Tag Archives: Writing

Life Is A Typo

1 Jun

It was the day before the launch of my first book. It was a warm day in San Francisco—over 80 degrees—and even warmer in the East Bay. I had taken a 45-minute BART ride to Berkeley and rode my bike up the seemingly endless hill to the Haas Business School.

I was supposed to speak to an undergraduate class about millennials and meaningful work, and when I arrived, I was sweating balls. Two minutes later, I was told by the professor that there had been a mix-up with the schedule and I couldn’t speak.

I was pissed that I had wasted about an hour and a half each way on the day before my launch.

Then my sister called me and said, “Sorry, Adam, I just wanted to let you know I caught a typo in your book.”

I started freaking out since my launch was the next day and people were already buying the paperback on Amazon.

My sister said matter-of-factly, “Adam: nobody cares.”

I was like, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN NOBODY CARES?!!!”

She replied, “I mean, nobody cares about the typo. They just want to read your book. They’re not reading it to judge your grammar, they’re reading it because they want to know what you have to say. They’re reading it because they want to be inspired.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I knew she was right.

We get so caught up in our own heads about the smallest details. We become obsessed with perfection in our work. I sometimes get so obsessed I’ll stare at an email for 45 minutes, tweaking each sentence, bolding some words, italicizing others, making sure the tone is perfect.

But sometimes you just need to press send. If you spend a year on a project and it’s ready for the world to see, it’s time to get it out there, even if it’s not 100% perfect.

Press send. Ship it.

I’m not saying you should release something you haven’t worked hard on. Don’t ship something that’s crap. But if it’s a product that you’ve spent many months or years on; something that will make peoples’ lives better, then get it out there.

Nothing about writing is perfect. Nothing about self-publishing is even close to perfect. I could have spent months, shit, YEARS, getting my book to be just right, and you know what? Inevitably, someone somewhere would catch a typo. Inevitably, the printer will make the gray text box too dark. Inevitably, the formatting will look slightly different on each of the 18 Kindle-friendly devices people can read it on. Inevitably, when someone sets the font to 42-Comic Sans, the book will look weird. Inevitably, I’ll think of a word I wish I had used or the perfect anecdote, two months after the book is published.

Inevitably, your final product won’t be perfect. Inevitably, on the day before your launch, you’ll waste three hours of your day and get really sweaty and feel hopeless.

Making something is embracing its imperfection. If Apple can release a new iOS update every couple of months, then you can make a few revisions too.

Life is a typo. Press send anyway. Press it now.

A version of this post also appeared in Medium.

-Smiley Poswolsky

The Decision to Keep Going

18 Feb

Over the past year, I jumped head first into the creative vortex and somehow made it to the other side. The creative vortex is what separates the “I want to create” from the “I did create,” the “idea” from the “doing of the idea.” For me, this meant going from what was once a far-fetched dream to write a book, to actually writing the book, finalizing the book’s design, and (this past weekend!) pressing ‘send’ to my distributor.

The book tells the story of how I decided to start paying more attention to the voice inside my heart asking, urging, imploring me to live a life where I got paid for who I was and what I believed in. During this time, I quit my comfortable, government job in D.C. and moved to San Francisco with nothing but two suitcases, my newfound optimism, and a lot of energy.

Manuscript. Check.

One year later, the real work begins…

Not a day has gone by where I haven’t had to balance the voice inside my heart telling me to “keep going,” with the far more practical (parental) voice inside my head telling me to “be realistic, and get a real job.” Sometimes the practical voice gets so loud that I can’t even hear myself think and I start emailing every single person I know who works for a tech company to see if they are hiring.

On Friday night, when I told a friend I was considering moving halfway across the country to take a “real job” offer, she told me straight up, “Smiley: you can’t do that.” I replied, “Why not? I need to make some real money. The book is finished. It’s time to move on.”

She shot back, “Move on? You’re going to give birth to something and let it go by the wayside? Writing the book is just the beginning. You can’t stop now.”

I took a deep breath and let out a little scream, knowing she was right. You spend a year crawling through the creative vortex; writing your book, finishing your art installation, making your album, developing your product, launching your start-up. You stop seeing your friends, you don’t go out on the weekends, you give up drinking, you even give up sex (or maybe you just don’t get any); you are totally consumed working on something you believe in.

Finally, you get to a point where you’re work is ready to share with the world. Your initial instinct is one of fear. “Hmmm, some people are definitely going to hate this piece of shit I just made—why the hell did I just waste a year of my life working on this?—I need a back-up plan—I should get a job that pays well and provides me unlimited access to KIND bars and Kombucha.”

At some point you realize that the very instincts telling you to hold back are the same fears that inspired you to jump into the vortex in the first place. You accept that failure is impossible if you see your work through to the end.

