, it's gone, and it's gone forever. That's happened to me, and it's not going to happen again.

Right, it’s why I keep a notebook and pen by my bedside, because often when I'm going to sleep is when I have a great idea that is that kind that you just mentioned. "That is so fabulous, I will never forget it."

I'm trying to think of the author [Richard Bach]. His name went out of my head right now, but I love that quote so much, which is, "’I'll never forget that idea is the Devil's whisper." And I think that all of us have heard the Devil's whisper, that we've just had an idea that was so amazing, and it just felt right, and we woke up in the morning, and it had moved on to another residence. I'm not sure where they go, but...

You know, there's another great story about a woman poet [Ruth Stone] about a hundred years ago. She said that, when she was working in the fields and a poem was downloaded into her, she ran as fast as she could back to the house to write it down before it left her and found another home with someone else.

I think sometimes, too, we have had that horrifying experience where we've had an idea that we didn't do anything about, but somebody else got the same idea and became visibly successful with it or visibly happy with it or whatever. And it's like, "Oh, I had that idea, I just didn't do anything about it."

Well, just to that exact point, why are so many people reluctant to pay attention to their ideas?

Well I think... This is what I hear when people call me on the phone, Phil. And they'll say, "I have an idea. I want you to tell me if it's really dumb." And I always say, "I haven't heard a dumb idea yet. So if yours is, it'll be the first one that I've heard that was dumb." And I often hear people kind of apologize, and they'll say, "Well, it's just an idea." What does that mean, "just an idea"? Everything we see around us was first an idea... and at the same time, if we say, "Oh it's just an idea," it’s like it doesn't really matter much.

And so dismissing things really quickly also is just death to our ideas. So it's understanding that when we have an idea, whether it seems wildly original or just like a really pleasant way to make some little aspect of our own lives or other peoples' lives better, we need to pay attention and take action, that alters our relationship with it altogether.

Well, absolutely. The death of ideas is the death of creativity, which is essentially the death of a full life.


And when I think of some of the bigger ideas I've had, I feel like they were downloaded into my mind, and they feel like more of a calling than an idea, which means I don't have a choice about acting on it, I have to do it. And I think a lot of people look first at the obstacles to realizing an idea. I don't look at the obstacles; I just think I have to do this. It's an assignment given to me, and I'll just do what I can and deal with obstacles as they come.

Exactly. And I know exactly what you're talking about, and I'm guessing the people listening to this, too, have had that experience where it does feel like it is a gift to you personally and if you don't do something about it, you're depriving the world of something wonderful.

Absolutely. And you spoke about that we tend to lose our curiosity. Why is that?

Well, first of all, we have all of us have grown up post-Industrial Revolution, which has really been about very scheduled living and very scheduled lives. And when we are not just punching a time clock but really setting up our own life so that we do the same thing at the same time day in and day out, that is not how we feed our curiosity. Our curiosity comes about when we explore new territory. But if we don't allow ourselves to deviate from our normal schedule, after a while, it becomes kind of frightening to step outside what is popularly known as "the comfort zone."

And so our curiosity just kind of goes to sleep. But the great thing is that if we decide we want to reclaim it, we can do that, and there are ways to feed it to bring it back to life. And I’ve got to say, one of the best ways to wake up our sleeping curiosity, is to hang out with some kids because they have still got it, and they are curious, and they ask a million questions, and they want to know about things and they want to know how things work. And we need to start looking at the world with just different eyes like that.

And that's also why I think traveling can be such a boost, because when we travel, we're not on our normal schedule. We're doing things at different times of the day, and we don't have the responsibilities that we have when we’re in our normal working lives. So we need to have some time off. And I think it's why people who are very much about using their own creativity often take like solo retreats to work on things and find ideas and get rid of all distraction that's around us.

We have become kind of oblivious to how technology has just become so integral in our lives that it's taken up a lot of our time just to keep up with it, keep up with our email, just keep up with stuff like that.

So if we really want to live with a curious mind, we may have to change even just from time to time an hour or so a day, putting ourselves in a different environment. If most of our time is spend indoors working in an office, then take ourselves to a woods or a park and just stroll and just let go of all the to-do list and start looking for those ideas that are hiding in the bushes.

As you were talking, Barbara, I couldn't help but recall your story of when you were a schoolteacher, and you had an epiphany one day that what you were teaching that March, you would be teaching the following March, and the March after that for the next 30 or 40 years, and that so terrified you that you up and quit with nothing as a safety net.

