Lessons from a Life: Creativity

Lesson #6: Play with Possibilities

I have dabbled in many creative pursuits over the years. I started dance and gymnastic classes at 3, cooking at 5 (scrambled eggs), singing in choirs at 10, starting businesses at 12, writing awful romantic poetry at 14, and creating amazing events and parties at 15.  My mother created an environment of playing with possibilities and developing creativity that was extraordinary and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

In adulthood,  I still pursue new versions of these things, except the poetry,  and tried a few more including pottery and painting but the “art” I am most proficient at is creating learning curriculum. It is disappointing that my natural talent will never be on display at MOMA,   but get giddy when I think about teaching a great class or, even more satisfying, training coaches and teachers to facilitate my inventions.

I realized I had a talent for this when I was invited to teach two courses at NYU when I was 29.  I walked home from teaching my first class up Fifth Avenue to my apartment on 14th street, thinking “this is it, this is what I could be really good at” and I was right. Since then, I have created classes for academic institutions, two leadership universities for successful companies, career and personal growth retreats and workshops for adults, and career prep classes for kids, tweens and teens.

At Bright Livelihoods, I have created a 12 part step-by-step process that is the foundation of all the work we do with clients of all ages. I started working on the model in 1998 when I was attending graduate school, by sketching out ideas in classes when I was bored.  By then, I had become certified in other people’s methodologies including Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership and the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. In addition, in my pursuit of how to help people find and follow a calling, I took classes with career and creativity thought leaders including Dick Bolles, Julia Cameron, Geneen Roth, Gregg Levoy and Rick Jarrow. I also dissected literature related to yoga and 12 step programs since I had a deep personal experience of change through both paths and thought they might have something to offer.

In the end, all experiences and research was helpful but the most influential experiences I had in creating and honing our method came out of two things:

1. Interviewing people around the world who love and hate their work and noting the differences

2. Experiencing a Native American Vision Quest myself where my vision for helping people find and follow a calling was confirmed and strengthened

Between 1998 and 2004 there were many iterations of the model that were piloted and honed with clients. It started with 5 simple parts, then 7, then 9 and finally we landed with 12 which has worked well for all types of audiences including, teens, professional adults and incarcerated men at Rikers Island. A deep longing to clarify ones’ passions and purpose is universal and our work is helpful no matter your age, location, economic circumstances or  personal talents. My “art” works and I am happy I had the patience (and passion)  to stay with the process and playing with possibilities until is was complete and helpful as a tool fro clients and teachers:

On your journey to work you love and finding your “art” it is critical to employ this lesson. Here are three tips to consider:

1) Creativity is messy and nonlinear so give yourself permission to explore many work and job options BEFORE you choose a path.

2) Think about things you use to love to do when you were younger and explore bringing them back into your life. For example, I stopped cooking for many years and find now that I have reintegrated it back into my life, my creativity in other areas is more accessible.

3) Go to a lecture or conference that HAS NOTHING TO DO with your line of work and see what happens. I took that advice many years ago and went to a conference about sustainability and global warming. It changed my world view and opened me up to new ideas, interests and conversations.

Laurel Donnellan

CEO and Founder, Bright Livelihoods

Laurel’s mission is to help people find their home in the world of work. She has 30 years of experience as a leader, educator and coach and has degrees from Cornell and Columbia.  To request a private half-hour coaching session with Laurel, e-mail us at info@brightlivelihoods.com.





Lessons from a Life: Love


Lesson #6: Honor all relationships.

It is impossible to love what you do, if you do not enjoy your co-workers and/or clients. In addition, if work gets in the way of having healthy relationships in your personal life, the work will eventually become emotionally, unsustainable.

Early on in my career, I tolerated working for a few bullies but since my early 30s I have had the privilege of working for and with people I admired and respected. When I was in the hospitality business, I took on sometimes rude, demanding and disgruntled guests as a sport and worked to charm them into contentment. In my current career, I work with close friends who I really love and have clients that are amazing. This shift has been deliberate and overall I am happy with the progress I have made in building a strong network and great working relationships.

My personal relationships have been more challenging. I have been in love 5 times in my life, roughly once a decade. I have never been married, and have no children. I still have hope that this may change despite my age but most days, I am accepting of my singleness. I rarely feel lonely because I love my work, learned to like my own company, and appreciate the freedom and friends I have. All that said, I still feel a twinge of embarrassment about my inability to find a mate and create a family. The word spinster kept coming to mind when I contemplated writing this blog…

The best long-term personal relationships I have are with friends, nieces and nephews. I am an OK, (but not great) daughter and sister but I do hold my own at being an Aunt and I can thank my oldest niece Katya for teaching me all I needed to learn on that front. Before she was born, I was not really into babies or kids, but that all changed when she arrived on July 8, 1992.

She was, and still is, a remarkable bright light of a human being. I proudly and tearfully watched her graduate from Smith College last weekend and receive a special award for her contributions to the Debate Society. She is a rare balance of super smart and kind and I look forward to seeing what unfolds in her next chapter. I adore her and through our journey, I have been able to savor the process of how an infant becomes an adult which has helped me develop a deeper understanding of life and a greater appreciation for all children.

This appreciation has translated with close-knit relationships with many children and young adults, who range in age from three to twenty-two. I am fortunate to have a virtual job so I can see them all for extended visits. Hanging out with them is easy for me, and I find my best-self shining through when I am with them. Over the years, in conjunction with my work with adults in career transitions, I have created and piloted two programs we plan to grow internationally. The first is called Publish Your Genius where 5 to 12-year-olds write, illustrate and professionally publish books and the second is called Dream First. Dream First is an inside-out career prep program for teens and we plan to develop it into an Ed Tech platform that can help us distribute it to kids from all economic backgrounds.

