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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Reframing Fear: Jonathan Fields on how to picture risk, failure, and judgment

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.

This Halloween week, we present: fear.

Jonathan Fields helps people be “more agile, creative and innovative and embrace action in the face of uncertainty with a greater sense of ease.”

As a father, husband, author, speaker, wellness industry entrepreneur, former hedge fund lawyer, innovation consultant (and more!), he’s no stranger to making ideas happen.

He describes his Good Life Project (GLP), in part, as “a voracious commitment to move beyond words and act.” Very Idealist!


In this video from GLP TV’s third season, Jonathan talks about countering fear and inaction by “reframing” our thoughts to push past our natural inclination toward negativity bias (concentrating on what could go wrong), and focus on the opportunities—not the pitfalls—that await in any challenge.

A few of our favorite quips to whet your appetite for action:

  • “Disruption is the seed of innovation, possibility, and opportunity.”
  • “Yes, if you fail, some people may judge you. But you’ll also learn an extraordinary amount about how to do better as you progress. Separate the emotion from the data.”
  • “Fear of loss: what if I lose money? Prestige? Do ask those questions, but also ask: what if I succeed? And: what if I do nothing? That one is often the most horrifying scenario.”

When have you been able to shed fear by focusing on opportunity?

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Goblins, ghouls, and mission drift: What’s scary about haunted house fundraisers?

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.

This Halloween week, we present: fear.

To make their “extreme haunt” trail extra creepy, Acres of Darkness plays up local legends and natural spooks like wolves, Bigfoot, and scary old men with chainsaws. (photo courtesy Kyle Simpson)

Your pulse is racing. Your palms are sweating. You’re paralyzed with metallic fear.

You totally went over-budget on fake blood. Welcome to the charitable haunt director’s worst nightmare.

Actually, if you’re one of the many directors or volunteer leaders who run haunted events for charity this time of year, you’re probably too preoccupied on Halloween to be spooked by much.

And you’re certainly not alone on your busy day: The Haunted House Association (yes, that’s a real thing) estimates that 80% of haunted houses in the U.S. are run by or for mission-driven organizations.

Despite the ubiquity of the “scare because we care” fundraising model, haunts are a huge challenge to plan, staff, and execute.

The money and volunteer hours it takes to set up a haunted site—not to mention moving potentially thousands of guests through the site or grounds—is enough to strike terror in the heart of even the most experienced project manager.

We asked two nonprofit leaders who rely on haunts as an important source of revenue to tell us what freaks them out about haunts and how they deal with their concerns.

Kyle Simpson is the sanctuary manager of the Chattanooga Audubon Society, Tennessee’s oldest wildlife preserve. Since 2010, they’ve been putting on a spooky fundraiser called Acres of Darkness, which sends people out into the dark woods to be chased by chainsaw-wielding forest monsters.

Sean Kelley is Director of Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESPHS) outside of Philadelphia, which hosts Terror Behind the Walls. The event is one of the largest haunts in the country and features night tours through the abandoned prison, complete with creepy zombie inmates.

Terror Behind the Walls in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary lives up to its namesake.

Terror Behind the Walls in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary lives up to its name.
(photo by Andrew Garn)

Fear #1: Staying on mission

Since so much energy goes into preparing and executing this one event, both Kyle and Sean have concerns about spending a ton of time on something that isn’t necessarily a perfect fit with their mission.

“Sure we’re getting kids out in nature, but that’s kind of a stretch. We want to encourage people to be out in nature, not make them terrified of it,” says Kyle.

At the Eastern Penitentiary Historic Site, Sean and the staff work hard to differentiate the content and focus of the historical tours from the haunted tours to make sure their visitors don’t get the wrong idea.

“We have a strict ‘no discussion of real or implied history’ at the haunted house. This forces the content to be a lot of startles, large props, special effects, and actors dressed as zombie guards and inmates with vague and ambiguous lines,” he says. “We never imply that a visit to our haunted house is either educational or an accurate depiction of this or any other prison. It’s a distraction from the mission, no question.”

Fear #2: Safety

When the point of your event is to scare your audience, it’s really important to make certain that nothing bad actually happens to them. Sean stresses safety above everything.

“Startling people in the dark, many of whom have been drinking, is more risky than walking them through during the day,” he says.

To stay safe, Terror Behind the Walls has security and an EMT on site at all hours. They also do extensive emergency training with every employee.

Fear #3: Keeping volunteers happy

The spookiness of Chattanooga’s haunted woods comes mostly from the efforts of the Audubon society’s many dedicated volunteers. For Kyle, making sure his volunteers are having fun is just as important as getting people out to the event.

