Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Follow Me by Joanna Scott

As a writer, I read a lot, always looking for new styles and interesting turns of phrase. Joanna Scott has become my new favorite author. I quickly ran through her book, Follow Me, in a week. I couldn't put it down and wanted to enjoy every word of this consuming, at once bitter and sweet, story that spans several generations of women. Mistaken identities, family complications, love, and a sense of place dominate the books intertwining themes. At points I loved and hated all of the main characters, a sign that Joanna Scott is capable of creating personalities that are so true to life that I have found myself thinking about them as if they are my neighbors and friends.

Even more lovely and intriguing than the plot twists and turns, Joanna Scott uses language that made me realize that English can be just as beautiful as any romance language. Her poignant sentiments are dramatic without being saccharin. For example, early on in the book one of the characters runs away from her life and family after a traumatic event. "But still she runs. Running, running, running. How many lives start over this way, by putting one foot in front of the other?"

I considered how many of us today must start over because our investments have decreased so dramatically in value or because we, or someone in our family, lost a job. Starting over is frightening and painful. And yet, Joanna Scott is right: starting over is simply putting one foot in front of the other in a different direction. What I find so inspiring about Follow Me is that its characters are not afraid to start over. Indeed, they find it almost impossible to not immediately start over when life doesn't go their way. A lesson that at least bears consideration, if not emulation, by all of us.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Costa Rica, here I come!

Last night I had dinner with my friend, Jeff, who's turning 30 next month. To celebrate, he's going to Egypt and asked friends to come along. Because of the economy, most of us backed out. Last night, Jeff told me he booked the trip for 3 people, $2000 each - includes airfare, tours, and most of their meals. I almost fell over. I missed out on Egypt for $2000 because I was a little bit afraid of losing my job. (I'm currently still employed.) What a lost opportunity!

Cross-Cultural Solutions contacted me today to see if I had any more questions about booking a trip with them. (They have incredible customer service!) I wrote back a very apologetic note saying that my company had just announced that we'd go through another round of layoffs next month so I had to hold off and see how that worked out for me. Even though a trip with Cross-Cultural Solutions is 100% tax deductible, I still hesitated.

A long time ago a friend of mine sent me a quote that rings in my head all the time: "The world is a very generous place. It gives you the same lesson over and over until you finally learn it and don't have to go through it any more." Costa Rica was my next Egypt.

The moment I got home, I dropped my bag, headed for my Mac, whipped out my credit card, and signed up for a trip to Costa Rica with Cross-Cultural Solutions. Like everyone else I know, I'm nervous about the economy. But does that mean I just go into a holding pattern? Do I not take advantage of a great opportunity out of fear?

Now, I will say that I am in a very good position to just take the money for my trip from my savings and it's a huge benefit to have the trip be tax-deductible. Still, it would be very easily justified to hunker down and not take this trip. It's a matter of priorities, and international travel and volunteering are important to me. So this trip is not an expense, it's an investment opportunity. In me. In the world. And I'm grabbing it with both hands.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Second Opinions

Mom's had a bum knee for a few years that's gotten progressively worse. It's to the point now where to walk comfortably she needs a cortisone shot. Total knee replacement is inevitable and she is now an excellent candidate for the surgery. She went to see a physician who was recommended to her by her doctor. With a near absence of customer service, he told her she'd be back to work in two weeks. And he could probably schedule her for surgery some time in the next few months.

Total knee replacement is an incredibly invasive procedure. It hurts. A lot. And the only way through the pain is to keep moving. Lots of physical therapy, before and immediately after. To say that someone could be back to work in two weeks is ludicrous according to my dear friend Ken who works in a physical therapy clinic. "8-12 weeks is more like it," he told me. "And those stairs in her house? She won't be able to use them for a few weeks either."

We went off to see a new surgeon today. I refused to let the first surgeon work on her. This second opinion was the right way to go - the doctor spent a lot of time with her, answered all her questions and concerns (and mine), and gave her the straight story about what she could and should expect. 8-12 weeks off from work and yes, she'd be best off to go to a nursing facility for a few weeks right after the surgery. Oh, and he can perform the surgery as early as May 18th. He recommended a class for her to go to at our local hospital's joint clinic run by a top-notch physical therapist who will answer all of her questions. She left actually looking forward to total knee replacement.

On the train home, I thought a lot about second opinions and the importance of getting them for so many situations in our lives. It's easy and less time consuming to snag the closest opinion and run with it. It's easier still to not seek out any opinions and just do whatever we want. The value of two or more opinions is that you get a few different views of the world from varying vantage points and levels of experience.

With these remarkably uncertain times we're living in right now, the value of second opinions can't be overstated. We need to take a 360 degree look at every challenge and decision we're facing and opinions from different, non-associated parties can help us do that. It's advice we can all use, whether we're considering a new knee, a new job, a new city, a new relationship. After all, "none of us is as smart as all of us."

Monday, April 27, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - 15 Chances to Turn an Enemy Into a Friend

Extra gum has an interesting saying on the inside of its packaging: "15 chances to turn an enemy into a friend." On my way to the subway this morning I thought about that statement. Extra gum was clearly talk about its 15 sticks of gum. But are there 15 ways to turn an enemy into a friend? I can think of 6 - and that's a start. Any you'd like to share?

1.) Do something nice for someone, even if they haven't been so nice to you. It can be small. It can even be done anonymously. A thoughtful favor can sometimes turnaround a bad attitude.

2.) Consider what their lives must be like outside of the environment we're used to seeing them in. Does that give us some greater insight and understanding about their behavior?

3.) Detach. It's amazing how people stop misbehaving when no one is watching or no one seems to care.

4.) Lay it on the line. By disarming enemies with straight-forward honesty, we can disarm them.

5.) Think of something good about them. My friend, Kelly, is brilliant at this. No matter how much she may dislike someone, she's always able to keep an open mind about them and is determined to learn something from them.

6.) Recognize that everyone comes into our lives for a reason.

Image above can be viewed at:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Why Settle for One Dimension When You Could Have Many?

I arrived home from Florida today tired and happy. There is a good deal of shifting about to take place in my life and that shifting is causing my usual high energy to run that much higher. So what to do with all this excessive energy? Clean my apartment. (A bit sunburned from my time in the Sunshine State, jogging out in the sunshine seemed like less than a good idea.)

As is my habit when cleaning my apartment, I put on the Food Network. There was some challenge called Last Cake Standing where each of the five competitors had to build their life story out of cake. Can you imagine a more fun assignment? If only I could bake...

