Negotiation is an Art


“The art of revisiting the way we relate to one another requires a creative mindset”

There are so many books and articles that talk about “the art of negotiation”. All experts agree: negotiation, like art, cannot be fully predictable.  Negotiation and art are not linear: you know more or less the objective but can’t know exactly what will happen.  It depends on so many variables that are as unpredictable as our own emotions. If negotiation is an art, I thought it would be interesting to look at the artistic mind and tell you what I have learnt from combining the legal and artistic professions.  Now more than ever the world requires more collaborative ways of resolving conflicts and approaching negotiations.  So why not explore how applying creative thinking onto everything we do.  Done with living and working in silos! We take the same brain everywhere.

When I first started working as a lawyer, I thought it was all about “being right”, getting the most out of transaction, outsmarting others. I was about having the perfect strategy, identifying the other party’s weaknesses and our strengths. I naively believed that coming armed with facts and logic would work and if I used reason to explain my side of things, the other party would understand and agree. As you know, decisions are not purely logical, they are also emotional. Our formal education does not prepare us for negotiations, and some of us are trained to see business decisions and processes, including negotiations, as logical, intellectual processes.

When you study arts, whether performing or creative, you learn to see things differently.  The first surprise is that it is actually a process of “unlearning” the logical ways of approaching any type of interpersonal relationship. So let’s look at what negotiation and art have in common:

  • Art and negotiation require developing insight

The first question that comes up when meeting an artist is “where do you get your inspiration from”? it is not that simple to find a single answer to this question.  In fact, it is a process of permanent connection between the artists’ inner life and outer world.  Inspiration seems to come from inside, most good ideas are generated spontaneously, but what generates them? You can just pray and hope that inspiration will result from some form of spiritual or divine connection, maybe the “eye of providence” or the “all knowing eye of good” will give you some insight, inner vision or higher knowledge into the occult mysteries.  In a negotiation, there are many aspects that are occult to us:  how do we know what to do, what is in the other party’s mind.  What do they really want? How should I play my cards? A lot of mind guessing involved…

  • Artists and excellent negotiators are trained in observation

Actually artists do not just sit and wait for inspiration to come. In order to develop their insight, artists are trained to observe. It is this trained perceptual awareness that allows us to pay attention to both the inside and the outside world, and see both the detail and the whole picture. There are different dimensions of the artist’s sight:

  • First, formal sight will allow you to see a shape, volume,  distance/closeness , size, colour. Anyone trained in drawing will become aware of proportions, to see the “empty spaces”. Colours can be mentally deconstructed: you see dark and lighter shades and understand contrast and complementarities.
  • Then, there is an experiential or sensorial way of “seeing” things: these are the sensations or emotions that are intuitively and automatically generated when we observe.
  • Finally, we generate a perceptual view: beliefs, judgments, values.

The artist’s mind sees beyond the first contours:  it detects lines, shadows, shapes and depth in a much richer view of reality.

Why is observation relevant and important for a negotiation? For many reasons: for a start, first impressions count;  the way in which we first perceive our counterparties is going to have a psychological impact and trigger a conditioned framing in which we are going to interact. There is research that shows how certain physical facial traits can affect our ability to trust a person (eg smaller eyes, the shape of the eyebrows, the curve of the lips, etc.) These are unconscious biases.  Because artists are trained to observe but are also aware of the effect or impact that things cause on others, they may be more open to question the lines between perception and reality. People who think they can build a case using only reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that drive decisions. Those who base their negotiation strategy solely on logic risk relying on guesses, i.e. their assumptions and opinions.  The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party sees the same you see. That’s why it is important to see how perception is formed: we can perhaps observe the same formal level, from then on, everything is perceived differently, coloured by your own judgment and previous experiences.  An artist’s sight allows you to develop awareness of the perception process at a deeper level.

Remember that Perspective comes from Latin perspicere, to see through.

  • Being a good observer helps developing empathy

Observation is at the heart of one of the most important qualities in negotiation: empathy.  Artists are trained in sensitivity.  Think of an actor and how quickly they can put themselves in the shoes of their character.  I used to dance flamenco, when there is improvisation it is magical to see how all musicians and dancers are able to start and end at exactly the same time.  Performing artists tune to the other artists and to the audience.  That’s not a logical or mechanical process.  It is intuitive. In a negotiation, feeling the temperature of the room, seeing whether tension is rising is a gift. Catching up emotional states and addressing them adequately is essential. If you are trained to observe, first your own needs, and then those of the others, you can also build a vision that considers the other side’s challenges and comes up with integrative solutions.

