The Upside of Impracticality: Or Why I Left Congress for Brooklyn

Caitie Whelan recently gave up the prestigious job of a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress to move to Brooklyn, NJ and write. Ayup! (Yes, she hails from the great state of Maine).  Why? She wanted to make a dent in the universe (something she's done before). Read on.  Be inspired. Think, ponder... and go make a dent.
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This is not a practical story.

Three months ago, I had a great job as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress. I had a great boss, a great dental plan, and a great city to call home. But something wasn’t great. And it came down to three words:

Doubt. Fear. Convention.

I saw too many people deflated by doubt, fear, and convention. Qualitative data was everywhere: deferring dreams for safe jobs, working for the weekend, resisting risk and reinvention. In short, too many of us felt too stuck, too small to  - as Steve Jobs said - “put a dent in the universe.” It was as present in DC as it was in Delhi or Detroit.

I know what it’s like to feel trapped and tiny. I also know that with the big challenges our world holds, we can't afford for people to play it small.  

I believe in many things: public libraries, underdogs, finding blue lobsters. Above all, I believe in the power of one person to make a dent. I’d seen that power undercut; I couldn’t respect my beliefs and not do something about it.

Policy’s one way to effect change, but I knew it wasn’t where I could be most effective. I liked writing and storytelling. I hadn’t done much of either. But I figured raw passion was a pretty good foundation to build from

I also figured since I had a lot to learn, I should surround myself with masterclass writers and creators. So, in March, I left my great job, my great dental plan, and my great city and I moved to Brooklyn to write, build a website, and make my dent in the universe.

In April, I launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking stories and great ideas from all over to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. All in a two-minute read.

I’m 30. I’ve never written for a living, managed a website, or lived in Brooklyn. Noah Webster would have good reason to put this under the definition of ‘impractical.’

Why ditch practicality? Three reasons.

1.  I believe in it.

Our world is shot through with pain.

Chad is short on food. The Middle East is short on stability. California is short on water. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. But we don’t have all hands

Many of our hands are tied up, doubting that we matter, fearing that we’ll fall short, or convention telling us to stay on script. It’s deflating enough to make us forget what we’re capable of.

The Lightning Notes is my reminder that doubt, fear, and convention may be big, but we are bigger. And we are made of tougher, more impactful stuff.

I believe in that.

2. Respect.

I’m a white belt again.

I could fall on my face, which would hurt. But not as much as never going in the ring. My gut was hollering, “Go for it.” When our gut hollers, that deserves respect.

And so do the people we serve

As Deb says, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. The Lightning Notes has no ads or paywalls. I wouldn’t want that as a reader; it doesn’t feel respectful for me to force it on another reader. Instead, I ask people to donate.

There’s plenty of free content out there. Why should people donate

They don’t have to. Yet, some already have. If 1,000 people give $8 a month, after Paypal fees and taxes, The Lightning Notes is financially viable. I’m giving myself one year to make it happen; I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Is there a faster way to make money? Yup. But I’m not doing this to be fast.

I’m doing this to respect that untamed part of myself that - despite doubt, fear, and convention -  hollered, “Go for it.”

And I’m doing this out of respect for the untamed part in each of us that’s hungry to contribute, to be a part of something bigger than we are, to put a dent in the universe.

3. Risk.

When I watched the Kentucky Derby, there was a moment where American Pharoah and Firing Line were neck and neck. And I thought to myself, “I know that feeling: it’s exactly where my excitement and fear are.” Such is the experience of risk.

But life’s inherently risky. Why not fill it with the risks, as Deb says, we believe in? I don’t want to take a bunch of dreams to my grave. So, I’m taking this one to the streets.

This is not a practical story. But neither is a world where doubt, fear, and convention are writing the narrative.

Let’s rewrite the narrative. Let’s live all the life we have in us to live. Let’s make our dent.

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. Prior to the Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and is co-founder/chair of the Salt Alumni Board. She is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. Follow The Lightening Notes on twitter.

Tiptoe Through the Tulips No More

Well, last week’s post got some great responses.  I find it very providential that Jessica Esch has been reading myJessica Esch "#58 At Last" mind as she’s creating her book ;-).  The horrors of last Friday are very fresh for all of us, and sorrowfully, will be permanently fresh for many families in Newtown.  I can’t even fathom their pain and anguish.  It truly is beyond comprehension.

This is the season of merriment, peace and goodwill where we are all smiles and happiness.  Perhaps this should also be the season of taking a stand.  And this is not a paradox!  If we are to truly lead a meaningful, bountiful life that wonderfully makes a difference in the lives of others, then we cannot be the silent majority.  We need to look political correctness in the face and tell it where to go.

We’ve blurred the lines between freedom and license, between having the right and it being right, and between output (a vehement disagreement) and outcome (a solution achieved through work, compromise and promise). Our fear of offending others can have a very high price – life itself. 

So, in this season of joy and blessings, as you prepare for time with family and friends, as you put on your smiles, real and manufactured, find time for a little reflection on what you will stand for in 2013.  What will you refuse to tiptoe around and finally address – with wisdom, firmness, and compassion?  When you look in the mirror, who will you see? I pray it will be someone who has made a significant and powerful impact on and for others…by not staying silent.  Tiptoe no more! Let 2013 be a year of making a difference!

Summer’s Trump Cards

We use the term "trump" a lot (hum...gambling influence on our culture?).  So I thought I'd posit a few trump cards of my own for the summer - here they are:

Meaning & Purpose Trump Money & Profit: While we see this in the younger generation, isn’t it really true for all of us, even if we don’t admit or realize it? Hey, ½ (or more) of our lives are ‘at work’ – so we should enjoy it, relish it, be passionate about it.  It should be a means AND an end, not just a means to an end….

Challenge:  Increase the meaning and purpose of those who work with and for you before the end of August.

Paradoxical Thinking Trumps Critical Thinking:  While I was raised to think paradoxically (more eastern than western), for most of us, it’s formidable – we’re been trained in logic & linear progression.  But life, work and innovation are about AND/BOTH, not EITHER/OR – that’s a false choice.  Look at the edges.

Challenge:  Discover a paradox, perhaps at the fringe, to help you and your team innovate before the end of August.

Culture Trumps Strategy: The best made plans are worthless if they’re not aligned with the culture. Sometimes the strategy can help transform the culture (for good or bad), but if the culture doesn’t support it, it won’t happen.  Perhaps that’s why I think CEOs need to be CCS’s – Chief Culture Stewards.

Challenge:  Start to check the health of your culture – really, be brutally honest -before the end of August.

Strategy Trumps Structure:  In most crises, the first thing the organization does is restructure; ok, problem solved. How can you restructure without knowing where you’re going and how best to achieve it? Yet I fight this all the time with most clients.  Remember – Form follows Substance. Structure is a trailing indicator, not the cure.

Challenge:  If you have a good strategic direction, check to see if you’re organizationally aligned to make it happen before the end of August. (if you don’t, email me!)

Structure Trumps Processes: In helping clients formalize SOPs, we’ve realized that structure can stand in the way.  Understanding how process improvement in one area affects another can help you negatively affect other process in other areas.  It’s the 2nd, 3rd order effects, the ‘unintended’ consequences that can get you.

Challenge:  Identify a few key processes and see their ripple effects throughout your systems before the end of August.

Please share your efforts on these challenges so we can learn from & help each other!!