Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Honor: The Voice at Carnegie Hall

Last week, I had the pleasure of watching the final performance of Honor: The Voice at Carnegie Hall. Curated by Jessye Norman, the show featured 6 young opera singers, 4 pianists, and an evening of traditional opera pieces, spirituals, and pop/Broadway numbers. The festival exists to "celebrate the African America cultural legacy".

The set up was simple and elegant - a grand piano, a pianist, and a singer on a bare, shining stage. No microphones. The talent radiating from the stage was so pure and overwhelming that I had to physically prevent my mouth from hanging open. The power and emotion of the music in those voices on the Perelman Stage filled the Stern Auditorium and then some.

My friend, Chris, who runs the international education program at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, explained to me that this festival exceeded all expectations. The audience was much more multi-cultural than usual and the sales were impressive. On a Monday night, the auditorium was packed and as I looked around, I could see every race, every age range, and an even mix of men and women. That festival brought together a community of diversity rarely seen at most New York institutions. Inclusive and diverse, it was representative of our city's population - in other words, exactly what an audience should be.

And you might wonder what on Earth a white girl like me from a small rural town in upstate New York is doing at a place that celebrates the African American cultural legacy. I wondered, too. I love the music that was presented and the diversity of my city, though do I really belong here? Do I have the right to celebrate and honor a legacy that is not mine? Was I welcome?

According to Jessye Norman, the answers are yes, yes, and yes, because this legacy actually is my legacy. It is every American's legacy. In her signature, elegant manner, I had the great fortune to hear Ms. Norman speak about the festival and its importance, not just to African Americans, but to all of us. If we live in America, then the history of African Americans is our history and we have not only the right but the obligation to pay tribute to it. The feeling of inclusion, respect, and admiration in that auditorium was undeniable. I am honored to have had the opportunity to bear witness to the performance and to the inspiration it provided for all of us within its reach.

At the end of the performance, the audience cheered and applauded with great energy and Ms. Norman looked on with pride. Her performers, however, would not let it go at that. They brought her to the center of the stage, applauding, hugging, and kissing her. You could see and feel their gratitute to this great talent standing before all of us. Through my loud applause, I hope she knows that I am grateful to her, too.

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Age of the Unthinkable

In 1997, Apple launched a campaign with one simple message "Think Different". 12 years ago it was inconceivable how necessary to our survival those two words would be in 2009. Joshua Cooper Ramo, an analyst and former Foreign Editor of Time, takes this Apple campaign slogan and sprints with it, full speed ahead, to help us understand where we are and what we'll need to do to pull ourselves together. His new book, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New Global Order Constantly Surprises Us and What to Do About It, is a beacon for those who have been looking for straight-talk about our current economic crisis and how you and I, everyday people, can move forward.

Ramo pulls from historical examples to show how people in the midst of a situation leading to their demise never saw it coming. Gorbachev is an eloquent example. He opened up the U.S.S.R. a bit at a time, and then the momentum of change was so strong, so pronounced, that Gorbachev had no choice but to let go of the reigns he had gripped tight for so long. Is the state of our economy, and the CEOs who have long prospered under the old rules of our financial system, any different?

In this dark situation it can be hard to see any cause for hope. Ramo suggests that while this might be the darkest moment in our world's financial history, it is also the moment of greatest possibility. We have the opportunity to wipe away every preconceived notion we have about how we do business, how we live life, how we create, how we inspire, how we dream. 

"Ahead of us is the invigorating possibility of discovery and reinvention." With that simple sentence, Ramo encourages us to question every assumption about 'how it must be done'. The days of cookie-cutter policy, politics, and business are over. If we are going to craft a new, brighter future, it will take all of our courage to challenge ourselves, our families, neighbors, co-workers, and leaders. It is time to toss aside common assumptions in favor of grander, more creative, and courageous plans and actions. 

Never before has it been so possible to create a world that we want to live in. It's as if we have a blank canvas staring at us, daring us, to invent something extraordinary. The only question now is do we have the confidence to build something from nothing. Can we take up the paint brush and with wide, vibrant strokes imagine a new future and commit to bringing it to life?  

Sunday, March 29, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner: UpMo, an on-line tool to rev up your career

With the tough economy, a lot of companies are curbing their career development and continuing education programs. Everyone's busy schedules grow busier everyday as they're asked by their senior leaders to do more in every area with less of every resource. But you can't allow your career, no matter track you're on, to be brought to a halt. So who can help you help yourself? Meet UpMo

For the full article, please click here

My Year of Hopefulness - Enjoy the View

Junior Achievement visited my company this week as part of a job shadow day. I volunteered to be part of the welcoming committee, greeting the students at our auditorium on the 26th floor. I was escorting the first group when they stopped short at our picture windows that look out over New York Harbor. Even though the day was overcast, the view was still breathe-taking. Governor's Island, the Statue of Liberty, the promenade, and Colgate Clock. 

I remember the first time I went to the auditorium myself almost 8 months ago and I had that same feeling of awe, watching life go on down below as if no one could observe it. It changes perspective to climb up above the bustling harbor and watch the world go by. We are a very small part of this much larger world. I was overwhelmed by how beautiful New York is, and how peaceful it looked from that vantage point. 

Somehow looking out I was able to feel that perhaps the situation of our country will be improved with the latest proposals from D.C. Maybe we will come out of this, burned a little bit, but not to an irreparable degree. And honestly, I think we need a little burning to keep us from being too comfortable, to keep us honest, and to keep us striving. We are no doubt in the midst of a vast correction. I cannot imagine that New York City, nor our country-at-large, will ever be the same. We will be better, stronger, more creative, more open-minded, and of richer character than we ever have been before. 

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Find Another Way

After last week's class on ethics topics in newspapers, I was getting back to the curriculum. Or at least I thought I was. Some of the students felt badly about not bringing in a story the week before. One student in particular, Starling, loves to talk. He loves raising his hand and de-railing conversations with wacky questions. On occasion I ask him to please make his questions relevant to the topic at hand. He loves questions that start with "What if..." Most of the time, I take his questions and we run with them because I've found that they lead somewhere that helps the class laugh a little while we explore this very serious topic of Ethics.