  • Artistic freedom does not mean lack of preparation

Bullet proof strategies do not exist. To be honest, inspiration, the right strategy, observation and vision are essential, and will take you far.  But even the most talented artist or negotiator can become a headless chicken when things are complex.  There is a saying in the military “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy”. Art means being prepared to experiment and adapt. It is a constant search, one that never ends.

  • “The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious” – Marcus Aurelius

Artists spend a lot of time practicing, drawing studies, they spend hours of training. Picasso made 147 sketches before painting his version of the Meninnes.  If you are a ballet dancer, you know the number of hours you have spent at the bar doing “pliés”. Even in improvisational theater, actors have spent a lot of time training their voice, volume, inflexion, the way they stand. The process of artistic creation may look like chaos, but it is actually based on preparation. You can abandon yourself to the music, or let the brush do what it wants without thinking once you master the underlying technique.  You do not have to worry about the choreography and you become free to improvise because you have fed your inspiration with sufficient observation and preparation. Everyone understands the need to rehearse for artistic performance. Yet in negotiation it is surprising to see that we spend very little time practicing and organising.

  • “Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation” – R. Schuller 

I have negotiated many international deals, and dealt with parties of different cultures. Consistently, the good negotiators are both able to think strategically but are also -independently of their seniority- personally involved in the tactical details.  I’ve seen big strategies, big mouths, big meetings, and then disastrous failures simply because communication was messy, people were careless in the most basic organizational aspects.  “Accidents” like circulating the wrong versions of contracts including internal comments – sometimes confidential or even offensive… , unprofessional drafting protocols where new wording is “sneaked in” or “deleted” affecting efficiency and trust, people engaging their organizations without having checked their own internal governance.

You can’t predict the outcome of a negotiation, but you can plan a process, organise a single entry point and a repository of your documents, coordinate information and assign roles. Agree the process with the other party, establish the rules and framework for transparency and trust.

I have been surprised many times by a simple truth in human nature: we tend to be lazy.  We may have power and the smartest team on our side.  Yet, those who have done their homework of researching content, drafting alternatives and organizing the process may end up achieving better results.

  • Develop a personal style and reputation

Good artists develop their personal style, something that makes them recognizable throughout their work. Even if they try different disciplines you will be able to distinguish their unique style. As a negotiator you also develop a style, and thus a reputation. Good artists learn to be self-critical, produce lots of creative ideas and then use a selection process to keep those worth pursuing. Many works are trashed or abandoned because they do not represent who we really are.  They just don’t feel right.  In a negotiation, it is good to think whether what you are doing is reprentative of who you are, your style and personality, and mainly your ethics.

  • Being “in-spirit”, connected to self and others

Inspiration means being “in –spirit”.  Both in art and negotiations you need to get grounded, to be in tune with your own emotions, and feel the others, that is, to connect.  You listen to understand, and not to oppose the other’s position. You can’t play music, paint or dance without complete presence of mind, here and now,” in the moment”, without making anxious projections about the interpretation of your work by others or worrying about the other person’s thoughts.

Presence is consciousness or awareness. That’s what artists experience when they are “in flow” or “in-spirit”, inspired.

When a negotiation is complex, you need to focus on the relationship. You will be able to explore solutions if you have taken care of the detailed preparation and you simply connect to the other. As Earl Wilson said, “Science may never come up with a better communication system than a coffee break”: your planning has to include time to build bridges. When the matter you negotiate is complex and matters, your communication choices have to prefer in-person meetings and phone calls over digital exchanges.

  • Mind the ego

Negotiation is a creative process. Just like any artistic creation, the process of idea formation is fragile.  If we lose the connection and succumb to judgment stress takes over.  We block. Artists’ block happens precisely because the focus shifts from the work onto ourselves. The ego is the worst enemy of a clear state of mind.  Ask artists what they are thinking of when they are about to go on stage, or the moment they are painting:  “nothing”.  Blanco, or just “here and now”, focused entirely on what they are doing.

