Monday, August 31, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
It depicted a smiling Barack Obama beside a very pensive Hillary Clinton. Scrawled next to the painting was a URL: http://www.hanisidewalkart.com/. I wrote down the site to look into at a later date.
Two weeks ago I moved into a new apartment, and the day after I moved in there was a large gathering of people in a circle across the street.
I thought for sure someone was hurt, signing autographs, proselytizing, or break-dancing – all common things in New York that draw large sidewalk crowds. None of the above.
There was Hani, painting Michael Jackson on the sidewalk.
This time, I went home immediately and looked up his website. I would have interviewed him right there on the spot, though didn’t want to disturb his creative flow. I emailed him and he wrote back that same evening to say he’d love to be featured on TJCC. His story and work are fascinating and I am enthralled with his art, much of which is showcased on the website. I’m very happy to share his remarkable talent with you. Please click here for the interview.
We then made our way up to the fourth floor where there were a series of before and after photographs. Barren land had regrown some. South Africa seemed a little more green, not teeming with life, though certainly much improved. I felt a small flicker of hope.
I went to South Africa about 2 years ago and though I had a series of unfortunate incidents, I also had a set of really incredible circumstances that endeared me to that country and its people. I'm sure I'll return some day soon. While there seems to be no hope in the structures of shanty towns that can be found throughout the country, there is a great deal of strength and ambition in the eyes of South Africans. They seem to always be looking up and over, at something brighter and better in the distance.
The handful of before and after photographs got me to thinking about how hope and life can regenerate without any outside influence. The first law of thermodynamics involves the conservation of energy and it states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. In Einstein's Theory of Relativity, he reveals to us that while the first law of thermodynamics holds true, energy can transform into mass, and vice versa. As I viewed the photos of South Africa, particularly the before and after photos, I thought about Einstein's theory and how it applies to broader circumstances outside of science.
It seems to me that the re-growth of life, mass, could be due to the fact that energy, hope, cannot be created nor destroyed. It just is, then, now, and always. While it may change forms and go into hiding from time to time, we can be sure that it is always there, available to us if only we have the insight to recognize it.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Last week I sent an email off to a nonfiction writer whose work I greatly admire. She writes the histories of people who defied odds to create something truly remarkable in the world. I wanted to interview her for The Journal of Cultural Conversation. I was delighted when she emailed me immediately to say she'd love to be featured. I fired off a set of questions to her and waited for her response.
As I read her answers, I found myself nodding my head in full agreement with everything she said. Until I got to the final question: "What advice do you have for aspiring writers?" Her response: "Honestly, we're in such a difficult time for non-fiction writers because the Internet has blown up the longtime economic models, I'm not sure how newcomers are supposed to make a living. I started off in newspapers and then briefly free-lanced for magazines. What newspapers are hiring today and what's the future of magazines? The on-line sites pay nothing or tiny amounts. Ebooks may well undermine the publishing model that makes sizable advances possible. So, I truly don't know how young writers will develop paying careers. And I find that sad." Ouch.
I sat back at my desk and let out a long, slow sigh. I can't possibly publish that answer with the interview. And then I considered why I was so resistant to that answer. After all, this writer sent me this very honest answer, and I always want honesty from people I interview. I don't want candy-coated metaphors. Tell me what you think and how you feel. She did, and now I'm upset. Not exactly fair of me, is it?
Let's consider this from her point of view - she's a very established writer. She'd put out tomes that are the definitive works of the people she's written about. She's in the industry of publishing and she's frustrated by the changes she sees occurring. We're all entitled to feel frustrated from time to time. Maybe she was in a bad mood when she got my email. Maybe she was hungry - I get cranky when I'm hungry, too.
In this conversation with myself, I had to ask the question, "why am I doing this? All this writing? What am I trying to do here?" Recently a friend of mine questioned my motive about my writing. Out of concern, the friend thinks I might be wasting my time with all this work. At first this comment really hurt me, particularly because I have always been so encouraging of this friend. With this question before me, an answer quickly and easily surfaced, much to my surprise.
I'm not trying to make a living as a writer. I make a good living as a product developer, and I enjoy that work immensely. But it's not my life. Writing is helping me build a life I'm happy with and proud of. It's helping me to connect with interesting, passionate, inspiring people. I learn so much through these connections. And most of all, my writing is helping others. I get emails, texts, phone calls, and online comments on a variety of sources about how much my posts have helped them. It's humbling. With writing, I'm doing some good in the world, and that's all I'm really after.
The author I interviewed may be absolutely right - perhaps the publishing / writing paradigm has shifted forever due to technological advances. Maybe a career like hers, the way that she built it, just isn't going to be possible going forward. And that's just fine with me. Change arrives on our doorstep every moment, and there's no way to shut it out. We can't stop the world from transforming. What we can do, and what I try to do everyday, is show up in the world, tell my stories with honesty and grace, with the hope that some of them resonate with another soul. That's really all I ever need in this life - to reach out, connect, and feel like I'm part of the global conversation.
Friday, August 28, 2009
I've been doing some work with New York Women Social Entrepreneurs (NYWSE), a group dedicated to helping women launch and run successful social enterprises that have a profound impact on our society. Through a recent NYWSE event, I found A. Lauren Abele's blog. Lauren "is an economic development program assistant at a community development nonprofit in Brooklyn. By night, Lauren volunteers with other nonprofits helping them with fund development, strategic planning, and social media. She is one of the 2009 NYWSE Mastermind-Mentoring Initiative (MMI) graduates and big-time NYWSE advocate."