Last year, Kyle says, one of his volunteer actors had an issue with some older kids who were walking through the haunt and wanted to cause trouble. They laughed and made fun of him for not being scary.

“He wasn’t even really supposed to be scary. He was dressed as a gatekeeper and it was his job to direct people down the path,” he says. “They were really mean to him.”

The volunteer got his feelings hurt and ended up working in the coat trailer for the rest of the season.

“That’s really disheartening to see. Here we have folks coming out to volunteer with us and they’re doing it for the right reasons. We just want them to feel appreciated and have a good time.”

To keep everybody energized and happy, Kyle says he matches his volunteers with the jobs that excite them the most. He also makes sure they feel really appreciated by providing a warm dinner for his actors each night and hosting a volunteer appreciation event later in December.

A pretty good trick for getting treats

Though it can be scary to put on a capital-intense fundraiser, the payoff is good for most organizations. In its third year, Kyle says Acres of Darkness already brings in more than 10% of the Chattanooga Audubon Society’s annual operating revenue. For Sean and the more established haunt at ESPHS, it’s 60%.

It also brings in new audiences and donors by inviting people who might not otherwise know much about the site to come for a fun, seasonal event.

Sean likes to think of the haunted tours as a kind of spooky disguise for the organization as a whole.

“The Penitentiary puts on a costume, throws a big party, and we get a chance to meet broad new audiences.”

Have you hosted or attended a haunt for charity this year? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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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.

2013-10-28 14.21.48

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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Poets in Unexpected Places: What art in public spaces can teach us about being fearless

Samantha Thornhill reciting a poem on the Brooklyn-bound Q train. (Photo by Syreeta McFadden)

Samantha Thornhill reciting a poem on a Brooklyn-bound Q train.
(photo courtesy Syreeta McFadden)

Samantha Thornhill and Jon Sands make art out of what many people fear more than death: public speaking.

Poets in Unexpected Places (or PUP, “Pop-up Poets”) is a New York City-based poetry performance group that creates large-scale poetry installations in public spaces like subway cars, ferries, classrooms, and parks.

Here’s how it works: one of the five PUP poets (called “Curators”) stands up and reads either their own or someone else’s poem. Then it’s another poet’s turn. And so on.

After the third or fourth poet shares something, people start to see that this isn’t a random act of art. They begin taking their ear buds out, or looking up to chuckle with the person sitting next to them. This moment of connection is what the PUP Curators are trying to create.

“You see people sharing an experience. People who were disconnected before, staring at their iPods, are now connecting. They’re part of a story where everyone has a role to play,” Samantha says. “And that’s revolutionary.”

They’ve had audiences react with indifference and (rarely) with hostility, but the overall response since PUP’s start in 2008 has been really positive. Audience members have even joined in and shared their own work—poems, raps, dances, even a monologue from Romeo and Juliet. When this happens, the brave civilians are called “Pop-up Passengers.”


Transforming fear

Even for experienced teachers and performers like the PUP Curators, sharing something as personal as a poem (especially an unsolicited poem) in a public space is definitely a risk. Each Curator has their own strategy for dealing with the fear and making something positive from it.

Samantha says she takes power from the surprise of not knowing what’s going to happen.

“I harness that energy of uncertainty and nerves, and I let it bring me to a positive space. Then it’s not fear anymore,” she says.

It’s helped her become a braver person overall. “I was able to tell myself that if I can stand up on a train and do a poem, then I can dismantle other fears that are holding me back.”

Jon says the whole idea for PUP was pretty much a dare. He was riding a late night L train with his friend Adam, another co-founder of PUP, who told him he’d give him $2 if he did a poem—right then and there.

“Of course we were afraid—but when you’re afraid of something, that’s usually a good sign that you should try it,” he says.

Acting on good intentions

Knowing what they want to do—and why they’re passionate about it—helps the Curators stay focused and committed to the act of storytelling and transforming public spaces.

“I believe in doing something with intention—to really dissect what you’re doing and why you’re doing it—otherwise it might seem like a frivolous action. It’s okay to be afraid, as long as it’s not paralyzing or destabilizing, but the intention and the passion have to be there,” Samantha says.

If you’re trying to get to the root of your intentions, Jon thinks there’s something to be said for just going with your feelings and opening up to the unknown.

“There’s really a value in saying ‘yes’ and seeing what happens.”

When have you channeled fear into a positive emotion? How did you do it?

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Are you afraid of failure…or success?