Exactly. That was just terrifying to me when I realized that. I had that moment, and I think I had very consciously tried to avoid that ever since. That I have not had that kind of a predictable life — if this is March, it must be Macbeth. Not that kind of thing at all. And so sometimes when I find myself kind of falling into a scheduled pattern, at the very least, I'll jump in my car, and one of my favorite little adventures I call "Get lost on purpose." And I’ll just start driving with no particular plan and just see where I end up. And that just opens up all sorts of different pathways in our brain.

That's a really radical idea for a lot of people, but it's a radically good one. I hope that they take you up on that. Now you talk about an "idea laboratory." What's that?

Well, that's really realizing that we can surround ourselves with things that inspire us. And for me, of course, since I run my own business from home, it's the place I'm sitting right now. Everywhere I look in my office, which in an earlier lifetime I believe was a teenage boy's bedroom, I have things that inspire me. So I right in front of me have a bulletin board where I put little treasures on there. One of the things that's on there is something that says... It's like my assignment: "Do something today that your future self will thank you for." And there's another one that says, "Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are." And there's a card that someone sent to me of a toolbox that says, "We must absolutely do what we love, or we run the risk of doing nothing at all."

So I have all kinds of things like that... pictures of two of my favorite places on earth, Venice and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. And pictures on the wall. Over my door, there's a sign that came... actually it was a wrapper for some shoes I got once as a gift. And it says, "There's no such thing as small change," and that's over the door. So I see it every time I leave my office. And it's like a reminder. "No such thing as small change." Everything that I can do to make things better matters.

I also have, for days when I forget this, my favorite quote from Hafiz on a beautiful card that says, "The place where you are right now, God circled on the map for you." And on days when I have the thought like, Why am I living here in California, I remember to look at that, and it reminds me, Oh, I'm here because this is where I'm to be at this time in my life.

And so, an idea laboratory first of all comes from knowing what you find exhilarating. I have a drawing up on my wall that, whenever I just need to be inspired, I look at this. When my granddaughter was probably about five… anyway, I had fallen in love with the glasswork of Dale Chihuly, and I found this book at his shop in Las Vegas on art for kids. And he talks about how he became an artist and how he started looking at the world as an artist. And so I bought it for [my granddaughter] Zoe, who as I say, was probably six or seven, in there someplace. And I brought it to her and I started reading to her, just little things from the book and showing her pictures. And one of the things that I thought was so interesting was that he said, "I never met a color that I didn't like." And Zoe's sitting on the floor, drawing. And I'm not paying all that much attention until finally I notice that she's got this little tiny body with this great big head on it with all different colors. And I said, "What are you doing, Zoe?" And she said, "Oh, that's my picture of Chihuly as a child." And I just went, "Whoa." So I have that framed and on my wall. I eventually made a copy of it and sent it to him, and got the sweetest letter. He sent me a bunch of his art books back. So we've been big Chihuly fans ever since.

I love that.

Oh, I do too. And I also have a poster on my wall that says, "Live your dream, not the American dream." So just being surrounded by reminders of things that remind us of what we really want to be accomplishing can be very, very powerful and positive. So that's my idea of an "ideas laboratory." There are other ways to create that, too, I mean there are certainly places where people get together with other kind of like-minded folks to brainstorm and mastermind and other... Pam Grout talks about having her "positivity posse." And I know they meet I think almost weekly. I'm not sure about that. But it's just a handful of other women who live in the same place in Kansas as she does, and they encourage each other and share ideas and brainstorm and all those things. All that can be a laboratory for our own ideas.

Yeah, and I love that 25 years ago, you and I and two other friends got together once a month to brainstorm ideas about writing careers. That was a lot of fun.

It was. And it makes a big difference. It's a simple thing, and yet it makes a huge difference.

Well you talk about ways to end an idea shortage, and those are obviously some ways. Does anything else come to mind about how people can end a shortage of ideas?

Well, I think for one thing is to just pluck an idea, something that seems kind of small but doable, and get it done and bring it to life. And often... I really like visible evidence of things, you know, that I can see it. It's not just running around here in my head anymore. I think another thing... Well, I mentioned mindless movement before as another way that really helps. Vacuuming the carpet seems to be one of those things that you don't really have to think so much when you're doing it, but your body is moving. Julia Cameron talks about going on "artist dates" and I really like to do that from time to time too, if I'm just feeling kind of stuck and go someplace I normally wouldn't go, like a hardware store.

I have a sister who is very handy, and in fact, for a while, she had a handywoman business, and she just knows how to do all kinds of stuff. And my idea of going to Lowe's is to go up to the customer service counter and say, "Where do you keep your furnace filters?" And go directly to that aisle and then check out. That's not what it's like to go to Lowe's with Margaret. It's like having a museum tour. She slowly walks down the aisles and point things out to her companions that... products that she loves and what you can do with them. It's just totally different.