This week she posted her thoughts on how best to help a cause you care about. Her post really resonated with me. In relation to my post from yesterday about doing things we don't know how to do, Lauren advocates for helping the cause, any cause that interests us, by channeling our own special gifts and talents. If we want to make a difference, we can figure out how best to do that by delving deep within our own hearts. Just begin. We best help the cause by being who we are.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about fitting into a form versus creating a form around our own passions. It's a very different intention, a very different way of considering service. If we approach service first from the perspective of "what do I love to do, what am I good at, and when am I happiest?" and then find the circumstances that best showcase those activities, we'll achieve our highest potential.
Lauren's shining a light on something very profound. Consider this: let's say that you are passionate about the environment. There are so many options for you to really lend a hand to this cause. You could work with your local park or community garden. You could organize a recycling event in your neighborhood. You could support local farmers. You could write about the cause, sharing your knowledge and interest in the subject with others. There a million ways to play a part - all that's required is that you care and then channel that care into an activity that brings you joy.
It sounds so simple and yet we spend so much time trying to do what's "right" for the cause, what we think the cause needs, rather than taking what we do well and doing that for the cause's benefit. Really what's right for the cause is that we just be present, that we contribute in some way that's uniquely, beautifully us.
The image above can be found here.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Rather than writing curriculum, I've been staring at a very blank white screen on my laptop, complete with blinking cursor. And that little tiny voice, the one I just dread, decides to show up at the most inopportune time to make me feel even worse. "Who are you to be writing curriculum?" it says. "You don't know how to do that." And as much as I want to turn down that volume, the voice grows louder, adding more doubts, more concerns, and more insecurity to my already frazzled mind. I have no idea what I'm doing. There's no denying that.
At 11:00 last night, I closed down my laptop without having written a single word. "The voice was right," I thought. "Who do I think I am? An untrained "teacher" writing curriculum. I can't do this." I did what I often do when I'm frustrated with my writing. I read. The latest issue of Yoga Journal just arrived in my mailbox so I cracked it open and began reading from page one.
There is a belief in yoga, and I believe in Buddhism as well, that the Universe will provide us with the exact teaching we need exactly when we need it. Kaitlin Quistgaard, the Editor of Yoga Journal, wrote this month's editorial note about how to show up for life and begin something we want to do even if we aren't sure how to do it. "It seemed like a life lesson designed to show me the value of doing my part, even if I don't know what to do," she says of a recent incident she had. This sounds like valuable ammunition against that little voice that was doubting me. I keep reading.
A few pages later, I come across an article by Julia Butterfly Hill who talks about finding your purpose and growing with it. Hmmm...sounds like another good one. The whole article is one beautiful quote after another. "Who am I supposed to be in my life?...what do you want your legacy to be?...We approach everything backward...we live in a production-driven society rather than a purpose-driven society." And here's my favorite line that I'm considering having made into a t-shirt: "We don't have to know how to do something before we begin it." Though I'm a product developer, paid to produce, I am much more concerned with living my life with purpose than with things.
So that's it - that's all I needed to know to silence the little voice nagging at me. It's true - I don't know how to write a curriculum. I don't know what material will resonate with the kids I want to teach. I don't know how to actually do anything related to this project. I do know that I am a fast learner, and that I was born not knowing much of anything except how to breath, (and even that breathing isn't something we do consciously!) I do know that I want to live in a world where every child has the opportunity to learn anything and everything that interests them. I want them all to grow up happy, healthy, safe, and excited about the possibilities that lay before them. I want them all to have a chance at a good and decent life. And that's more than enough purpose to keep going.
The photo above can be found here.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
And now they begin this new piece of their history with a new member of their family. I went to Providence a few weeks ago for the baby shower, and they were both so happy. Though neither of them seemed stressed or worried or afraid. This was just another great event in their lives.
With everything we hear in the news about the difficulty of remaining in love, raising kids, and keeping a marriage strong and healthy, it's easy to feel like it's just not possible to have all three. And then I watch Alex and Shawn and realize that marriage and family and love are what you make of them. Too often we imagine that they are entities unto themselves that we have no control over, as if our own feelings of love live outside of us, independent of the rest of our lives. What's amazing about Alex and Shawn is that their love resides firmly at the center of their lives, while also giving them the confidence and freedom to pursue their own independent ventures, too. It's really something to behold, especially when you consider how young they were when they first met.
I can say with certainty that their son is one of the luckiest little guys in the world. He has these incredible parents who will provide such a prime example of what love can and should be. I can't stop smiling when I think about how much happiness he will know in his life. All kids should be so lucky.
The photo above can be found here.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I am obsessed with time. Spending time. Saving time. Wasting time. The perception of time. The concepts of aging and growing and changing over time. And of course, the ultimate time question - how much time do we have left? Time is the only asset we ever truly own because we determine its value and worth.
The aspect of time that intrigues me the most is one I first learned in my college economics classes - leverage. How do I use my time as wisely as possible to do the most good I can? How do I get the maximum impact with the minimum amount time? The odd unintended blessing of losing a parent so young is that I stare my mortality in the face every day. If I want to accomplish everything I want to do, I have to utilize the idea of leverage. Our days pass too quickly, our time is too precious, to start every new idea from scratch.
