Changing the world from a streetcart, one small book at a time

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Urbanmonks Thinktank founder Douglas Krisch displays some of his books, with Urbanmonks author John Francis Mcill in the background.

While I was in New York last week, a walk over to Union Square introduced me to the Urbanmonks Thinktank and its founder, Douglas Krisch. Here’s a snippet of the Urbanmonks mission statement from its website:

What we call anxiety and depression have existed for many generations. Though we’ve used different words and applied different forms of treatment, one thing has remained constant: we have primarily diagnosed and treated the individual.

. . . Today, tens of millions of Americans struggle with anxiety and depression. We continue to focus on healing the individual, which is essential and life-saving work. But when anxiety and depression have become common parts to all our families and communities, we must step back and examine the system, the culture.

The Urbanmonks Thinktank proposes that we, in the face of widespread anxiety and depression, must shift our approach from solely diagnosing and treating the individual to concurrently diagnosing and treating the culture.

Douglas introduces himself this way on the website:

I am a life-long learner and life-long teacher. Working with plants and bees grounds me. Producing books and selling them on the streets excites me. Any day I have connected with others feels like a day well-lived.

At Union Square, Douglas further explained his commitment to promoting emotional health in our society. He is doing so in part by writing and publishing short books that educate us about wisdom, reflection, and community, and then selling them via his Manhattan streetcart and online. I ended up buying a bunch of them, including The Weather of the Mind (2015), book 1 of the “Urbanmonks Wisdom Curriculum.” He also is forming a small team of compatriots to work together on various projects.

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Douglas explains his publishing philosophy and practice in The Small Street Book Revival (2014) pictured above. Urbanmonks will consider manuscripts from potential contributors and consult with others who want to write short books. (Go here for more info on that.)

It made my day to talk with Douglas and John Francis Mcgill, an Urbanmonks author. You can’t go wrong when you connect with good people who want to create an emotionally healthier world. I look forward to watching how the Urbanmonks Thinktank continues to unfold.

On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options

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This headline from the Yahoo! News page is an enticing one to many: “How to Afford to Quit Your Job.” Kimberly Palmer, writing for U.S. News & World Report, introduces us to a former NPR program host, Tess Vigeland, who one day realized that it was time to say goodbye:

When Tess Vigeland, the former host of public radio’s “Marketplace,” came home from work and cried in her backyard for three hours, she knew it was time to leave her job. “I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I felt like I deserved better,” says Vigeland, who turned in her notice the following week.

Vigeland now has a book, Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want (2015), in which she is encouraging other folks to follow her path. In her interview for Palmer’s article, Vigeland recommended, among other things, assessing one’s financial situation, including alternate income sources, savings, freelance work, and “a partner’s salary”:

“I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations with my husband and we figured his salary could pay the mortgage with me not working at all,” she says. In addition, she planned to take on freelance work so her income would not go to zero. “I also knew I had a large retirement account that I could tap into if I had to, and home equity,” she adds.

Midlife “quit lit” and “encore” careers

Okay, here’s one of the issues I have with so much of the midlife “quit lit,” i.e., the quit-your-job-and-live-your-dream-type books and articles based at least in part on an author’s personal experience. I’ve looked at a lot of these writings, and almost invariably the Dream Chasers have financial resources from a supportive spouse, partner, or family and/or have a good chunk of savings that can be tapped to ease a likely income drop, at least temporarily.

More than a few have strong networking connections as well, including some in pretty high places.

I don’t begrudge people who have those options — I’ve encouraged some friends to consider that very avenue — but in reality many folks, because of limited incomes and savings, kids and other dependents, single status, etc., find the hopes inflated by this type of book/article title quickly deflated when they realize that the author had a cushion of financial support and cash.

I find similar dynamics when it comes to “encore” careers, a term used to describe experienced professionals who decide to step off of a demanding, if highly paid, treadmill to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website and book devoted to encore careers.