One of the contestants built this gorgeous cake of decorative masks, forms that symbolized different hobbies she has and places she's been. It was colorful and inventive, much more so than any of the other cakes. One of the judges criticized her for having too many disparate parts and not enough of a cohesive story. She's being ridiculed for having too many interests? Too many dimensions to her personality? Too many interesting stories and way of spending her time?

This is a terrible message to be sending out into the world, and it's one I've seen and heard much too often from far too many people. A lot of people are comfortable in one dimension. Maybe they don't have the capacity or imagination or creativity for living life in many different directions. And if so, that's fine, but don't criticize people who want to explore every interest them have! Don't punish people for being curious.

Here's are some ideas for expanding your world if you'd like to break out of the same old same old:

1.) Find a new hobby. Meet-ups, Twitter, and your local bookstore are great places to look for ideas.

2.) Live life like a tourist for a weekend. Pick up a copy of a guide book to your city or a copy of the weekend edition of your paper, and see where it takes you.

3.) Take a weekend trip on an impulse.

4.) Volunteer - you'll be inspired by the other people you work alongside.

5.) Start to learn a new language, and explore the cultures that use it

Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Giving the visual arts its fair share of attention

If you want to learn about the importance of impact in visual messaging, consider this: the average amount of time a painter has to engage a potential purchaser of his work in a gallery is 15 seconds. That's about how much time people spend looking at any one painting as they're strolling through an art space. In 15 seconds, the artist who likely spent hours, days, or months creating a single piece of work must make that viewer think, laugh, cry, and wonder. 15 seconds to make an impression, or not. In other words, the painter must immediately elicit some type of strong emotion and curiosity or risk being passed by and forgotten.

In writing, we give authors a decent number of pages before we decide to continue or put down a book. We'll watch a TV show for a few episodes, a play for at least the first act, a few songs on an album or at a live concert. Visual artists barely ever get a fair shake. And here's why it's even more tragic: our minds physically cannot take in every detail of a painting in 15 seconds. But it's exactly those details that will make all the difference in our opinion of a piece of work. In 15 seconds, we aren't giving the artists nor ourselves a fair shake and my guess is that we are missing a lot of beauty and a lot of joy through this self-imposed limitation.

For the sake of the art world, here's my suggestion: slow down and open the mind. I'm guilty of museum fever. I have to get through as much as possible as quickly as possible just to say I've seen it. Bad idea. Very bad idea. I have a tough time recalling details of works if I take that approach. So on my last visit to the Met, I went more slowly and I did less. I went to see one small showcase, Raphael to Renoir, and then let myself just wander and enjoy whatever happened to catch my eye for about an hour. I spent that hour looking at a handful of works and I took the time to enjoy, appreciate, and question each one. It was the best visit I ever had to the Met.

The visual arts can be overwhelming but they don't have to be. Take small steps, question why the artist chose specific colors, textures, or points of view. Read the back story on the work if it's published alongside the work in a gallery or museum. Take time to consider all the choices that could have been made and why an artist specifically made the decisions to create the work that now stands before you. We'll be better off for this exercise - we'll learn how to see and appreciate more of the world around us - and visual artists will finally get a chance to inspire us at least as much as other artists.

The painting above, Blank Image, was painted by Kyle Waldrep and is on display at the School of Visual Arts on the UCF campus. Oil on canvas.

Friday, April 24, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - 10 Items or Less

Phil Terry recommended the movie 10 Items or Less on his Facebook page. It is one of those exceptional indie films that slipped by me and I am glad Phil encouraged his friends to see it. In the movie, the two main characters discuss 10 items or less of things they love, hate, can't do without, etc.

It's a poignant and revealing premise.
In a few short words, these lists can get at the heart of what's really important to you. So here are my 3 lists of 10 items or less: things I love, things I need to do in my life, and impacts I'd like to have.

Things I love to do

Develop new business ideas
Meet new people


Things I need to do in my life
Start my own business

Own the place where I live
Write and publish books
Fall in love for life
Travel a lot
Learn to play an instrument well

Impacts I'd like to have

Live an extraordinary life
Help other people live extraordinary lives
Help other people start their own businesses so they can be independent and create their own lives on their own terms

Further the cause of creativity and innovation

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Women in Need

Yesterday I participated in an event at work as part of my women's networking group. We provided workshops, some career coaching, and a healthy dose of encouragement to women who are in homeless shelters, unemployed, and who need a hand up in life. My networking group goes by the acronym WIN (Women's Integration Network).

I had volunteered to have a 1-on-1 lunch with one of the women who were visiting our office for the day. I was paired up with a woman who had an 11 year old daughter. Married, both she and her husband have been unemployed for some time. No college education, with a goal of being a social worker. We were joined by another woman who didn't have a lunch buddy. She had an 11 year old brother she was taking care of as well as a 1 year old daughter. She lives in a homeless shelter and began taking care of her brother after her mother had a nervous break-down. The father of her child is incarcerated, out of the picture. She hasn't had work in a while either, citing affordable and hard-to-come-by childcare as a major obstacle. She wants to go to school to be a nurse. Both are 25 years old.

What was I going to say to these women? How could I relate? How could I even begin to understand how difficult it is for them to just get up out of bed in the morning?

And then one of the women, the one who wants to be a nurse, said to me "Your name tag - you're from Women in Need." (Women In Need is the community group they belong to that helps these women find jobs, get money for school, and provides emotional support.)

"No, I work here in this office building," I replied.

"But your name tag says - WIN. That stands for Women in Need."

"Oh! That's also the acronym for our internal networking group here at this company. It stands for Women's Integration Network."

And with that simple revelation, I realized these women were not very different from me at all. My mom raised by sister, brother, and I on her own, no college education. We struggled with food and housing and health insurance. We had trouble keeping the lights and the heat on. Though that was many years ago, it's still there in me. All of it. I remember being hungry and afraid and hopeless. I remember having dreams that seemed unlikely, foolish, and impossibly out of reach.

I told them about putting myself through school twice, about my mom, about the role of education in my life and the advantages it provided to me. I smiled and laughed and asked them about their kids and their daily lives. I listened to them talk about their frustrations and hopes. And all it took was time - that's all it cost it me.

Through that lunch, I realized that there is a lot I can offer in these tough times, a lot of people I can help to live happier, healthier, more successful lives. And it doesn't involve any kind of extraordinary act. All it takes is me sitting down with people who are down and out, and telling them about my life and how I made it better, how so many people helped me along the way.

