Deviance, Obsession, and Sharing Your Gifts with the World: A Conversation with Bill O’Hanlon

Therapist, writer, coach, businessman, iconoclast: Bill O’Hanlon has a complicated resume.

Bill O’Hanlon is someone who approaches life and business with a lot of curiosity and humor. Bill and I got together to talk about his passionate approach to business, therapy, and life.

In this 22-minute episode, Bill and I talk about:

  • Bill’s “Four Energies” to help him focus on his many projects
  • How your basic weirdness can be a tool for freedom
  • The insight that allowed Bill to get over his discomfort with marketing
  • Lessons he learned from his teachers Robert Cialdini and Milton Erickson
  • How to use obsession to fuel your success and open new doors for your business or passion

The Show Notes

Deviance, Obsession, and Sharing Your Gifts with the World: A Conversation with Bill O’Hanlon

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Sonia Simone: Greetings, super friends. My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the Chief Content Officer for Copyblogger Media. I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today, I am just as pleased as punch to be speaking with my friend Bill O’Hanlon because to me he really embodies that idea of running your business in your life according to your own rules.

Bill, welcome. Good to have you.

Bill O’Hanlon: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me. You’re one of my favorite people. It’s nice to be on your podcast.

Sonia Simone: Oh, fun. I think a lot of people in my audience don’t know you yet. You want to let people know who you are and what business or businesses you run?

Bill O’Hanlon: Well, I’ll tell you. I was trained as a psychotherapist, and I had the great good fortune, when I was very young, just before or just as I was giving a psychotherapist, to meet the weirdest guy. He was an eccentric psychiatrist named Milton Erickson, and he warped me for the rest of my life. That, I think, informs of where I ended up, because I became a therapist, but I never really fit in in Therapy Land because Erickson was a psychotic optimist.

He believed everybody could change if you found the creative, weird way to reach them. So when I became a therapist, I was hanging around these people that were really focused on what was wrong with people, how damaged they were, and how hopeless, sometimes, their situations were. That really launched me into something beyond my psychotherapy practice.

I worked in community mental health centers during private practice, and I got so pissed off about what was going on in my field — that it was so negative and it was so focused on what was wrong with people and so discouraging in a lot of ways.

Also, I am a fast person, and I was impatient. I didn’t want to wait for years to analyze people. I wanted a briefer therapy. I got on fire with this, both with the love for what I was doing and being pissed off about what was going on in my field, and it launched me out to speak all around the world and to write.

I’ve written 36 books out of that, and I wasn’t a natural writer or speaker. I guess that’s what I do now. I write, mostly, and I teach people, and I have gone beyond psychotherapy into general other kinds of areas, partly teaching people to write books, because I wrote so many, but also in self-development and marketing and things like that. Some of the stuff you do.

Sonia Simone: I’m going to jump to that. I’m going to jump to that question, because you have talks. You write. You write books. You help writers write books. You help people figure out how to market their stuff. You are one of those people. Some people, they have one great dream for their life and they live it, and that is awesome, and I admire those people and envy them.

You are somebody who has all these passions. Any thoughts on the people who are having a hard time figuring out, “I want to do everything. I want to do all of it.”

Bill’s “Four Energies” to Help Him Focus on His Many Projects

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes. Well I’ve also always had that advice. I’m a little sparky. I don’t like diagnoses, but I’m sort of on the ADD side of things, if you were going to put me on the spectrum. Steven Wright, the comedian, said a long time ago, “You can’t have everything,” — he was a very deadpan guy – “if you can have everything, where would you put it?” I would say the same thing about doing everything. You can do lots of stuff, but you just can’t do it all at once.

I just follow. I’m not one of these people who sits down and writes my strategic plans for five years or whatever. I have done that, but mostly, I don’t. Mostly I do it by braille. I have four things that guide me. It’s sort of what brings me alive. I think there are four energies that I keep paying attention to. You know, it’s warmer, warmer, warmer, colder, colder, colder. And I just follow the warmer, warmer, warmer ones, and that’s ‘blissed,’ ‘blessed,’ ‘pissed,’ and ‘dissed.’

That is, “What do I love?” That’s the bliss part. What I just can’t stop thinking about, reading about, talking to people about, learning about — that is the bliss part.