Yes, encore careers can be great for those who have the financial resources to sustain them. However, most people in their 40s and 50s, especially, happen to be in their potentially strongest earning years. The pursuit of Something Very Different in the heart of midlife typically should not be done on a whim.

I’m not saying Don’t do it. Rather, I’m urging that the strong emotions driving such considerations be complemented by dispassionate assessment and planning.

More realistic options: Avocations, hobbies, and Millennial-style startups

Some loyal readers may feel like they’re hearing a mixed message from me. After all, for those in toxic work environments, I’ve suggested that an exit strategy may be the most viable option when health and psyche are deteriorating. And I’ve also recommended sites like Encore.org for those seeking to make significant career transitions. Furthermore, there are people who, against more “rational” assessments, took that risky leap without a parachute and landed on their feet. Some have enjoyed remarkable success in their transitions.

That said, there may be less risky alternatives to exploring and making major career/work changes. A few considerations:

First, do you have an avocation that has income-producing potential? An avocation is typically a labor of love, so you know the passion is there. A next question to ask is whether you can grow it into a steady income stream.

Second, how about taking something you really want to do and starting it as a part-time micro-business? Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup has a Millennial generation audience in mind, but it contains inspiration, insight, and information for anyone considering a lower-risk road to entrepreneurship.

Third, do you need additional training or schooling? Formal degree and certification programs tend to be expensive, but low cost or free adult and independent learning opportunities abound. You might, for example, go to a local SCORE workshop on starting a business, or take an online course or two through educational content providers such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX.

Fourth, might it help to work with a really good career or life coach to help you plot your way through all this? A wise voice who asks the right questions and helps you to make and stick to plans and identify priorities can be very helpful. 

Finally, if your potential plans include going out as a freelancer, you might want to take a look at Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible for some of the business details you’ll need to address.

The term go for it has a lot of emotional power, especially if you’re in a less-than-wonderful work situation and considering alternatives that sound freeing and exciting. Pursuing your passions is good, life-affirming stuff. But it’s often helpful if you do so with research, planning, and assessment to help prime a path to success.

The example of the Wright Brothers

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I’ve been absorbed in David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers (2015), the story of how brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright invented and flew the first successful airplane, starting with their historic flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

Although David McCullough is one of my favorite historians, I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d find the book all that compelling. True, I’ve been an airplane geek since I was a boy, and I had long been familiar with the iconic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. But I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story.

Last month, however, I went to a talk by David McCullough about his new book, and the stories he shared from it, with his characteristic enthusiasm for history, stimulated my interest. I started reading and soon became enthralled. I’ve been keeping at it, reading only a few pages at a time, because I find myself constantly putting the book down to reflect upon what a great story this is from so many perspectives.

Orville Wright (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Orville Wright, 2005 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

It was obvious that McCullough came to deeply admire his subjects. He talked about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who believed very strongly in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, especially, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough writes, they had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”

Wilbur Wright (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Wilbur Wright, 1905 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded inventors and scientists were also trying hard to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade them from their goal. In fact, they largely rewrote the book on the science of flying. and in the process refuted the previous findings of many “experts” on aviation.

There is so much more that I want to share about what I’m discovering in this book, and someday I want to write a longer piece that incorporates some of its stories with broader themes about self-education, innovation, individual character, resilience and determination, and bold, smart risk-taking.

Suffice it to say, however, that this is among McCullough’s most important books. He has written about great historical figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Harry Truman, but The Wright Brothers, as he noted during his book talk, is not about politics, conflict, and war. Rather, he compared the genius of the Wright Brothers to that of the Gershwins. Indeed, this is a different kind of historical story, one that may inform and inspire others who want to build, invent, create, and dream, without being cloaked in hazy mythology. We need more stories like that today.

“Should I support that Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign?”