My fear is that I'm missing out. I was recently telling my sister, Weez, that I really wanted to do something and her immediate response was, "let's face it: if you decide you're really going to do something, you make it happen." At that point my question to myself was, "at what cost?" The trouble that over-committers like me face is this: how do I say no without feeling guilty? When there are so many people out there who need what we all have to offer, when I see so many ways for me to make things better, how do I decide this thing is important and needs my attention and that one does not?
The education program I'm working on has actually helped me begin to find some answers to these questions. I've been kicking around this idea, writing drafts of the white paper, meeting with potential partners, and asking for honest feedback on the idea from friends and colleagues since April. And every time I sit down to work on it, every time the idea even crosses my mind, I get a little jolt of energy and excitement that keeps on growing. The more I work on it, the more alive I feel. I'm so certain I can make a difference in this way, with this curriculum, that there isn't any way that I can conceive of turning back now. I feel about this project the way that I feel about my writing - it's becoming a very integral part of who I am.
And maybe that's the trick. Maybe all our hurrying is caused by our desire to find where we belong. Once we find it, we can enjoy this wealth of unhurried time, as Bonnie Friedman suggests, because there is no 'next'. We're here, where we always wanted to be.
My dad was a clinical psychologist and his work was his life. He never felt hurried in his office, at his great mahogany desk surrounded by his books and papers and patients. He loved his studies in that field more than he loved anything. It may have been his only love now that I think of it. In some way, I sort of feel like this education project is helping me understand him, helping me see why his work was so important to him.
His last job before leaving the work force was as a school psychologist in Harlem. I always wondered why he was so eager to hop on a train that took him to the big City to help other kids while my mother was left to work and raise us on her own. Now that I've spent some time in public schools in New York, I understand. The problems and challenges are so great, and the opportunity to do something good in that environment is immense. The impact is immediate. Like him, I keep thinking about those tiny faces and those solemn eyes who wanted assurances that I would be back to see them again. He couldn't let them down. I can't either.
Though he's been gone now 17 years, perhaps there is a way for me to still get to know him. Perhaps this drive to do some good in the public schools of New York City is much more than just my way of giving back. And maybe this is some kind of calling that's coming from afar, some way to continue work, albeit in a different vein, that was begun so many years ago by my dad and the many people who were doing this work long before him. It's a way to leverage the work of the past to create brighter futures, my own and the kids I hope to help. No hurrying required, and much wealth to gain.
The photo above can be found here.
Monday, August 24, 2009
This morning when I stepped outside, there was a decided feeling of Fall. I felt like I might have just stepped through some kind of portal and been taken back in time. All of a sudden, it didn't feel like New York anymore. It felt more like Society Hill in Philadelphia, where I went to college. The squat, ornate brownstones. The crisp air. The feeling that some great historic figure would emerge into the street at any moment.
I didn't sleep much in college. One, because my insomnia was at its peak for the entire 4 year stretch. Two, because I was woefully behind all of my other classmates, meaning I had to work twice as hard, at least, just to keep my head above water. Three, because I had to work multiple jobs all the way through. I spent a lot of early mornings watching the sun come up. During my senior year, I worked at Olde City Coffee all the way downtown. I loved the trip down there in the early morning, before anyone was awake. I felt like I had Philly to myself for a little while. This morning took me back to those early mornings at Olde City and everything I looked forward to when I was 21.
I remember a few thoughts vividly from that time. I was interested in making a strong, lasting impact on the world. I was determined to be financially stable. I spent a lot of my time thinking about what I wanted to be my contribution to humanity. Going to school in Philadelphia, a place that is steeped in history, intellect, and righteous rebellion, renders people practically unable to consider anything except the big picture. Now, I treasure those days. At the time, I was really scared that I'd never live up to the impossibly high standards that my school impressed upon us daily. The constant reminder of greatness that the founding fathers left scattered around Philly didn't help either. At some point, you begin to worry that anything short of founding your own nation is just not a high enough achievement.
As I made my way to the subway, I saw the sign depicted in the image above. In some type of chalk / paint / marker, someone had written "If we all do one random act of kindness daily we just might set the world in the right direction. ~Martin Kornfeld". Maybe it was thinking about my college days that had me waxing nostalgic; this sign really struck me. I had to stop and take a photograph. It communicated a profound message to me so simply and beautifully, and I'm sure it's done the same for countless other. If only I had seen this sign sooner, about 12 years sooner, I might have been able to calm down a little bit about my life and its direction.
I thought about this sign all day and how much good it does for all who see it. Imagine if all of us, everyday, did just one nice thing for someone else. Someone we know. Someone we don't know. Someone who may never know us. How different would our communities and the larger world look? And imagine how different our own attitude toward our experiences would be. Maybe it's all we can hope for - giving a little kindness, getting a little kindness, and doing our small part to make our communities a tiny bit better than how we found them the day before. It seems to me that that is a contribution to humanity that we could all be proud of.
For the full article and to check out all of the other great conversations happening over at TJCC, please click here.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Forester, A Room with a View Yesterday I read a post on Theatre Folk that talks about how the physical place where a writer is located effects the quality of the writing. So often, we think writing is some elusive, muse-like magic that just shows up when it's good and ready. I'm still waiting for my muse to walk through the door, so I figured that while I'm waiting I should follow the advice of E.M. Forester and hang out in the sunshine.
Right now as I'm writing this post, sunshine is streaming through my living room window, dappling the keyboard. My apartment faces into the courtyard (which sounds lavish, but I can assure you it's not) so I can see the goings on of all my neighbors if they're at their windows. This also means I avoid a great majority of the street noise, though because I'm on a higher floor, I also get the sunlight. It's a win-win for me and my writing. There are some trees and butterflies outside right now. The blue sky is swirled with clouds and the breeze in gently blowing. It's a peaceful kind of place.