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. This Halloween week, we present: fear.

The following is a translated excerpt from Elena Martín’s original post on Idealist’s Spanish language site, Idealistas.

When we talk about the obstacles that prevent people from moving from intention to action, we often cite the fear of failure. But the other side of the coin is not so commonly discussed: fear of success.


Are you afraid you might see failure… or success?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Fear of failure can come into play when we think our image is on the line (“People will think this idea is absurd,” “If I try this and it doesn’t work, they’ll think I’m a failure,” etc.), and also when we treat failures purely as setbacks, instead of as opportunities to learn and make changes.

Fear of success, however, comes from different ideas and habits—often ones related to responsibility and commitment.

When thinking about an idea you want to make happen, have you ever had the following thoughts?

  • “If this goes well, am I willing to take on the extra responsibility it will mean?”
  • “What if I start to develop this, and it works, but then I realize it’s not really what I want?”
  • “My life is pretty good as it is. Why introduce this risk and complication to it?”

If so, you might be suffering from a fear of success! As you can see, the way we frame our thoughts and feelings about fear determines in large part what we dare to do (or not do).

So we invite you to try asking yourself what stops you from taking action. What’s the cost of not trying? Would it be better to try than to keep imagining what would happen if you did? What would make a better addition to your life than realizing your idea?

Your answers might give you a clue that you’re afraid of succeeding. If that’s the case, don’t fret: you can turn it around.

If we change our thoughts—if we can behold failure as a learning experience, responsibility as an honor, and commitment as an adventurous challenge—we can change the world.

Have you experienced fear of failure, or of success? Have you been able to turn good intentions into action by reshaping your thoughts and feelings about fear? Please share in the comments.

Idealist contributor Kimberly Maul also delves into the fear of success, with a focus on career goals, in this Idealist Careers post.

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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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What the making of “Gravity” can teach us about patience


Getting a scene to look like it was filmed at zero gravity isn’t easy.
(image via Warner Bros. Pictures)

While “Gravity” is getting a lot of attention for its stunning visuals and intricate special effects, here at Idealist we’re more interested in what the space survival epic says about persistence in the face of loneliness, isolation, and fear.

We hope you won’t ever have to test your tenacity and problem-solving skills in such an extreme way—like figuring out how to survive after being pummeled by space debris—but we all face overwhelming challenges at times when we make important decisions than can affect our dreams, careers, and projects. 

Director Alfonso Cuarón is no stranger to obstacles and setbacks himself. In this Vulture interview (originally from New York Magazine), he says the film took him nearly four and a half years to complete. His idea was met initially with a lot of skepticism.

“It’s a very unlikely film, first of all, to put together,” he tells interviewer Dan P. Lee. “It’s basically one character floating in space.”

People told him it was impossible to make a movie like this. They wanted him to change the story. They wanted him to take shortcuts. But he believed in his original vision.

Cuarón describes some of the obstacles he and his collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki faced while trying to film something that was thought of as nearly impossible:

They tried the conventional methods. With wires and harnesses, “you feel the gravity in the face, you feel the strain,” Cuarón says. (In a few shots they would prove unavoidable, so the filmmakers designed a complex twelve-wire puppeteering system.)

They tried the infamous “vomit comet”—a specially fitted airplane that flies in steep parabolic arcs to induce brief spans of weightlessness inside the open fuselage, which was used to great effect in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Cuarón found it impractical: “You’ve got a window of twenty seconds if you’re lucky, and you’re limited by the space of a 727.”

They flew to San Francisco to view robots as stand-ins for the actors. They tried motion capture. They considered creating a “CG Sandra,” but “the fluid in the eyes, the mouth, the soul—there’s something that doesn’t work yet,” Lubezki says.

Cuarón consulted the director James Cameron and Lubezki the director David Fincher. Both had the same advice: Wait for the technology.

The leadership at Warner Bros. changed. Actors took other jobs and dropped out. There was the constant concern of money—the studio had only budgeted the film at a reported $80 million, a relatively modest amount given that, as they were slowly realizing, they’d have no choice but to largely invent the technology that would allow the film to be made.

So what did they do?

“How do you eat an elephant?” Cuarón asked me. “One spoonful a day.”

Can mainstream movies like “Gravity” make a positive impact on our society? What other inspiring ideas can we take away from the film and the story of how it was made?

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Take a seat, make a friend

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. This week, we present: people issues.

Feeling uncomfortable talking to strangers is a classic obstacle to action. In this delightful video, the folks at SoulPancake (the same media group responsible for Kid President) show us one way to make introductions fun and memorable.