Today, Starling came into class with a topic he really wanted to talk about: Chris Brown and Rihanna. Given that the news converge and messaging to teenagers on this topics has been atrocious, I took full-advantage of getting to discuss this topic openly with teenagers. The entire class could lay out every detail of the case. What was startling is that almost everyone, male and female, looked at the case from Chris Brown's POV. No one really considered Rihanna beyond being an object of Chris Brown's actions. They hadn't considered how they'd feel or what they'd do if they were Rihanna. She went back to him, her choice. She loves him. He "took her back." What else could there be to consider?

We had 5 minutes remaining in the class after laying out all of the details and a lot more that could be said. I had only one chance, very brief, to communicate the message that I wanted them to hear, at least once, from an adult. "Did you hear Oprah's comments on the situation?" Blank stares. "She said, "Love doesn't hurt. And if someone hits someone once, they will hit them again." It is never okay to hit anyone unless you are physically protecting yourself. Ever. Violence is not a solution, and it has no place in personal relationships. Ever."

"Even if she was yelling at him in the car about how he was cheating on her?" Starling asked. "Even if he told her she needed to shut up or he'd punch her?"

"Yes, Starling. Even then." I said.

He looked at me, with a mix of suspicion and confusion. And I realized that at least for one student, I got through to him to suggest that there is a different way out of conflict than violence.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Ethics in the News

During my second Junior Achievement Ethics class, I realized that students weren't reading the newspaper regularly. All of the events that we watch and analyze every day at my job didn't exist in the students' world. Now more than ever, Ethics is making front page news every day and I wanted to give them a real world view of why Ethics is important and how it's used and considered outside of the classroom.

As an assignment, I asked each of them to bring in some type of news article, on any subject, that had to do with Ethics. I was very excited to see what they'd bring in. And then we got to class and most students said they forgot and didn't bring in anything. Right off the bat, we needed to improvise.

I asked them to consider what news stories they've heard about that might involve Ethics. Crickets. And then one lone student, Bernard, raised his hand timidly and said, "I think I know one." Bless Bernard.
The students had just had a snow day, the first one in 5 years in New York City. Bernard was concerned about the idea that some cities are saying they don't have enough money to plow and salt roads to keep their citizens safe during storms. "Isn't that an issue of ethics?" he asked. "Isn't a city supposed to do everything it can to keep people safe? If someone dies in a car accident because the road wasn't plowed, isn't that the city's fault?"

I love Ethics for one simple reason: the problems are messy and complex. Rarely is there a clear answer that everyone agrees on. Our class began to discuss city budgets and trade-offs they make in areas like education, public safety, healthcare, welfare, services for the homeless. We talked about taxes and philanthropy. We talked about city versus state versus federal government and the roles of each, especially in times of economic crisis.

The students left with many more questions than they had answers, as did I. I thought they might be frustrated by the lack of clarity in Ethics. Instead, they wanted to talk more. They are very confident in voicing their opinions and beliefs. While they often disagree with one another, I have yet to see any kind of disrespect of someone else's opinion, which is more than I can say for most adults I talk to about situations involving Ethics. My high school kids gave me hope that maybe their generation will be much more adept at making sound Ethics decisions than the painful follies being committed today by the generation in charge of our financial institutions.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner: The Idealist.org Handbook to Building a Better World

This week I had the pleasure to interview Russ Finkelstein, Associate Director of Action Without Borders / Idealist.org. Russ was the driving force behind a valuable resource just published by the Penguin Group. The Idealist.org Handbook to Building a Better World is a book for anyone who wants to make a positive impact in the world. Whether you have never volunteered before or are a seasoned nonprofit professional, this book is filled with advice and guidance on the world of philanthropy. With info on areas ranging from board service to volunteer groups to in-kind donations, this book is a must-have for anyone interested in getting involved in service.

For the full story, click here.

My Year of Hopefulness - Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez

I've been developing a habit of reading and listening to inspirational stories. I need to keep my courage and strength up in these tough times. We all do. On Sunday, I watched 60 Minutes because President Obama was speaking. I planned to shut off the TV and go through some of my weekly reading that had piled up as soon as President Obama's interview was complete. Instead, I spent the remainder of the hour glued to the TV, getting to know Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez

Meet Mr. Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times. A good guy whom you imagine might be your neighbor, a fellow parent at your child's school, if you're lucky he'd be your boss or colleague. Now meet Mr. Ayers, a homeless man in LA. He suffers from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia. And he is a brilliantly gifted musician. Cello, violin, and trumpet. Gift enough to be admitted to Julliard. Gifted enough still to keep up with the LA Philharmonic whose members now rehearse with and provide lessons to him when he visits them at the concert hall. 

After his first year at Julliard, Mr. Ayers went home and began showing signs of his illness which was rearing its ugly head inside his wonderfully gifted mind. As a last ditch desperation move, Mr. Ayers followed the advice of psychiatrists and subjected her son to electric shock treatments. It is a barbaric treatment that was at one time, not all that long ago, accepted as a viable tool to manage the disease. Instead, it sent Mr. Ayers into a downward spiral from which he has never returned. 

Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers met three years ago. Mr. Ayers was playing his cello in a park as Mr. Lopez roamed the streets trying to come up with a story for his looming deadline. What struck Mr. Lopez in addition to Mr. Ayers's virtuosity, was that he wasn't playing in the park for money. He was just playing his cello for himself. Mr. Lopez would learn that Mr. Ayers played to forget, to chase away the frightening effects of his schizophrenia. He needed to, wanted to drown out his deepest, darkest concerns. Thus began a 3 year friendship that continues and flourishes so much that it caught the attention of Universal Pictures and has been turned into a movie, The Soloist, featuring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. The movie will open in theatres on April 24, 2009.  

