Posts by Celeste Hamilton Dennis

Just “follow your instinct”? Maybe not.


Not treating your instinct as the be-all and end-all can help you make better decisions
about when to change direction. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Most of us make the bulk of our decisions based on instinct. How many times in your life have you found yourself saying, “It just felt right”?

But here’s the thing: your intuition might be wrong. It just might be your obstacle to action.

In a recent Brainpickings blog post, editor Maria Popova dissects the marvels and flaws of intuitive thinking based on the findings of psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Drawing from a series of studies he did in the ’70s, Kahneman encourages us to keep our intuition in check.

How? By being aware that it’s our brain’s default to jump to conclusions based on scant information.

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. … People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

But you can use your slippery instinct to your advantage. Maria smartly writes:

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

So the next time you’re in the midst of a project and “feeling” that something is right (or wrong), you might want to think again.

When has listening to your instinct worked for you? When has it not?

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Giving fossils new life with Jurassic Geriatrics

Welcome back to Small Acts: our series highlighting people who use their passion to make a big difference in their community.


David holds a T. rex jaw at The Renaissance assisted living apartment community in Wausau, WI. (photo courtesy David Daniels)

When David Daniels walks into a retirement community, he’s not carrying a meal or a magazine or an oldies music collection for the residents.

He’s carrying a jaw. The bottom jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, that is.

It’s a win-win: residents get respite from the typical entertainment of bingo games and Frank Sinatra impersonators, and cool artifacts like bear skulls and wooly mammoth bones are given new life.

As founder of the Wisconsin nonprofit Colossal Fossils, David is all about spreading his love of extinct creatures and helping communities while he’s at it. Besides retirement homes, he’s shared his hobby with at-risk youth, the blind, and more.

The idea began a couple of years ago when David, whose professional background is in business, was rummaging in his basement and found an old, dusty box of fossils he’d been curating since childhood.

Sad to see them wasting away, he and his wife started talking with science and nonprofit folk in their hometown of Wausau to see if they could resurrect them. Wanting to help bolster local science programs, they started taking the collection into schools for show and tell.

Then David called up a retirement community on a whim. Knowing such places often have small entertainment budgets, he thought it could be a way to break up the monotony of the day without breaking the bank. They agreed.

“One lady came up to me afterwards,” David says. “ ‘She said, ‘I just want you to know I have Alzheimer’s. Chances are, tomorrow morning when I wake up, I won’t remember any of this. If I could have one wish, I would remember everything you taught me today.’ ”

So far, David has been to a dozen retirement homes in Wisconsin, with many repeat visits. The eventual goal is to create portable museums he can take across the U.S.

For David, who was admittedly one of those kids who wore dinosaur t-shirts all the time, it’s been an epic journey to circle back to his childhood passions as an adult. And while you could say Colossal Fossils is the dawn of a new era, their small focus is what David hopes will make them stand the test of time.

“There are plenty of large organization that focus on larger cities and larger venues. But there’s nobody that will go and talk to six seniors citizens about mastodons,” he says. “We’re okay with that.”

Do you have a niche hobby you’ve shared with others to make your community a little bit better? Tell us about it in the comments!

*Update: Colossal Fossils is looking to make their collection bigger. Get in touch with David here if you have fossils to donate.

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Rejection Therapy: The game you win if someone tells you “no”

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

Today, we present: fear.

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A rejection sampler.

Here’s an idea to get over your fear of rejection: seek it out.

Yeah, I know. Sounds crazy. But the concept is sound: the more you’re rejected, the more it doesn’t seem like such a scary thing.

James Comely’s game, Rejection Therapy, encourages you to try this theory out. It works like this: try everyday to get someone to reject you. You can opt for a 30 Day Challenge, 100 days, or more or less depending on what you want to get out of it.

For $10, you can purchase a set of cards that gives suggestions for situations prime for dismissal. Examples include: friending a complete stranger on Facebook; hitchhiking; calling or visiting a direct competitor.

Or, you can create your own rejection scenarios.

Success is when somebody tells you “no.” If they say “yes,” your ask wasn’t risky enough. Try again.