The reality is that jumping into the creative vortex, while seemingly impossible, is actually the easy part. The process of sharing your work, of struggling to sustain your work, is far harder and scarier than creating it in the first place. I have to put as much energy into distributing and marketing the book as I did into the days I spent locked in the library writing it. I know that Day 366 requires far more dedication than Day 1.

Learning to balance this tension between the fire that burns within your heart and the practical voice inside your head is what makes you an artist or an entrepreneur. It’s what allows you to make the hardest decision you ever have to make (which you have to make every single day—sometimes two or three times a day): the decision to keep going.

To not get distracted by projects that may fulfill other people’s agendas, but not your own. To realize that if you are going to work in alignment with your purpose, if you are going to believe in yourself, then there is no end date or finish line. To accept that the road to your dreams is more likely to be marked by days spent actually living those dreams, than days spent in pursuit of a paycheck.

A version of this post also appeared in Medium.

Notes From a Facebook Sabbatical

18 Sep

And, we’re back. My apologies for not posting in so long. Between mid-August and mid-September, the entire What’s Up Smiley office (myself, 3 Moleskines, pair of dancing shoes) took a sabbatical from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—to get my introvert on, and write the second draft of my book. So, while I missed one wedding, one engagement, 13 inspiring TED talks, 92 YouTube cat videos, 213 Buzzfeed gif-montages, and thousands of pictures of what my friends were eating for brunch; I was able to write 35,000 words (about 95 pages) and give my second draft to my editor, on deadline, with five minutes to spare.

A few things I learned from my Facebook sabbatical—that I will continue to remind myself from time to time, now that I’ve returned to the Blue-and-white Menace.

1.  Facebook is addictive  

Facebook is a drug. It’s not easy to go without Facebook—it’s almost as hard as going without coffee. The first few days I was off, I caught myself clicking on my Facebook bookmark tab, without even realizing it. It had become second nature for me to “check my Facebook,” whenever I opened my computer. I deleted Facebook from my bookmarks tab, so I wasn’t tempted to check my News Feed.

I got the sense that Facebook knew I was trying to get off—it started sending me daily email notifications of “what I was missing”—which I had to turn off. On Day 4, after staring at blank tab for 30 seconds, I realized that the only reason I had even opened my computer was to look at Facebook, and I closed my laptop, and picked up a book to read.

2.  Avoiding Facebook added 2-4 hours to my day

During the month of July, I ran a crowdfunding campaign for my book, relying heavily on Facebook to spread the word about my project. I probably had the Facebook tab open on my computer for about 10 hours a day for nearly four weeks straight; the site was the single largest driver of traffic to my Indiegogo, and a main reason my campaign was successful. However, in August, after my campaign was over, I still found myself on Facebook for over 4 hours a day—except now I wasn’t running a campaign, I was just avoiding the one thing I knew I needed to be doing: actually writing my book.

I used the time I wasn’t spending on Facebook (or consuming the infinite number of blog posts, photos, articles, and videos, I click on via my News Feed), to write.

3.  I felt happier off Facebook

I’d like to pretend that I don’t check my Facebook after I post something to see how many likes it got, but I do. I’d also like to pretend that it doesn’t faze me when I see other people doing cool things on Facebook or Instagram, but it does. My first reaction is, “I’m happy for my friends—that’s so awesome they’re at the beach.” But there is an indirect effect, as well, and maybe it’s just me (but from conversations with numerous friends, I know it isn’t): I get jealous or start doubting my own decisions—“I wish I was at the beach today…” Regardless of the science behind Facebook-induced FOMO; not having to think at all about whether to post something on Facebook, what to post, how people react to my post, and how I react to their posts, is a liberating sensation—you feel empowered to enjoy whatever it is you are doing, wherever you are.

4.  I was more focused, confident, and productive, sans-Facebook

This feeling of being present during my Facebook sabbatical was most noticeable during my writing process this past month. In August, I would alternate between writing a few paragraphs and checking my News Feed—realize that someone had just written an article about exactly what my book was about—in words far more eloquent than I had—and I would feel worthless and self-critical, and think to myself: why am I even bothering writing this stupid book

Instead, during my Facebook sabbatical, I would focus on the task at hand: writing a chapter or a section of a chapter, and without distractions or comparisons, I would judge my day based on the quality of what I wrote, not the quality of what other people were writing for their projects. My own creativity, not my News Feed, became my priority.

5.  Facebook is all about balance

Lord knows, I have posted more than my fair share of captivating New York Times articles, as well as inane YouTube videos, and Seinfeld quotes, but there is nothing happening on Facebook that is more interesting than what’s happening in real life. Over the past four weeks, I spent time with my family, danced with old friends, and had lengthy phone calls with people I hadn’t talked to in months.