It's really just a way to pay forward all the blessings I have been fortunate enough to encounter. The people who helped me (my mom, my teachers, guidance counselors, some of my bosses, friends, authors, speakers, and the list goes on) were angels, and without them I am certain that I would have failed. This current recession provides us with an incredible opportunity to give and participate. It gives us a chance to repay the kindnesses we've witnessed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Be the Change

I went to the Metropolitan Opera with my friend, Allan. Prior to the show, we met at the B&N on 66th Street to grab some coffee and talk about a business project he's working on. As I was standing in line, I saw a mug merchandised with that familiar saying by Gandhi "Be the Change You Wish to See in the World". I've seen it a million times before on every conceivable piece of merchandise from coffee mugs to calendars to t-shirt to bumper stickers. It's published so often that it's almost become a cliche.

So how about we take that saying and use as a discussion starter for business? We use it so often when talking about social issues, politics, the general act of living and playing a part in our communities. Now put yourself in your boss's shoes or your CEO's shoes. What is that you'd like to see your company do or say or be? And can you take those ideas and either transform your workplace or start your own company around those principles?

Here are the changes I'd like to see in the (business) world and ones I can be:
1.) A constant champion for new ideas, the crazier the better
2.) An empathic listener of all stakeholders that have anything to do with my business
3.) A cheerleader for those I know who are too afraid, nervous, shy, or embarrassed to speak up for themselves
4.) A constant confidence booster
5.) Someone who cares, all day, everyday
6.) Someone who shuts down negativity, know-it-alls, hecklers, bullies, self-proclaimed "idea guys", and other unsavory characters who kill innovation and creativity with their brash, loud-mouth personalities
7.) A connector, especially of those parties who seem disparate on the surface
8.) Committed, compassionate, concerned, open-minded who believes a discussion and a promise are far more important and useful than hours, day, and weeks spent building powerpoint slides and graphs made from colorful shapes
9.) Organized as a web rather than a pyramid

That's not a bad list. And it's not impossible to accomplish either. Best of all, business, companies, and stakeholders would be a lot better off if the world of commerce had these qualities in abundance.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Harvey Milk

At 40 years old, Harvey Milk sat in a gray New York City cubicle at a large insurance company. He wasn't proud of a single one of his accomplishments. Luckily for all of us, Harvey Milk was not content to live out his days in an unremarkable fashion. He rose up, and he took us with him.

In the remarkable portrayal of the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., Sean Penn brought the story of Harvey Milk to a new generation of people, just as the tide of activism, volunteerism, and interest in politics was taking hold again in this country. Harvey Milk stands as a shining example of possibility realized, of personal accountability and responsibility, of the power of a single individual to unite a group of people for a common cause.

Harvey Milk's story is especially important now as we consider and re-consider laws and propositions whose central issue is decency and respect and dignity. Someone's sexual orientation, gender, cultural heritage, religion, race, and socioeconomic status too often determines the course of someone's life in our country. And it must stop.

I've heard people say that every generation has its own societal ill that becomes central to its history, shaping the lives of its members going forward. Ours is very basic, very easy to articulate. Once and for all, are we going to support the notion that all humans should be treated humanely, regardless of circumstance? Will we finally make the statement "all people are created (and therefore treated) equal" a reality? If so, then all of Harvey Milk's efforts, and the efforts of millions like him, will have all been worthwhile.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - NYC Service

"Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds." ~George Eliot

Today Mayor Bloomberg launched a new initiative in New York City to make it easier and more efficient for New Yorkers to volunteer in our city. There are a number of services out there like that are similar in mission though I find this new site, NYC Service, incredibly easy to use and its layout helps site visitors to sift volunteer interests more efficiently.

Don't find an opportunity that's quite right for you? No problem - you can create your own. Additionally, you can download a preparedness tool kit and a tool kit to help you reduce your carbon footprint. You can also get more information about NYC Civic Corps, similar to AmeriCorps specifically focused on NYC. Nonprofit can post a volunteer opportunity and businesses can sign up as partners of the effort.

And here's my favorite part: the BLANK effort. Fill in the BLANK. Everyone has something to give. Time. Effort. Funds. Passion. Interests. Energy. These are incredible resources. And they exist everywhere, within all of us. We all have something to give. Regardless of circumstances, financial ability, skills sets, race, gender, religion, culture. We can all give, and our city will be better for our volunteerism. People move mountains, and we are surrounded by mountains. Lend a hand. Visit NYC Service today.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - advice for MBAs still on the hunt

I can't tell you how often I shake my head at my own dumb luck. I started business school in 2005 for several very simple reasons:

1) I knew that I wanted to be a stellar performer in the nonprofit industry. Many of the donors that I worked with were from the business world and I wanted to understand their language, the circumstances they faced at their companies, and the way their minds worked.

2) I was 29, I wanted a graduate degree, and figured if I didn't go then, I may not go at all.

3) I wanted to live an extraordinary life and I wanted to help other people do the same. Understanding our commerce and financial systems inside and out seemed like a very efficient way to accomplish both of those things. Money, and heart, make the world go 'round.

I graduated in 2007, when it seemed that nothing could stop our professional lives from zooming to the top of the charts. I was blessed to be graduating in a very strong economy and alums I spoke to said I should thank my lucky stars. I did.

And then 6 months later, my beliefs, and everyone else's for that matter, about the economy were turned on their heads. The worst recession since the Great Depression. I have great empathy for fellow b-school grads who graduated the year after me, and more still for those set to graduate next month. You are facing extraordinary circumstances; we all are.

Today, I read Jack and Suzy Welch's column in Business Week and they see three possible avenues for newly minted MBAs. Quite frankly, their advice applies to everyone in the job market at the moment and it's very worthy of repeating:

1) Settle, work like heck, and learn to love it.
If you're looking for a new job, or thinking of moving on from where you are now, you might have to settle for a lower title, a new industry, slightly different job responsibilities, or less money than you had originally planned for. And that's okay. Make sure it's work you enjoy and that strategically you'll be poised to leverage it going forward into a position that is a better long-term match for you.

2) Put yourself out there full throttle. Decice the three dream companies or dream people you'd like to work for. Write to them, email them, call them and ask for five minutes of their time. Then prepare for that five minutes more thoroughly than you've ever prepared for anything in your life!

3) Go it alone, sort of. Sit down and make a list of the three things you're really good at and that you love doing. Then imagine the types of companies you could start with those skills. If you need to fill in some gaps, recruit a friend or colleague who has those attributes and see if you can make a go of it. In an earlier column, the Welch's said that this is the BEST time to start a company if you can deliver more value for less money than your competition.