Of course, playing the game once won’t make you immune to the ravages of rejection. The goal is to increase your confidence by disrupting your comfort zone over time.

Here’s what Comely had to say in an interview on fear.less:

Before playing the game, I thought about it a lot: Why was I not happy? Was I always in my comfort zone? All that introspection and pondering pointed to one thing: Rejection. I knew the fear from rejection was handcuffing my life. It was crippling. But what gave power to this fear? The answer was my comfort zone. That’s what it was. Go home on a weekend and be comfortable. At the most, call up an old friend, go out and get something to eat or whatever. Stay comfortable. Opt for the comfort factor.

Opportunities presented themselves but I chose the comfortable, boring route. But as I began to look for rejection, I discovered a unique thing about my comfort zone: It was elastic. The more I pushed past the boundaries, the more it would expand.

Now will you go share this blog post with one million people? I sure hope you won’t.

Have you ever been rejected and had it not be a big deal?

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What Humans of New York can teach us about not caring what people think


There’s been a lot press a lately about Brandon Stanton, founder of the Humans of New York photojournalism project.

If you’ve been following the HONY story as religiously as I have, you’ll know that last week Brandon released a book of his 400 best portraits since beginning the project in 2010.

I love HONY for a myriad of reasons. I love how he captures beauty in all its diverse forms amidst the chaos and congestion of the city. I love how his subjects are so unbelievably raw and wise. I love how he connects me to a place where I once lived.

And finally I love Brandon’s chutzpah, not least because he approaches random strangers all the time, but because he took a chance on his passion. Before millions of people started following his blog, Brandon was a bond trader in Chicago. Then he quit his job, picked up, and moved to NYC with a camera in hand to try and make it.

People thought he was crazy.

This is a common fear that we hear from you, our Idealist community. Brandon’s story is a great example of preserving, despite the people around you thinking you’re cuckoo.

Here’s a snippet from Huffington Post on how HONY came to be:

My initial plan was to take 10,000 street portraits to plot on an interactive map, creating a photographic census of the city.

But I was completely broke. My friends and family thought I was crazy. I’d only had six months of photography experience, yet I was moving across the country to be a photographer. Despite the absurdity of the decision, I felt confident. I knew that my photography skills left a lot to be desired. But I also knew that I had the best idea of my life, and that everything else could be figured out as I went along.

I made that move about 2.5 years ago. There were a lot of lonely times. That first year was tough. I knew nobody in New York. I never knew where rent was coming from. All I did was take photographs. I never took a day off. I worked every single holiday. I took thousands of portraits before anyone paid attention. But even though I didn’t have much to show for it, I knew that I was getting better, and I knew the photographs were special.

Have you ever taken a chance on a seemingly crazy idea, only to have it be more successful than you ever could’ve imagined?

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Are you a jolly good fellow? 4 opportunities for you this fall and beyond

Fall is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf—and get more serious about making your world-changing ideas happen. Here are four fellowships to help you level up:

Atlas Corps Fellowship

  • WHO: Rising nonprofit leaders ages 23-35 from around the world with a Bachelor’s degree and English proficiency. There’s only one catch: U.S. leaders can’t apply.
  • WHAT: You’ll be placed at a U.S. organization with all living expenses paid, and receive leadership training throughout the year. After 12 or 18 months, you go back to your home country to share best practices, show off your new skills, and more.
  • WHEN: Deadline to apply is November 1.

Don’t fall into bad habits—apply now!
(photo courtesy LilKar on Shutterstock)

Unreasonable Institute Global Fellows

  • WHO: Open to anyone in the world with a for-profit or nonprofit social venture. The only things you need to demonstrate are strong business chops and your ability to continually iterate on your idea or product.
  • WHAT: If chosen to be one of 12, you’ll receive a more than reasonable package of customized mentorship, access to 250+ investors and funders, and support from others who have gone before you.
  • WHEN: Deadline to apply is November 7.

Global Health Corps Fellowship

  • WHO: English speakers 30 years old and younger who have an undergrad degree and believe health is a basic human right, regardless of past experience.
  • WHAT: Once accepted, you’re paired with a local from a health organization for one year of ‘frontlines’ teamwork in Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, or the U.S. (Boston, DC, Newark, or New York). Super cool bonus: an end-of -year retreat in Uganda.
  • WHEN: Applications open November 6; deadline to apply is January 26.