Social media is an incredible tool to get the word out about a project, cause, or event (and self-publishing my book would likely be impossible without it), but every now and then—especially during the creative process—it is worth taking a short vacation from listening to what the world is saying, to listen to yourself.  

Smiley's Moleskines   

Our Story Is All We Have: I’m Writing A Book!

25 Apr
Smiley's Moleskines

My Moleskines are getting full.

“But then why do we write if not to tackle the fears that others look to us to conquer?” Joanna Penn

Less than a year ago, the voice inside my head telling me to listen to my heart and take a leap finally got loud enough that I couldn’t ignore it. So I quit my job at the Peace Corps headquarters in D.C., moved to San Francisco without a job, and now I’m writing a book about that journey and about taking the leap.

I know many of you reading are ready to make a change, to get unstuck, and to stop settling for mediocrity. With this book, I want to help you do that.

It was really scary to embrace the quarter-life crisis I was facing, move thousands of miles away, and start completely anew in a strange city—so part of this book is about that. Part of it is about empowering you to move through whatever crisis you might be going through, whether you’re about to graduate college, quit your job, launch a new company, travel the world, or turn 30 (or 40, in which case, you’re probably thinking, “Holy shit, I’m 39, and about to read a book by some dude named Smiley, it can’t get much worse than this…”). 

Through telling my story and what has worked (and has not worked) during my recent life transition (ok, quarter-life crisis), my book will be a friendly companion on your journey toward getting closer to who you are and actualizing your dreams.  I will encourage you to embrace rather than dread your current life crisis, and best of all, smile and dance a little bit more.   

The book will be closer to the length of a novella (but true!) and will have illustrations by a friend of mine who is a prolific visual storyteller. 

The goals: To finish my first draft by my 30th birthday (June 29), and have the book completed by August 1.  I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign in late June to help pay for my wonderful editor, cover art and illustrations, a designer, marketing and publicity, and a book tour. 

A close friend questioned my audacity, and whether I could raise money on Kickstarter, saying “People buy cool products like watches and gadgets on Kickstarter, but why would anyone just want to read your story?,” he said to me.  Just read my story?  My story is all I have.  Your story is all you have.  Our story is all we have. 

So, if you’re with me, if you believe that I, just like you, have a unique story to tell, I need your help!  Embrace the process of creation with me.  Sign up here for exclusive updates on my progress, and sneak-peeks at my Kickstarter campaign which will launch in June.

Ways to Help

1)    Sign up here to join my mailing list so you can spread the word about my upcoming Kickstarter campaign and let other people know about the book!  If you are currently going through a life transition, or know someone who is, please sign up for the mailing list.  The point of this project is to build a supportive community of people going through this arduous process together. 

2)    Let me know if you have any ideas for my book. I’m still working on things like title, design ideas, brilliant marketing strategies, and creative book tour ideas.

3)    Know any brilliant writers? I’d love to pick their brains.

4)    Let me know if you are connected to an awesome publishing company who might be interested in my project.

Thank you!

I would not be able to make this happen without your love, inspiration, readership, and support—thank you!  Feel free to contact me at smileyposwolsky@gmail.com with questions or ideas.  And most importantly, tell your story too—whether by prose, photo, film, installation, music, dance, code, or whatever medium you love.  The world is waiting for you. 

Storyboarding my book at the library.

Storyboarding  at the UCSF library.  A couple medical students looked at me like I was nuts.

Revisiting The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin

15 Mar
Photo by Allan Warren, Wikipedia Commons.

Baldwin with Shakespeare, London, 1969.  Photo by Allan Warren, Wikipedia Commons.

A few moths ago, after listening to me lament about how difficult it is to sit down and actually write every day, my sister gave me some James Baldwin to read, and it calmed my soul.  I keep returning to one essay in particular, The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, which Baldwin delivered as a speech at the Community Church in New York City in 1962.  The complete text does not seem to exist online, which is a shame, but it can be found in the collection, The Cross of Redemption, and is essential reading.  

To give you, the reader, the writer, the artist, the social changemaker, a little taste of Baldwin’s fierce tongue, and his ability to spit the truth from the heart—the raw with the real—the brutal with the tender—I’ve included some of my favorite excerpts below. 

What makes this speech so powerful is that it puts forth Baldwin’s personal manifesto, his reason for being, which any writer can relate to.  Being an artist entails a total risk of everything; integrity is the ability to stay true to one’s calling, one’s calling is the very essence of who they are, and this is not something you can turn on and off.  It’s not something that hangs around for the weekend or the summer or for the extent of a hook-up or a relationship or a friendship or even a marriage or while your kids are growing up—you’re calling is you—it is with you forever

And with this great responsibility, this great purpose to do your art, to do the work you were meant to do­—whether that’s to write, to paint, to design, to make movies, to create, to teach, to help, to give, to fight for social change—comes an equally if not more important obligation to practice humility.  You have to respect your craft, to learn its power, as well as respect its ability to cause personal pain and torment.  You have to be humble enough not to let your calling, your art, destroy you, because it can, because in almost all likelihood, will.  

