The Cleveland Consulting Group


In This Issue

Don't miss another Issue!

Join our Mailing List



In recent months, a number of colleagues have become unemployed or under-employed. Cut-backs in many organizations have led to the elimination of internal positions for coaching, consulting, and OD. Some that remain independent have seen sharp reductions in billings along with vanishing retirement funds. Either situations requires a plan of action.

During my 25 years of consulting, I’ve taken a contrary perspective surrounding economic downturns. It surfaces in the following ways:

  1. Unemployed or underemployed: When I have time on my hands and need to find work, I focus 2-3 hours of my time on seeking contacts and contracts. Emails and phone calls tend to be my primary focus. I do this every day and do not exceed the allotted time. The discipline of doing it every day keeps my sense of self in place and prevents melancholy from sifting into my psyche. Not exceeding the allotted time balances the reverse in that I do not use all of focus or energy in the first few days when adrenaline is the primary fuel. Rather, I stay focused and centered.
  2. Reinvent the Practice: Economic downturn typically means that chaos is replacing whatever order has existed. Rather than assume that I will continue when the economy corrects, I assume that I need to retool my practice. 2-3 hours a day, I focus on sharpening design and tools. I create new tools. I read books and try to expand my repertoire or depth. When the economy corrects itself, I am fresh and ready to roll with a renewed passion and excitement about what I do.
  3. Reinvest in Self: Rather than stagnate, I look for ways to reinvest in my self. Reading the stack of books that have been waiting for time to be created, get read. Workshops and specialized training that have been on the dream list are enrolled in. For example, I have been reading everything about co-leaders as the complexity of business is leaning towards complementary leadership. In addition, I am attending training on a closely related field to gestalt OD through Bill Torbert’s theory on Action Inquiry. This will be an expansion of how I use Gestalt use of self in my practice by developing an even clearer perspective of action research as a well developed underpinning to gestalt OD.
  4. Write and Speak: When we are busy, it is easy to forget to write articles, books chapters, or small books or to speak at professional conferences and conventions. Using what I learn from my reinvention and reinvestment noted above, I find that new ideas tend to surface that can be published or to get me on conference agendas. Both become a way to keep my name in front of the prospective business clients.
  5. Walk a lot: When not busy, I find that it becomes easy to sit behind a desk and wait for the computer screen to magically provide new clients as we surf the internet. Besides the working hours described above, I make sure I get out and about to walk a lot. If possible, I exercise daily as well. Together, it generates endorphins and fights the tendency to fall into the blues.
  6. Stay within Present time: It is easy to lose sight of time and suddenly feel like everything is an emergency or a waste of time. I focus on mediating each day two0three times for 10-15 minutes as a means to keep a clear perspective of what I am facing.

I don’t pretend that these principles are the solutions for everybody; however, I have been recommending them to several colleagues and clients with great success.

In the remainder of this newsletter, I share an article on living life on purpose by staying vitally engaged. I have used it frequently with clients that are unemployed or underemployed. In both situations, it is easy to lose our vital engagement and forget how to live life on purpose.

If you enjoy the newsletter, please pass it along to others. If not, then click on unsubscribe below.


Herb Stevenson


Vital Engagement:
Living Life On Purpose

In the United States, the average life expectancy is approaching 80 years of living with a variance of +/- 20 years depending on family history for illness and disease, life practices, such as the degree or amount of regular exercise, alcoholic and food consumption, work and home stresses, and luck, in terms of accident prevention, etc. Many, like my brother, Bob, do not make it to 60. An aortic aneurysm ended his life at 54. At the same time, I was 50 and had a near life-ending blood clot. Whether we want to admit it or not, chronologically midlife begins somewhere between 30 and 50. Socially, we continue to push it back to the 40's and more recently to the 50's, when in reality, if we have not made the rite of passage to move into the next phase of life, the second half of our life, the renowned midlife crisis arrives to force us to move into claiming our place at the fire.”

Half Done!?

Take a moment to reflect on the fact that your life may be more than one–half completed. Note your physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental responses.

Living On Purpose

The second half of life is about consciously living one’s life. Leider and Shapiro in Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life note that living a good life includes four components: people, place, work and purpose. In a nutshell, the good life is defined as "living in the place you belong, with people you love, doing the right work, on purpose." As we turn the corner onto the highway of the second half of life, it is finding the courage to live one’s life on purpose. To live one’s life on purpose, we need to ask ourselves the questions that can lead to a good life— Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I care about? What is my life’s purpose?


Are you living on-purpose? Explain.

Vital Engagement of Life—Flow

To live one’s life on purpose, it helps to understand how to consciously live one’s life—that is, to live with vitality, to vitally engage life. Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggest that when we are “completely absorbed in the interaction with the world, experience unfolds organically and it is possible to enter a state of flow.” Flow is the vital engagement of life. It is characterized as:

  • intense and focused concentration on the here and now,
  • a loss of self-consciousness as action and awareness merge,
  • a sense that one will be able to handle the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever will happen next,
  • a sense that time has passed more quickly or slowly than normal, and
  • an experience of the activity as rewarding in and of itself, regardless of the outcome.

In common terms, it has been referred to as being “in sync”, “(deep) in the zone”, “lost (in the work)”, and “consumed (by the moment)”.

Characteristics that foster flow are:

  • clarity about one’s immediate goals, throughout the interaction,
  • continuous and unambiguous feedback about the progress that one is making as the activity unfolds, much like a witnessing of oneself, and
  • perceived opportunities for action that stretch one’s existing capacities.

In flow, people feel that their capacities are being fully used. They feel alive and are living on purpose.

Think Back

Recall a time when you felt that your were in complete flow at home; at work; with family.