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

The growth of “crowdfunding” or “crowdsourcing” sites such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Indiegogo has created a sort of privatized lottery system, whereby if you can design the right appeal for a product, cause, or someone in need, and it happens to gain momentum, then you may be buoyed by monies from complete strangers over the course of a few weeks.

To be sure, most crowdfunding campaigns do not go viral and do not raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite occasional news stories suggesting that if you merely ask for it, then it will come. Many campaigns fail dismally. (Hence, the lottery-like quality to the whole deal.) However, crowdfunding has evolved into a viable option for entrepreneurs, social causes, and personal appeals.

If you Google around a bit, you’ll find plenty of advice on how to design a crowdfunding campaign. But what if you’re on the receiving end of those requests? Over the last year, I’ve looked at several dozen crowdfunding campaign requests, either through sites such as the ones mentioned above, or via more informal means such as Facebook.

At times, I will happily support a crowdfunding campaign for a good cause, interesting new product, or an individual facing tough times. On other occasions I might decide not to contribute.

For what it’s worth — and I’m not claiming to be the first or last word on this — here’s what I look for when approached by a crowdfunding appeal:

1. Above all, is the request a legitimate one? There are so many factors that go into this assessment, including the individuals involved, the nature of the funding request, and the information provided in the crowdfunding appeal.  This question pervades many other considerations discussed below.

Whether it’s supporting a niche business idea, helping to launch new social venture, or lending a hand to someone in need, I want my contribution to have a positive impact. While this applies specially to larger amounts of money, it’s relevant even if we’re talking about modest donations.

The integrity of a crowdfunding campaign depends in large part on its sponsor(s). Are they identified? Do they have an online presence? If you don’t know them or of them, can you otherwise verify the legitimacy of the request?

2. Is the funding campaign “fixed” or “flexible”? A fixed campaign specifies that if the minimum listed amount isn’t raised, then no one will be charged. By contrast, a flexible campaign takes your money even if the stated dollar goal isn’t reached. I tend to favor fixed campaigns because they tell me that the sponsor is confident in the appeal and its chances of success.

In considering an appeal from a high dollar flexible campaign, I will weigh whether (a) it’s an organization or individual I know; (b) the appeal (including the amount) is realistic and well articulated, and (c) I strongly support the project on its merits. At times, if a flexible campaign seems promising but perhaps overly ambitious or not too well thought out, then I’ll wait to see if it’s attracting a lot of support. If not, there’s a chance that others have the same concerns.

Let’s suppose, for example, that someone is asking for $25,000 for a project on a flexible funding basis. If, say, my $75 contribution is part of only $1,000 raised in total, then I may feel like a bit of a chump, having sent money to a project that isn’t even close to having sufficient funds to go ahead. On the other hand, I may so strongly believe in the project and its sponsor(s) that I will quickly make a contribution, knowing that they will use the money wisely even if they fall short of their fundraising goal.

3. Is there a sufficiently detailed budget? I want to know how the money will be used. I’ve read compelling appeals that are specific and detailed. I’ve read others for amounts around $5,000, $25,000, or even (yup) $100,000 that tell me very little. Guess who is more likely to get my contribution?

When foundations consider grant applications, they typically required a fairly detailed budget. Having both written and evaluated grant proposals, I know that writing out these budgets can be a pain, and frankly there’s often some guesswork involved. Nevertheless, it’s about transparency and accountability. Likewise, crowdfunded campaigns should provide a budget, too. If someone is asking for money in a public way, it is reasonable to expect some specificity concerning how the funds will be used.

4. If it’s a personal appeal for, or behalf of, an individual in need, then how credible does it sound? This is a difficult question, loaded with personal biases relating to who is “deserving” of help, and subject to the narrative skills of the person(s) writing the funding appeal.

Here are the personal appeals that cause me to back away fast: They tend to ask for larger sums of money, often five or six figures or more. Some sound excessive or suggest a failure to explore options. A few smack of The Secret on hallucinogens; it’s as if someone sat down and thought, I sure could use $100,000, so let’s go for it and maybe my request goes viral.