So I know that Lowe's is not my natural habitat. And so giving myself permission to go to that place, grab a cart, and just kind of amble through slowly can often be really, really just a wake up. And so I think putting ourselves in places that we don't normally go, even for a short period of time, is exactly what Julia Cameron's talking about with an "artist date."

Well, you also talk about an "option bank."

Oh, yes. An option bank, and I recommend this to everyone who is self-employed, is that when you have an idea, but you don't have an idea to work on anything else right now, that, again, like we were talking about before, if you don't write it down it's lost. But I like, whenever you have an idea for something that you think might be a good thing to explore, something you want to try, something you want to make in the future, whatever, you write it down on a little slip of paper, and you have a jar that you put these little slips of paper in. Then on those days where you get up, it's like, I don’t know want I want to do today... You just pull one out and see if that's a match for today. “Oh! I was going to go to such-and-such a place. Today's the day, I'll do that.”

So it's like you don't lose the ideas, but you also have a way of preserving them, because even a month from now, if you don't write it down, it's gone. Once in a while, we have one that just keeps nagging us until we actually do something.

Well said. So we talked about how we generate ideas, but how can you stop being overwhelmed by an idea surplus?

Oh, the surplus ideas. And there are a lot of people who find that also really debilitating. And I understand it. It's like, oh I want to do that, I want to do that, I want to do that, I want to do that. And I think one of the things is to realize that all ideas are not created equal. And some are better than others. If we carry them around in our head, it's pretty hard to see that, because they're just there, and we're thinking about them all the time. That's where writing them down, again, becomes really important.

And often, once they're on paper, we can see, oh, you know, I think that's the one I should be paying attention to right now. And I'm just going to put these on the shelf for the time being, and I'll come back and check back in again once I finish this project that really feels like it's where I should be going next.

And so it's having a way to capture the surplus without thinking, Oh, that means I've got to tend them all right now. No, actually you don't. You can only tend a few at one time, but the fact that you can't get to it right away doesn't mean that it should be eliminated from your future. It might be a better time later on.

And I think another thing is, I like to say, "Spend, don't hoard your ideas." I, over the years, and this has happened to me over and over again, had ideas that I didn't have time to do and maybe wasn't even the best person to do them. I give them away. And very often just in my network, I can see, "Oh, this would be a perfect idea for so-and-so." And I just pass them on. And I think that also can... we feel good, the idea is being tended. It's not taking up any of our time and energy, but someone else is bringing it out into the world. And so that's another way that... It's just sharing it, passing them around.

And people are grateful that you thought of them.

Yeah. I mean, this has got... This is one of the great joys of my life is being able to be a matchmaker for people and ideas and projects and the more I know about what people are up to, the time often comes where I say, "Oh, you should check with so-and-so," just like we did at the beginning of our chat today, Phil, you know, where I had someone that I thought, "You should investigate her for The Shift Network." So being willing to pass things on and thinking, "Oh, I don't have to do everything myself."

Definitely. And as far as an idea surplus, I've seen a lot of offices and homes where people have Post-it Notes plastered all over, dozens of them. But another way now in our computer age, you can just simply have a file, different files of ideas and options and things like that to keep it nice and organized. Definitely put some effort into that.


But this has been great, talking to you, Barbara. It's been a long time. I really enjoyed reconnecting. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your hard-earned wisdom with us. And I've always looked forward to talking to you, so thank you so much.

We should do it again some time!

We should. We will!


Barbara J. Winter is a pioneering self-employment advocate, writer, and teacher who has spent the last 30 years pondering the question, “Why aren’t we all self-employed?” Helping others discover the Joyfully Jobless life is her favorite occupation.

To readers of her Winning Ways newsletter, the longest-running self-employment publication of its kind, she is editor/publisher. Readers of Making a Living Without a Job, a book that’s been in print since 1993, know her as the author. Participants in Barbara’s seminar of the same name, along with others, including Establish Yourself as an Expert and How to Support Your Wanderlust, know her as a passionate teacher.

Barbara also leads retreats to help small-business owners bring creative thinking and fresh ideas into their work. She is convinced that small is still beautiful and loves working with one-person enterprises. Barbara is also an intrepid world traveler and curious lifelong learner. When she isn’t out exploring the world, she can be found blogging at JoyfullyJobless.com, connecting with other entrepreneurs on Facebook, or reading a really good book.

Visit Barbara's website here.

The Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive The Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 5: Inspiring Women with Soul