My father was a clinical psychologist so I know a bit about diseases like paranoid schizophrenia. I can tell you that it is a heartbreaking disease to see and experience up close, and it is even harder to see the strain the disease places on families and loved ones of the person who has the disease. To hear the story of Mr. Ayers, to hear his incredible musical gifts mixed with his equally incredible demons, we have to believe that in all people, regardless of circumstances, there is good and not-so-good. 

It was a reminder to me that too often we cast aside the mentally ill in this country as if they have nothing to offer society. They are hidden away, forgotten, ignored. Their basic needs like healthcare and shelter too often go unfulfilled. In our society, they have very few vehicles to raise their voice, to come together, to stand up, and to be counted. Let's hope that The Soloist is not just another feel good story at the box office but that it actually raises awareness that inspires action. On the movie's website, there are links to help you get involved in the efforts to end homelessness and help those with mental illnesses.   

To read the 5-part series written by Mr. Lopez about Mr. Ayers, click here.

The above photo depicts Mr. Nathaniel Ayers playing the violin. I found the image at: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_pkLpnld97kc/SA6TGbPNzaI/AAAAAAAAAH0/YYywyUO3PVw/s320/1865563850_9f4c68c464.jpg

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Embracing the Future is Our Only Choice

In Robert Safian's letter to the editor in Fast Company this month, he closed with a very poignant, short paragraph that was hopeful and also a mark of tough love delivered in an empathic way. We have been spending the past 18 months with a "whoa is me" attitude. The economy is awful. We're afraid. We're in a death spiral downward. What are we going to do???

It's okay to hide under the bed for some amount of time after the dark days arrive. No matter how scared or uncertain or confused we are, we have to eventually come back into the light. We have to start living again, even if the kind of life we live going forward is dramatically different than the way we lived before. 

Robert's assessment is very clear and strong:
"These are dark days, no question. And unpredictable events, from natural disasters to fiscal meltdown to 9/11, can often make things look darker. But the unexpected can also be our friend, our ally, as long as we maintain hope and embrace our uncertain future. After all, we have no choice."

He's right. We don't have the option to stay hidden away, hoping and praying for better days. We are going to have work hard, very hard, for them. And better days doesn't mean the days we used to have. All we can do is embrace what we've got to look forward to, whatever that is.   

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Kiva.org

I've given up on opening my 401K statements. The news is just too depressing. Given our current economic state, I've been searching of where to put my investment money. Where will it do the most good, for me and for the companies I choose to invest in. When I look at the Dow 30, I don't have a lot of faith in many of those institutions to reinvent themselves. Some of them have remarkable potential. Most of them have to accept that they have a very tough realization to come to terms with - in the words of Darwin, "Change or die."

The investments that are intriguing to me these days are in entrepreneurs, particularly those in developing nations such as Rwanda. I just placed my first investment in an entrepreneur in Ghana through Kiva.org. I lent $25 to a woman named Agnes Cobbina for a 7-month term. She owns a hair salon and she wanted to borrow $375 to expand her business. With 14 other lenders, I completed Anges's loan goal. What was remarkable is that I clicked on several different entrepreneurs and by the time I got to the "lend to" page, their goal was already completed. In the 10 seconds that it took me to read a bit about them, someone else had stepped in to help! One loan is made every 14 seconds through Kiva.org

Some people might think of this as a charitable donation rather than a loan. Nothing could be further from the truth. 99% of those who receive loans through organizations like Kiva.org pay them back in full. How many U.S. investments can say that these days? And not only am I confident that I will receive my money back; I know that I helped someone help themselves through this loan. I am empowering Agnes, providing her with a dignified way to grow her business and support her family. 

I'm thrilled to be able to participate with Kiva.org. But I want to do more. I'd be willing to take part of my investment money and provide it directly to an entrepreneur in a country like Rwanda for a return. What an amazing thing it would be to combine the idea of Sharebuilder with that of a Kiva.org. Could this be a new paradigm for global investment?  

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Happiness is Forward

This month Fast Company ran an incredible article about Rwanda and the economic revolution that is happening in that country 15 years after the genocide that robbed it of 1 million people (1/8 of the entire population) in 100 days. 

President Paul Kagame has set audacious goals for Rwanda: increase GDP by 7X, move half of Rwanda's subsistence farmers into paying jobs, quadruple individual income, and make Rwanda a tech center for Africa. All by 2020. In 11 years, he believes he can transform his country and he is dedicated heart and soul to the effort. His charisma and ambition is so powerful, you'll want to ask where you can sign up after reading the article. 

The connection I felt to Rwanda after reading the article is very much a testament to Jeff Chu's talent as a journalist. He captured small details as well as the big picture so that a reader can imagine lumbering down the roads of Rwanda with President Kagame, Jeff Chu, and Marcus Bleasdale, the talented photographer who captured iconic images of Rwandan life for the article. The one small detail that has played over and over in my head since reading the article is a short phrase that Jeff Chu saw painted onto the back of a truck. "Happiness is forward."

Despite the vast separation, geographically and historically, between Rwanda and the U.S. there are universal themes that bind us together. I imagine that in 1994, hope was a scarcity in Rwanda. After the genocide, many Rwandan must have doubted that their country would ever heal, forgive, and flourish. And somehow they were able to keep moving forward. Our nation's hope has waned considerably in the last 18 months, and though for different reasons, that sense of hopelessness and helplessness is the same. After all, the loss of hope is the same for everyone who experiences it, regardless of the cause. 

Rwanda's story is a poignant one of resilience and strength. Their ability to move forward and not only hope for better days but work hard for them, day in and day out, is remarkable. We have much to learn from them that is particularly relevant given our country's current crisis. We must all believe, remember, and recite to ourselves and to one another "Happiness is forward." This sentiment in Rwanda is moving from an ideal to reality. 