However, especially in this age of massive wealth inequality, economic uncertainty, and a frazzled social safety net, it’s also true that a lot of people are struggling to pay their bills and to put food on their tables. We should keep our hearts open to personal appeals, while considering them carefully.

5. What do the perks, if any, say about the attractiveness and integrity of the funding request? On occasion I’ve funded something because the perk(s) offered seemed pretty cool. Maybe a perk includes the very product I’d like to support. Or perhaps it gives me a good feeling of connection with the people organizing the campaign.

On other occasions I’ve declined to fund something because the perk(s) seemed cheesy or, well, insincere. By the latter, I mean that the perks were somewhat contrived and, in some cases, appeared to be deliberately difficult to fulfill. If, say, a $500 donation to a national campaign gets you a face-to-face cup of coffee with the project organizer, but you have to fly halfway across the country on your dime for that latte, then this should tell you something about the campaign sponsor’s regard for potential contributors — regardless of whether you can afford that level of support.

6. Is the funding request on behalf of an abused animal, or a beloved pet who needs expensive surgery? Put a sad looking little doggie or kitty cat on the funding page with a cry for help, and my critical evaluative skills often go out the window. Unless the critter is Cujo, I’m fumbling through my wallet for my credit card. Yup, I’m a sucker.

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This post was revised in December 2015.

Chris Guillebeau’s advice: Do your own annual review

Chris Guillebeau is a prolific writer, entrepreneur, and global sojourner who is playing a lead role in encouraging people — Gen Xers and Millennials especially — to think creatively and independently about what to do with their lives. One of his recommended life-planning activities is to do your own annual review as the year comes to a close. Using his blog, he shares his annual reviews with readers and asks for their feedback.

In a recent e-mail update to his list subscribers, he describes his annual review process this way:

Every year in December, I go away for a week and spend time reflecting on the year that’s drawing to a close, and then (and more importantly) make a lot of plans for the next year.

I’ve been sharing this process online since 2008, and many of our readers take part in it too. This is a free exercise and you can do it in your own way.

…Since I’ve been following this practice, it’s been the single most important ritual in ensuring I achieve meaningful and challenging goals.

In contrast to employer-provided performance reviews, which even Business Week has tagged a “worthless” corporate practice, the DIY annual review is, well, largely self-generated and self-directed. If, like Chris, you want feedback from others as part of your review process, it’s up to you do solicit it.

In one of my early references to Chris’s work, I praised his first book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010), while adding that it suffered “from a touch of youthful arrogance.” Yikers! Well…today I’d change my words, suggesting that he writes with a (comparatively) youthful confidence that manages to convey both boldness and intelligence. If, at times, I feel a tad uncomfortable with the confidence Chris exudes, it may be due to the fact that I — at middle age — feel less certain about some things that I was completely convinced of back in my 30s. But that’s about me, not anyone else!

In any event, I like the idea of a personal annual review as a centering and planning exercise. I haven’t decided whether I’ll do it at the end of this year of at the conclusion of the academic year next May, but I’m sold on giving this a try.

Working Notes: Interview with workplace anti-bullying activist, Kaplan survey on bullying & nurses, freelancers & nasty clients

Good morning, dear readers! Here are three items that may be of interest to you:

1. Tufts professor profiles Massachusetts anti-bullying activist and labor leader Greg Sorozan

Tufts University professor Lisa Gualtieri did an excellent in-depth interview Greg Sorozan, coordinator of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates and union president. Greg has been a pioneering voice in the labor movement on workplace bullying and is an initial Fellow of the U.S. Academy of Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse. I encourage you to read Dr. Gualtieri’s full profile of Greg; here’s the intro:

“Bullying is part of the spectrum of abusive behaviors that exist in this world. I know about child abuse, child neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, and now adult abuse at work. They all work together to create many, if not most, of the health and mental health problems we have,” said Greg Sorozan. Greg is President of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and Massachusetts State Coordinator of The Healthy Workplace Bill, working to prevent bullying in the workplace. I read about his work in a Boston Globe article and his MA legislative activity and asked to interview him about his work as a patient activist.