***

Excerpts from The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin

…The first thing an artist finds out when he is very, very young (when I say “young” I mean before he is fifteen, that is to say, before, properly speaking, he or she can walk or talk, before he or she has had enough experience to begin to assess his or her experience)—and what occurs in this hypothetical artist’s life is a kind of silence—the first thing he finds out is that for reasons he cannot explain to himself or others, he does not belong anywhere.  Maybe you’re on the football team, maybe you’re a runner, maybe you belong to a church, you certainly belong to a family; and abruptly, in other people’s eyes—this is very important—you begin to discover that you are moving and you can’t stop this movement to what looks like the edge of the world.  Now what is crucial, and one begins to understand it much, much later, is that if you were this hypothetical artist, if you were in fact the dreamer that everybody says you are, if in fact you were wrong not to settle for the things that you cannot for some mysterious reason settle for, if this were so, the testimony in the eyes of other people would not exist.  The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not…

…You walk into a room what somebody says, “What do you do?” And you say, “I write.”  And they say, “Yeah, but what do you do?”  And you wonder, what do you do? And what’s it for?  Why don’t you get a job?  And somehow you can’t, and finally you learn this is in the most terrible way, because you try.  You’re in the position of someone on the edge and it’s cold in the field, and there’s a house over there, and there’s fire in the house, and food and everything you need, everything you want, and you make all kinds of efforts to get into the house.  And they would let you in; they would let you in.  They’re not being cruel.  They recognize you as you come to the door, and they can’t let you in.  You get in, let us say, for five minutes, and you can’t stay…

…The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you.  You can only have it by letting it go.  You can only take if you prepared to give, and giving is not an investment.  It is not a day at the bargain counter.  It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go—everything, and this forever, forever…

…But then one has got to understand—that is, I and all my tribe (I mean artists now)—that it is hard for me.  If I spend weeks and months avoiding my typewriter—and I do, sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I’ve got to go—then one has got to use this to learn humility.  After all, there is kind of a saving egotism too, a cruel and dangerous but also saving egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this:  I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood had dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter that is my torment but is also my work.  If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster.  But if I find that hard to do—and I have a weapon which most people don’t have—then one must understand how hard it is for almost anybody else to do it all… 

***

So if it was so hard for James Baldwin to write—and yes, he had a weapon most writers can only dream of—how the hell are we supposed to do it?  Because we have to, or have to at least try.  As artists, we have to be true to ourselves; we have to ignore the voices telling us to stop and “get a real job,” we have to ignore the voice inside our own head that tells us every day to go out and “get a real job.” 

We have to continue to put ourselves out there, we have to continue to make courageous acts—through each blog post, each project, each show, each meeting, each event, each painting, each drawing, each piece of work, each and every day—we have to continue to risk everything—“and this, forever, forever.” 

When you have a moment, read the whole speech, which, true to its writer, switches to the subject of racial justice, which in the aftermath of the police shooting of Kimani Gray last Saturday in Brooklyn—yet another black teenager shot (7 times from 11 shots) and killed by the police, is just as relevant today as when delivered in 1962. 

In the end, Baldwin looks beyond the world of the individual artist, arguing that our collective integrity—our civilization as a whole, our humanity—is fundamentally broken and has failed, when we lack equality for our fellow man.    

Mass Incarceration In America Starts At A Young Age

5 Nov

I wrote a post in March about my experience volunteering with Free Minds Bookclub & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization, that organizes book clubs and writing workshops at the DC Jail, where 16 and 17 year-olds, many of whom have been incarcerated as adults, discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing.

The post discusses the devastating impact of prison on the black community, mentioning a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in America, which states that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. 

A recent New York Times analysis references research which shows that more young black dropouts from high school are in prison than have paying jobs, and that black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year degree or complete military service.  Blacks account for nearly half of the 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail, and because these people are not counted in census figures or data, Dr. Pettit, of the University of Washington, says, “Decades of penal expansion coupled with the concentration of incarceration among men, blacks, and those with low levels of education have generated a statistical portrait that overstates the educational and economic progress and political engagement of African-Americans.”

A month ago, I started volunteering with The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, which holds weekly writing workshops in 13 California county juvenile halls with volunteer facilitators, providing incarcerated youth with the opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences, and printing their words in a biweekly magazine that is then distributed to the young inmates in juvenile hall, and beyond.   