PopTech Social Innovation Fellowship

  • WHO: Social innovators in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. Applicants who pop have three to five years of experience, and are already working in organizations that have potential for growth.
  • WHAT: You and and 19 others will participate in an all-expenses paid program where established innovators and leaders will help you focus on scaling your innovation, culminating in a presentation at the annual PopTech conference. The rest of the year, you’re tapped into an alumni network to help you get media coverage and funding.
  • WHEN: Nominations open in February 2014.

Interested in more opportunities? Search Idealist for more than 1,500 fellowships around the globe.

Resource tip: The Opportunity Daily has all sorts of great fellowships, funding, and more sent directly to your inbox each day.

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Reciprocity + Co: The power of collaboration and perseverance


One of five tote bags from Reciprocity + Co. The blue straps indicate your money will go to a featured health project. (photo courtesy

Almost one year ago, we wrote about Samuel McPherson, a young social entrepreneur who was starting a company to help improve education worldwide. The idea for Reciprocity + Co. was simple: buy a canvas tote bag, help a school get needed supplies.

But executing this model proved difficult, and Samuel realized the one-to-one model wasn’t sustainable. Wanting to support more long-lasting projects like installing wells and building schoolhouses, he made some changes.

In the time since we last spoke, Samuel developed a partnership with the crowdfunding website GlobalGiving, with the goal of raising $1,000 for projects across five issues: health, hunger, human rights, children, and education. Now when you buy a Reciprocity + Co. tote bag, a portion of your money goes to a cause of your choice.

During his journey, Samuel realized the power of collaboration—and perseverance. He wrote on his blog after a meeting with GlobalGiving:

As I was leaving their office, filled with adrenaline and excitement, I began thinking about the history of Reciprocity + Co. and all that has happened over the years. I started to reflect on one of the most important lessons I have learned about starting the company: nothing is more important than never giving up.

There were a number of times when most signs were suggesting that I should close up shop and consider Reciprocity + Co. a failed attempt. There were times when I had no sense of direction, nobody asking what was next, and moments when I realized my friends and family were convinced it was done.

There came a time about a year ago when I had to decide if I was going to keep the website or shut it down. I couldn’t bring myself to do this. It was not in the cards. I began working through ways to reinvent the company. I took a fresh perspective and brought new life into the idea. I started from scratch and rebuilt everything.

How did Samuel know he needed to keep going and make it through the dip? It was a gut feeling.

Have you ever wanted to quit but your instincts told you otherwise? Tell us about it!

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The world is a blank page. What will you write?

Today’s inspiration: author, professor, and filmmaker MK Asante.


photo via

I recently saw MK Asante speak at Wordstock, a writing festival here in Portland, OR. He was reading from his memoir Buck, which tells the tale of a Philly kid gone wild only to get back on track when he picks up a pen to write.

He’s got a ferocious energy and spitfire charm that’s irresistible, and lots of great things to say about making things happen the way you want them to. Take this excerpt from Buck:

The entrepreneur sees the world as the writer sees the blank page—as a chance. The game changes, but the hustle stays the same.

When you look at your blank page, what do you see?

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This food truck is driving change for youth just out of prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.


Jordyn and her sweet food spread. (photo courtesy of Jordyn Lexton)

In her English class at East River Academy one day, a school for incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island, Jordyn Lexton had her students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).”

After the group discussion, one student asked if he could be an architect someday. She told him yes. Another student who had been sleeping throughout the class raised his head and shouted, “Hell no! No disrespect, Miss, but you’re selling dreams.”

In that moment she realized that most of these kids would never actually have a chance to live their dreams—not because they didn’t have the potential, but because the system was broken.

Her students were all 16, 17, and 18 years old, yet charged as adults in the New York state prison system, one of only two states to do so. And even if they were lucky enough to leave East River Academy with a high school diploma or GED, the chances of them ending up back in jail were high—70% would return, in fact. Future employment and further schooling would be also tough due to their felony record.