The photo above was taken by Marcus Bleasdale for Fast Company

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Blue Sweater

Inspiration is one of the main reasons I read. To my delight, Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund dedicated to eradicating poverty through strategic entrepreneurial investments in the developing world, wrote a book from her heart that is uplifting for anyone who ever had a dream and went after it. The Blue Sweater is a story of encouragement, faith, and determination for people who want to live a purposeful, fulfilling life. In other words, this book is for everyone. And you must read it. 

Jacqueline takes us on a journey from her life as a young college graduate working for Chase Manhattan into Africa where she worked in microfinance back to the US where she attended Stanford Business School and then through her career post-MBA up through her founding of Acumen Fund. Articulate, powerful, and deeply moving, Jacqueline's prose are so fluid it's as if a friend sat me down to tell me her life story. Every page took me further and further down the road of adventure. I couldn't put it down and read it from beginning to end in one weekend. 

With a vivid writing style, Jacqueline introduces each character so clearly that you feel they're in the room with you and you feel compelled to help them in the way that you'd help a friend or family member. I wanted so much to see each character succeed. As their pride welled, so did mine. As they smiled and grew more confident, so did I. And when things didn't go well for the characters, I felt their heartbreak, too. I wanted them to keep going and I wanted to go with them. 

Perhaps the most incredible feature of the book is Jacqueline's humility and her ability to try and try again she made some positive progress in everything she ever attempted. Too often we are reading the stories of people and companies who are too afraid to admit mistakes or failure, who don't want to take risks or step out of their comfort zones. It was refreshing to hear the twists and turns that Jacqueline's career in social enterprise has taken. She owns every success and every failure with grace and dignity. And the many entrepreneurs she has helped throughout her career are all better off for her tenacity and ambition.  

Warning: there is a high probability that this book will motivate you to make a difference today. Be ready.   

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Spring arrives

Spring arrived yesterday with a last little flurry of snow. I was just finishing up my Friday morning shift at God's Love We Deliver when I looked out the window to see flakes swirling in a mad rush to wave one last good-bye to the long, cold winter. And it was Winter's nod to us to remind us that "I'll be back". I laughed as I thought about that dialogue between Spring and Winter. Nature's changing of the guard. 

By all accounts I am a Winter person. I love my sweaters, jeans, and boots. Walking in the park or down 5th Avenue when it's snowing is one of my favorite activities. Usually Winter reminds me of rest and healing, a time of contemplation, reflection, and preparation. Not this year. I have wanted Winter to end from the day it started. These past few months I've been praying for the end of the cold like never before. 

This morning as I stepped outside I felt a little lighter (though still cold thanks to the 32 degree temperature). There definitely was a shift in the air from Friday morning. I imagined the ice that's surrounded us for 4 months cracking and shattering under the gentle gaze of the warm sunlight. The very tiny seeds that we planted last fall are beginning to inch upward, reaching for their stage. It's almost their time. 

Now nearly three months into my writing, researching, and reading daily about hope, I'm ready to do something with all of these ideas I've been considering and shaping about my career and my life. It was a far longer process than I thought it would be. My very simple idea to do something in the social entrepreneurship space has been whittled down to something that looks more like a recognizable figure, though not yet fully formed. I consider how every sculptor starts with a mound of clay, slab of marble, or block of ice, knowing that with patience, passion, and hard work a masterpiece will emerge, eventually. 

In one of my college art history classes, I remember reading something about Donatello's agonizing work style. There are accounts of him in his studio hammering away at the marble to create his next statue and screaming at it "speak, damn you, speak!" Though I'm not really at that level, I understand that desire to work away on the block so that the fully formed piece will step into the light and show itself. 

I think about that image, that metaphor of a sculptor, as I walk in the park, write, and adjust my idea for starting a social enterprise. In the light of Spring it seems to be taking shape more clearly. With every conversation and experience, every book, blog, magazine, and newspaper article I read and write, I get a tiny bit of information of how to shape my idea. And as I gather up all those tiny bits, I begin to see a vision that's clearer and more reflective of who I am and who I'd like to be.  

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Empty Your Pockets

Last night I was flipping through the channels and landed on PBS which was airing a biography of Carol Burnett - one of my all-time favorite entertainers. I have fond memories of watching the show with my family, and my mother would laugh so hard she could barely breathe. I never knew much about her childhood before this biography. Her story of endurance and love and what her family termed her "pipe dream" is inspiring. 

After Carol Burnett's biography, PBS aired a shorter biography of Erma Bombeck, one of my mom's favorite authors. I would read her column in my mom's magazine's as a kid and found her so funny, engaging, and honest. I wanted to write that way. The biography ended with Erma's untimely death from kidney disease and they captured how she viewed life with one of her most famous pieces:

I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a high court, it will be like this:  ‘So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life?  Any dreams that were unfilled?  Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left?  Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?’

And I will answer, “I have nothing to return.  I spent everything you gave me.  I’m as naked as the day I was born.”

Isn't that how all of us should answer? Why return any bit of energy, any dream or wish or hope? We don't ever get it back. Once we make our graceful exit to the other side, anything we hoped to start, try, or finish will have to fall to someone else. That's no way to go out, and frankly it's not fair to the rest of us for you to be selfish and keep you dreams and talents to yourself. This world needs you; it needs all of us and everything we've got. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Peace Lily

I've killed every plant I've ever tried to care for. Even a cactus. I overwater and pay too much attention to them. They actually make me nervous. I obsessively nurture them to the point of killing them. It's odd really - plants make their own food. They really don't need me and as I force myself on them, I see them wilt before my eyes. Caring for plants brings out all my insecurities.  

I thought my peace lily, one of the three plants on Earth that my local florist tells me I cannot possibly kill, had kicked the bucket. It was looking sad and pathetic. Limp, yellowing, and with one foot in the chlorophyll grave. I was about to throw it out and decided to give it just a bit more water to see if I could revive it. And I sang to it. Seriously, I belted out a few songs because I heard a long time ago that plants respond to music. Why not give it a shot?