By my desk I keep three things taped to the wall. One is a card with the quote from Thomas Jefferson, "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." The art of brevity and good editing. The second is a card that has my 2009 to-do list. I wrote it up in December of 2008 and so far, I'm doing pretty well. I'm actually on track to complete all 10 by the end of the year. They are things I am really interested in, and just needed to dedicate the time to them. For example, I wanted to cook more, get a new apartment, and expand the reach of my writing. Done, done, and done. The third thing is a card with a simple quote by John F. Kennedy: "Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process."
I used to think that peace was a destination. An achievement. Since I was a teenager, I made one simple wish on birthdays, when I'd see the first star at night, whenever I'd blow an eyelash from my fingertip. I just wanted to feel at peace. Sounds like such an easy thing to have. Just stop worrying and feeling anxious and scared and stressed, right? Right. And all of that was very hard for me. Much harder than I wanted it to be so in addition to feeling all of these things I also felt frustrated. Where was that damn peace of mind hiding?
Now I know that peace wasn't hiding at all. In order to access it, I had to go out into the world and live. Peace doesn't have a permanent place at all. It's an active, living, breathing way of life that moves with us, within us. It's accessible at any and every moment. And just because we feel it at this moment, doesn't mean it will be readily apparent the next. It is a state of mind that we must continually commit to, and share with others. And eventually, it just becomes a part of us. We will, with time, patience, and practice, be a living vessel for peace, and I hope my writing takes on that form as well. Though to tell you the truth, sunshine on my keyboard certainly helps.
The photo above is the view from my desk in my living room, where I do most of my writing. If you look closely you can see my reflection in the bottom left corner, snapping the photo.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
It was hot and sticky and raining on and off. My bags were heavy and I was worn out from a long, tiring week. I was trudging along, past The Plaza, past Central Park South, toward the Time Warner Building, lost in my own personal fog. At the corner, I was waiting for the light to change so I could get down underground to the unbearably hot subway that would get me home with all my things to put my things in. I'm sure my face was a little crinkled. I'm positive I was sighing out loud.
Two guys, clearly visiting NYC, were in a Scooby-Doo style van, hanging out the windows and snapping pictures like mad. I must remember to start carrying my camera everywhere to capture moments like that. These guys were grinning from ear to ear, in awe of what they were seeing, what they were right in the middle of. They made me smile, too. One of them saw me, and asked "are you a real New Yorker?" and then snapped my picture, as if I was a rare species that they needed to capture on film to show their friends back home.
"I am a real New Yorker," I replied. "Cool," he said. And that made me smile even wider. Here I was sighing about how tired and worn out I was, and here are these guys, invigorated by the exact same environment.
I didn't cross the street just yet. I sat down in one of the cafe chairs that sit at the corner of Central Park South and Columbus Circle. I took a big, deep breathe and looked around me. How lucky am I to be a New Yorker, to live in this insane, magical, always evolving place every day? I put down my load o' bags to rest a while, to take in the glory and chaos and be grateful for the opportunity to be here in this moment.
I wish I had asked for the contact info of those Scooby-Doo van guys. I'd like to thank them for helping me fall in love with my city, again. When I picked up my bags to head home, somehow they felt lighter.
The photo above depicts Columbus Circle, New York City and can be found here.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The set-up of my new apartment is nearly complete. It's beginning to feel like a home, so to celebrate I took myself for a stroll around my new / old neighborhood. Even though I only moved four blocks north, it feels like a whole new life here. Somehow, even my old haunts look different, refreshed from this vantage point.
Everywhere I looked there were signs of new life: business springing up on every corner, new restaurants that were bustling, sidewalk artists, musicians on the streets, fresh fruit vendors. One hair salon was having a day of gratitude, thanking customers for their loyalty during these tough times. It was enough to make me giddy. Maybe we are going to be okay.
All of this new activity got me to thinking about dreams and how I'd like my life to be going forward, starting today. This year has been filled with great lessons on the power of intention. Hoping and praying for something to come to pass has its power, though on its own it's not going to get the job done. While I believe in the energy of the universe, I believe that energy is there for us to use, not admire. I'm beginning to question this idea of what we're "meant to do". We may just be meant to do whatever we set our minds and hearts to.
There is a peculiar play between dreams and action. I've found that I have some dreams that are filled with so much passion that it would be impossible for me to not work on them. And that work is what brings them to life. And seeing my dreams brought to life begets the confidence to create new dreams. And on and on we go. This cycle enables us to live to our full potential.
Someone recently told me that she's afraid to work on her dream because she's actually afraid of achieving it. A part of her just wants to put it away in a little box for safekeeping so that it always stays in her mind's eye, exactly the way she envisions it. This sounded so strange to me. Who actively doesn't want their dream to come true? And then we got to what she's really afraid of: if she achieves her dream, then what will she do after that? What if there isn't anything else? What will she do when she's run out of dreams? Will she just be hanging around waiting for life to go by?
There is another beautiful layer of truth hidden in Anaïs Nin's quote that speaks to this fear. She's saying that deeply embedded in every dream is the seed to a new dream that's activated when we see the first dream become real. In other words, having a dream, going after it, and achieving it guarantees that a new dream is on the way. There's no need to hold back. No need to give only part of the energy we have. Pour yourself into your endeavors, all of them. The well of strength and possibility is deeper than we could ever imagine. The dream you have right now, at this moment, is only the beginning.