In a negotiation, anxiety comes mostly from uncertainty, sometimes from the other person’s behavior, but mostly from our own state of mind and associations: What will they think about me?  What if they take advantage of me? Could I have done better? Self doubt is a constant distraction.  In a negotiation we must juggle different emotions and stay in touch with ourselves and the others.  That’s why it is an art.  Being in touch with both the inner and outer world means that we don’t let all thoughts that cross our minds out and we don’t allow show all feelings, we don’t cover our insecurity with blames, aggression or defensive behavior.

  • It is about self-control

Every artist will tell you that it is very difficult to decide when to stop: too much messing around and you ruin it. A negotiation is also a work of self-control: know when to shut up and give space to the others to reflect and react. If you talk too much you risk irritating the other or appearing needy or greedy.

Let me finish with this old story of the apprentice artist. He thought he was talented and opened his shop.  But nobody came to take classes with him.  He was jealous of the old master, whom had lots of students and sold many works.  The young apprentice thought “I will be smarter than him, I will humiliate him in public”.  I will take this small bird between the palms of my hands and ask him to guess if the bird is alive or dead.  If he says “dead”, I’ll let the bird fly, if he says “alive”, I’ll crash the bird into my hands and kill him first.  Both ways he will be wrong.  So he asked the master, in front of his class “Since you seem to know everything, can you tell me if the bird alive or dead?”.  The old wise man paused and responded “The answer is in your hands my son”.

There is no secret to becoming a good artist or negotiator: it is not a science, it is an art. It is in your hands to feel and practice.

Photo courtesy of Charles Kinoo. 

Painting “Flowers” by Mirna Hidalgo – MirnArt


Diversity and Inclusion starts at home: being the whole of you.

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“Be Yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements of your happiness are already there. There is no need to run, strive, search or struggle. Just be” Thich Nhat Hanh.


I’m not a pop music fan.  But every time I hear Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” something moves inside… Not because I think I’m particularly good-looking, what I find so moving is the thought that the song is addressed to every human being, the idea that everybody deserves to feel beautiful.  Beauty is not only an external appearance, it is much more.

I often wonder what makes something beautiful.  I think it is the capacity to trigger an emotion, which can be simply one of pleasant attractiveness based on shapes and colours, or can go much deeper and touch intimate feelings.  I feel a strong sense of admiration for the human ability to translate a simple blob of paint or a succession of sounds onto something that has the power to touch someone else’s soul.

We are all beautiful in our unique, special way, and yet, we spend our lives trying to be like everyone else.  No, not really like everyone else, more like “those who are special”.  We follow fashion, we accommodate our behaviour to what we think are the expectations.  We identify with so many cultural drivers that we end up forgetting to cultivate our own, personal differences.  And that’s precisely where beauty lies.

It takes a lot of courage to Just Be.  Each time I open an exhibition or show my artwork I go through a deep self-doubt crisis.  For some time, I wondered where the uneasiness came from.  I know I can’t expect everyone to like what I do, and to be honest this is not my preoccupation.  After all, I don’t like all art out there, why would I expect this from others?  Why was I still feeling so restless? It is only recently that I figured out where those feelings of insecurity come from.  A couple of comments from “friends” made me see what was going on inside me.  First, someone said: “Oh, you paint,  I didn’t know a lawyer could be creative”.  My thought was “What a silly comment, everyone can be creative.  I’ve always been creative”.  It made me realise that stereotypes are everywhere.  Then, someone else came and said:  “You confuse people.  You can’t be a lecturer, work in leadership and coaching and then show up as a painter.  You will lose credibility.  Nobody will believe you are good at anything”.

Deep breath.  Lots of questions.  “Why? What’s confusing about doing different activities if I do them with the same passion?  I know the branding pitch story…”  Then a deeper reflexion turned up:  “I should be grateful to this person.  Now I understand the restlessness I’ve been feeling lately!”.  It clicked:  it was so simple and yet difficult to explain.  Pure fear of being judged, not because people would find my paintings are not good enough.  I can now give the feeling a name:  “fear of not being able to Just Be”.  Fear that people would not understand the need to be the whole of me.  Because these are deep needs: the need to experiment with thinking and doing, to show up in full, to share emotions and express myself in a way that’s meaningful to me.

There is nothing different about me when I’m working as a lawyer, designing a course, coaching a client, teaching a dance class, painting or cooking.  These are all “activities” and I enjoy them equally.  They may seem unrelated but in a way they are all the same:  experiments that start with a dream, purpose or vision, and flow through a mix of inspiration, connection, and (lots of) preparation.  Drafting a contract, advising on a new corporate strategy or painting a new canvas are different ways of following similar mental steps:  a purpose, the research and generation of ideas, and an execution through practice, conversations, trial and error.

