Who Are You?

When you meet someone at a party, an event, in the store, at a school, what do we usually ask? “What do you do?” or if you’re in college, “What’s your major?”

There are many ways in which others define us and we define ourselves:

·      Job, title, level;

·      Mom, Dad;

·      Daughter, son, sibling;

·      Aunt, Uncle.

·      College, university, and major or degree;

·      Home town, city, country;

·      Ethnicity;

·      Nationality(ies);

·      Religion;

·      Political leaning;

·      Talents;

·      Causes, volunteer efforts;

·      Board roles;

·      Combinations and integrations of the above;

·      None of the above – something else.

How do you really want to be identified? To be known? You may answer differently depending on where you are in your life and what matters.  That’s normal. But when you strip away all your functions and roles, at a very fundamental, who are you? What do you want to be known for? And why? 

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.

This Seems Like a Lot of Work For a Free Banana

This guest post is by my dear friend, Brian Sooy, who helped me raise my voice when I started on my own.  His voice is powerful. So please read this post and his book, Raise Your Voice: A Cause Manifesto, if you want to change your business...and yourself. 

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Why It’s Worth Planning and Pushing to Reach your Goals

At age 52, I ran my first half marathon. My friends who are marathon runners said my time of 2:14:34 was respectable. I surpassed my goal by over 15 minutes.

But was it worth it? 

Early into the race, not 100 yards from the starting line, a child sat on his father’s shoulders, dressed for the chilly early morning, holding a sign up high. It read:

This seems like a lot of work for a free banana!

Early in the race, I appreciated the humor. 11 miles in, at the beginning of an uphill climb to the finish, I appreciated it even more.

Do you ever ask yourself a similar question in your business? For the entrepreneur, small business=owner, and leaders of any organization, does it seem like a lot of work?

In business, as you lead your team and guide your organization, do you ever ask yourself “Is it worth it?” What are your goals? What is your motivation?

Most importantly: What is your purpose?

I ran with a goal: to complete the race (walking as little as possible), and prove to myself that the destination was proof that I had the strength and courage to finish.

I knew I wouldn’t win, but I ran like I could win. I had trained for 5 months, for two and one half hours of grueling monotony. It was a half marathon, not a sprint. There would only be a dash to the finish for those who paced themselves, with reserved energy for a strong finish.

To my left, on a different part of the course, I watched the elite marathon runners pass me as if they had just started running. Those athletes were completing 26 miles in less time than it would take me to run 13.1 miles. Their destination was the same, but their goals were different. My goal was to finish; their goal was to win.

When you set your own goals, you set yourself free from the expectations others place upon you. When you cast a clear vision and share it with your team, you are free to lead well, and run your race as you see fit.

My purpose in running was for the sense of accomplishment I could have in completing the race, in reaching my goal. My time was good, but it wasn’t great.

After all that training, and preparation, was it worth it?

A few years ago, I realized that while I’ve been moderately successful in business, it wasn’t enough.Success is fleeting, and you have to keep chasing it—like a runner who constantly pushes himself, training harder, to achieve a better time—measured often in mere seconds.

Success is temporary; significance endures. I want to leave a legacy; to do work that matters, to have lasting and meaningful impact in my family, my career, my community. I want to live a life that matters, and make the story of my life a story worth telling.

Near the end of the race I was joined by a friend who has ran many 26-mile marathons, including a one hundred mile ultra marathon. He ran with me for a couple of hundred yards, encouraging me while I continued the uphill climb toward the finish.

His encouragement was enough to spur me on to run the last mile faster than I had ran the previous 12—a full 1:30 minute per mile faster.

I had prepared and trained, I was running strong. My friend recognized it, and reminded me that I could finish strong.

I’d like you to share this perspective with me: to work with purpose, and to seek significance.

Deep down, you know what you're good at. Don't be afraid to run with it and lead with your strengths. Stick to your purpose; stay focused on your goals.

Every day, remind yourself: I’m running my business as if I will win the race. I have prepared, and I will push myself to reach my goals.

Surround yourself with encouragers, who will cheer you on when you feel like you’re the weakest.

We don’t all need to win, but we all need to finish.

You may not win the race, but you will finish strong.

If all you are going to settle for is the equivalent of a free banana, then it won’t be worth it. If you work with a sense of purpose, you’ll achieve significance. If you’re just simply working, you’ll struggle without a sense of purpose.

My last quarter mile was the strongest. I was sore; I was tired.  As I crossed the finish line I was handed a medal… and a banana.

It was a lot of work. But it was worth it.


Brian Sooy is the author of the book Raise Your Voice: A Cause Manifesto, (RockBench, 2014), a framework for understanding how an organization's purpose, character, culture, and voice can connect mission and audience more effectively.  The 12 strategic, inspirational, relational, and aspirational principles of the Cause Manifesto empower leaders to create purpose-driven culture and communications, share their story more powerfully and effectively, and align their culture and communication strategy to the outcomes they are working to achieve.

Brian is an entrepreneur, design professional, volunteer, donor and nonprofit board member. He is the principal of Aespire, the design and marketing firm that empowers mission-driven organizations to create purpose-driven culture through positioning, design, marketing, and web site development.

Twitter: @briansooy
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/briansooy
Google+: https://plus.google.com/+BrianGSooy

Red, Right, Returning...

Red, Right, Returning – when returning from the sea, make sure the red buoys are on the starboard (right) side to stay in the channel.  This phrase was drilled into my head as a kid when I learned to sail, leaving the secure confines of our harbor for the big wild sea.

Every business, organization, entrepreneur, C-suiter, yes, humans need ballast - guiding principles, missions and core values to help navigate the big wild sea.  

Herein lies a fundamental paradox: the importance of getting outside one’s comfort zone, exploring, discovering, lens-shifting and living at the edge based on a foundation of values providing guidance and ballast – like the bell buoy at the harbor entrance.

What’s your Red, Right, Returning?

  • For businesses and organizations, it’s your mission and purpose – the reason the organization exists, the way you benefit your customers, employees and stakeholders, the way you create powerful outcomes that others can’t;
  • For entrepreneurs, C-suiters and humans, it’s your personal values you won’t compromise, your integrity, character, the impact on those that work for and with you and the impact on those around you – family, friends, acquaintances.

The photo is of the Pemaquid Point Gong Buoy #2 at the entrance to the Johns River and Pemaquid Harbor.  It is my favorite bell buoy gifting a sound that gives me comfort, rest and peace.  A sound I return to over and over – after a long day of excitement, stress, hectivity, whatever (yes, I have it on my iPhone).  

As you approach the end of summer, before the fall arrives, what is your Red, Right, Returning? What is your ballast? Defining, refining, communicating that is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s not something that ‘can wait til later.’  It’s something that is critical to your organization and business, to your customers, your employees, your stakeholders and yourself.  Please spend some time to reflect, rediscover and then launch out to sea, knowing that buoy is always there.

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!!