Building on this advice, I'd say try two of the three. Actually, I think you should do all three, and here's why:

1.) Settle and like it. When I was 22 and just graduated from college, I loved theatre. I still do. In a lot of ways my work in the arts saved my life. I wanted very much to work in that industry so on my mother's suggestion, I wrote to every theatre company in NYC and asked them to hire me. I was willing to do anything from fetching coffee to taking messages to running errands. The Roundabout Theatre Company hired me as a customer service rep for $10 an hour and from there I built a career in that industry for 6 years. It was a great time in my life and taught me that a settle (strategically) and love it plan can and does work.

2.) Writing to people - My friend, Richard, has encouraged me for some time now to write to every person I admire that I'd ever like to have some type of working relationship with. He's relentless about repeating this advice to me. Case in point - I love the work that HopeLab does. They build video games for young people managing critical illnesses. I wrote them a letter, they responded, and I hopped on a plane to visit them in the hopes that some day down the line the time will be right for us to work together on some project.

3.) Do your own thing - we should all be working on doing our own thing! If this downturn has made me realize anything it's that I want to be in control of my career. I no longer want to just hand it over to someone else to evaluate and grow. Going forward, I'd always like to have my own side projects that I'm working on, and someday one of those side projects just might be a killer idea that I can build a whole business from.

In short, we all have choices and options. Even in these grim, tough times, we can all find a way to make ourselves useful, and with all the uncertainty a multi-pronged plan might just be the safest thing we can do.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Are you a social entrepreneur?

The core psychology of a social entrepreneur is someone who cannot come to rest, in a very deep sense, until he or she has changed the pattern in an area of social concern all across society. --Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka

This morning on Daily Good, an on-line publication devoted to spreading good news, the topic is social entrepreneurship. What makes these people tick? The post this morning may help us all identify whether or not this type of entrepreneurship is the right one for us. Simply stated, social entrepreneurs found a business (often for-profit) that addresses a societal concern.

Could you be a social entrepreneur? Could your business or business idea be a social enterprise?

A personality checklist:
1.) Unable to come to rest until a cause you are passionate about is accomplished
2.) Belief that profit and social good are on equal footing
3.) Relationship builder
4.) Ability to connect the dots between experiences that seem disparate on the surface
5.) Persuade and inspire people to think differently

A business-cause checklist:
1.) As your company grows, do the economics and the cause support one another?
2.) Does the core business activity profoundly address the social cause it was founded to solve?
3.) Are both financial and social gains measurable in your business?

The interest in and passion for social entrepreneurship is growing quickly. One upside to this economy, is that people are being encouraged to think more creatively about how they want their lives to look and what they want to accomplish. After seeing the failings and flailings of many large corporations, many people are beginning to consider trading in their lives whiling away in grey cubicles for a chance to be entrepreneurs in charge of their own careers. And they'd like that effort to bring them financial gain and some improvements to the world around them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - You Can't Shrink Your Way to Greatness

In this time of budget slashing and cut backs of every kind, I have been working hard to come up with a way to succinctly say why cutting back severely on innovation efforts and investment is a very bad idea. Not only is it a bad idea, in some cases in may prove to be the nail in the coffin for many companies. If they intend to invest in their companies only once the economy improves, they will find themselves far behind their competitors with foresight. Plus, it's cheaper to invest and innovate when times are tough because vendors are willing to make negotiations and compromises that they would never make in fat times.

Until yesterday, I was coming up short on that succinct explanation. I wanted a 10 word sentence to say just what I said in the preceding paragraph. And as if a gift fell out of the sky, someone said to me "you can't shrink your way to greatness." Perfect! 7 words and on-point. We can rise to a challenge or we can steal away from it, hiding under a rock until the clouds clear. It's hard to be brave and courageous in times like this. Some people may even call it fool-hardy. I'd say it's vital.

Look at the alternative: without investment in innovation, we are stalled, suspended in time. We aren't doing anything for our teams, nor are we doing any helpful work to pull us as a whole out of this recessionary situation. I'd argue that it's not our option to invest and innovate now. It's our duty, our responsibility, to ourselves and to one another. We are the ones we are waiting for to save us.

If our goal is to be great, then this is the time to be both prudent and forward-thinking in our spending. This recovery is a long-term proposition so let's decide where we want to be in 5 years, 10 years, and take the steps now that make that goal inevitable as opposed to just a hopeful possibility.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Comings and Going in Business

"I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes." ~ Sara Teasdale

I saw this quote this morning on Twitter and it has had me thinking all day about what we value and discount in our lives.

We do this with our jobs and careers all the time. Why isn't this job or project go my way after I did so much work and put in so much time and effort? And then these little blessings show up in our work lives, a new project, a new contact, a new job opportunity, and we often don't pause to give thanks nor does that surprise appearance of someone or something cause us an extensive period of joy and happiness. How do we re-balance ourselves in line with Sara Teasdale's sentiment?

To read the full article, click here.

My Year of Hopefulness - Comings and Goings

"I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes." ~ Sara Teasdale

I saw this quote this morning on Twitter and it has had me thinking all day about what we value and discount in our lives. Why is it that when something or someone exits our lives, we go through (an often extensive) mourning period? We tell ourselves things like "Why did I lose that opportunity?" or "Why didn't this something I really wanted work out the way I planned?"

And then these little blessings show up in our lives and we often don't pause to give thanks nor does that surprise appearance of someone or something cause us an extensive period of joy and happiness. Before you know it, new worries, concerns, and fears overcome the joy we felt very briefly. How do we re-balance ourselves in line with Sara Teasdale's sentiment?

New Yorkers have to accept a few inevitable events in life. Some are positive like the glee brought on by the first moment of springtime weather that sends us in droves to parks and sidewalk cafes. Some are negative like the all-too-often sour smell in the subway. And one that I always used to dread was a good friend moving away. People come in and out of New York constantly. If you live in New York long enough, eventually someone you love spending time with will move to another city. It's just the way it goes here.

I've moved back to New York 3 times now. On this go-around, I've been back almost two years, and in that time I've had half a dozen friends move away. I lamented losing every one. I would go through a period of real sadness when saying good-bye to each one. And then I began to notice that every time one left, another friend arrived. It was almost freakish the way it happened. And I only noticed it in retrospective. I was so busy feeling sad about my friends leaving that I didn't give a proper amount of joy to my friends who were arriving.

And this quote got me thinking about how many other times have I done this in my life. When someone or something leaves us, it makes way for someone or something new to come into our lives. How much more joyful could we be if we gave thanks for change, for its mystery, for the comings and goings that keep our lives fresh and exciting?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Hugh Jackman, Twitter, and Charity

Here is an encouraging way of using Twitter. I support the charity God's Love We Deliver through my volunteer work. I belong to the organization's Facebook page and they sent me the message below.