The photo above can be found here.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
This coming Sunday, The New York Times Magazine will run a stunning cover story by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about raising up "the world's women, as the best way to address global poverty and instability." The entire issue is devoted to the subject. You can get a sneak preview of the article here. The article is a portion of their book entitled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book will be available for purchase on September 8th. Kristof is an active Facebook user and I highly recommend his page for anyone interested in global social issues.
The area of philanthropy and community building that I find most fascinating is the power of leverage. Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund, writes about it so eloquently in The Blue Sweater. Greg Mortenson writes about it, as does Robert Egger in his book Begging for Change. If I give $1 to one group, they get $1 worth of products or services that helps their cause. What I want to do is give my $1 somewhere so that it does $1.25, $1.50, $2 worth of good. It's the familiar economic principle of economies of scale. How much of a product or a service do I have to buy so that each incremental unit becomes cheaper? It's buying in bulk applied to the goal of societal benefit.
Now step away from the scientific data, and we find that embedded in Half the Sky are remarkable stories of endurance, passion, and the transformative change of whole communities built upon the rock of female confidence. Abbas Be became a bookbinder and now funds her sisters' education after spending her early years as a prisoner in a brothel in Delhi. Saima Muhammad from Pakistan lived a miserable existence under the thumb of her abusive husband until she received a $65 microloan from Kashf Foundation to start a textiles company that is now thriving. The stories are powerful and many, and they come from every corner of the globe. They also make any challenge I face minuscule. If these women can survive and thrive in their circumstances, we can all do well with what we've got.
In so many nations, women and girls are marginalized and abused, their value as community members and as human beings discounted to the point of worthlessness. This must stop. Today. Kristof and WuDunn continue to lay the ground work along with so many other brave voices that must lead to a world that provides a better existence for women and girls. Better education, healthcare, and just the opportunity to improve their lot. You really want to change the world? You want to have an impactful, lasting change on how our communities function? Help women.
The photo above was taken by Katy Grannan for The New York Times.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Jason and Mia Bauer started CRUMBS. I recently had the opportunity to interview Jason. He serves as the company’s CEO and President.
To read the full interview, please visit:
One year ago today, I attended a new hire orientation. A series of company leaders came into the room to speak with us and one of them said something that really stuck with me. He asked us to go up the elevator to our desks every morning with one simple question always at the top of our minds: what am I going to do to help someone live an extraordinary life today? I took that to heart, and I can say with complete honesty that I've started every day that way. It's been a tumultuous year for this country - that elevator question helped me hang on during the most challenging times to help me not only survive, but thrive. And it helped me help others do the same.
So now I begin year two, every bit as hopeful and curious as I was at the start of year one. The unintended, and happy, consequence of helping others to live an extraordinary life is that it makes our own lives extraordinary in the process. I hadn't consciously realized that until today when I looked around my office to see all the positive change that's taking place right before our eyes. And I played a part. A small one, but certainly a part. And for that I am extremely grateful. We really do get what we give.
The photo above can be found here.
Monday, August 17, 2009
I'm part way through the cover story for this week's issue of Business Week, Case for Optimism. One of the people who worked on the story asked me and 12 other readers to take a look around our neighborhoods to provide examples of why we feel optimistic about the future. The quote above appears toward the beginning of the article, and references a very positive outcome of economic downturns: if we can look past the gloom and doom, we'll find that economic downturns give us the freedom to get a little crazy. In other words, they give of the freedom to pursue our biggest dreams. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft in the midst of a recession. Same goes for Steve Jobs and many others whom we now hold us as some of the most successful thought-leaders of our time.
When the world goes haywire and we lose our footing and live to tell the tale, something inside of us shifts. All of a sudden we realize that the leap we just made, whether by our own volition or not, didn't kill us. We're encouraged to take another, slightly larger leap, and then another. Before you know it, we can't contain ourselves. We realize that the biggest risk is not taking a chance on our dream; it's being paralyzed by fear and never pursuing the dream at all.
So here we go - off into the great unknown with a heavy, though hopeful, heart. We're in the midst of a grieving process. Long gone are the fat times of real estate always being a sound investment and Wall Street being the dream of every bright, ambitious college graduate. We're bidding a fond farewell to life on Easy Street, welcoming in a new era of innovation and creativity that our ancestors, the ones who got a little crazy, would be proud to acknowledge as their legacy.
There will be some bumps and bruises along the way, some near-term and long-term. We may have our dreams fall down in mid-flight, and we'll have to get new dreams. The resilience we are building today will serve us well tomorrow, and for many tomorrows to come. My bet's on us.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Friday, August 14, 2009
Thursday, August 13, 2009
For the past few months, I've been thinking about preparedness. For whatever reason, my life has taken some unexpected, wonderful turns that I didn't expect during this time. And for some other reasons that I don't fully I understand, I have been prepared for them. Ready to raise my hand, ready to make time in my life to pursue these new opportunities, ready to be surprised.
We owe it to ourselves to be able to accept and relish happy circumstances. And I have found more often than not that happiness largely depends on our desire to be happy. My friend, Kelly, and I love to quote the movie Say Anything when John Cusack says, "how hard is it to just decide to be in a good mood and then be in a good mood?" If we keep ourselves always looking up, aiming high, and seeking good fortune, then we at least have a decent shot at living a life that's good, honest, and worthwhile.