Balance of Energies

Flow requires a balance between the perceived capacities (what I perceive that I can do) and the perceived challenges (how difficult I perceive the task) of the situation. When “what I perceive I can do” (perceived capacity) matches “how difficult I perceive the task” (the perceived challenge) in a creative tension, it is possible to merge into a state of pure presence where self and other no longer are separate, creating a form of positive feedback.1 However, when the perceived capacity or the perceived challenge, exceeds the other, where the perception directs the focus of attention, attention is diverted from the interaction similar to a form of negative feedback. For example, excessive challenge to capacity would lead to worry, anxiety, and disrupting contact with the interaction. Excessive capacity/skill in relation to the challenge tends to lead to energy loss and boredom. In either situation, the tension between capacity/skill and challenge must be equal or contact is lost and therefore any potential for flow is lost.

Recall in detail

Remember the precise details when you felt “in flow” and were “living on purpose” Feel those moments.

Following the Call

When a person is able to follow an internal calling into a career, instead of isolated flow experiences as many people experience, it becomes a flow activity or stream, where the person is able to be in flow much of the time. Typically, the person is able to enact intense concentration with the immediate interaction, the loss of temporal awareness and self-consciousness, and the merging of action and awareness. Scientists, artists, and writers tend to experience flow activity as do professional and Olympic athletes.

An individual can find flow in virtually any interaction, even the most trivial, depending on the skills that are brought to it and the challenges that can be identified in it. A key catalyst or motive for flow is the sheer enjoyment of the activity whether it be work, play, love or duty.

Are you living Your Calling?

Flow Means to Grow

The dynamic of capacity and challenge brings forth another concept, the emergence of goals and motivation. The dynamic balancing of capacity and challenge results in a positive sense of self that seeks recreation or at a minimum continuation of the sense of flow. This process can lead to the emergence of wholly new relationships and long term goals. This motivation to persist or return to the new activity is emergent, arising out of the interaction itself. In this way, the experience of flow fosters the expansion of an individual’s set of enjoyed pursuits, as distinct from the growth of capacities within an existing involvement.

To Do

Are there situations that you can nudge yourself to find the balance and get into flow at home; at work; with family; with friends.

The Experience of Meaning

The experience of flow, albeit expanding and exciting, does not vitally engage an individual unless it holds meaning for the individual. Generally, to move from flow to vital engagement, a sustained relationship with the object must develop. Moreover, this sustained relationship to be in flow and therefore to vitally engage must be a present-centered (here and now), conscious experience.

We are born into much embedded meaning through unconscious assimilation of family, culture, nationality, race, and history. Generally, this meaning making is subliminal and functions more like introjects that are swallowed whole without consciously chewing and digesting what resonates as real or true.

During vital engagement, meaning making is conscious, joyfully absorbing, and tends to be directly tied to some greater good or calling. For example, vital engagement, when applied to one’s work, seems to be grounded to a profound commitment to valued ends and the sense that the work is worthwhile, such as a scientists commitment to cure cancer when being vitally engaged in research. As such, enjoyment without a sense of purpose or larger meaning does not foster commitment that leads to flow and therefore to vital engagement.

Just as goals can be emergent, arising out of the evolving interaction of the self with others and the environment, so the felt sense of an endeavor’s meaningfulness can be emergent, formed and deepened through experience as an individual interacts with the self, others, and with the associated community. To say that meaning emerges is to say that interactions with the self, others, and the community transform information in consciousness. However, felt meaning that is enduring arises when participation continues over time in an endeavor that stretches the person’s capacities and is enjoyably absorbing.

Recall an Epiphany

Describe the circumstances when a flash of insight, from Epiphany, filled you.

Field of Engagement

When a person begins to perform within the rules of a symbolic domain (an organization, family, association, a career), meaning begins to accrue from several sources: an identification with the domain, its history, traditions, and goals; a feeling of solidarity with the field and its practitioners; a self image arising from one’s own practice—from the peculiar style of one’s work. Thus, with time, the sheer practice of one’s calling generates layers of one’s work. Engagement in any calling begins to tie the practitioner into a network of enterprises (people, places, situations, experiences, and organizations) that connects them with the past and the future and locates them within an evolving human project (a family, a professional association, a career)—thus creating its own meaning.

The felt significance of an enjoyed relationship to a domain develops in part through one’s membership in a community of practice and interactions with other members of the community. Insofar as the community or interactions with its members are positive, they can foster and deepen meaning of the relationship to the domain and vice versa.

How has your present work become a symbolic domain?

The Four Flames of Vital Aging

The four flames of vital aging are a reminder that without fire, whether experienced via passion, drive, determination or desperation, life is not lived. Rather, it is habitualized passing of time. Take some time and reflect on the four flames of life. Answer the questions for each of them, now, and then every year on your birthday as a celebration of whom you are. Happy Birthday.

The Flame of Identity: Recalling our Stories

Principle: Wisdom
Firestarter Question: Who am I?

The Flame of Community: Refinding Our Place

Principle: Intimacy
Firestarter Question: Where do I belong?

The Flame of Passion: Renewing Our Calling

Principle: Caring
Firestarter Questions: What do I care about?

The Flame of Meaning: Reclaiming Our Purpose

Principle: Meaning
Firestarter Question: What is my Legacy?

Adapted and summarized from Nakamura, Jeanne & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2003) The Construction of Meaning Through Vital Engagement, in Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Well-lived Life. Eds. Corey M. Keyes and Jonathan Haidt. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. 83-104

Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, (2004) Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of your Life ON Purpose. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler


1. In Gestalt terms, this balance would be called the zero point where creative indifference exists and transcendental change occurs.