Writing is powerful tool for expression, and it can especially powerful for those who lack physical freedom and are plagued by trauma, violence, and the past.  Perhaps what’s most powerful is someone taking the time to read your words, to validate your voice and your story, and then to see your words printed in ink in a publication.  Organizations like The Beat and Free Minds provide an avenue — sometimes the only avenue — for creative expression, in a system built to kill any feeling of empowerment or hope. 

At each Beat session, volunteers help young inmates respond to specific writing prompts — a recent one was entitled “Voting For President” — and asked the kids who they thought who would be the best president for the United States, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?   It’s sad that many of these individuals may never have the opportunity to vote, and perhaps even sadder still, that even if President Obama is re-elected, there will still be more than six million people under correctional supervision in the United States.

While the Obama Administration has worked to reduce (but not eliminate) sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, a clear racial bias that disproportionally locks up more people of color compared to whites, reforming our for-profit prison system does not appear to be on the agenda for 2012-2016. 

Listening to some of the inmates’ stories, and what they’ve already been through at such a young age, makes it easy to recognize the freedom and privilege I take for granted in my everyday life in San Francisco, which is often consumed by discussing who serves the best cup of $3 pour-over coffee or the best burrito.    

An enlightening photo book project called Juvenile-in-Justice, by Richard Ross, presents some alarming statistics:  There are 70,000 young people in juvenile detention or correctional facilities every day in the U.S.  The average cost to incarcerate a juvenile for a 9-12 month period is between $66,000 and $88,000 – in California, this cost is almost $225,000.  Nearly 3 out of 4 youth confined for delinquency, are not in for a serious violent felony crime, and youth confined for longer periods of time are no less likely make repeat offenses than those confined for shorter periods of time.

Some of the young men at the juvenile hall, which houses kids as young as thirteen years-old, are in for repeat offenses or parole violations (including minor offenses like marijuana use), and may end up back in jail after they leave.  It’s a vicious cycle, but as the statistics above and this infographic shows, not uncommon for people of color, especially black men, growing up in low-income communities around the country. 

Clearly, the current prison system is broken and unjust, or rather, it’s working exceptionally well, if the goal is to lock up millions of people of color and give millions of dollars to private corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation), who combined earned $2.9 billion in 2010.  These corporations have worked closely with PACs and local government officials in states like Arizona to support harsh anti-immigrant legislation including SB 1070, all with the motive of filling prison beds with people of color for profit.

Voters in California have a chance to make a small difference on Election Day, Tuesday, November 6, by voting YES on Proposition 36, revising the three strikes rule, so that criminal offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who commit nonserious, non-violent felonies, would be sentenced to shorter terms in state prison.  A YES vote on 36 would also allow some offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who are currently serving life sentences for nonserious, non-violent felony convictions to be resentenced to shorter prison terms.

California voters should also vote YES on Proposition 34, which repeals the death penalty, replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  This law applies retroactively to existing death sentences, so offenders who are already serving a death sentence would be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole — and while life imprisonment is still a death sentence in many ways (especially if opportunities and state funding to challenge convictions are taken away) — this reform would ensure that an innocent person is never executed.

These are important changes, but they do little to change the shameful state of mass incarceration in America.  We need to end the systematic and cyclic structures that lock up so many people, especially young people, in the first place — end racist stop-and-frisk policing as well as sentencing disparities, which are filling prison beds for corporate profit — and curb poverty and violence in at-risk communities by funding and empowering robust youth (and adult) education, employment, entrepreneurial, health, and after-school programs. 

To get involved with The Beat Within’s writing workshops with incarcerated youth, or to volunteer to type up young inmates’ words, click here.  To support juvenile justice reform, check out Juvenile-in-Justice’s Take Action page, or the Equal Justice Initiative.

 

Education vs. Incarceration

Using Philadelphia as an example, this graphic compares the cost, both financial and societal, of education and incarceration.  Designed by Jason Killinger for Maskar Design.  Source: Visual.ly.

You Have To Start Somewhere, So How About Right Now

8 Aug

(And other wisdom gained during a summer of transition)

StartingBloc NY ’12 commitments. Photo credit: Jeff Wenzinger

At the end of May, I quit my job with the intention of not living one more day failing to live up to my full potential in life.

It sounds so simple when you spell it out, as my friend Evan did for me one evening back in February on a Santa Monica rooftop overlooking the Pacific Ocean:  why would you do anything in life other than maximize your unique impact on the world?  Why would you ever stay in a job you don’t like and live in a city you don’t like?  Yet so many of us, including myself for several years, get stuck; we get stuck in jobs that don’t make us happy, we get used to mediocrity, and grow so accustomed to the routine of exercise/work/happy hour/party/Facebook/sleep (repeat), that we stop caring or trying, and we completely bury our passions, our creativity, our art, our unique voice.  Sometimes television and the news and alcohol and social media or even relationships help us forget, because they take the focus off our own selves, and allow us to forget who we are and what we are truly capable of achieving. 