If you have a favorite charity that you'd like to promote, let Hugh Jackman know why he should make a $100K donation to your charity in 140 characters or less.

"Hugh Jackman (star of stage and screen) is hosting a $100,000 Twitter charity competition. He wants people who have Twitter accounts to message him a 140 character reason about why he should donate to the non-profit organization of your choice.

He wrote: "I will donate 100K to one individual’s favorite non profit organization. Of course,you must convince me why by using 140 characters or less."

If you have a moment and a Twitter account, please click the link below and then the arrow underneath the star on the Twitter page. The more clever and moving a reason for him to donate to God's Love, the better chance we will have to win!

Here is the link:"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Suzy Welch's 10-10-10 principle

Suzy Welch was on the Today Show this morning promoting her new book about her never-fail operating principle - 10-10-10. With decisions, consider how your choice will effect your life 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now. It's such a deceptively simple rule of thumb, that it made me think why I hadn't thought of it myself - always the sign that something is a good idea.

Let's consider an example to see how 10-10-10 works.

What if you're thinking of leaving your current job and have been offered a position at a new company:

10 minutes - how will you feel about giving your notice at your current position? How will you feel about not seeing your current co-workers everyday? Do you feel like you would be leaving important work unfinished that you'd like to add to your portfolio? How does this jump contribute to your long-term plan? How do you feel about getting up every morning and going to this new job?

10 months - settled in to your new position, how does this new experience shape your overall career outlook? Your outlook on your life in general? Did you have to take a pay cut or get a pay raise for your job? How has your new financial situation changed your life, if at all? Could you experience any buyer's remorse? What have your gained through the new experiences and projects in your new position?

10 years - how do you imagine the position you are considering will effect your life 10 years down the line? What contacts and skills did it give you that effected your long-term career goals?

The questions for each phase are endless. Suzy Welch recommends doing a values self assessment first to identify what's most important to you. That will help you compile the questions at each phase that are relevant to you.

When doing the value self-assessment, ask the big questions: do you care most about financial independence and financial security? Is your goal to live a life of adventure? Do you care most about collecting good stories and meeting interesting people? Do you want to start your own business? Is travel important to you? Do you want to be a life-longer learner or an expert in a specific field.

By taking the long-view, the action steps for the near-term become much clearer. It's all about perspective. How do you want to design your life?

Monday, April 13, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Doing the Impossible

Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. --St. Francis of Assisi

Tonight I'm home on one of my writing evenings: I come home from my day job, I make a quick dinner and I spend the entire evening until midnight writing, researching, and reading. I try to have a few of these nights a week. It helps me stay sane and makes me feel like I'm moving forward.

I usually have my TV on while I'm writing for a few reasons - one, it occasionally provides me with some materials and two, it keeps me company in my thoughts. I've noticed over the years that my writer's block begins when I experience complete silence. The TV fills the void while also giving me complete control over the noise level.

I didn't think I'd ever mention the TV show How I Met Your Mother and St. Francis of Assisi in the same blog post but here we are. I was just watching the show and one of the characters has decided to start his own architecture firm. Like many people who start a project that they are worried is more than they can handle, the character is staring at his phone, unable to pick it up and make calls to potential clients. He's all he's got in his own business. He is paralyzed by the fear we all know too well - the fear of failure.

He goes on to tell his friend a story about an architect who build an incredible library. The only problem is that he forgot to account for the weight of the books, and that extra weight caused the library to sink. "What if I forget to account for the weight of the books?" he asks his friend.

I did a little on-line research about this subject and it turns out that there is no truth to this beloved rumor of a library sinking because of the weight of the books it holds. The character was telling this story to himself as a way of stalling, of keeping a dream just a dream, perfect and untouched by someone's ambition. We'll tell ourselves anything if it helps curb our fear and anxiety. We're so in love with the potential of our dreams that we some times have a tough time getting started.

So here are a few ways to help get us going:

1.) I like lists. They can be tools of procrastination so you need to be careful of them. However, if I can break tasks down into smaller tasks and then do one small piece at a time, they seem less daunting.

2.) Reading for inspiration helps me, too. I try to find people who I model my career after and read about how their success unfolded. Usually they made a lot of mistakes and wrong turns on their journey and that helps assuage some of my fears.

3.) And I follow the advice of St. Francis. I have big dreams and big ideas. And sometimes they are too big for me to bear myself. So rather than starting with the seemingly impossible, I just do what I need to do. Then I do what's possible. And all of a sudden I realize that my big dreams can be accomplished with my big efforts. And before you know it, I'm humming along just fine.

This confirms my desire to believe that the impossible is nothing more than the possible that we just never thought of before.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - A Little Bit of the Divine

This morning I was on the Metro-North train to visit my family for Easter. Two little boys, twins, got on the train with their mom, who looked exhausted and worn out, with a couple of new toys. Another woman walked by – she was one of those classic old New York women who you know from her tone of voice have lived in this big city for the better part of their lives. I am sure she talks to everyone she meets as if she’s known them forever, and given all she’s lived through, she’s entitled to state any and all of her opinions as fact. These women also exactly what to say and when to say – their timing and level of appropriateness is impeccable.

“Where’d you get those toys?” she asked the two children. “Mom or the Easter Bunny?”

“The Easter Bunny.”

“Huh. You know Moms are much better than the Easter Bunny. You can’t trust a rabbit but you can always trust you mother.”

The mother smiled, grateful and confused. The boys looked at her with surprise.

“What if I know the rabbit?” one of the boys asked.

“And if I can’t trust a rabbit, can I trust my cat?” the other boy asked.

“Well cats are tricky, too. Even mine. And I guess you can trust a rabbit if you know him, but my money’s on your mother.”

And with that very simple statement, she was gone. When I overhear conversations like this, I sometimes wonder if I’m witnessing a divine moment. Maybe that woman is some angel who showed up right when this mother needed her most. It’s possible that I watched too many episodes of Touched by an Angel with my own mom when I was little. It’s also possible that I so much want to believe in the divine in some form that I’m willing to tell myself these elaborate stories as if they are proof.

Springtime does this to us. I’m having a hard time remembering the last winter that lasted this long and seemed this cold and unrelenting. And I like cold weather and snow, thick sweaters and boots. But this Easter, I’m really ready to wish it a fond farewell, hoping it doesn’t rear its head until December.