This life requires that we be prepared for things to go our way. We spend so much time preparing for disaster, disappointment, and hardship. I've spent a lot of my life hoping for the best and expecting the worst. But what if I spent even a small amount of time at least anticipating if not expecting the best outcome? These last few months have taught me that the best of times can be upon us now, even when many world circumstances look so bleak. While the world may not be clean and bright, our attitude and outlook can be, and perhaps that intention is enough to change not only our own circumstances, but the circumstances of those whose lives we touch.
The image above can be found at: http://lh4.ggpht.com/_wZoiN6j9b2k/R0s8rN24ETI/AAAAAAAAALc/57869_Jfv9E/100_3377.JPG
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
A few years ago, my friend, Amy, and I were talking about the lives that were stretched out before us, that were laying in wait for our arrival. We were at a place called The Little Grill, a co-op restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We were both graduate students; Amy was getting her Master's in Conflict Resolution at EMU and I was getting my MBA just down the road at UVA in Charlottesville. I asked Amy how she saw all of her work playing out. Would she go overseas? Did she have a specific issue or population she wanted to work with? What did she think the universe held for her? Her response was that she didn't know; the only thing she was sure of at that time was that she wanted to build her own road and not wait for it to find her.
I remember that conversation so clearly. Amy's passion for her work was so evident. Now here we are, close pals, building our respective roads. Our paths have been shaped by many unexpected events, some good and some not-so-good. Those paths weren't laying in wait for us as I originally thought. We've had to build them, one tiny piece at a time, by trying something, and trying again and again and again. Maybe our fate isn't set by the Universe at all. Maybe we find our groove by moving.
While it can be a little disappointing to know that our perfect life isn't out there waiting for us to show up, it's also very freeing. Maybe our life's work isn't pre-determined. Maybe there's nothing to discover, as if it's been there all along. Maybe it's all more dynamic than that. Maybe our life's work can be whatever we want it to be, and if after a period of time we want to change it up, then that's A-OK. After all, it's our path, and it's only going to be built by us moving forward. And sometimes moving forward means moving on.
Someone I know is very passionate politics right now. He's researching all kinds of election methods and voting systems because he's become deeply interested in how our government operates. I told him yesterday that I can't wait to see how this all plays out for him, where it takes him. He said, "well, for now this is my interest. Tomorrow it might be the clarinet, and then that's all you'll hear about from me." Little did I know that he was saying exactly the same thing as Machado. His path, Amy's path, all of our paths are ours to build. Take whatever turns you want.
The photo above can be found at: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2304/1557274926_a7c2569175_b.jpg
My writing partner and collaborator, Laura Cococcia, is the creative genius behind TJCC and has asked me to write for the site every Monday. I will repost all links to my TJCC articles on this blog and on my Twitter account.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Today I met with an old friend from college that I haven't seen in 11 years. She and I worked on a theatre production together at Penn, and she has a new theatre project that she wanted to get my advice on. At one point in our conversation she said she just felt so overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of getting the project off the ground. As much as she believes in the idea, the shear amount of work that it takes will be intense, regardless of whether it is a runaway hit, a flop, or somewhere in-between. She is afraid of the outcome of her efforts before she's even begun.
Like all of us with ideas that get our blood pumping, we get ahead of ourselves. We haven't even put a proposal on paper, and already we are off and running making contingency plans for every challenge and triumph imaginable. Long-term planning is important; to paralyze ourselves with fear in the short-run makes all of our worrying inconsequential. If we can't even get started, our long-term contingency plans don't make a bit of difference.
A crystal ball would be a handy tool to have in our back pocket, particularly if we could play out different scenarios before making choices. Unfortunately, no one has invented one of those yet, and so we're left with only our gut, experience, and conscience to help us make decisions. While we might do our best chess playing game, anticipating how the world around us will change, it never goes exactly according to plan. There's always some surprise we didn't account for. And if you're doing A just to get to B, then my experience has demonstrated that surely C, D, and E will show up to throw a wrench in the works.
The best we can do is to just do what's next. Keep a lofty goal as your guide, and remember that there are many routes to it. Don't shut down your ability to move forward by standing at the fork in the road and burying your head in your hands. Self-imposed grief, and the indecision that comes along with it, doesn't serve anyone well. And your dreams are too important. You have too much to offer this world. There is no time for indecision. The only choice you need to make right now is the next one. Leave the future where it belongs, out ahead of you.
The image above can be found at: http://toughsledding.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/fork.jpg
Monday, August 10, 2009
Donna, a friend of mine from Owning Pink, sent me this quote when I put up a post about the after-school program I hope to pilot in January. It made me re-consider my earlier post on legacy and my post on dreaming big, drawing a through-line that connects them. Is our best chance at legacy not through something we build, but through our efforts to helps others build something?
All night I've been considering people who have built great public legacies in the not-so-distant past and put Norman Cousin's spin on their contributions. The one I kept coming back to was Walter Cronkite. He was a great journalist, perhaps the greatest journalist, who kept the country calm during tumultuous events. And while his own career is impressive, the great majority of the coverage of his death was linked back to the fact that he inspired an entire generations of journalists, including all of the household names we turn to every day to help us understand what's happening in our world. They are his legacy.
Walter Cronkite is a perfect examples of what Wes Jackson meant when he said that we should dream so big that our life's work can't be accomplished in our lifetime. It should continue on long after our time has come to pass. There seems to be no better way to do that than to let our legacy live on within the work of others, in their accomplishments, in what they do with the lessons they learn from us.