 When you leave your job without 100% knowing what’s next, it’s really hard and really scary, and sometimes people laugh at you and sometimes you laugh at yourself.  “You left a job paying WHAT and job security for the next gazillion years to be a freelance writer?!  You’re nuts!  Wake up man!  It’s 2012!  Have you heard of a little thing called the recession?!  Writers can’t make money, journalism is dead. You’re moving to San Francisco— rent there is 450 times what it was two days ago— haven’t you seen the infographic?!  You’re competing for jobs with 2,000,000 other 29 year-olds with bachelors degrees from New England liberal arts colleges and no hard skills, you’re so screwed.  THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS LOSE MR. LEBOWSKI, THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS LOSE!”

The goals I set for myself when I left my job were to pursue my interest in writing, support social entrepreneurs, make others happy, and to empower people to live out their full potential in life.  To this end, I am succeeding so far, as this summer has given me time to travel, to explore, to learn, to grow, to write, to meet emerging social changemakers, to be inspired, to network, to find a tribe of people who believe in what I’m doing, and build the confidence necessary to move forward.

Tomorrow I finally fly out to San Francisco.  It’s been a long time coming, I’m only just getting started, the journey is only beginning, and I have so much work that lies ahead.  So I thought I’d offer some wisdom I’ve gained thus far, a few things I’ve learned this summer, for anyone else out there is going through a similar transition, or who is thinking about quitting their job or making a major change in their life. 

The beautiful thing about wisdom is that it comes from within, but it is sparked by the experiences you have with others; to that end, I am grateful for all of those who have touched my life this summer in such magical ways.  I’d like to particularly like to recognize the bold, inspiring, unreasonable, friends I’ve met this summer while spending time at StartingBloc BOS ’12, The Bold Academy, and StartingBloc NY ’12 as well as brief visits to The Unreasonable Institute and the Dell Summer Social Innovation Lab; communities of people whose passion for social change is so fierce you can’t help but become a better version of yourself.    

1.    You are already awesome.

 “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”  -Steven Pressfield

I used to think that finding out who you are or what you’re going to do next came from talking to your friends and reading self-help books and seeing self-help counselors and doing lots of yoga and going on a pilgrimage to a temple somewhere in Asia.  While all of these may help, it’s easier to just look in the mirror and holler at yourself.  Who are you?  No, seriously, who are you?  What do you care about?  Where do you want to live?  Where do you not want to live?  What do you like to do?  What do you absolutely hate doing?  What are you good at?  What makes you happy?  What makes you upset?  What do you want to change in the world?

I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week in July at The Bold Academy in Boulder, Colorado, a real-life school for superheroes (if you don’t know, now you know!), created by Amber Rae and Nathaniel Koloc, which brought together 20 young people for a month-long journey in unlocking individual purpose and collective human potential, where I learned a simple but essential truth:  All of us are awesome and all of us have a unique, essential contribution to make in this world.  YOU.  ARE.  AWESOME.  Repeat it four times.  And then tell your friend so she knows she’s awesome too.  My brilliant friend Denise calls this self-love.  It will set you free. 

2.  Don’t front on the unstoppable power of someone with an idea and a passion.

“Look in your own heart.  Unless I’m crazy, right now a small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times, that calling that is yours and yours alone.  You know it.  No one has to tell you.”  Steven Pressfield

When people look within, find their interests and passions and unlock their human potential, it’s magical.  It’s unstoppable.  It’s contagious.  If you need any motivation, like I did, check out how StartingBloc Fellows are using social innovation and entrepreneurship to change the world, or check out the brilliant Unreasonable Institute Fellows.

Unreasonable Institute Fellow Sheikh A. Turay’s passion was so electric that his company, Liberation Chocolate, a social enterprise that employs former child soldiers in Liberia to revitalize cocoa plantations there, was re-launched in one afternoon in Boulder, Colorado.  At the Unreasonable Scrimmage, an all-day event hosted by The Unreasonable Institute and ReWork to engage Boulder community members in rapidly protyping social business models, eight people came together in the span of four hours to help Sheikh establish a U.S. distribution channel for his product, find a local chocolate producer, develop a new branding plan, and create a new website.  Why?  Because passion is power. 

