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.

It's Time We Develop A New Relationship With Work

I've been following award winner, internationally acclaimed writer and speaker Tanveer Naseer for a while.  His wisdom and insight, put into language we can all understand and act upon, is a gift.  He generously let me post on his site earlier this month and I'm privileged to return the favor.  You can find more of Tanveer's sagacity on leadership and the workplace here, follow him on twitter @TanveerNaseer, and keep up on what he's thinking here.  Thank you, Tanveer!

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It's Time We Develop A New Relationship With Work 

Have you ever noticed how when someone tells us how they've been really busy with work, we automatically interpret this as being a bad thing?  Certainly, no one associates having a lot of work to do with sunshine, love, happiness or any other positive experience.

In many ways, this is a natural product of both our schooling and work experiences, where we're not guided and supported to use our genius, creativity, and talents in order to do the work we should do.  Rather, what is the more common experience is being funnelled through a system that puts us into neat slots like gears in a complex piece of machinery. 

When it comes to work, we've come to accept the concept of 'no pain, no gain' as being the proper route to success and prosperity.  That we need to tough it out in the hopes that – someday – we might finally be able to do what we want to do because we've 'paid our dues'.

To make matters worse, even if we are lucky enough to do work we enjoy, that sense of satisfaction tends to be short-lived as we're rarely given the space to grow and evolve, with the freedom to make mistakes without being blackballed a failure and someone no longer worthy of development or the attention of those in charge.

And so, we inevitably hunker down, hoping that someday our ship will come in as a reward for all the sacrifices we've made, and we'll finally get to live the life we always wanted and do the work that we've dreamed about doing all those many years ago.

No doubt this is why so many insurance and retirement planning companies rely on images of retired couples lounging on a boat off some tropical island, or taking up salsa dancing lessons before enjoying a night on the town. 

In each instance the message is clear – we can live the life we really want . . . but only after we've committed to giving the best part of our lives today to doing work that might not be what we had planned or should be doing.

In this light, it's not too surprising why we've created a negative connotation around the word 'work', whether it's as a verb or a noun.

Of course, there's a truth that we need to come to terms with if we are to truly succeed and thrive – both professionally and personally – and that is that we're not making sacrifices.  We're making choices.  Bad choices.  Safe choices.  Choices that those around us tell us are the 'smart' ones to make, but are often not the best ones for us to choose.

I know I've made a few of those in my past – choices I made to help pay the bills while waiting for that opportunity that I really wanted to show up.  And that's where we fall into the trap, because while we may have accepted these choices as temporary, they soon become the work we do and the life we live because we stop looking for that path that we were meant to take; of reconnecting with the work we were meant to do.  We give up on such dreams in favour of pragmatism and familiarity; of sticking to what we know instead of what we need.

To be clear, this isn't about simply 'doing what we love'.  It's about learning to love what we do because it provides us with a sense of fulfilment.  That our work becomes more than simply a means of survival and living, but a way for us to employ our talents, our genius, and our creativity and drive towards something meaningful and purpose-driven.

While the growing levels of anxiety, fear and stress we see in today's workplaces are partly due to the prevailing uncertainties surrounding the global economy, it is also a manifestation of that disconnect between what we do and why we do it

And it's becoming clear as we move further into this century that this approach to our careers and lives is no longer sustainable; that we've reached a tipping point where people can no longer be expected to feel happy or fulfilled by working to live.  Instead, we need to shift the paradigm to one where people live to work.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the sole reason for our lives is our work; that answering the typical question 'what do you do for a living' serves to define the sum total of our existence.  Rather, it means that we need to be more mindful in ensuring that the work we do is aligned with our internal compass that guides us to finding our purpose and our ability to contribute meaningfully. 

That as much as we're helping our organization to attain its shared goals, we're also performing work that helps us to achieve a sense of purpose – that what we contribute matters and is meaningful beyond our sphere of influence.

In the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egyptologists have found carved in the stone blocks the names of some of the work teams that helped to build this monument.  The carvings were never meant to be seen by others.  Instead, they were made simply to demonstrate the workers sense of accomplishment and purpose that they derived from the simple, but back-breaking work of hauling these large stones into place.

Their example serves as a testimony that we don't need to 'have it all' to feel a sense of fulfilment or achievement.  Rather, all that's required is our willingness to no longer play it safe or waiting until later to commit our creativity, our passions and our dreams to that which not only creates meaning for others, but which also instills a sense of purpose and fulfilment within ourselves.

Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and speaker.  He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with managers and executives to help them develop leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development, while ensuring they remain focused on what creates a fulfilling sense of purpose in what they do.

You can read more of his writings on leadership and workplace interactions on his blog at TanveerNaseer.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter - @TanveerNaseer.

The Risk of Not Taking Risks

My friend, Doug Sundheim’s new book, Taking Smart Risks, is an early winner for 2013 Must Reads.   Before I get to how great the book is, the story of how Doug and I met starts with taking a smart risk!  Doug had read a post of mine about my wonderful client, Menasha Packaging and asked if I would be willing to introduce him to them for a book he was writing.  Of course, I did a bit of due diligence into this Doug guy and said yes.  I’m so glad I did!