By some miracle, I was able to revive the peace lily and now it is thriving. I only water the plant when the soil is dry. No fertilizer. No special treatment, aside from the singing. I do sing to it every day. And it's working. This plant taught me that it might not be the amount of care that you pay to something, but the kind of care. Give everything only what it needs. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Hopeful Cynic

On occasion, my mom has referred to me as her daughter, Christa, the cynic. I'd really like to disagree with her, though after years of trying to refute it I've realized she's right. She just forgot to add the word "hopeful" in front of "cynic". This might sound like a contradiction, though as my friend, Trevin and I always say, "I live my life hoping for the best and expecting the worst." It keeps my life full of wonderful surprises.

The balance between cynicism and hope is delicate and must be constantly maintained. There is a real danger in slipping much too close to either the happy-go-luckies who live their lives in a state of optimism bordering on delusion and the people who are so cynical that you wonder how they kept them from just putting it all to an end yesterday. The balance is important to maintaining the very best of both extremes.

I like to look at a whole situation - details and the big picture comprised of those details. I don't mind being the naysayer so long as it gets us to higher ground when it's all said and done. I don't like nicey-nice cultures - I like and appreciate honesty and thoughtful discussion.

I also don't mind being the voice of hope in a room full of doom and gloom. I like being able to transform a situation from helplessness to self-confident action. Someone has to be the initial spark that begins a gathering light and that role suits me fine.

There aren't that many of us hopeful cynics. Frankly it's a lot of work to have this personality. Everyday that I pick up the paper (which does happen to be everyday) I wonder what our economy might be like with a few more hopeful cynics. I wonder if we would have been better prepared for this crisis. Would we have saved more when times were good? Would we have questioned expenditures and "business as usual" more closely?

To this end, I developed a few guidelines in case anyone is interested in developing the hopeful cynic within them:
1.) Question everything, always, and don't stop until you get a solid, logical answer
2.) Read works of fiction and nonfiction in equal amounts. Fiction keeps you imagining worlds that could be while nonfiction helps you see things as they really are, often from someone else's point-of-view.
3.) Watch movies that make you laugh and cry, and especially watch those that make you think.
4.) Be wary of people who say yes or no to everything.
5.) Trust your instincts, even if no one around you seems to have the same opinion
6.) If a situation is 100% a dream or 100% a nightmare, do some more digging so you know what you're really in for
7.) No matter what circumstances you're in, good, bad, or indifferent, know that eventually it will pass. Change is the only thing that is guaranteed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner.com: Businesses Take a Cue from Reality TV for Extreme Innovation Projects

Imagine your office. Imagine your co-workers. Imagine that they become your roommates for 10 weeks.

For the full article, please click here.

My Year of Hopefulness - It Only Gets Better from Here

33. How did that happen? When did I go from being a confused, maybe even lost, cute chick in my mid-20's? I don't feel any older. I actually don't even look any older (or at least I tell myself that as I smooth on the anti-aging moisturizer.) I took a long walk in Riverside Park today and thought about my past birthdays, which very often have turned out to be pivotal moments in my life.

My first birthday after college I was promoted to a position at work that would set me off on 5 fantastic years in theatre management. Another birthday I had my passport stolen in South Africa and learned about the tremendous kindness of strangers, while simultaneously falling in love with the country and culture as a result of what I thought initially was a horrible tragedy and later turned out to be a blessing. In South Africa, I learned painfully that we are never alone in this world, that someone, somewhere is always willing to lend a hand if we have the humility and grace to ask for help sincerely and honestly. I've fallen in love on my birthday, and I've also had my heart broken on my birthday, none of which would I ever take back. I went snorkeling for the first time on my 30th birthday and so began my gradual letting go of the fear of water. (This is still a work-in-progress.)

So today, what is the pivotal moment that happened? Today, I learned to trust my instincts. I realized that maybe I learned to temper my wide-eyed, blinder-clad idealism with a bit of reality. I learned to see people and situations for what they really are and not simply for what people told me they were. I began to connect dots from my past to my potential future. I learned that while my days past were wonderful, my future days will be better and happier still. I learned to hear and acknowledge what was not being said, as clearly as I am able to discern what is being said.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a talk at TED this year that has had my mind spinning for weeks. She is funny, likable, and brutally honest, even at her own expense. She talked about success, and the concern and fear of many, maybe even of most, people who achieve success. "How will I ever top this?" "Is my greatest work done?" "Is this the very best I will ever be?" And her answer - maybe.

However, she counsels, keep showing up. Every day, keep looking forward, appreciating what we have and had, and recognizing that always within us there is the potential to achieve and be more tomorrow than we are today. Much of our creativity and inspiration comes from an other-worldly source that we do not control, but can only revel in and listen to. Pay attention. Or, as Ann Curry told me via Twitter "
Inspiration often comes without warning." And if that is the case, and I believe firmly that it is, then why not think that it only gets better from here? We have no reason to believe otherwise because much of it is likely out of our hands.

The photo above is of Elizabeth Gilbert and can be found at: http://www.ted.com/index.php/speakers/elizabeth_gilbert.html

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Impossible Standards

At first blush, the term "impossible standards" doesn't seem to have any hint of hopefulness in it. We think of demanding bosses, people who think we are never good enough, and inability to reach a set goal. Though if we took a broader view of impossible standards, we could see in the term the potential for continuous improvement, the ability to always discover something new, the opportunity for never-ending achievement.

I've been thinking a lot about this term lately. Tomorrow is my birthday, 33 (what my dear friend Brooke would call "my Jesus Year"), and it's always a time of reflection for me. Of where I'm going, where I've been, and what's good in my life. I spend an entire day not beating myself up over anything. I take the day off from work and I do exactly what I want to do. I have tremendously high standards for myself and I usually reaffirm them on my birthday. I make a commitment to continue reaching higher and higher in every aspect of my life.