3.  Gain wisdom from people younger than you are; they hustle harder

Prior to leaving my job I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder when it came to taking advice from young people in college or just out of college— sort of “I’m in my late 20s dude, you’re in college, you don’t know shit, talk to me after you’ve had a real job or two, after you’ve paid rent and had to pay off loans for a few years”—basically, I thought I was above listening to someone younger than me.  Not anymore.  Some of my most important mentors and the people I look up to most in life are 7-10 years younger than me.  Ted; he’s 22, he founded a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy to urban teenagers, he’s taught me infinitely more about smashing fear and setting audacious goals and being hungry and tenacious than any 30-80 year-old I’ve ever met.  Sam; she’s nine years younger than me, she has about 10 business projects going right now, knows everyone in the world of social entrepreneurship, and she inspires me to hustle harder.  Burcu; she worked at The Bold Academy this summer and made magic happen, she just graduated from college, and has already made a profound impact on the lives of so many people.  

Young people are tenacious, they are bold, they stop at nothing to get what they want, and most importantly, their deepest motivations come from connecting a personal interest with a social problem bigger than themselves.  As we get older we tend to immerse ourselves in the minutia of own lives; we should all spend more time listening and learning from young people, and following their lead for how we can make the world a better place.  

 4.  You have to start somewhere, so how about right now.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.  Begin it now.” –Goethe

 I used to love imagining the future.  “One day, I’m going to live in San Francisco.”  “One day, I’m going to write whenever and whatever I want to write and not just write at work.”  I kept putting off my dreams for some perfect moment, some perfect time when the stars were going to align and bagels and lox were going to start flying down from the sky.

You know what?  The stars are aligned right now.  That perfect moment is now, the future is today.  You have to start somewhere.  “But I don’t really know what I’m doing.”  Nor do I, nor does anyone.  So start right now.  Start writing, start the blog, start the new venture, buy the plane ticket, begin now.  What are you waiting for? 

I had the honor of meeting Alex, aka DJ Doce Luna, at The Bold Academy in July.  Alex is a Grammy-nominated jazz musician, and he’s launching a new career as a DJ/producer.  In the span of several weeks, he launched a new website and social media platforms, recorded an album and multiple other tracks, incorporated his business, found several business partners and is starting to book gigs.  In other words, he’s killing it.  Why?  Because he started. 

5.  Happiness and making money do not correlate  

It’s very nice to earn money.  There are millions of people in the world living in poverty who would like just some of it, while a very small number of people have way too much of it.  But, from my experience leading two “job/career change” discussion groups at StartingBloc this summer, making money and being fulfilled do not usually go hand-in-hand.  I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had this summer with young professionals working well-paying, impressive jobs at notable corporate law firms, management consulting companies, government agencies, investment banks, nonprofits and smaller companies, who are miserable at work and in life because they are not being challenged and because their heart and their passions and theories of social change are not connected to what they do every morning at 10am.  

A paycheck is important.  It’s cool when someone sees your resume or your business card and is impressed.  But happiness comes not at happy hour when you’re bullshitting with someone and pretending to be happy while you are really miserable, but only when you are actually impressed with yourself; that is, when you are doing what you love.  I’ve gotten more personal joy in the last two months from sitting down and typing a few words that came from my heart, taking a risk by putting my words out there into the world (which I had rarely ever previously done), and then hearing from a reader that the words were inspiring and made him want to do something different with his life, then I did from countless months of direct deposits in my bank account.  Obviously, we all still need to make a living, we still need a job, but it’s not about the money; it’s about finding a job that works for you, your unique skills and passions, and the impact you want to make on the world. 

6.  You can’t do it alone, you need a tribe

Putting yourself out there is not easy.  Anyone who tells you that it’s easy to make a major life transition or quit your job or start your own business, is full of shit.  You simply cannot do it alone.   You need to find your tribe; a group of people who believe in what you are doing, who will do everything in their power to help you succeed, and will bring you back up when you fall down or start to doubt yourself.  Communities like those at StartingBloc and The Bold Academy; communities of love, communities of support, communities of affirmation, communities of “I got your back,” of “I feel you,” of “I can help,” of “you need to hustle harder” of “let’s hold each other accountable.”

When you find your tribe, victory is a constant because when one person in the tribe accomplishes something, whether it’s launching a new website or winning a fellowship or getting press recognition or raising money or writing a blog post or recording a new song, the rest of the members in the tribe also win. 

 7.  Be grateful

 We only get to where we are because of those who carry us.  Thank you to my tribe and my friends who continue to carry me through this challenging transition.  You have helped me become a better version of myself.  I love you and am forever grateful.  Time to hustle, ready, set, go. 

Embracing Fear

6 Jun

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”  -Yoda

Uncertainties are ok, they are healthy in a way, I get that shit all the time.  I stopped trying to get rid of them, cause I always have them, it’s part of my DNA.” -Smiley

Ted Gonder inspires StartingBloc BOS ’12.