“Regardless of what I was doing inside the facility, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to literally stop selling dreams and actually create channels for young people to have a successful reentry experience,” Jordyn says.

So she left teaching at the beginning of last year to start working at the Correctional Association of New York on the Raise the Age campaign. She got interested in prison reentry, and afterward, worked at the Center for Employment Opportunities.

An unabashed foodie, Jordyn then had an idea: what if she opened a food truck in NYC and hired her students once they got out of jail? The idea stuck with her. So she started working at Kimchi Taco Truck to learn the ins and outs of the mobile food world.

“If knew if I was asking people to pick up the truck, drive it to a site, turn it on, get it going, do sales, clean up, bring it back—I wanted to know what that entailed and felt like. And it’s not easy by any means,” Jordyn says. “The knowledge of that experience gives me an edge.”

Food with a side of social justice

While organizations like Homeboy Industries and Mission Pie have been touting the therapeutic benefits of culinary arts for a while now, Drive Change is really the first of its kind.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to take the program and put it onto wheels,” she says.

One goal is that Drive Change will play parent to a bevy of other food trucks. Its first child, set for a soft launch at the end of November, is Snowday, inspired by the time Jordyn was 12 years old and had “the most amazing food in her life” on a family trip to Canada: maple syrup over snow. Other mouthwatering items on the menu include maple bacon Brussels sprouts and pulled pork bacon maple sliders, among others.

“I don’t want someone to come up to me and say, ‘This tastes like it has a social mission,’ ” she says. “I want you to walk away having this amazing food experience and then later, if you find out it’s one of the trucks by Drive Change, then you feel even better about the fact that you contributed to a lofty social goal.”

Although it won’t hit you over the head, that lofty social goal is the main entree. Jordyn envisions hiring a cohort of eight to ten formerly incarcerated youth, and training them over a period of eight months on everything from how to use propane gas to social media marketing to accounting.

The overarching goal of Drive Change is expansion: to train more kids who can use the skills they learned to get a job or open their own food truck; to make Drive Change the go-to caterer for social good events in the NYC area; and to help start lots more trucks in other cities.

The journey hasn’t always been easy for Jordyn, but it’s always felt right.

“If you have a good enough idea and the experience to know what it takes to bring it to life, and the ability to get investment from a number of community stakeholders, then I truly believe there’ll be enough support and noise whatever the hurdles,” she says. “And something positive is going to come out of it.”

Interested in seeing how this story progresses? Follow @DriveChangeNYC and @Snowdaytruck on Twitter, and like Drive Change and Snowday on Facebook. 

Drive Change is always looking for partners. If you know a corporate sponsor who might be interested in events or catering, or a food business interested in developing or donating menu items in exchange for promotion, get in touch with

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3 things you can learn about entrepreneurship from prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.


Days before his release from prison, Brandon Biko Reese reads during a session of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. (photo from Tamir Kalifa and text from Maurice Chammah via The Texas Tribune)

An all-health food vending machine in schools and companies. A publishing house that only publishes words and art from prisoners. Car repair training for teens in the juvenile justice system.

Sound awesome?

These are just some of the many projects that are being given a fighting chance because of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Houston, Texas-based nonprofit that aims to reduce the country’s high recidivism rate by helping inmates in Texas prisons start their own businesses.

It works like this: any man with an idea from one of the state’s 60 prisons can apply to the competitive program. Once accepted, participants go through a six-month MBA boot camp, complete with top business executives as mentors. After the cap and gown come off, help with funding, network building, schooling, and more continue both inside and beyond the prison walls.

“Really, it’s reinforced my belief in the tremendous, untapped potential of people in prison—both with respect to entrepreneurship and life prospects more broadly,” says Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who recently spent a year in jail and is now a PEP advisory board member.

Since its start in 2004, PEP has served over 800 graduates, with only five percent going back to prison three years or less after their release. To date, 120 of their plans have come to life, from a food truck enterprise to a shoe shining business to a company that provides legal assistance to inmates.

What’s more, for those on the other side of the barbed wire, it’s shifting perceptions of how we view the formerly incarcerated.