Blessed is, who do you meet along the way? Who sees something in you? Who feels something in you and says, “Wow, you are really good at that. You should do more of that,” or “you should write a book about that,” or “you should tell people about this,” or “you should do more in your business in this.” That is the blessed part. Somebody believes in you, encourages you, opens the path, mentors you, or you just role model on them from afar, because you think, “I want to do what that person is doing,” or something akin to it.

That’s the positive energies that I go with a lot, and I follow those energies. And then the two more negative energies — but then you’ve got to turn them into something that contributes — is ‘pissed’ and ‘dissed.’

Pissed is just what upsets you so much that you want to correct or fix or talk about that’s wrong in the world — that people have gotten wrong, or that are hurting people, or that is just bad or you want to fix in some way. I certainly was that way. I overcame my shyness, because I was a painfully shy guy until my mid-20s. I began to speak because I was so pissed about what was going on.

And then the last one, really quickly, is dissed. Where have you been wounded? Where have you been sensitized in certain areas in your life because someone you cared about or yourself has been hurt in some way or wounded or had some big challenge in life?

I was molested when I was a kid, so I am very sensitive to people’s pain and to people intruding upon other people in an unwanted way, and that informed me as a therapist. It informs me in life, and it’s informed some of the books I’ve written. That’s how I figured out. I can’t do everything at once, but I just follow where the energy leads me at that moment.

And then I guess you have to go to completion, too, because I’m kind of sparky. But I’ve learned to finish projects and get them out into the world. That’s one of the things I’ve admired about you. You had lots of ideas, but you did something. You put it out in the world, and it’s led you to many places you would’ve not gone if you just started things and never finished them. I think that is another component of you can’t do everything at once. You have to figure out something to put out in the world.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. It’s tricky. I want to circle back a little bit to this idea of the permission slip to run things the way you should, because that is such a theme in my life, and I know it’s a theme in your life.

Bill O’Hanlon: Yeah.

Sonia Simone: My favorite word for my corporate clear was ‘naive.’ I was called naive about a thousand times for thinking that employees were adults, and thinking that customers wanted to hear the truth. All these crazy ideas.

I think you’ve probably had a lot of these where you did something that made, maybe, your peers or colleagues uncomfortable because you were breaking some kind of a rule. I hope people know, we are not talking about breaking a rule, like a real ethical rule, like hurting someone. We are talking about breaking a rule that is there that just doesn’t really seem to serve us.

How Your Basic Weirdness Can Be a Tool for Freedom

Bill O’Hanlon: Yeah. I like what you said at the beginning: “as long as you don’t lie, do something unethical, or hurt people.” Can you find your own path? Being a therapist has really informed me on this, because I sat with people that were … When you get to the depths of people, people are profoundly weird.

I don’t mean this in a judgmental way. I am just saying everybody is a little weird or a lot weird. Some people are a little more weird than others, and most of us are trying to fit in, be loved, be secure, make it in life. And we smooth over that weirdness.

One of the things I admired about you, and the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer, is that you embrace who you are. I think that that’s what I’ve learned from being therapist all these years. I started out with a lot of shame and, “Oh, I’ve got to not let people know who I am because I’m too weird.” I’ve started to embrace that more and more.

I had a friend who once heard me talk about having been molested when I was a kid at a conference. And then I was joking during the story that I was telling, and I was saying how it is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because the person who molested me confused me. That is how they manipulated me into the molestation situation — I was a kid — and I said, “Now, it’s really great because I’ve learned to write books really quickly because I have to figure out confusing masses of information, and I can do it really quickly. It is easy for me to write books, easy for me to teach.” And he stood up — he was a good friend of mine.

He stood up in the audience afterwards, and he said, “I just want you all to know, Bill O’Hanlon is a deviant,” and everyone gasped because I had just revealed that I have been molested and everything, and I was laughing because I knew for him, that was a big compliment. He said, “Yeah. Who would have told a story about molestation in a group of therapists like this and laughed about it and used humor and said it turned out really well in a lot of ways? Bill’s a deviant. What I think we can model on is he is so comfortable with his deviancy. He embraces his deviancy.”

And I think that is one of the lessons I learned both as a therapist and in doing things out in the world, is there’s a lot of people that are like everybody else, but there are very few people that are like you.

Can you embrace your deviance? Can you embrace your weirdness? Not, as you say, in a harmful way or evil way or manipulative or unethical way, but in a way that’s just like, “This is me. This is the package I come in. I change over time, but basically, I’m weird. You’re weird. And I am going to show up with all my weirdness.” And that has been a key to my success, and I suspect a key to your success, and I suspect a key to most people’s who have really gone far in life. Even if they have a great deal of shame, they somehow embrace their weirdness and put it out in the world.