Last week, I had another discussion about legacy. Someone told me that he didn't have any idea how to build a legacy, that he wanted to explore things that interested him in the hopes that somewhere down the line his pursuits would help someone else in some way.
At the time, I must admit that I was a little confused because this is the person who got me thinking about legacy to begin with. If he is so interested in legacy, then how could he not know how to build one? Now his comment makes sense - he's doing what all great legacy builders have done. They didn't set out to build a legacy, to make people remember them. They set out to do something interesting and helpful with their lives, and do that as best they could. When that becomes the focus - doing your best, pursuing something interesting and helpful - the legacy building will take care of itself. With that focus we have the hope of living long after we've passed through this world.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
~ Wes Jackson
My errands today took longer to accomplish than I had planned. By the time I finished them all, without having had coffee, breakfast, or lunch, I was ready to eat just about anything edible that came into my line of vision. I popped in to Chipotle, wolfed down my burrito bowl, and saw on my drink cup that the restaurant is running a multi-part series entitled "People We're Pleased to Know". Part 5 features Wes Jackson, the founder and President of The Land Institute and a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement.
Wes's quote above lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. I've been thinking a lot about accomplishment lately. In my writing, at work, with my multiple side projects that I've been working on. Secretly I've been a little frustrated with myself - why are these things taking so long? Why am I not checking them off the list in rapid succession? His quote reminded me that ideas with passion and heart take time to develop and even more time to execute. The bigger the dream, the longer the time horizon.
This isn't to say that there aren't smaller dreams embedded into the larger vision we have for our lives. There are triumphs, and inevitably defeats, along the way that contribute to a lifetime of work. His life's work was not to start The Land Institute. The Land Institute is a vehicle to help him realize a vision of our world developing a robust, healthy system to feed itself in perpetuity without destroying our planet.
Think of how Wes's perspective frees up our creative energy and encourages us to include others in the process of building our dreams. He is shaping his vision and bringing it to life alongside many others who share his same aspirations, and those aspirations take constant care, concern, and commitment. His vision is bigger than the span of his own lifetime - it actually continues on indefinitely. Failure and success are taken out of the equation with a mission that big - all it requires is that we contribute to steady, forward progress.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
I now realize that it wasn't a matter of people getting it; it was entirely a matter of timing and circumstances. I wanted an idea to flourish ahead of its time. Had I gotten approval a year ago for it, the idea would have crashed and burned, no doubt about it. And then I would not have only felt foolish - I would have looked foolish, too.
The universe tries to protect us from ourselves. It throws down roadblocks to test our passion and perseverance, and also to give the rest of the world time to catch up with us. At the time that I first developed the idea, I didn't see it that way. I was so willing to toot my own horn, thinking that I knew something others around me didn't. In reality, the universe was saving me from me. It's a difficult, necessary lesson to learn; when the path is cluttered with resistance, it really is best to wait it out with quiet strength.
This is not to say that we should all zip it and go stand in line waiting for our turn. I still maintain that it takes the ability to step up and out for an idea we believe in that really creates progress. However, the next time a project is not going exactly according to plan, I'll have more patience with myself and with those around me. If the idea's a good one, it's time will come. Perhaps not on the schedule I'd like, though at the time when it has the greatest chance to not only survive but thrive.
Friday, August 7, 2009
The title "Unaccustomed Earth" intrigues me. Before picking up the book, I thought Lahiri was talking about new and uncharted waters that her characters would take on. This true, with the added twist that the uncharted waters are new challenges taken on by new generations while their hearts, minds, traditions, and families remain firmly rooted in the past. Her main focus in this book is the conflict that arises in a family as the world, physical and emotional, quickly transforms and changes from one generation to the next.
In my home town, people rarely leave. 99% of families are Italian and Catholic, like mine. There are roads named after prominent families in town who have made their homes there for generations. Generations of families live side-by-side, childhood friends remain friends forever, having the same conversations day in and day out. There, time stands still.
My family is a transplant there - neither my mom nor my dad grew up there. My brother is there thought my sister, Weez, and I left as soon as we headed off for college and never looked back. This was an unfamiliar practice - most people who went to college went locally or at least within the state. My sister and I never even considered sticking around. We were off for greener pastures, the same way my mom and dad were when they were young. Maybe finding our own way in the world, away from everything and everyone we knew as kids, is somehow rooted in our genes.
While my mom always wanted us to make our own way, it's fair to say that she wishes we were all always around, all the time. It must be a hard process to watch someone you brought into the world head out into the unknown to see what they can find. Lahiri's stories boil down to a common theme: the unknown is frightening, and it's especially frightening for older generations who watch younger ones take flight in foreign spaces. I imagine it's the same for my mom - while she wants so much for us to have adventures, she also worries about Weez and I being safe and happy and healthy in a way that she doesn't worry about my brother.
Lahiri begins her book with a quote that puts her stories in perspective. "Human nature will not flourish...for too long a series of generations in the same worn-out soil. My children...shall strike their roots in unaccustomed earth. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne." While the stories mostly talk about conflict between generations, with Hawthorne's quote she acknowledges that future generations must put down their roots in foreign soil in order for us to move forward, evolve, and lead productive lives. It's that process of making the unfamiliar familiar that is so critical to our development, and the development of humanity. Adapt and change are the only two things we ever really have to do.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
So often we look at problems and answers as two separate entities, as if they have their own independent existence. I’ve been thinking about this recently with an education program I’m working on. I have specific problem I’d like to solve, and a specific need I’d like to meet. Reading this quote today I realized that I’ve approached the challenge backwards – I’ve been so focused on finding a solution that I haven’t spent enough time with the problem and all its layers and complexities.