So now that I have discovered the source of my unrest, I must do something to honour these feelings.  And this is what came out of these reflections:  the firm conviction that we must not attach ourselves to a fixed identity based on other’s expectations.  And a fierce willingness to encourage everyone’s choice to show up as a wholehearted person with diverse, complementary interests.

My clients who appreciate creative insight will not be confused because I am also a painter.  They will have more trust in me.  I walk the talk.  I can explain creative thinking because I live it.  People who don’t know I’m a coach and corporate trainer will not think my paintings are less good because I do other things that feed my thoughts.  They will just see a painting and feel what they have to feel.  My work on Diversity and Inclusion will not suffer because I express myself in different ways:  that’s what Diversity is about.  It is about daring to Be Yourself.  The more we accept each of our facets, the more open we are to appreciate diversity in others.  That’s the richness and the basis of an inclusive culture. 

My business card has two sides:  one is a reproduction of a canvas, the other side has my business details.  If I could, I would have a tri-dimensional card, which could show as many faces as I felt compelled to show.  Because each side of us is part of the whole, and because it is the same brain that goes everywhere.  As the song says, “we are beautiful in every single way”.

It all ties together.  Just Be.

Is there anything stopping you from creating the life you want? Wouldn’t the workplace be richer and much more meaningful if we could each “Just Be”? How open are you to appreciating the beauty of difference in yourself and everyone else?  Do you have the courage to show up in life with the whole of you?

Photo courtesy of Jehanne Moll.

Can you inspire others? 6 tips for boosting your personal influence

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“You cannot antagonise and influence at the same time”, John Knox


Personal influence relates to perception of status, power, attitude and position.  Using persuasion within an ethical framework can help you inspire others even when you are not in a position of authority.  At the same time, if you learn about influence, you will be able to recognize and deal effectively with those that misuse it as a form of manipulation.

If you agree that human behavior is not always the result of purely rational activity, you will also see that being right on the substance on any topic but wrong on the people will hinder your success.  How many times do you get stuck on the “I’m right – you are wrong” mindset?

A confrontational style trying to convince others rarely triggers true inspiration.  Influencing skills are more subtle, they require a deep understanding of the psychology of influence.  For those interested in the topic, I recommend the seminal work of Robert B. Cialdini.  He explains the overpowering effect of the rules of persuasion and offers good guidance on how to use them appropriately.

Here are some other tips that can help you boost your influence:

  1. Many human reactions are self-defensive or motivated by fear.  Identifying those emotions in yourself, your clients and other people will make you a forerunner.
  2. A couple of clichés that work: first impressions count and small talk matters.  It is not all about being clever; people follow optimistic and kind persons naturally.
  3. Think about things you have in common with other people and build upon similarities.
  4. Don’t expect to be smarter than others- people feel and resent this- just be honest.
  5. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said or what you did, but they never forget the way you made them feel.”  I find this very powerful:  gather feedback, note when people say they feel good being around you and observe what it was that made them feel good (if you don’t know, ask!).
  6. Don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability.  People who seem “normal” are not less competent.  Work with grit and accuracy on your analysis or professional content, but still take the time to relate to others with authenticity.

Take time to observe:  who inspires you?  Why? What do you admire most in other people?  Have you decided to make changes or try something new because you’ve been inspired by someone?

When I was at university one day we were talking about “silly dreams”.  I said I would have loved to go to Vienna to the Schönbrunn palace for Carnival, wear a princess dress and dance all night like Sissi, but I didn’t have the time (nor the money) to do that.  When we came back from holidays a fellow student said “I did your dream, went to the palace and danced the waltz in a great long dress”.  I felt cheated.  I thought “she stole my dream”.  I am now so proud I inspired her, maybe she would have never thought of doing that and this is now part of her memories… I don’t know what inspired her.  Maybe she was just bored and needed to borrow a dream.  But I like to think that perhaps my enthusiasm and the way I spoke about my dream had something to do with it.

Strangely, this episode inspired me later on to share more serious inspirational ideas with others at work.  It gave me the confidence to think that my imagination could appeal to others and trigger new initiatives.