2. Kaplan survey: Nursing school graduates concerned about workplace bullying

A survey by the Kaplan testing preparation company shows that nearly half of surveyed 2014 nursing school graduates are concerned about experiencing bullying and related behaviors. Here’s the lede from the Kaplan news release:

For those entering the workforce, typical top-of-mind issues include opportunities for growth, benefits, and job security — but nearly half of those entering the nursing profession voice another concern: being bullied by colleagues. According to a just-released Kaplan survey of over 2,000 nursing school graduates from the class of 2014, 48% say they are concerned about being the victims of workplace bullying or working in a hostile working environment. The survey also found that 39% personally knew nurses who were victims of workplace bullying or a hostile working environment.

 3. Freelancers Union piece on working with jerks

A sense of independence is one of the great appeals of going the freelance route, and that may include being able to work with agreeable clients instead of difficult ones. But it’s not always that easy; bullying-type behaviors rear their ugly heads in the indie sector as well. Kate Hamill, writing for the Freelancers Union blog, shares a bad client situation from her early freelancing days and lessons learned from it. Here’s a snippet:

Early on in my freelance career, I worked with a company that has since gone under – quite deservedly. Looking back, there were a lot of red flags: a haphazard hiring process, an unclear reporting structure (to this day, I can’t tell you exactly who my boss was), relatively low pay, and unreasonable demand. Most tellingly, they employed an army of freelance writers, with a high turnover rate.

…It didn’t take long for the client to become unpleasant. It started out with small things; deadlines that seemed unreasonable, unsubtle demands to work overtime, a tendency to ignore boundaries. I would send emails that got no response, only to get chewed out days later for not following policy. When I forwarded emails that exonerated me… no reply. They kept giving me more and more work, including assignments I was painfully unqualified for. Then I found out how much money they were charging THEIR clients for my services, while claiming I possessed certain certifications… that I didn’t.  I was making about 10% of what they were charging. Their language got increasingly harsh – with me, with everybody.

 

 

Recycling: Meaningful books about career and life planning

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This week, something seems to be drawing me to write about authors and books! So I’ve gone back into the blog archives to dig out some posts that discuss titles that I have found inspirational over the years:

1. Seth Godin, Tribes

Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin is one of my favorites. In this 2008 book Tribes, he describes how people are coming together around common interests, projects, and values in ways that transcend traditional organizational and geographic boundaries. In this 2010 blog post, I explain how “Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.” Reacting and responding are easy, but initiating is “what leaders do.”

2. Steven Levy, Hackers and Barbara Sher, Wishcraft

A book about the early days of the computer revolution and a pioneering self-help guide led me to the path I’ve been pursuing since 1991. In a 2011 blog post, I talk about these two books and their influence on me. Here’s a snippet:

Twenty years ago, I found myself yearning to do something different with my work life. I had been practicing as a public interest lawyer since graduating from law school, and although I liked certain aspects of the work, I didn’t see myself as being a litigation attorney for the rest of my career.

…It was around that time that I encountered two books that encouraged me to think more expansively about my career. One was Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984; now in a 25th anniversary 2010 edition).

…I also got hold of a self-help book, Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (1979; now in a 30th anniversary 2009 edition). Wishcraft helps readers identify their strengths and interests and overcome resistances to change, a terrific mix of inspirational and practical advice.

3. David W. Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (2006), economics professor David W. Galenson writes about “sprinters” who make their signature contributions earlier in the lives and “marathoners” whose breakthroughs may classify them as late bloomers.

In this 2009 blog post, I wrote how Galenson’s ideas helped to inspire me as I approached age 50.

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