Have you ever made a new connection from a totally random interaction like this? Tell us about it!

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Beyond bears: What I learned about people in Alaska

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. This week, we present: people issues.

A few years ago, one month away from college graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

I was a double major in communications and Spanish, had two internships under my belt, and no earthly idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I applied to dozens of jobs, mostly in New York City but also abroad, and crossed my fingers.


Idealist’s Community Manager Matt Cifaldi immediately after bear-spraying himself in Alaska.
(photo courtesy of the author)

During this time I called a friend of mine who told me to apply for a job at a nonprofit he had worked for in Alaska through an AmeriCorps grant. He was enthusiastic and thought it might be a good fit for me.

Little did I know then that two weeks after commencement I would find myself setting up a tent in a field outside of Anchorage at 2:00 a.m., wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The program lasted from June to November, and the idea was simple: in teams, we traveled across the state of Alaska improving trails, keeping highways clean, and developing events with local communities. We lived at campsites in tents. Showering was a weekly event, and we had no access to electricity.

I expected my time in Alaska to be a trying experience, and it often was. Rain would last for an entire week, the mosquitoes were unbearable during the summer, and I never really got a full night of sleep. I ran into all sorts of wildlife, most of it frightening. I climbed mountains and glaciers, and I learned more about living outdoors than I thought I would ever know.

What I didn’t expect, and in fact didn’t even consider, was what I would learn about other people. I signed up for the Alaska program for relatively selfish reasons: I wanted to wash off four years of city living, have an adventure, and get some experience working in the nonprofit sector.

But when I arrived home in November smelling like a campfire and ecstatic to sleep on a mattress, I came back with more than bear stories. I had learned some valuable lessons about living and working with others that I still find useful today.

1. First impressions are almost always wrong.

For our first week, everyone attended an orientation program. We learned how to use chainsaws, practiced CPR, and watched a video about bear safety. We made meals together and started to get to know one another. After the end of orientation, the initial large group of fifty split into six smaller teams.

We were all from different areas of the country, and ranged in age from 18 to 30 years old. No one on our team seemed to have much in common, and I thought I had everybody figured out within a week of working with them. I decided they were lazy, or stubborn, didn’t work well with others, or were distant.

However, as their unique stories unfolded over dozens of campfire conversations and morning coffees, I realized that each of my teammates had a deep personal story to tell.

And that I had been wrong about each and every one of them.

For example, during the first few days, one person on my team casually told me he’d come to Alaska by following an eagle that had appeared in his dreams. I quickly dismissed him as a little bit crazy. But by the end of our time together, I looked up to him and considered him my good friend. And to this day I record interesting dreams I have, mostly due to his influence.


The grandeur of the 49th state! (photo courtesy of the author)

2. Different personalities clash in close quarters. Get over it.

We did everything together. Every day we woke up, made breakfast, drove to our worksite, worked until lunch, ate lunch together, worked some more, drove back to camp, cooked dinner, then went to sleep.

With nothing but time on our hands, we gossiped. It often felt like we were living a supercharged version of Survivor. I’d be friendly with one teammate for two weeks, get into an argument with them, then find another teammate to be best friends with for the next fortnight. Everyone did it. With a limited supply of potential friends, most transgressions were quickly forgiven, and just as quickly occurred again.

Working with such a small group of people and being in constant contact taught me this: everyone has something valuable to offer, as well as something negative. Focusing on the negative aspects of someone’s personality is often easier, especially in a work setting, but it’s never productive.

3. Being a leader is a lot harder than it looks.

Our team leader was responsible for our budget, arranging jobs across the state, and generally keeping us motivated and alive. She was our boss, parent, and friend all at once.

Before Alaska, I’d viewed my past managers’ jobs as similar to mine, except they got paid more. From living in close contact with my boss, though, I realized her responsibilities were much greater. She had to do everything I did, plus keep everything organized and solve disagreements between team members, of which there were many. She was also just as far from home as the rest of us, and couldn’t as comfortably confide in us as we could in each other.

There’s a reason managers get paid more: their job is often much harder than it seems.

The entire Alaska trip was harder than it seemed it would be, in fact, and there were times I truly wanted to give up and book a flight home. But in the end, I wouldn’t trade the half year I spent there for anything else.

I am a better person for having been to Alaska, and not a day goes by that I don’t use something I learned there. Like when I meet someone new, I know not to judge them based on first impressions. And when I meet a bear, I know not to run away. It will just chase you.

Tell us about a time you unexpectedly learned about people when you set out to learn something else.

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