Have you been a source of inspiration to someone without using authority?  How did it feel?

Why not come and take the time to think about your own dreams?  In the RenewYou workshop on June 21 in Brussels we’ll do just that:  take the time to get inspired and take control of your life.

Inner Conflict Management 101



“I am not a victim of emotional conflicts.  I am human”

Marilyn Monroe


I have spent my professional life immersed in conflict management.  As a lawyer, I’ve been trained to spot risk and foresee conflict, and then when it arises, to advise clients on the best way to deal with it, minimizing losses, time and money spent on its resolution.

Yet, this does not make me better at dealing with my own conflicts.  Being personally involved in a conflict is uncomfortable, to say the least.  When looking at a client’s issue, I was able to apply distance and perform a professional analysis – even when departing from an empathetic feeling.  It all vanishes entirely when the conflict touches my own interests and feelings.

Depending on our personality, we may prefer to avoid conflict altogether, or (over)react emotionally and then regret it.  Most of us tend to ignore the conflict or find all sorts of justifications to look elsewhere and wait for it to resolve by itself.

But it rarely does…

I think conflict management starts by acknowledging that conflict is inherent to human nature –or better said, it is part of nature, it inbuilt in the survival mechanism of all plants and animals ‘existence.

Once we acknowledge that it is part of life, it makes sense to find a way to deal with it effectively.  We can learn a lot from listening to others and cultivating a mature and productive exchange.  It doesn’t always result in collaboration, but there is certainly always something to learn from each conflict situation.  In other posts I’ll talk about interpersonal relationships and share some tips to deal with others.

Now, what if the conflict is with yourself?  Inner conflict or contradictions can be self-consuming.  I have noticed that when I’m doing something against my true wishes or values my body starts to send warning signals that translate into stress symptoms:  stomach ache, back pain, depressed immune system…

How often do we find ourselves doing things “because we should”, or because it is someone else’s plan which doesn’t feel like your own?  And worse, how often do you ignore these signals, and go on living with an awkward feeling that something is not right?

Let me share a personal example:  yesterday I needed to contact a woman I have not seen for some time to request a favour.  I first wrote an email “to invite her for coffee to catch up”.  But I didn’t send it, something was not right.  I felt nervous about it and it took me a while to recognize the conflict within me:  I didn’t want to appear pushy and I don’t like asking for favours.  But my other side was saying it wasn’t straightforward and honest to ask for coffee if I had a clear intention to ask for a concrete service.  It took me a while to recognize the conflict.  Then I redrafted the email and asked directly the information I needed.  She replied back, gave me the details I asked for, and proposed herself to go for coffee and catch up!

How can you resolve inner conflicts? 

First, listen to the signs of discomfort.  Is there something you’ve been hiding from?  Decisions you are postponing?  Fear to admit that you are not living the way you want?  Is there any kind of clash with your values?  There can be “small conflicts” that are easy to address (for example, I am a dance teacher, I believe in the immense power of physical exercise to heal the body and mind, and I feel horrible when I’m finding silly excuses to stop exercising – the solution is very simple:  just do it!).  Or there can be more serious issues that require big decisions (like quitting your job or ending a relationship).  Or postponed dreams that can be translated into doable steps.

Whatever it is, I can assure you that having the courage and determination to look into it and find out what is missing from your life or what is no longer acceptable is the biggest step.  From there to taking a decision to do something about it and coming up with a concrete plan to make change happen the way is not so long.

The sense of relief you’ll get from taking a renewed path coherent with yourself is immense.

As my teenage son says:  YOLO!  If you only live once, why be roomies with distress and anxiety caused by conflict within yourself?  Sparing yourself from fighting your own values and wishes is more sensible.  You’ll spend enough energy dealing with conflicts with others, so make peace with the person who is closest to you first.

I’m running a personal development course for women in Brussels called RenewYou on May 24th.  It could take just one day to change your life and come out energized to do what you want. 

Stagnation hurts more than change

deep water


 “The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes. So do the spirits, who are prevented from changing their opinions, they cease to be spirits.”

Nietzsche’s The Dawn


Any kind of transformation requires energy, so in that sense change may be perceived as painful.  On the other hand staying stagnated, stuck in a situation that is not optimal, tied to an inflexible routine can hurt more deeply.  Inaction and procrastination lead to a sense of dissatisfaction that can erode your identity because you are living against your values or wishes.