The topic of fear has come up a lot recently, talking to my friends and talking to myself in my Moleskine.  Fear can be especially brutal when you’re going through a major life transition, and has been a constant presence through the process of leaving my job and beginning anew as an unemployed yet optimistic I-can-fucking-make-it-as-a-writer, don’t-fucking-tell-me-I-can’t.  I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Ted Gonder, a 22 year-old graduate of the University of Chicago, speak last week on the topic of “Smashing Fear” at the StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation, and in the course of 90 inspired minutes we watched YouTube videos of the honey badger (motherfucker can run backwards!) sticking his head into a swarming bee hive to get the larvae, Mike Tyson calmly taking endless jabs to the head only to use his impregnable defense to knock-out his opponent with one perfectly-timed, perfectly-placed punch, and then we stood up with 100 other people and bit into a whole lime to suck all the juice out (don’t eat the peel!). 

Gonder, who received his college diploma last weekend, was recognized this spring by President Obama as a Champion of Change in the White House Campus Challenge, for being the co-founder and director of Moneythink, a Chicago-based nonprofit that empowers urban youth through financial life-skills and entrepreneurship mentoring.  This past week Moneythink became the recipient of the $25,000 Chase Community Giving Award and was featured in Forbes.  Gonder lives by the simple, yet powerful mantra:  “If I’m not at least a little scared to do something, it’s probably not worth my time.” 

Rather than a sign of encouragement or motivation, fear all too often becomes a red light that makes us put the breaks on the very ideas, dreams, goals, and journeys that we know we need to take.  Why?  Because the most epic life decisions naturally involve risk and the potential for success or failure—if they didn’t involve risk, you wouldn’t be thinking about them.  However, our fears are rather lame and paltry when we actually say them out loud or spell them out on paper.  Exhibit A:

My friend Shira Bee:  Smiley, what’s your biggest fear right now?

Smiley:  That I’ll suck as writer and never get published or make a living and have to go back to an office job that doesn’t 100% fire me up in the morning.

Shira (looking disappointed): a) You don’t suck as a writer.  b) Even if you have trouble making money from writing, you’ll be doing what you love and have gone for it, and worse-case scenario, worse-case scenario, you go back to an office job that would be pretty much what you were doing before, so… that’s really not that bad is it?

Smiley:  No, I guess it’s not that bad. 

Our fears are not nearly dramatic as we conjure them up to be in our heads.

“If all my friends give me money on Kickstarter for this documentary film and it doesn’t end up getting into Sundance, everyone’s going to think I’m a loser.”  False.  YOU MADE A FUCKING MOVIE, YOU’RE A ROCKSTAR!  How many people in this world have actually written or directed or starred in a film?  Like 0.00001% of the world’s population—you’re basically famous. 

“My parents will be worried or upset if I leave my paycheck to travel the world or be a Peace Corps volunteer or start a nonprofit with my best friend.”  Your parents love you dearly, but they care most about your well-being; following this urge will shape the course of your life and in the end, actually earn your parents’ respect. 

“If I take a gap year to write a book before graduate school, employers won’t hire me because of the gap on my resume.”  Any employer worth working for should value personal growth and exploration and should judge you based on what you did in your time off, not by whether you took it. 

When we spell them out, our fears are actually quite manageable and you don’t need Mike Tyson’s psycho-superhuman abilities to conquer them.  As Marianne Williamson said,  “Our biggest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our biggest fear is being powerful beyond measure.”  Despite this fact, anyone going through a major life decision knows that uncertainty and doubt creep in.  Every run I’ve gone on in the past four months, every yoga class, every time I’ve laid down to sleep, there is some amount of doubt or uncertainty or “what the hell am I doing?” that finds it’s way into my brain.  For months, my approach was to escape this sensation as fast as possible—go away fear, get away, get away get away, leave me alone, alone I said, shoo, fly!  You know what?  Didn’t work—doubt came back the next day.  Then I had a revelation; uncertainty and doubt are part of my DNA, they make up part of who I am.  I have a loving Jewish mother (who I love dearly)—there is no way, no fucking way, whether I want to or not, that I’m living a life without questions or uncertainty or doubt or guilt or worrying should I be doing something else instead or is this a good idea or should I have taken an umbrella?

So instead of running from fear, I embrace it and use it as fuel.  I say to the doubt, directly, “Ok doubt, I see you, I see you doubt, and I raise you ten; I’m gonna run a little faster, gonna work this downward dog a little harder, gonna write some more today, gonna call three friends who live far away today, gonna hug five new people today.”  As my friend Shira writes, “If we stop trying to eliminate fear, and instead use it reveal what it is that we love and value, it can become an incredible source of energy and direction.”  Instead of a dreaded menace to escape from, fear has become fun for me, and embracing it has unlocked a renewable energy source I’m just beginning to discover.  

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