What if You Tried Risking It?

Yuna Hur  &  Elaine Cheung  - Versions of a Retail Pop-Up, Spring 2018

Yuna Hur & Elaine Cheung - Versions of a Retail Pop-Up, Spring 2018

I’m honored to host a blog by one of my amazing mentees, Yuna Hur ‘18. Last year, as a senior, it was time to push academic limits 1 last time before graduating. This is her story about why it’s so important to take risk … because you never know what can happen! Thank you, Yuna!! *


Top: Elaine Cheung, Yuna Hur, students & Critiquers for ENGN 1971

Top: Elaine Cheung, Yuna Hur, students & Critiquers for ENGN 1971

May 2019: It has already been a year since I was persuaded to take a class Deb introduced to me my second semester senior spring [2018]. The class was called Iterative Design of Retail Value Propositions and Experiences - a blend of design and engineering. I never took courses related to business nor art, as I concentrated in cognitive science and education studies. My coursework had primarily focused around the topic of how people learn, both from a cognitive - neuro & psych perspectives - as well as an applied standpoint in my classes in the education department. I was in a good spot with regards to my concentration requirements. Like many other seniors, I was looking at loads of classes across departments. I asked Deb what time and how frequently the course would meet, and she said it would be once a week. If I’m honest, that was a huge selling point - again, because it was senior spring, though there was a huge part of me that was feeling incredibly insecure and unprepared for the course... no background in any of the topics that the course described. Nonetheless, because who can turn down Deb (?!!!?!!), I signed up for the course, not knowing what to expect, who’d be in the class, and how prepared I’d be for this mysterious course.

Here are 5 (of many) takeaways from taking this class (in no particular order) which are important for life beyond college:

yuna iteration timeline DISP.png
  1. Have a plan and be flexible - I started out the course thinking in my perfectionist mindset -- craving to find and work towards THE ideal solution. In this way, I have found myself digging deeper into details that were all uncertain because there was no singular “final answer”. I experienced a shortcoming from the expense of losing sight of what I initially set to work towards. Quickly, Deb convinced my perfectionist-self to take this class pass/fail -- and NOT just because it was my senior spring. This has been one of the best decisions throughout my time at Brown because it gave me permission and room to be okay with uncertainty, be okay with taking risks, and be okay with using my imagination.

  2. Value collaboration with individuals from diverse backgrounds - In this class, students came from a variety of concentrations, ranging from International Relations, Architecture, Sociology, Applied Math, Engineering, Economics...etc. My partner studied History of Art and Architecture, and I studied Cognitive Science and Education. We each brought different skills, as she shared her keen eye to visually display her reasoning, and I shared my systematic reasoning in informing detailed decisions we made for our project.

  3. Be human-centered - When thinking of different personas for the start-up the class was based on, there was no “one-size-fits-all” mold. My partner and I worked to create very different personas by pulling from our vastly-different experiences and socializations. This process, in-it-of-itself reminded me of how meaningful the individual experiences we bring to the table are. Developing these personas and then the different variations of the start-up’s pop-up store served as a reminder to know and expand intentional awareness to context-specific situations.

  4. Seek intentional feedback - Throughout the course, each group had consistent opportunities to pitch the progress they’d made to the class. Following each group’s presentation, there was always time dedicated for individuals to share thoughts, ask questions, and for presenters to ask and respond. I appreciated these interactions because the feedback I’d receive was immediate, relevant, and specific so that I would leave class with tangible things to work on for my ideas to continue growing.

  5. Trust your inner voice - During the first weeks, there were students from so many concentrations and with such awesome experiences. I was fangirling my classmates’ eloquent and thoughtful insights in awe of feeling like they were all so much better qualified for this course than I was. Students who were studying visual arts, for instance, had created aesthetically-pleasing vision boards, while students who were architecture concentrators precisely measured out floor plans. I didn’t feel confident in my ideas because I didn’t feel like I was good enough on understanding the business or design sides which the course was centered on. But what I was realizing throughout the course was that the value I was adding was the people-centered cognitive science and education background to my work. This was a rare moment in my educational experience where I relied on my intuition to brainstorm, create, and deliver the thousands of decisions that were made throughout the process.

Kathy Spoehr, me, Yuna

Kathy Spoehr, me, Yuna

I thank and am forever grateful for Deb, Barbara, and all of my classmates who I played with, explored with, and grew with together. These five takeaways have been incredibly valuable to the work that I not only engage with today but also in my future work -- which is uncertain AND exciting!

*In true serendipity, Yuna’s advisor taught me one of my first Cognitive Science classes 1st semester my freshman year, Kathy Spoehr. Generations of strong, bright women!!!

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.