I consider what's happening in our economy right now and there is one very clear take-away that emerges for me. A lot of companies and a lot of leaders took on a view of entitlement, of being above any laws or rules or ethics. They thought they were at the very top of their game, always, when in fact they just had a very low bar for themselves and for their teams.

Impossible standards keep us humble, they keep us striving and fighting for improvement. I grow concerned not when someone sets an unimaginable standard, but when someone settles for things as they are because they can't imagine ever being, doing, or having any better.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

We have been waiting for someone to save us. We have said,"Once Barack Obama becomes President, he will save us." "Once the government gets us a stimulus package, we will be saved." "My company will protect my job."

Truthfully, no one is coming to save us. Not Barack Obama, not Ben Bernanke and a stimulus package, not corporate America. So stop waiting. We need to stop standing on our doorsteps, timid and scared to take a step outside to see how the world has changed. We need to stop waiting for our neighbors, our friends, our family members, our companies, our government to make a move only so we can follow suit.

We are the ones who must move. We must take action and change and grow and learn and be brave. Our world has changed. This is not a cycle. There is a fundamental shift, a step-change, that has occurred in our markets and it is not reversible.

We can only look forward. Don't look back over your shoulder; there is nothing left to see. We have spent our time mourning, and now we must begin living again. As the author Alice Walker so beautifully, simply, and powerfully put it, "We are the ones we have been waiting for."


In case you didn't hear and see Ms. Walker deliver her beautiful letter to President Obama (just before his inauguration), and to the nation as a whole,
click here.


The image above can be found
here.

My Year of Hopefulness - Tired of looking for work? Use your superpowers.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article about how the frustrations of job searching have caused some unemployed Americans to stop looking altogether and start their own businesses. This news made me so happy that I literally jumped up and down in my apartment while reading the article. I know that entrepreneurship is the way forward in this country and I am so glad to hear reports that it is taking root.

So what if you are someone like my friend, Kelly, who has a corporate job that she's not all that thrilled with though she isn't quite sure what kind of business she'd like to start? You could follow Alex Lee's example as the CEO of OXO. He has an entrepreneurial spirit, though didn't want to start from scratch with his own idea. He wanted to find a small company that made good products, and use his skills, talents, and interests to grow the company. He found that at OXO.

You could also start by focusing on your superpowers rather than on an idea for a business. Seth Godin wrote a terrific blog post this morning about harnessing our superpowers - not anything a la X-Men but a superpower being something that we do very, very well. Maybe you are a great story teller. Perhaps you have a knack for translating numbers on a spreadsheet into a narrative that gets people excited about a business. You might be a whiz on Facebook and Twitter. Do you draw well? Do you have an eye for color or design? Perhaps you make the best melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies. You might be the best listener on the planet.

The point of Seth's post is that we all do something exceptionally well. The key to success as an entrepreneur is to start with your strengths. Build a business or join a small business where the majority of your time is spent doing the things you do best. It sounds so simple and yet think about how often we beat ourselves up every day for things we don't do well. Our so-called "areas of development" take over our entire career. Think about how destructive and devastating that is to our self-esteem, self-image, and confidence.

There is a young man featured in the New York Times article who got so frustrated and depressed looking for work that he just stopped doing it. Out of his house, he builds jellyfish tanks that allow the jellyfish to live longer, healthier lives in captivity than they do in traditional fish tanks. Huh? How successful could that venture possibly be? He recently sold a tank to a restaurant for $25,000. The time he spent building that tank for that restaurant was far more lucrative than the same amount of time he had spent looking for a job in a down economy.

We aren't in just another economic cycle. What we are experiencing is a step-change in the way our global economy grows and operates. Stop thinking about when your 401K and your company's stock price are going to bounce back up to their 2007 levels. Focus on the opportunity that's in front of each of us to contribute to the economy on our own terms with our own strengths as the very basis of our work. This is the way of the future.

The photo above was taken by Jim Wilson for the The New York Times and depicts Alex Andon with one of the jellyfish tanks he builds. He started his business after he was laid off.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner.com: Alex Lee, CEO of OXO

"The company is a design philosophy. It's about solving problems for every room in the house." That began my recent conversation with Alex Lee, CEO of OXO.

For the full interview, please visit:
http://ow.ly/VYL

My Year of Hopefulness - Look Up

I was walking along Amsterdam Avenue recently, taking notice of all of the store fronts now covered with brown paper and masking tape. A large "retail space for rent" sign hangs prominently on too many doors these days. I kept wondering how we slipped so far so fast, how in a matter of days and weeks businesses are opening and then shuttering their days. Less than two years ago I moved to the Upper West Side, grateful for an apartment under $2000, no store front left unoccupied. On what used to be one of the busiest blocks, 5 spaces are now available.

Equal parts nervous and confused, I was preoccupied with the state of our economy. And then a man and a woman whom I had passed in a rush had a 10 second conversation that made me almost stop in my tracks. The man said, "Oh look at that! The stone work on that building is beautiful. Have you ever seen that before?" "No," she replied. "In all the time I've lived here I've never noticed it." I looked up. I'd never noticed it either. And it is beautiful - cerulean blue, grass green, sunny yellow, and bright orange. How could I have been missing that magnificent splash of color all this time? I guess I've been looking down too often.

Sometimes it takes people new to a situation to help us see clearly. We are in such a rush, so used to our surroundings, that we often don't see the beauty right in front of us, or above us as the case may be. We become so lost in our thoughts and concerns, that we miss out on what's happening all around us.

We're exposed to so many signals and messages and images with every step, that our mind has to filter just to stay somewhat organized. This filtering sometimes causes us to miss out on things that could and should bring us some amount of joy and happiness. I am a firm believer that eventually we will always find what we're looking for. The flip side of that is that if we aren't looking for something, we may not find it on our own. It often takes someone else's perspective and experience to wake us up to the life we're walking through.