Sonia Simone: It’s sad and fascinating to me how many people hide the best parts of themselves. They hide the parts that are really what makes them fantastic because they are weird, or they’re different, or they don’t conform, or maybe it’s not aligned with the family they grew up in. Of course, we see that a lot. A lot of times, that’s your real strength, is all this stuff you’re trying desperately to paper over.

Bill O’Hanlon: To paper over, smooth over, fit in. Well, this may time date us, but we’re recording this around the time that Bruce Jenner — 65 years old — and he comes out as, “I’m a woman.” I think, “Sixty-five years, what the hell?” That must have been torture living with that for so long, of not being who you say you are, who you think you are, and trying to get love other ways or trying to fit in or be successful in other ways.

As a therapist, I’ve just seen the suffering that comes from that. As a business and marketing person, I’ve seen the person just doesn’t put their energy … They’re keeping so much confined, and they’re looking like everybody else, that they don’t stand out from the crowd.

I think, yeah — embrace your deviance and be as weird as you are, again, without hurting other people.

The Insight That Allowed Bill to Get over His Discomfort with Marketing

Sonia Simone: I always feel like you have a secret weapon because you are a trained psychotherapist, and I always think, “Well, that would be cool for being a business owner or marketer,” because marketing is just the word we use for communicating what we do and how we help.

Bill O’Hanlon: I think that at first, I was a little uncomfortable. Most of us who are therapists are not trained in business or marketing at all. I wanted to get my work out in the world. I wanted to get it into the hands and the eyes and the ears of everyone who wanted it, and people who didn’t want it, that’s okay with me. But I wasn’t getting it out effectively because I had inhibitions about that, or I just didn’t have any knowledge about it.

I love what you just said, because when I finally figured out, “Oh, what they mean by ‘marketing’ is what I would call ‘relationships, connection, and also persuasion.”

Lessons He Learned from His Teachers Robert Cialdini and Milton Erickson

Bill O’Hanlon: In psychology, there are tools, you know? One of my old professors, Robert Cialdini has written this book about how to influence people. There are social psychology studies that show it. I’ve had to do that as a therapist. When someone comes in, they want to change, but they’re finding it really hard to change. They kind of are fighting against themselves, and you’re a persuader as a therapist. You’re going to have to get people to do things that are outside their comfort zone.

When I finally got, “Oh, marketing and business — it’s all about relationships, connection, and persuasion.” Oh, well that I can do. I’ve been doing as a therapist. I’ve been doing that as a human all my life. It wasn’t so much, “Oh, you’ve got to manipulate people or be fake, again, and maneuver them, but don’t let them know the real truth.”

The real truth is your most powerful marketing message, because it’s the same thing that works in relationships. If you hide who you are, you’re not going to develop very intimate relationships or real or authentic relationships. Authenticity, relationships, connection, persuasion: big stuff.

I guess I would add one more, and this has come out of my work with the guy I mentioned I studied with, who mentored me, is stories. He was a storyteller, and I wasn’t trained in that as a psychotherapist, but when I went to study with him, he would tell like 10 stories. I would think, “Where is the psychotherapy?” Then, I would go away, and I would see people change or I would be changed.

So stories were another element that I would add to what I was able to bring from my previous life as a psychotherapist into the business and marketing life. And I love stories.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. I stole one of Bill’s stories, which was I think was one of Erickson’s stories that I found in a book of Bill’s, the African violet story. I won’t spoil it for you guys, but I will link to it. It’s the kind of story that can really change your life, because it can change the whole way that you think about what you do.

Bill O’Hanlon: That story did change my life, and I became a different kind of therapist who focused on the African violet parts of people’s lives. Again, people can go see it.

Actually, there’s a place not only that was in the book, and you’ve written a blog post about it, but it was in a book called, Do One Thing Different. That book got me on Oprah. So that’s probably my best-selling book. I recorded that story later and put it on my blog, which has a bunch of videos on it: People can go listen to me tell an oral version of it and watch the non-verbals if they want to go hear that story, but that story is a powerful story, I agree.

