This author’s best ideas burst forth when she’s walking her dog
Even when it looks as if she’s not working, creativity comes for alumna Barbara Jo Gallagher
It may look like she’s walking her dog, but Barbara Jo “BJ” Gallagher ’76 is actually sketching out plot lines for her next book in her head. Or she’s thinking about her next keynote speech.
Gallagher is one busy author and motivational speaker. Founder and president of Peacock Productions, a human resources training and consulting company, she’s written or co-written international best-sellers such as A Peacock in the Land of Penguins (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001). Earning her bachelor’s in sociology, Gallagher credits USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences professors for teaching her how to read, write, think and speak.
You seek to help people succeed in their personal and professional lives. How did your bachelor’s in sociology prepare you for this work? Did your bachelor’s spark your interest in this area?
I’ve always been interested in people — what makes them tick, why do they behave the way they do? — both individually and in groups. I discovered that the liberal arts in general, and sociology in particular, taught me how to observe, analyze and understand my fellow humans. Once I understood people, I could help them be more successful and fulfilled — and I could help myself at the same time.
You’ve written best-selling books with titles such as It’s Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been, Being Buddha at Work and your international best-seller, A Peacock in the Land of Penguins. What is the common thread going through your books? What is your primary lesson?
That’s funny you should ask. I sometimes joke to my friends that, in reality, I’m just writing the same message over and over again — with different characters and different story lines. My basic message is one of optimism, perseverance, initiative, resourcefulness and creativity in creating a rich, meaningful, rewarding life for yourself. And my books all have a spiritual element, too: faith in a higher power, faith in community and faith in yourself.
Give us some insight into the life of an inspirational speaker and writer. What does your typical workday look like?
I can tell you that what my workday looks like from the outside doesn’t tell you much about what’s happening on the inside. As a writer, I am always working. It may look like I’m walking my dog, but I’m actually sketching out plot lines for the next book I want to write or planning what I’m going to say during my next keynote speech. I often get my best ideas when my body is doing one thing — driving, vacuuming the house, washing the car, walking the dog — but my mind is doing something else. My body is essentially on automatic-pilot, doing something routine, while my mind is free to explore, reflect and create. So my workday often looks like I’m not working at all! But in reality, there is always a lot of creative work going on.
Often inspirational speakers have emerged from obstacles in their own lives a better person and want to share their insights. Tell us about any obstacles you have experienced in your life.
I have found that pain is the touchstone of all personal growth — and career growth as well. We often learn more from our failures than our successes. That’s certainly true for me. When I was forced out of my management job some 20 years ago, I was terrified. I had no experience or training in how to be self-employed; I was over 40 and a single mother, with a mortgage to pay and the country was in a recession. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to survive. But here I am, two decades later, with 30 published books under my belt. It turns out that losing my job was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I wrote a book about my experience — A Peacock in the Land of Penguins — and today that book is now published in 23 languages with almost 400,000 copies sold. If I hadn’t been pushed out of my comfy corporate nest, I wouldn’t have written that book and I wouldn’t be a writer today.
What inspires and motivates you?
Service and contribution. I have been blessed with the gifts of teaching and writing — my job is to give those gifts away, serving others and contributing to the world.
Tell us about your experiences at USC Dornsife. What are your fondest memories?
When I was a little girl, my favorite game was “school.” It still is. I’ve always loved books, yellow legal pads, pens, pencils, notebooks, blackboards, white boards, flip charts, libraries, computers, labs, classrooms — all of it. I love learning new things, exploring new fields, debating ideas, writing, analyzing, asking good questions and being challenged by tough teachers who push me to do my best. My fondest memories are of the great USC Dornsife professors who taught me how to read, write, think and speak.
What is the best advice you can give students as they select and prepare for their careers?
I received two pieces of great advice when I was an undergrad, so I’ll pass them along: (1) Don’t be in a hurry to declare a major. Pick whatever classes interest you. As you explore different fields of study, you’ll find that you don’t like some as much as you thought you would. Drop those classes as fast as you can and select others. Do this for several semesters, trying new classes and dropping what you don’t like. Through this process of elimination, you’ll find your major. (2) What you do outside the classroom is just as important as what you do inside the classroom. Get involved in extracurricular activities; take on campus leadership positions; get internships. I participated in USC’s very first Washington Semester in 1974 through the Department of Political Science, during which I interned in the office of Rep. Pierre “Pete” DuPont. It was a fabulous real-life, hands-on learning experience — one of the best experiences of my undergraduate years.
What is the single-most difficult thing about seeking to inspire people?
Someone once asked me, ‘How do you convert the unconverted?’ My answer was: ‘I don’t. I work with the converted and help them become more successful.’ The unconverted will take care of themselves — they’ll either die off … or they’ll see others’ success and want some of that, too. So the answer to your question is: I don’t seek to inspire anyone. I work with those who already want inspiration — and practical tools I can teach them as well — to help them achieve personal and professional success.
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