“It helps executives from around the country see that most people in prison aren’t that unlike them—they have families they love and miss, career goals and aspirations, dreams of something better,” Jeff says. “They made mistakes, but that doesn’t mean society should write them off.”


What can you learn from prisoners?

Jeff is a firm believer that inmates have some of the shrewdest business instincts around. Remember Stringer Bell’s unfailing dedication to macroeconomics in The Wire?

Here are Jeff”s three tips from inside prison that can help you with your own entrepreneurial project:

1. Cultivate side hustles.

Whether it was ironing another man’s jumpsuit, opening one-man barbershops, or smuggling cigarettes inside, Jeff witnessed lots of hustles happening in prison. The risks varied, as did the rewards, but there was something to be said about going the extra distance.

“Hustles can help you diversify your approach to solving problems, gain a new perspective, and broaden your networks,” Jeff says.

So in addition to your big project, considering picking up some side hustles to both increase your cash flow and your opportunities.

2. Make strategic alliances.

Jeff worked at the prison warehouse unloading food shipments. In order to allay suspicion that he might snitch on his warehouse colleagues who sold stolen food, he soon found himself taking an orange here or an apple there, and distributing them strategically upon returning to his cell block

Of course, in the outside world, building strategic alliances takes more than handing someone a piece of fruit. But the principle applies to entrepreneurship just the same.

In a letter to current inmate and former Illinois governor Rod Blogojevich, Jeff gives some advice for how to make the most of prison. Some of these include: corresponding with anyone who writes to you. Forgiving your enemies. Not complaining about how bad your job is, nor bragging about how good it is. Embracing your background, but not imposing it on people.

And finally, staying open to the possibility that your allies might end up being more meaningful than you think.

“When the novelty wears off and the people who approach you are doing more than rubbernecking, don’t discount the possibility of making lifelong friends,” he writes. “You will meet some of the most fascinating people you have ever met, from all walks of life. Listen to their stories, and learn from them.”

3. Tap into your ingenuity.

Doing more with less: that’s what prison life is all about. Like cutting hair with toenail clippers, or cooking grilled cheese with an iron.

If the genius juices just aren’t flowing and you need a fresh perspective, break free from your routine. Talk to people you haven’t seen in a while. Follow folks on Twitter who have different viewpoints from yours. And read, read, read.

“Think about problems you’ve thought about before, but from new angles. Then leave your desk and sit outside on a nice day and just think. On good days, somehow it flows,” Jeff says. “Failing that, write it down immediately whenever you get a flash of brilliance, no matter what time of night, etc. Gems can be so ephemeral, you gotta capture ’em no matter what.”

Interested in prison issues? Search Idealist for almost 2,500 prison-related opportunities around the globe.

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Should you quit, or just do The Dip?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” But author Seth Godin would argue quitting is good—if you’re smart about the right time to do it.

From his book The Dip:

“Never quit.” What a spectacularly bad piece of advice.

Actually, quitting as a short-term strategy is a bad idea. Quitting for the long-term is an excellent idea.

I think the advice-giver meant to say: Never quit something with great long-term potential just because you can’t deal with the stress of the moment. Now that’s good advice.

So, let’s say you have an idea for an unique arts project for after-school youth. You’ve been thinking about it for years, have spent months refining your plan, hours getting the word out, and countless minutes perfecting your funding appeal. You’re so close to making it happen.

But there’s a snag: the school you were going to partner with backed out and no other school seems to be stepping up as a replacement.

This, my friend, is what Godin calls “the Dip.” It’s the moment when things don’t seem to be going your way and you’re starting to question if all your effort is worth it.



So your project? Godin would say it’s time to change your tactics, not quit the plan. No one quits the Boston Marathon at mile 25, right?

It’s human nature to quit when it hurts. But it’s that reflex that creates scarcity. The challenge is simple: Quitting when you hit the Dip is a bad idea. If the journey you started was worth doing, then quitting when you hit the Dip just wastes the time you’ve already invested.

Quit in the Dip often enough and you’ll find yourself becoming a serial quitter, starting many things but accomplishing little.

Simple: If you can’t make it through the Dip, don’t start.

Have you ever fallen into the Dip? How did you deal with it?

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