Sonia Simone: Really cool. Really cool. I have a feeling you’ve got lots of these, but I would love for you to share a piece of advice or a way of looking at the world, something for people listening to this who are trying to build something — and again, they’re deviants, right? Like you and I, they’re different. What they do doesn’t seem to fit very neatly into the mold. It could be a business idea, or it could just be an idea for a satisfying side project.

What do you tell somebody who comes up to you and says, “Bill, can you give me some advice about business?” Or about taking something new and putting it into the world.

How to Use Obsession to Fuel Your Success and Open New Doors for Your Business or Passion

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes. I am big on patterns. I’ve observed patterns. And one of the things that is true for me, and I’ve read a bunch of biographies and listened to a bunch of people talk about their life and success, is I think there is one element. You need to be a little obsessive. And I don’t mean obsessive-compulsive in a pathological illness sort of way. I think you need to be so obsessed with something that it is your deviance — whatever your interest is. Then, you need to put it out in the world. Those are the two elements for me.

I couldn’t get enough of Milton Erickson’s work when I studied with him. Then, I just couldn’t stop myself from talking about it. These days with blogs and podcasts, you have access to putting it out to your tribe and whoever might be interested in that. I would say that’s one thing that I’ve learned, is you can’t just live with it inside you as a passion. You got to run it up a flag pole. And usually, to do that at first, you do it for free.

I started editing a newsletter. I didn’t make any money from it, but it was about Erickson’s work, and I did it out of pure love. And people started seeing that I would put my workshops in there and other people’s workshops who were teaching about this, and somebody called me up from England and said, “Hey, will you come over and teach workshops?”

I was like, “I never expected that, in a million years, to come out of it.” I was doing it because I had to and because I wanted to connect with people in this area. I did things for free until it turned into not free. Then, it became a business. Then, I could spend more time doing what I love. It’s this back-and-forth, but probably, you need to figure out that you’ve got to do it for free at first to develop connections, relationships, and a reputation. Then, it will lead to getting paid. I didn’t really go into it to get paid, but then, I figured that, “Wow, you can get paid for this. That’s cool.” That was a lesson I learned.

Sonia Simone: Today, we talk about content, content marketing — big buzzword — and that’s all content marketing, or at least that’s not all it is, but that’s the core of it. It’s speaking to some kind of passionate thing that you see that would make the world better in some way, and the doors that open are not always doors you had any idea were even there.

Bill O’Hanlon: Most of the time not. Yeah. Most of the time not. But if you put it out in the world, you never know what they’ll hold.

Sonia Simone: Well, I think people would probably love to know more about you and connect more with you and see more of your work. Are there some places people can find you, can see what you do, can read your books, listen to you, watch you as it were?

Bill O’Hanlon: Yeah. I have about 36 books. There are all different topics, like you said.

Sonia Simone: Take your pick.

Bill O’Hanlon: I have interests in hypnosis and brief therapy and couple’s therapy and personal development. That’s what that Do One Thing Different book is. So they can just go on Amazon and search for my name, which is Bill O’Hanlon, and they could go on to find some of that stuff as well. I am on Facebook. And I was saying before that on my blog, Stories of Change and Possibility, I just recorded some of my favorite stories and put them out there, and I do that every once in a while.

Then, I do teach people how to write books, because when they find out you’ve written one book, or in my case, 36, “I want to write a book. How do I do it?” I have this free report that I give away to people to jump start and get them to think about it. I am mostly non-fiction — you know, how to help people, how-to books and things like that. They can go to to get that free report.

Then, they will get more encouragement from me. I have some follow-up emails that take you through a few months of getting yourself to write that book because a lot of people have the idea to write a book, but they don’t do the thing.

You and I have talked about this. It’s the same thing with blog writing, the same thing with podcasting. People have lots of ideas, but until they put them out in the world, nobody can find out about those ideas.

Sonia Simone: Good stuff. I am going to whet people’s appetites. Bill and I could yak for quite a while, and we often do when we see each other, but I am going to whet your appetite with this, encourage you to check out his stuff, everything he does. Something I like a lot and respect about Bill is that he has stickler for quality, so he doesn’t slap things together. Everything he does is thought out, and he really thinks about creating value. You will find good things if you follow the links that I get for you guys.

I just want to let you guys know that the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer are brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

And Bill, it’s just been so fun talking with you. Thank you so much for hanging out.

Bill O’Hanlon: Thank you, Sonia. You know I always enjoy it. Thanks for having me.

Sonia Simone: All right. Take care, everybody.