Sometimes we feel trapped in our lives, and we don’t even realise we are making ourselves miserable.  Difficulties start to make us develop a tunnel vision and suddenly there are no options available.  We fall into fatalism, we are condemned to an existence with a determinism that we accept without questioning.  “I have no time to exercise”, “I need to lose weight but I need my wine and chocolate”, “I don’t like this job but the market is so difficult”, “I’m unhappy in my relationship but it is too late to change”, “I would like to meet someone but I hate networking”…..

What if what we believe derives from rational thinking is not actually reality?  What if we have contributed ourselves to the perception of a reality that is not the life we intend to live and that can be transformed once we take the decisions, change our attitudes and apply ourselves to it?

Confrontation with the idea of our finite existence and the elusiveness of happiness in life is not bad.  But a less dramatic thought can help:  we have all experienced some life changing moments before.  Think about how that happened:  a flash, a realization, new information, meeting someone.

It is impressive to see how some people spend fortunes renewing their houses, changing cars frequently, refurbishing their living-rooms, buying new clothes, having their gardens redone and their hands manicured.  And it is also sad to see how other people retreat from their socials lives and live for the single purpose of working and producing, abandoning their appearance, health, emotional and spiritual needs.

Whatever needs renewal in your life, the first step is the determination to do something about it.  Becoming rebellious against stagnation is taking charge and responsibility for forging our own reality.  Nobody else will do this for us, and if they do, it might not be for the sake of your life and your own desires.

Start today and decide to take control of your life.  That’s the first step.  Once you do this, opportunities pop up, help appears more accessible, there are books, people, courses, friends, coaches, family, places out there waiting for you to discover them and get you inspired.

I have discovered this is true and have met transformational people:  those that helped me see other ways of thinking and perceiving my own life.

What is bothering you?  Is it difficult to take the first step, what if you simply took the time to revise your life from within and assess what you would like to renew? 

Your call and deeper needs deserve attention.  Ignoring the questions will not make them go away.  Stagnation hurts more than change. Just take little steps:  how would you like to feel? what is missing? what do you want more of? what new things do you want to try? what can you give to others? how do you want others to feel around you? what kind of people do you want to spend more time with? what first steps can you take to change in the direction you want?


Settling for mediocrity? Time to revisit your aspirations

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 “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it” Salvador Dali

I paint landscapes at the Fine Arts Academy.  Last week I asked my master to set up a still life with apples.  Back to lesson number one.  Everyone in the atelier came to ask what I was doing and why  was I returning to such a “basic” task.  I gave them the short answer: “Oh, I’m just playing with colour”.  The longer answer is that I had been reading The Mediocre Man, by José Ingenieros.

José Ingenieros was a doctor, journalist and philosopher born on April 24, 1877, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  He died a young man in 1925.  His work has not been widely translated but was an icon in Latin American philosophy.

In El Hombre Mediocre Ingenieros advocates for moral idealism.

He defines idealists are as young, rebellious, passionate and unwilling to settle for mediocrity.   Idealists are insatiable dreamers, curious, easily touched by enthusiasm and noble.  They have great visions of improving the world.  They focus on putting their dreams into practice and are against any form of mediocrity in the sense that they question dogmas.  Their essence is a longing for the possibility of improvement by focusing on the significance of everyday experience.

Ingenieros’ philosophy falls under what many call “Perfectionist theories”, those that advocate the improvement of one’s self.  Idealists believe that the world can be better and that the purpose of life is to constantly strive for improvement of not only themselves but the circumstances around them. In a way, he claims that by perfecting oneself, we are inspiring others to do the same and therefore, collectively improving our surroundings.

Ingenieros was a great admirer of Waldo Emerson, who also thought that the main vice is conformity and encouraged people to rebel against dogmas and think by themselves.

A lot has been written about how perfectionists end up in a burn-out or depression.  I agree with this.  However, there is a need to reclaim the value of excellence.  Trying to “do your best” and aspiring to improve will not make you sick or depressed.  It will make you live a fuller life.

Both Emerson and Ingenieros agree that the remedy against mediocrity is the belief in the potential for improvement using imagination and originality. For them, mediocrity is related to routine. People who are afraid of changes and rely on dogmas to tell them how to live tend to be mediocre.  Idealists who go for excellence without fear, are curious, and dare to experiment and make mistakes, understand that this is the essence of improving yourself.