Living with problems can be uncomfortable, so our desire to jump to a solution as quickly as possible is only natural. I’ve been practicing yoga for 9 years and one of the practice’s central tenants is learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve found that the best way for me to achieve this is to focus on my breath rather than on the part of my body that might be uncomfortable in a pose. I apply this in other areas of my life as well – sitting in an uncomfortable meeting, standing in a hot, crowded subway, coping with a bad headache or other illness – I just keep focusing on my breath. It helps.
Another, less conventional practice that I am experimenting with is giving problems a physical structure. Meditation does not come easily to me. I like being active so sitting still and concentrating is some times a lot to ask of myself. I do notice that when I’m able to do it, it has great benefits. So I keep trying. Meditation is particularly helpful when I am trying to sort through a problem, though most of the problems I handle are abstract, without structure. During my meditation I imagine how the problems move around in the world, how they impact the places and people they effect, and then consider ways in which those effects can be countered. It’s complicated, and again not a natural method of dealing with problems, though I find this process helps me sit with problems that need my attention.
There’s no silver bullet here. Having problems and challenges is an uncomfortable condition, and will always be. What we can do is make slow and steady progress to ease the discomfort. And in that purposeful progress forward, it’s my hope that we will find the long-term solutions we seek to remove all our challenges.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Fighting a battle, particularly one that's uphill, is a tough activity to sign-up for. It's exhausting. It's painful. It's frustrating. And a lot of times it doesn't do any good at all. However, if we spend a lot of time on that battleground and we continually choose to stand at ease, then we get left behind, cleaning up what remains, which often isn't a whole heck of a lot.
Today I decided I had stood around long enough. Yes, this is the way it is but it doesn't have to be always be like this. And no one is going to fix it for me. Why should they? They have their own battles to worry about. I signed up for the gig, I took on the mission, and now I had to make sure I wasn't wasting my time.
So away I went, crafting and planning and convincing that I could clearly perceive a better way forward, and am willing to put my time, energy, and talents into the new venture. I have no idea if it's going to go anywhere. Tomorrow I could find myself still frittering away at the bottom of the hill. I do know that if I stand around twiddling my thumbs any longer, I'll be at the bottom of that hill for a long time to come, and I'd have no one to blame for that except me. Might as well plant my stake in the ground and see who I can get to rally around it.
The image above can be found here.
Lissa has made it her mission in life to help others get their mojo back, and particularly to empower women to do whatever and be whoever they want to be. To foster this mission, she created the company Owning Pink, a place where women can connect and support one another in their pursuits. Owning Pink offers classes, workshops, and mentoring to further these connections.
A courageous, empathic, inspirational role model, Lissa is exactly the kind of person this world needs more of.
For the full interview with Lissa, click here.
Monday, August 3, 2009
It's been so long since I thought about the first day of 9th grade. I started high school that year and I remember being so nervous. All my same friends from middle school went with me since my town only had one set of schools. There were kids who were so much bigger and smarter than me. They played sports and ran clubs. How would I find my classrooms? Would boys like me? And the dreaded cafeteria, every 14 year old girl's nightmare. The movie Mean Girls comes to mind.
The other piece of my mission for the child I'm sponsoring is to write a note of encouragement. "We would like your child to know someone out there cares about their success...with this note you can offer a window into the world of opportunity that awaits them if they always do their best and stay in school." I'm not ashamed to say I teared up a little upon reading this instruction from First Day NY. This is more than just a backpack and some clothes for a 14 year old; it's a signal to her that there are people out here cheering her on, people who believe in her potential.
As I think back, 9th grade is the time when I realized that if I worked really hard, I could go anywhere and do anything. That year opened up a new gateway to the whole rest of my life, and how I thought about my purpose in the world. And now I think I have the beginning to my note of encouragement...
If you'd like to get involved with First Day NY, please visit their website: http://www.firstdayny.org/
Sunday, August 2, 2009
This quote reminds me of a recent discussion I had about legacy building. The discussion got me thinking about what remains of us when we leave and how what we want to remain effects what we build right now. I can't say for sure what specifics I'd like to be remembered for, what one or two things I'd like to build during my time here that will last well into the future. I can say that there are certain sentiments that I hope will be a part of my legacy.
I hope that I am remembered as someone with great heart and compassion and empathy, someone who always considered walking in the shoes of others before passing any kind of judgment. I'd like the words "concern" and "commitment" to appear numerous times in my history. That my integrity remained intact through challenging and easy times. Someone who had dreams and pursued them, while also encouraging and fostering the dreams of others.
I'd like to look back on my life with no regrets, no missed opportunities, having gained and lost in large amounts because I was always willing to take a leap of faith. Someone who remained hopeful in the face of despair, calm in the presence of tension, always looking up even when circumstances at eye level were dire. Having done the very best with what I had, maintained grace and kindness and wonder. That this world be a happier, more peaceful, creative place because I passed this way. Most of all, I hope that I am remembered as someone who rose to my potential while also reaching down to help others rise, too.
There's a lot of pressure in the world around us to look, feel, and act a certain way, pressure to conform and take the journey that's the easiest, safest, and most secure. Just because a path has very little resistance doesn't mean it's the right path for us. Finding our calling, building our legacy, takes more effort than just following the easy road. It involves knowing who are, and more importantly, who we are capable of becoming. It involves listening to the heart as sincerely as we listen to the mind.