I’m ready to see some new life sprout up from the Earth. I’m ready for New York to transform itself with flowering trees and sidewalk cafes. I’m ready for a little bit of the divine, or even seemingly divine, to touch our lives again and bring us some hope that we are moving forward and evolving, and the most powerful vehicle for that kind of message is in watching nature take on different hues and textures. I’d like to see all this hard work we’ve been doing during this cold winter come to fruition through a rebirth of heart and mind and spirit.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A short bus ride across town from my apartment, the bus stops just outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art - a place that transports you to a different world once you enter its main hall that is now decorated with large urns full of cherry blossoms. Just beyond that main hall are the Greek and Roman Galleries, refurbished and re-opened almost exactly two years ago. In those halls and throughout the museum the array of art is dizzying. It took me a few moments today just to get my head around the treasures we have the good fortune to wander through.

What I find most amazing about the Met, and art in general, is that someone, an individual, had an image in his or her mind hundreds or thousands of years ago, put brush to canvas, anvil to stone, hand to clay, and shared with us, the world, what he or she was thinking of. These pieces of art are living history. They capture a moment in time for all of us to witness and appreciate.

After touring through the French Bronze exhibit and Rafael to Renoir sketches, I wanted to wander around the gift store and see if I could find some of the prints I've been looking for. The Met is so immense that I often just wander around from gallery to gallery, never quite sure where I am. I like to get lost in the art. I asked a docent just outside of the entrance to the Papua New Guinea Gallery how I could get to the gift shop.

"The Main Gift Shop?" he asked.

I nodded, thinking, "is there another one?"

"Walk straight ahead and take a left at the column from the Temple of Artemis."

It's not everyday you hear directions like this. I smiled to myself and followed the docent's instructions, imagining that I was walking through Ancient Greece, appreciating all of the treasures that were my landmarks.

Friday, April 10, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Small Audience

Seth Godin wrote a terrific post today relating the contrast between concert opening acts and rock stars to the different grades of marketers. He has some very good advice for all of us: Seek out a small audience who thinks you're a rock star and then grow that audience. Don't go out into the market as an opening act and have the market shape your work based upon something else they love (the rock star). You want to stand on your own two feet and have customers who love you and will back you exactly the way you are.

Many companies are so hungry for growth, so hungry for fast, quick wins, that they do whatever they have to do to their products and services to make them appeal to everyone. Of course some other companies focus so closely on one tiny piece of the market that they exclude others who might also benefit from their products with just a few weeks. So what's a company to do?

A few ideas:
1.) The "Me-conomy" seems endless. The personalization trend can be seen everywhere in the market. Is it possible for a customer to customize some piece or your product or service to make it suit them perfectly? This allows you to serve a number of different groups with just a few minor changes to your product. Think about what adding colors and engraving to the ipod did for that product!

2.) There are a lot of ways to slice and dice a market into segments. Is there a segment that you can serve that's small enough to provide something special to them while also having a wide enough appeal to enough people to meet your costs and profit goals?

3.) Look for holes in the market. Many companies are set on being fast followers. They don't want to get out there, innovate, and build something new. Fear holds them back. They'd prefer to watch others, copy, and paste. The saddest part about this kind of ambition is that it never allows you to be the first in the market to fill an unmet need that makes consumers grateful and loyal to your brand. You're just an opening act in that scenario. You want to be the first association a customer makes with a new product or service. You don't want people to say, "Oh yeah, there's that option, too" about your brand. So get out there, talk to people, and find a way to provide a service or product that makes their lives easier.

While it's fun to play in the market, it's more fun to build a market and delight customers with a product or service they never even thought was possible. Your following will be filled with early adopters at first so learn from them, get their input, improve your offering, and other people outside of that early adopter segment will catch on. Be a rock star.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Lend a Hand with What You've Got

Corporate America is an unpleasant place to be lately. People are scared. They don't trust anyone. They're worried about their futures. And it's understandable.

Today, I began a group pro-bono project for a nonprofit that my company supports on a very large scale through our philanthropy department. I am thrilled that I can combine my business skills and my experience in nonprofit for this project. And I can meet some new people from my company from completely different business units.

What's most interesting is that the pro-bono project is about helping the national headquarters of the nonprofit more effectively communicate and develop marketing plans with the regional offices. It's the same issue that every large company struggles with - how do you break through the silos? How do you share best practices? How do you effectively collaborate, learn, and share across geographies and cultures?

While this nonprofit is thrilled to have us work on this project, my co-workers are all grateful for the opportunity to take what we learn on this project and apply it to our own company. Our company needs to up the morale of the staff and provide networking opportunities; the nonprofit needs assistance that they can't afford to pay consultants for. We're all lending what we've got to help one another. It's a win all the way around. Can you imagine how many more of these amazing opportunities are out there, just waiting to be discovered, to creatively collaborate in ways that make a difference in the world?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Blessing and Curse of Growth

In BusinessWeek this week, there's a great one page article about The Peter Principle, a book whose basic premise is that the workplace does strange things to people. It was the precursor to The Office, Office Space, and the Dilbert comic strip. We laugh because the material is funny, and it's funny because it's all too familiar to all of us.

The main conclusion of
The Peter Principle is one of my favorite quotes that I repeat so often as I read the paper these days or hear my friends talk about their latest work travails: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. And while it's a bold statement, it's also completely logical. We are pushed so hard to claw our way up as high as we can go that we risk toppling over to the other side of the tipping point that represents exactly where we optimally operate.

Here's a great example: A friend of mine has a boss who is brilliant at my friend's job, which she used to have. The boss is a fantastic individual contributor, very detail-oriented, strong follow-through, enjoys rolling up her sleeves, and pitching in wherever she's needed. These are perfect skills and interests if you have my friend's job. They aren't good if you're her boss. Her boss has no interest in developing people, managing others, or taking a step back and distributing work among the team members. She likes implementation and has no interest (or skill) in strategy.

Such a classic case: My friend's boss was excellent at her job, and because she did so well they promoted her - right into the completely wrong type of role. We see this all the time at so many companies. It's all about growth - as much of it as we can get as quickly as possible. As a result, a lot of people, good, talented people in just the right place, end up being moved to a position where they have no aptitude or interest. All for the sake of "growth".

You'd think we'd learn our lesson: companies grew too big, people's financial ambitions grew too big, we lived beyond our means for so many years, housing prices and demand for real estate sky-rocketed causing bidding wars. In so many aspects our economy grew so big that it was bloated, and as a result, a correcting period has begun that has destroyed all of the growth we've experienced the last decade. So what good was the growth at all?