For Ingenieros, idealist people live a good life. Emerson sums up idealism in more concrete words: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded”.

Perfection is not attainable, but I am convinced that the world would be better -and each of us happier-  if we kept our young, rebellious unwillingness to settle for mediocrity alive.

This is why painting apples gave me so much pleasure.  They are not perfect but they are more beautiful than last year’s.  Next week two more colleagues at the atelier will also be painting apples; they don’t know that they owe this to José Ingenieros.

What little and big things do you want to improve for yourself?  Why not aspire to inspire those around you?  Think about people you admire: have they settled for mediocrity?

Productivity Insanity? Create your personal KPIs.

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“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals” Henry David Thoreau


The day I was told that my team had to measure “happiness” and that I should set a target for “the number of opinions” a lawyer should issue per hour, I freaked out.  I was heading a team of very senior, mature lawyers that knew what they were doing.  Asking them to spend time measuring their feelings and meeting KPIs for creative work that requires complex analysis was absurd.

We all know that objectives have to be concrete and measurable, that efficiency is a good friend of to-do lists, that commitment and follow up are indispensable to achieve one’s goals.  I have negotiated hundreds of IT agreements where KPIs are indispensable and serve their purpose.  But trying to apply Key Performance Indicators to everything is insane.  People forget the key word in KPIs:  “Key” means that they have to be representative, selective.  When applied excessively to your personal life they can be extremely counterproductive, killing all opportunity for creativity and engagement.

As a manager, I believed in measuring only the measurable and inspiring people to drive improvements by themselves.  We are all managers of our own lives.  What kind of personal goals do you set for yourself?  How do you measure your achievements?

I have decided to live by my own KPIs.  I have banned hollow Key Performance Indicators from my life.  Centering all your energy in Productivity and Performance is Passionless –and dangerous-, it distracts you from the really important “P”:  your Purpose.

Try these KPIs:

Keep your Personal Inspiration alive:  the more motivated you are, the easier it is to enjoy what you are doing and in turn this will inspire those around you.

Keep Picking Intelligently: does a task fit in with your goal in life or at least you are learning from it? Then engage with passion and try your best.  Does it take you away from what you want and it doesn’t bring anything positive to you or those who need your energy? Toss it!

Know and Practice using your Imagination: allow yourself to be inventive and you will find that you are meeting more targets and finding new ways of being productive – without the pressure of having to measure every single step.

I know, sometimes you are not the one setting those KPIs.  Well, try this one:  Kindly use your Personal Influence.  There are always ways to move people in other directions.  If that doesn’t work and you are forced to follow certain targets – know how to place them – they are just someone’s KPIs, not the whole purpose of your life.

And finally, appreciate that not everything is about being industrious.  Do more of what you love.  Do it keenly.  I always wear a little gold medal that says: “more than yesterday, less than tomorrow”.  It is a love promise.  I don’t want to forget what it means.  I don’t want it to mean “more stress, more anxiety, more fear that I will not meet my KPIs”.  It means “more energy, more passion, more love and more compassion, more meaning, more fun”.  This also means more work and more commitment, but on the right KPIs.

Dare to grow



“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” ~ Bertrand Russell

On a hot summer day I was shopping for groceries at a supermarket and there was a special offer for an oil painting kit, complete with brushes, canvas and oil tubes. I felt an urge to express myself and bought it. That afternoon I painted little old houses on a piece of carton board. The houses resembled Bruges’s old town oldest cottages but that day it was unusually hot in Bruges, so I used warm Italian colours, under a sharp blue sky. After all, they say that Bruges is the Venice of the North. It gave me so much pleasure to be able to show how I saw the world that day.

The next experiment was a portrait of a girl. I painted it in the garden, using my fingers like a toddler. The girl is wearing a hat with long feathers.

It took me a few days to realize I wanted to be that girl, and the feather hat was in fact a bird. The bird represents all sorts of things going through my mind. At the time I was immersed in an intense inner search period, trying to decide whether to make a big career change or take a well paid but boring job. I consulted a psychologist who specializes in career management. She also noticed that the bird was sitting tightly, as if protecting the girl, still unsure whether to fly away or stay.

It’s been while. I’ve let the bird go. Sometimes that’s what you have to do to grow.

Give yourself permission to spread your wings. Free your bird up and be who you really want to be.