Before you launch into your next career chapter, take stock of your own relationships and who you love so you can make informed choices about what you do and how you do it. Here are an exercise that may help:

Make a list of your most significant relationships by category. Name up to ten people for each:

  • Family Relationships: Kinships with people who come from a blood or a soul-related bond.
  • Romantic Relationships: Partners that connect to that special part of your heart reserved for romance.
  • Friend Relationships: Commitments with people you respect and trust. This may include co-workers.
  • Community Relationships: Connections to people who have common interests.This may include co-workers.
  • Mentors: Relationships with influential role models such as teachers, leaders, spiritual advisers, human resource specialists, coaches, mentors and therapists. This may include co-workers.
  • Vision Thieves: Significant hurtful relationships that fall outside of the other categories. Vision Thieves are often wounded people who lash out at others because of their own low self-esteem or fears.  They usually put a lot of energy into criticizing others, and can sometimes be very subtle or devious in doing so.

1. Of these relationships, name up to three who are supporting you in your attempts to find and follow your soul work.

2. Of these relationships, name those that are challenging you in your attempts to find and follow your soul work.

3. Which of these relationships, if healed or improved, would leave you with more energy for your soul work?  For each of these people, list an action you are willing to take in healing or revitalizing the relationship.

4. How can you best nurture your significant relationships on and off the job as you move forward in your career?


I hope you will share your personal insights on this topic with me.


Laurel Donnellan

CEO and Founder, Bright Livelihoods

Laurel’s mission is to help people find their home in the world of work. She has 30 years of experience as a leader, educator and coach and has degrees from Cornell and Columbia.  To request a private half-hour coaching session with Laurel, e-mail us at info@brightlivelihoods.com.

Lessons from a Life: Awareness


Lesson #3: Learn from the past.

I was raised to have a long to do list and cross off as many items as I could each day. Through the retracing of my history, I have learned I need much more time to reflect  in order to be happier, to make better decisions, and do my best work.

My mother loves to tell me the story of how she named me because Laurel means accomplishment and I was hers. Keeping busy and “not resting on your laurels” is highly valued in my family.

When my father retired in his 60’s, he had a chart on the back of his office door that tracked how many holes of golf he was playing, which at that time, averaged about a round and a half a day.  Even though, he currently takes a cart at the age of 86, he was walking the course upon retirement.

As a child I had a lot of hobbies that included gymnastics, swimming, singing, cooking, and crafting. I started cooking at four and with my mother’s help my first dish was scrambled eggs. By the time I was twelve, I was cooking meals for my family and reading cookbooks – memorizing the recipes before I went to sleep. When I was fourteen, I had my first small business, making homemade soft pretzels in my mother’s tiny kitchen and selling them at farmer’s markets and local fairs.

I am the grandchild of two hard-working men who supported their families. My mother’s father was a plumber and later, a plumbing contractor. My paternal grandfather was a teamster who delivered meat from horse-drawn wagons during the Great Depression.  In his twenties, my father worked his way out of a blue collar existence, eventually becoming an engineer at IBM for over 40 years.

The most influential of my family members, was my “Uncle” Ray.  Uncle Ray was a curmudgeon who always made me feel like I was intelligent and special. He was my father’s best friend and my godfather.  When Uncle Ray was younger, he worked as a professional golf instructor, becoming  the patriarch of the family business: Rip Van Winkle Country Club in Palenville, NY. One of my sweetest memories is a younger Laurel, sitting at the country club’s bar, drinking Shirley Temples. It was here that I began to fall in love with the idea of ruling my very own empire of work.

Learning from your past can arm you with vital insights. By embracing the functional parts of your history, you can realize what needs to be left behind.  In truth, there have been many times that my accomplishments have turned into anxiety and constant self-criticism.  I’ve had to get a lot of help to battle these things that when left unchecked, can be really destructive.

I remember being in kindergarten and worrying that first grade might be too hard. In junior high and high school, I developed an eating disorder and in college I struggled with depression and abused alcohol. In my twenties, I (barely) balanced my addictions with working compulsively. In my early 30s, propelled by a broken heart, I found a therapist, who directed me to 12-step programs, yoga, and guided me to search for a more authentic life and slower pace.

For example, I have learned that  being inventive or creative often takes practice–  spending periods of time “doing nothing” as part of the process. This is so contrary to my upbringing that I have to continue to work really hard at adding extra unscheduled time to my week when I am challenged to do creative work.

Whatever your history, you can learn more about who you are and what you want to become from delving deeply into it and not letting the past scare you. Learning from your history must include retracing your steps, and then choosing what you want to embrace, and then be willing to change those patterns, habits and ways of being that no longer serve you. This process is one of 12 tenets in the career development programs I’ve designed.

In all cases, I highly recommend you do this exploration with the support of a close friend, a spiritual guide, counselor, coach or therapist. In my own journey, that continues to this day, I’ve had many helpers including my soul brother and business collaborator, Darryl Brown, who is directing this series.

Thank you Darryl!

You may also want to consider signing up for our Virtual Career Masters Small Group Program that begins on October 14th, 2014.

Laurel Donnellan

CEO and Founder, Bright Livelihoods

Laurel’s mission is to help people find their home in the world of work. She has 30 years of experience as a leader, educator and coach and has degrees from Cornell and Columbia.  To request a private half-hour coaching session with Laurel, e-mail us at info@brightlivelihoods.com.