Friday, March 13, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - YouTube for Medicine

My mom told me yesterday that one of her knees has gotten so bad that it looks like she will need a total knee replacement. My mom, by nature, is an incredibly upbeat, positive person. The tough part about her is that she tends to grossly underplay any serious news when it comes to her health. I know that this type of surgery is very invasive and serious so when my mom said she'd likely be back at work two weeks after the surgery I almost fell off my couch.

I immediately called my friend, Ken, who works in physical therapy and is one of the dearest people in my life. he has an incredible bedside manner and is a wonderfully caring therapist who is also honest and straight-forward. "No way, now how is she going back to work after two weeks." We talked some more about the procedure so I would know what to ask the surgeon when I go with my mother to get a second opinion (and we are getting a second opinion, and a third and a fourth is necessary.) "Oh, and one more thing," Ken said. "Go to YouTube and type in 'total knee replacement' so you understand the procedure. Just don't tell your mom to do that or she'll never get it done."

I followed Ken's advice, of course, and went to YouTube. 729 hits for "total knee replacement". I was able to understand the process in both long and short formats, understand the immediate post-op and recovery process, and have a list of questions to ask the surgeon when my mom and I met him or her. Ten of thousands of people are viewing the health videos I checked.

YouTube is a treasure trove of medical information. "Cancer" yeilded 123,000 videos on YouTube. "Heart attack" - 39,300. "Diabetes" - 20,700. "First aid" - 36,900. I am by no means suggesting that we begin to use YouTube to self-diagnose or diagnose others. When it comes to collecting information about our health, I ere on the side of wanting more than my fair share of information and data. Social media sources like YouTube are changing the way we view our bodies, our health, and our healthcare system. This is serious cause for hope and thanks.

The above image and video on total knee replacement surgery can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Aoo_nFpDd4

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - New Directions Caused by Unfortunate Circumstances

A friend of mine called me this evening to tell me about an extremely unfortunate incident at his place of work. It's something that I imagine a lot of people are facing these days: bad behavior. We read stories in the newspaper about the desperation of people in this economy - violent crime is up, bank robberies are rising, and bad practices of good businesses are being uncovered every day. My friend uncovered today that his company has been inflating top line sales by purchasing their own goods and writing off the expense. And now he is faced with a very serious ethical and legal dilemma. Say something or move on? For him, sticking around while this is happening is not something that he can do.

His situation is complicated by the fact that he works for a public company (and a troubled one at that) and he has no solid proof of the transactions in writing. This piece of information was conveyed on a conference call that he had the misfortune to be on - everyone on the call was aware that this had been happening except for him. He had wondered how his company sales could be going along okay, far better than the competition, at a time like this. Curiosity can sometimes uncover truths we never dreamed of and never wanted.

A friend of his said that clearly the Universe is sending him this information for a reason. Bombshells like this don't fall from the sky without a purpose. It is a moment of teaching. For some time, my friend has been considering whether or not the big corporate life is really for him. Originally he went into it for a lot of the same reasons many people went into it - to make a good living, good benefits, the chance to be promoted, the opportunity to work for a company with great influence on our society. Now with the fundamental shift in the marketplace that we are experiencing, the futures of those in corporate America may have shifted as well. Perhaps the days of easy living that so many experienced have passed us by. We have lived through and beyond the "good old days". Bob Dylan's most famous words never rang truer.

My friend is experiencing the hard, sad truth about some companies that we have admired for so long, held up as the gold standard in business: winning shows part of a company's character and losing (or at least not winning as easily or as big as it used to) shows all of it. My friend has considered striking out on his own and I think this most recent incident at work may push him to finally take the plunge.

He's been betting on his company for a long time - he's invested many years of his life with them and has been moving through the system as a good clip. Today he realized that the system he thought he was a part of is really smoke and mirrors. After the hurt and disbelief subsides, there is a huge lesson in all of this for him, and for all of us. Tomorrow he's cashing in his chips, walking away from the table, and making a new bet on himself and his own ideas. In a very serious tone he summed up the trade-off to me: "I may not get to win as big or as often as I imagined doing with this company, but at least I get to make the rules I live by and keep my integrity."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Art of Gregory Colbert

I recently purchased a print by photographer Gregory Colbert. I am in love with his work because it lifts me up in a way that is wholly different from most other fine art. He's famous for his sepia-toned photographs of people interacting with animals. A boy in Mexico reads a story to an elephant, a gymnast swims with whales, a child crouches down beside a leopard.

The images are striking in their simplicity and their profound belief that animals and people can co-exist peacefully and for mutual benefit. I find that they are images that help me to meditate and center my mind that runs at a million miles an hour these days. I never grow tired of looking at them, imagining the stories behind those photographs. I ask myself so many questions as I look at them: how did this animal and this person come to be in the same place? How do they know each other? What were they doing just before and what did they do just after the photo was taken?

This is the beauty of art like Gregory Colbert's: it allows us to imagine the improbable, it takes us on a journey that we would never go on otherwise, and it inspires us to dream. Through good art, we actually grow our idea of the world around us and can begin to see our role in the world with fresh eyes. All of sudden we realize that the improbable is not impossible. All things become likely.

NY Business Strategies Examiner.com: Attention Women Entrepreneurs - $10,000 to Grow Your Business from Eileen Fisher

I uncovered a great opportunity on Linked-In for capital available to women looking to grow their businesses. The retailer Eileen Fisher is taking applications for a $10,000 grant for a woman entrepreneur with an innovative, socially conscious business.

For details on the grant and to apply, visit:
http://www.examiner.com/x-2901-NY-Business-Strategies-Examiner~y2009m3d11-Attention-women-business-owners-money-to-grow-your-business-from-Eileen-Fisher

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner.com: In the Heights

My latest post on Examiner.com - A look at the Broadway show, In the Heights, from a business perspective: http://www.examiner.com/x-2901-NY-Business-Strategies-Examiner~y2009m3d10-In-the-Heights--a-case-of-entrepreneurship-in-the-arts

My Year of Hopefulness - In the Heights

Way back when, I was a very poor new college grad, working for a Broadway management office, and living just off of 190th Street. Despite the long train ride, it was one of the very best experiences of my life to live in that neighborhood. I was the only non-Dominican on my block and I was enchanted by their culture. Maybe even a little jealous of them. At night in my current apartment, I sometimes think back to 190th Street (Wadsworth Terrace, actually) and remember the endless game of dominoes played on that street corner "at the top of the world". Sometimes, I miss it.