Part of the problem with risk today is how it’s defined and ingrained in our society.  Take the definition, “exposing oneself to the possibility of loss or injury.”  The definition talks about what can happen as a direct result of risk – the ‘output’ of risk but definitely not the outcome, which is what Doug eloquently supplies – “exposing oneself to the possibility of loss or injury in the hopes of achieving a gain or reward.”  For many people, though, “the emotional cost of not risking and having to live with that regret [is] much greater …than any career or financials … costs.”

By reframing the definition of risk, Doug shows the power of smart risk taking.  We rarely look at the risk of NOT doing, of NOT innovating, of NOT trying.  In essence, it a different perspective of opportunity costs – the opportunity cost of NOT doing something.  I see this everyday in my work – organizations that see innovation as a risk instead of seeing not innovating as a bigger risk.  Doug makes the costs of playing it safe very clear: we don’t grow, win, create and we lose confidence and bluntly, don’t feel alive and meaningful.  If we can get this to change, imagine the positive power that can be unleashed.

Which gets to another key point in Doug’s book – the paralysis of security.  We create an illusion of security around us today, one that is heavily dependent upon our other illusion of control.  The issue isn’t going from security to insecurity.  We’re already not secure in terms of ‘stuff’ whether we recognize it or not.  We’re already not in control of our circumstances whether we recognize it or not.  However, we can be secure in who we are and what we stand for and in how we control our own reactions to life. A key to smart risk taking is, as Doug says, the ability to “increase our tolerance for uncertain circumstances.” If we are secure in who we are, what we stand for and how we will react, we can welcome uncertainty for the opportunity it really is.   That is why I truly believe that entrepreneurs, for instance, are not more risk-o-philic but fundamentally define risk like Doug does.

The book’s practical wisdom, advice, and tools for how to take smart risks are critical.  This is uncharted territory for many and Doug’s practical guidance will make it easier for us to learn how to and actually take smart risks.   This is particularly important for some of the hardest areas of smart risk taking – our own ego and our ability to communicate.  Through stories about humble leaders and constant communicators, like Mike Waite, Doug demonstrates how critical the ‘soft’ skills are in successfully taking smart risks…and in the payoffs.  These are truly fundamental to taking risk. 

It’s been almost exactly 1 year since Doug and I met for breakfast in NYC and talked about his book and how I could help.  That was the start of our friendship!  I introduced him to the incredible leaders at Menasha Packaging and Thogus, my 21st Century manufacturing client.  The result of Doug’s taking the risk to “ask”?  He got some very real and powerful stories of leaders we can emulate and learn from, I got two of my fabulous clients in his book, and we all now have a field-guide for the New Year and beyond to help us take smart risks.  I look forward to seeing the great things that will happen because of it!

Innovation requires Lens Shifting

A while ago, my friend Jackie Hutter and I did a workshop on Leading Indicators for Innovation from 2 aspects: 1) how can you look around you for leading indicators of areas ripe for innovation; and 2) what are leading indicators in your innovation process itself.

Both are important, the first is more ‘fun’ so we’ll discuss it first and save the 2nd for another post.  Jackie coined the phrase, “Lens Shifting” which made me thing of this:

These guys are all working on the same physical plane, but for one it’s flat, for another uphill and for another downhill. It depends where you’re standing.  They are all on the same physical plane, but they all have different viewpoints.  We view things from our own perspectives and biases. 

Why are some people so good at understanding, and leading, future trends, behavior? Think Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett.  How do they stay cutting edge year after year? Well, they seem to view the world differently, to ‘Lens Shift’.  They are curious about the world, life, work; they’re open-minded; they set their minds on an idea and go for it, even creating the trend itself;  they’re confident in their ideas and act;  they don’t care about being different, not conforming.  Some say they’re ‘fearless’ and ‘risk takers’ – perhaps, or perhaps they define fear and risk differently – risk = status quo, not the undefined opportunity.  Mainly, they exhibit connectedness – in terms of people (social network & capital) and the ability to connect things together, to see patterns and relationships that most don’t see.

Before my oldest child started crawling, I crawled around the house to ‘baby-proof’ it.  Wow! What a totally different perspective! It was amazing.  Try it, even if your kids are grown.  Start looking at the world around you that way –your world, your (current, potential, non-) customers’s worlds.  Imagine what it could be.  We call that the “Parallax View”: a viewpoint from which you can observe and study something/somebody from a new angle, gaining insights unavailable before. Imagine what could happen if you tried this?

Here are some ways to start.  Jeffrey Phillips encourages us to look at rituals, like shaving, and think about how we could reinvent them.  Jerry Sternin improved malnutrition in Vietnam by looking at Positive Deviants – at those who, despite the circumstances and everyone around them, were doing better.  Tony Hsieh talks about hiring lucky people, but luck isn’t totally accidental, it’s serendipitous, and luck breeds luck.

I bet you are already doing some of this but don’t realize it or use it as best as you could.  Your customers’ and their customers’ business drivers are your leading indicators!  There are indicators all around.  There is the “Lauder Lipstick Indicator”, created after 9/11. There are job boards, real estate transactions, zoning permits that tell you the types of jobs, land & buildings, special capabilities your customers, or competitors, are looking at.  By reading, watching, listening, observing, you can find many leading indicators, without spending big money on market studies, that can help you provide very valuable solutions (and business models) to your customers.  Just give it a try.

So what are some of your leading indicators? Can you share them?

p.s. if you’re interested, you can get a copy of our workshop here and stay up on leading indicators!