Here's a little bit of advice that I try to remember every day and it has helped me tremendously in my career: keep you eyes on your strengths, your interests, and your goals. Not your company's. Not your boss's, or your friends', or your family's. Yours. For example, I enjoy managing large, cross-functional teams that work on complex, multi-faceted problems. I like making things, tangible new products that answer an unmet need, and I'd like to help people live extraordinary lives through the work that I do. Pretty simple to state, hard to keep doing. There are always distractions, always people who want you to stop doing what you're good at and what you love, and do something you aren't so great at. Growth in new areas has its benefits, though should not be undertaken at the expense of your aptitudes and happiness. Why rise to a level of incompetence and fail when you can do what you love and are good at and succeed? Growth has its rewards, but it can, and often does, come with a very heft price tag.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Cross-Cultural Solutions Part 2

Tonight I went to an information session for Cross-Cultural Solutions, an organization that organizes volunteer vacations abroad in 12 countries. In 2005, I spent a month in France and volunteered for an organization that rebuilt ancient architecture to help stimulate tourism in small town in Provence. I loved it and have been wanting to go on another volunteer vacation ever since.

While I enjoyed my experience in France, I was disappointed that the organization did not maintain any contact with me after I returned. I have no idea how the work continued after I left and I've lost touch with every person I met while I was there. I tend to thrive in situations with a high amount of ambiguity though I do remember feeling disturbed that there was virtually no preparation given to me before I flew to France. I hoped I'd find someone at the airport when I landed, though had no idea what or who to look for. I wasn't sure how my days would be structured. I essentially went on blind-faith.

Luckily, I had a great experience in France, though it could just have easily been a disaster. Truly, I was just lucky. What I found most impressive about Cross-Cultural Solutions is their sense of organization, friendly demeanor, and care and concern for volunteers. I sent an email through the website several months ago expressing interest and within 48 hours received a comprehensive email and a phone call. The service was top-notch. The friendliness and enthusiasm by the staff and alumni (yes, they have an alumni network!) for the volunteers, the experience, and the people in-country who benefit from the program.

So what could be improved by Cross-Cultural Solutions? A big lesson for all of us: strike while the iron is hot. I was ready to fork over my credit card number after their incredible presentation and there wasn't a way for me to do that. I went to one of the team members at the end of the presentation and asked if I could sign up right there. I knew the date I wanted to go and the program I wanted. There wasn't a way for me to put down my deposit. I needed to go home and sign up on-line or call them tomorrow at the office.

They put forward all of this effort to promote themselves and then didn't close the deal with a willing consumer. Chances are that someone who is so excited about the program at the presentation will take the time to sign-up once they're home. However, why not have the option to sign people up on the spot? It would be a win for me and for the organization - and isn't that what Cross-Cultural Solutions is all about?

Monday, April 6, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Launching Sideways

In New York City, there is a an organization that helps women launch their dream businesses by providing support, advice, and networking at a reasonable cost through after-work classes and networking events. Ladies Who Launch, provides a venue to help women not only dream about building their own careers on their own terms, but also helps them reach that goal. I receive a daily email from Ladies Who Launch that contains an inspirational story or a short piece of advice that keeps me going at the exact moment when I think that I might not be able to make a go of being an entrepreneur. It shows up at precisely the right time, with exactly the message I need in that moment. I'm not sure how they do it, though I am so grateful for their skill!

Today, I received an email about launching sideways - keeping your day job and excelling at it, while also developing your own business on your own time. Victoria Colligan, the founder of Ladies Who Launch, offers some advice on managing this balance and a three-step action plan to put some life back into a side-business that has stalled or to give you inspiration and encouragement if you're just about to begin the journey:

"One of the lowest risk ways to propel your dream, test your idea, and fund your new venture is to launch on the side of a full time job. Many women have passed through the Incubator Intensive Workshops with full time jobs and full time ideas that they are yearning to start but feel too busy or to guilty to do so. Side launching is a viable and smart way to launch any new business. Follow these tips and give it a try:

1. Be disciplined and consistent about the hours you choose to work on your idea. Is it from 5 to 7am before the kids wake up or in the evenings after you put them to bed? Are you carving out time on the weekends? Be honest and clear with yourself about your time constraints and time commitments; your road to success will be faster.

2. Decide whether and when to tell colleagues or your boss. You may be surprised by their enthusiasm and support.

3. Determine benchmarks for yourself that indicate when you would consider making your side gig a full time adventure. What are your lifestyle demands? What would you be willing to sacrifice for a time if it meant being able to devote more energy to your business? Be realistic but also be willing to go for it!"

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Trade-offs

Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars. --Henry Van Dyke

A friend of mine recently lost his father and as we talked about loss, we delved into the topic of trade-offs. It's part of life to enjoy good, happy times for a while. And yet somewhere in the back of our minds, we are conscious of the fact that these moments are fleeting. Part of experiencing life, and love, and a connection to others also requires us to have the ability to let go. It's an odd and scary thing if we think about it too long, so it usually comes to us as a passing thought, and then we send it away.

I used to have a very hard time dealing with the loss of someone. It seemed so unfair to me to have someone we love taken away. Was it really worth it to feel a connection to people? Did it make sense to spend so much of our very brief time on this planet cultivating relationships with others that eventually fall away, for one reason or another.

Many years ago, a friend of mine was dealing with the loss of his grandfather. Knowing how much he loved his grandfather and how close he was to him, I expressed my extreme sympathy for his loss. And without a tear in his eye or a choked up feeling in his throat, he said, "Please don't be sorry. I'm not." I just couldn't understand. How on Earth could he not be sorry?

"I had this amazing person in my life for so many years. I was so lucky to know that kind of love and closeness to someone for so long. He taught me an amazing amount throughout my whole life that I'm able to pass on to others. He was such a gift and I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to have him in my life."

I think about this conversation every time I or someone I care about must deal with losing someone. It's so hard to imagine letting go, and I find that emphasizing the gift of their presence in our lives for however long we have them eases the sadness. It doesn't eliminate the sadness and it doesn't betray the person's memory. It just helps us keep perspective, and we helps us to begin to understand that it is all worth. The cultivation of relationships is what this life we live is all about. They are the very essence of human experience.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Rugby Girl

I went out with my friend, Allan, last night. He's just returned to the States from 6 month assignment in Singapore. While in Singapore, he stopped over in Australia where he picked up a gift for me: a beautiful canvas bag with geometric designs and kangaroos in black, red, and yellow. And a t-shirt that says simply on the front: Rubgy Girl. I laughed out loud at the t-shirt, because it's true. I'll be wearing it with pride.

I don't play the sport of rugby; I live its principles. My friend, Alex, has told me, "Christa, you're the kind of person who is so nice and generous with such a good heart, but if someone crosses you or someone you love, you have no problem checking that person." It's totally true.