Tonight I went to see In the Heights with my friend, Monika. Brilliant, funny, and poignant, it reminded me of all the things I love about live theatre. The music, acting, dancing, writing, and singing made it one of the very best all-around shows I've ever seen. It's a beautiful tribute to an amazing neighborhood and Latin culture. It really is a love letter to New York City. It made me glad and grateful that New York City is my home.

And what I love most about the show is that it was one man's dream to write a show about his neighborhood and his heritage. It doesn't have any complicated plot lines, there's nothing for the audience to "figure out". It's just a beautiful, simple story about life on a block in New York. You meet the colorful personalities, see some of their heartache, some of their joys, and all of their dreams. It's as if for a minute I was back on that block, looking out from my apartment window and watching the comings and goings of average, everyday people. It made me think that maybe there is a story in all of us that is worth telling, and our only job is to tell is honestly, with heart. I'm grateful to Lin-Manuel Miranda for sharing his story with us.

Monday, March 9, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner.com: The Business of Art - New York's Armory Show

My latest post on Examiner.com that considers the business of art with the New York's Armory Show as a case study.

For the full article, please visit: http://www.examiner.com/x-2901-NY-Business-Strategies-Examiner~y2009m3d9-The-Business-of-Art-New-Yorks-Armory-Show


Photo Credit:
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

My Year of Hopefulness - The Power of Passion

By nature, I am a passionate person. I get excited about charitable causes and I enjoy sharing my excitement about them. I often write about them on this blog and on my Examiner.com column. On occasion, I wonder if anyone's listening or if anyone reading shares my interest and excitement. I guess that insecurity is normal for writers though I've never been able to be comfortable with it, particularly when I'm writing about something that I care about deeply.

Today, I received an email from a friend of mine that eased my sense of insecurity and re-energized me. Recently, I put together a post about a cause that I'd like to support. I'm not sure how to support the cause as it's not one that is talked about frequently, at least not in the circles I travel in. My passion for the idea and my desire to make a difference in this area prompted me to put the idea out there into the world, hoping that I'd attract people to it who are as interested in it as I am. For a while, the airwaves have been silent but today, all of that changed with my friend's email.

As it turns out, he and a friend of his are also very interested in this cause. They've been in the process of creating some content to support the cause and have been searching for someone to do the business framing around the idea. Perfect! I've got the business framing in mind and have been searching for content.

In addition to finding out about this shared interest with my friend, I also learned a critical lesson about social media. It gives us a way to howl and find our pack. It gives us a way to connect and explore new interests in ways that are far-reaching and previously impossible. It gives us a way to unite, collaborate, and innovate in extraordinary, immediate ways.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

NY Business Strategies Examiner.com: Lessons in branding from Payless Shoes, Dunkin' Donuts, and HP

As I was walking through the city with my sister, Weez, and niece, Lorelei, yesterday, we noticed something interesting about a few brands widely advertised in New York. While many have recently experienced a fall from grace, some staged their brand image's turnaround just-in-time. Three examples floated to the top that are interesting case studies.

To read the full article, visit:
http://www.examiner.com/x-2901-NY-Business-Strategies-Examiner~y2009m3d8-What-brand-turnarounds-can-teach-us

My Year of Hopefulness - My Best Investment

A lot of my friends and colleagues are talking about getting into the world of trading stocks for the first time in their lives. While they've invested in mutual funds, 401Ks, and IRAs, most of them have never actively traded stocks through a broker or services like e-trade or Sharebuilder. With the bargain basement prices on Wall Street, some of them are considering taking the plunge, at least in a small way. Heck, as of Friday, you could buy a share of GE for $7. That's less than the cost of a pizza! Why not give it a shot and see how it goes?

I completely understand where they're coming from. And their enthusiasm for this idea has had me thinking about doing the same thing over the last few days. I am in an extremely fortunate position during this recession, and I am grateful for it every day. So why not dip one toe in the turbulent waters of the stock market?


As I was cleaning my apartment this afternoon, I was having a monetary conversation with myself - this is what happens when you are the only source of both the income and expense in a household of 1. Should I pay off my student loans? (Much to my dismay I could not deduct a single penny of the interest I paid on them in 2008 from my taxes.) Should I save for a down payment on an apartment? (NYC real estate is going for historically low prices at the moment and unlikely to recover any time in the near-future thanks to the exodus of bankers and their salaries.) Should I just sock it away in cash for a to-be-determined investment? Should I consider the stock market? Should I continue to invest in my 401k since I no longer have a match by my employer?
After a while I talk myself in circles during these conversations and I end up right back where I started, which is usually without an answer. And then, one bright, shining thought surfaced to the top so clearly that I surprised myself.

Yes, GE and other large blue chips are down to a point where I could actually afford to buy a block of shares. Real estate has always been at least a decent investment.
However, the paradigm is shifting. While yes, we used to investment in big companies because of their stalwart nature, we are seeing them whither like never before. We are beginning to see the waste and excess that so many have taken as a given for decades. It is possible that there is a small business out there, a start-up, that would be a much better long-term bet in the new economy, and maybe that start-up is me. Let's face it - that age-old assumption of compounding interest rates at 8% to 10% may no longer be valid and these stocks that are so far down may actually be not only down, but out.

What is critical is my freedom, and my freedom will always be my greatest asset. This means that my best investment is me, and that means reducing anything that reduces my ability to be flexible at every turn. End of monetary discussion with myself, once and for all.

The image above can be found at: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/101/314770566_1b1cb0f796_o.png