I've had to learn to be appropriately tough. My tolerance for whining is very low and my admiration of taking action in support of beliefs is high. I learned early on that I had to stand up for myself because I could never 100% count on someone else standing up for me. And I take it on as a personal responsibility to lend a voice to those who cannot or are fearful to stand up for themselves. In my family, if you didn't speak up with confidence, your concern didn't get heard. Hard lessons to learn as a child, and ones I am incredibly grateful for as an adult.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Jack and Suzy Welch

I never thought I'd say that Jack and Suzy Welch give me hope. Sound business advice. Straight talk about tough issues. A dissenting opinion. Yes, yes, and yes. But hope? Pure, empathic hope? Yep. Believe it.

In their recent BusinessWeek column, Jack and Suzy Welch not only gave me hope, but they made me tear up. They talk about the entrepreneurs all over this country who are about to emerge as the bright shining light to lead us into economic recovery. "Those kids (the ones at colleges inventing businesses right this moment) and their ideas are the future of business, if we just hang on can be sure, too, that legions of people out there aren't frightened by the economy. They're called entrepreneurs. And challenges don't make them surrender; they make them fierce."

If ever there was a rallying cry, a mantra to hang on to in this economic mess that seems to get worse by the day, this is it! And if you, as an entrepreneur (or an aspiring entrepreneur), still had any doubt about whether or not entrepreneurs should really consider starting a business in this climate, isn't a vote of confidence from Jack and Suzy Welch just about the best vote you could find? They don't say things to be nice or supportive or upbeat. They say them because they believe them whole-heartedly.

I love this article so much that it is currently hanging up by my desk. So when I sit down to do research, to consider where my career might, could, should go, and to write about entrepreneurs, I'm reminded that Mr. and Mrs. Welch are on our side. And with support like that, it seems we've run out of excuses to not take our careers in our own hands. In their very simple language, Jack and Suzy Welch have not only given us their support, they've put all their cards on the table and told us that the world needs us - we are the people we've been waiting for to lead us out of these dark days and into a better world of business.
It is not just an opportunity for us, it is a responsibility. The world needs us. Be fierce.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - American Violet

Tonight, I went to the New York screening of American Violet, a movie about an ACLU case in Texas against a District Attorney for racial profiling in drug cases. I was skeptical about the movie. I was worried about it being preachy and over-dramatic, though my friend, Richard, invited me, and I wanted to support him and his organization. And I couldn't have been more wrong. The movie is stunning.

This movie showcases activism at its best. A young woman takes on the case as the lead plaintiff with the encouragement from the ACLU to stand up for her community, her neighbors, and her family. Wrongfully convicted of selling drugs in a school zone, she endures great pain and difficulty in the name of what's right. She displays so much courage that had a I not known it was based on a true story, I would have believed it was invented in Hollywood.

A complete surprise, the woman whom the story is based on was there in the audience and spoke after the movie. Her eloquence and grace in the face of such trying circumstances is so inspiring that I left wondering how on Earth I could ever complain about anything in my life. While many people have given their lives to stand up for justice, the main character of American Violet didn't have a choice. Injustice was her life, and the life of those all around her. If she wanted to live free, truly free, and move forward she had to stand up. She had no choice but to fight.

American Violet is a testament to the power of story-telling and narrative, the ability to connect people across miles and circumstances, despite age, race, culture or gender. Stories, and their telling and retelling, build empathy and strength. Films about social issues have the ability to entertain and inform; they build community. And to solves problems as large as the issues of racism and substance abuse and incarceration, we need community.

As I walked back to my apartment, I was reminded of Anne LaMott's book Bird by Bird, my favorite book about writing and story telling. At one point in the book, Anne talks about the writing classes she teaches in the Bay Area. And her one piece of advice to her students that I always think about revolves around courage in writing. If you have the courage to live through a tough situation and free yourself, then have the courage to write it down and share it with others because in telling your story, you just might help set someone else free. I can't imagine a more beautiful example of that principle than American Violet. Opens in theatres everywhere April 17th.

My Year of Hopefulness - Row for Hope

At 25 years old, Paul Ridley is the youngest American to row across the Atlantic Ocean alone. It took him 88 days and he rowed almost 3,000 miles. Paul and his sister, Joy, started an organization called Row for Hope in 2001 in honor of their mother who passed away from cancer. Row for Hope is a fundraising organization for cancer research.

In the CNN article I read about the journey, the line that stood out for me was when Paul how he decided to put this effort together with his sister. "I was a rower at Colgate University. I love the sport. I'm not a scientist, but I can row," he said. Paul looked at what abilities he had, what contribution he wanted to make, and found a way to put the two together.

In addition to raising money for cancer research and awareness of the disease, Paul and Joy also want to encourage other athletes to take up efforts similar to Paul's Atlantic Ocean crossing. Even better news - he may just inspire all of us by showing that we can take what we love doing, no matter what it is, and use it improve the world around us in any way we can think of. A social enterprise mash-up in the making.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Music Prodigy Down the Street

Last night my friend Richard and I stopped in to a piano competition at Symphony Space, a performing arts organization that has an incredible slate of programming. I'd never been to a piano competition and wasn't sure if I'd like it but it was only $5 so I figured it was worth at least checking out. Little did I know that just down the street there were several virtuoso piano players offering up a concert for a next-to-nothing ticket price.

All over the country, these piano competitions are happening any given night of the week. Performers are young and yet undiscovered musicians who have gone to conservatory and now enter as many competition as they can in an effort to boost the potential of their careers. They dedicate their lives to their art. And so few of them ever make it despite the immense talent within each of them. And to get by they work at The Gap or as temps in high rise office buildings. Think of the incredible artistic ability of temp staffs buried in the gray cubicles of New York's law firms and financial institutions.

So where is the hope in this? Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of young, talented musicians will never be discovered, never receive any acclaim, never achieve their dream of making their living through music. Or can they?

I emailed a friend of mine who works at Teach for America. A handful of corps members teach art or music in public schools. So look at the gap: a huge numbers of schools suffer from a complete lack of music and art education programs and a huge number of people in this world want to earn their living from music. I understand that most of these students want to earn their living from performance though wouldn't they prefer to have a teaching job rather than taking phone messages and selling mass-market clothing until their time in the spotlight arrives?

It seems to me that this is a gap waiting to be filled. I know that funding for art and music is tough to come by but with all this talent in the world and all the students who want and need an arts education, we can't let funding stand in the way. You can bet that I'm going to be looking into this further. There's too much kismet to let this challenge continue unanswered.