What can you learn from your parents’ passion project?

We recently learned of a Canadian holiday called Family Day, celebrated in many provinces on the third Monday in February. We second the notion that recognizing the importance of family is, well, important, and are pleased to pay homage this week to clans large and small, given and chosen, with Family Week on Idealists in Action.

The value of parental wisdom is too often underestimated. We got four Idealist staffers to ask their ‘rents for advice on about starting, maintaining, and getting the most out of a passion project.

Don’t be shy.

From Kurt Olson: computer programmer, cub scout leader, skier, maple syrup artisan, fisherman, amateur evolutionary anthropologist, gumbo aficionado, and (what he’s talking about here) folk musician. Also, dad of Idealist Communications Intern Rebecca Olson.


Kurt and Becky

I started learning to play the accordion when I was 40 years old. I often think about how much better I would have been if I had started earlier. My advice to people who want to start any kind of passion project is to start today! (Although no matter when you start, it’s never too late.)

Another piece of advice is don’t be shy. If you’re lucky enough to meet someone who shares a common interest with you, you should make the effort to get to know them. Someone might say, ‘Hey, you should stop by sometime.’ You should always follow up with them.

I’ve also learned that music really is all about people: making friends jamming, playing, teaching, learning, forming a “band.” It’s all about the community you create when you play and share your music.


Find strength in empathy.

From Mary Ellen Mooney Hurley: vegetable goddess, empathizer extraordinaire, looks good in a hat, and possibly mother to the world—but definitely mother of Idealist Software Engineer Derek Hurley.


Mary Ellen



I grew up in an upper middle class family that never had to worry about making the choice between eating and paying bills, and I married into a similar lifestyle. But when that ended abruptly, I found myself wondering how I would meet all my financial obligations and still be able to feed myself healthy, nutritious food.

I went back to college to obtain my BS in rural sustainable sociology to better understand the obstacles those in need face daily. When I moved to the island of Kauai to finish my studies, I got involved with a local garden that supplies the main food pantry with produce. I have since taken over the operation, helping to feed over 300 families weekly, for free, with nutritious green vegetables.

My advice is to get out and get involved in local support groups dealing with the underprivileged. See what they face daily and look inside yourself—you’ll find the passion it takes to give unconditionally to others.


Stay open to possibilities.

From S. Amelia O’Leary: registered nurse, crocheter of comforts, total hottie, and mom of Idealist Community Affairs Manager Megan O’Leary.


S. Amelia and Megan

My passion project began when I learned to crochet at 20 years old. 30 years later, as a labor and delivery nurse, I was shocked to learn that there was little or no support for families that came into the hospital expecting to deliver healthy babies, but instead experienced neonatal loss.

I wondered what could I do to help in these times, and began crocheting baby blankets that parents could use as keepsakes to remember their lost child. I never knew that what started as a hobby would become a part of my career and provide me with a deeply moving way to connect with others.

My advice for those considering starting a personal project is to keep your eyes and hearts open to the possibilities of where and how your passion could be of service to others.


Focus on the goal.

From Steve Davidson: former aeronautical engineer, psychologist, and investment consultant; current Ironman, productivity guru, world traveler, and hot tub enthusiast. Also, dad of Idealist Community Manager Kim Davidson.


Steve’s Ironman tat!

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Kim and Steve

One man’s opinion: You only do a hobby if you enjoy it. You do a passion whether you enjoy it or not.

For me, this has not just been about becoming sufficiently fit to complete an Ironman. I found that all the training and preparation has enhanced my overall well-being. How I feel. How I relate to others. How I accomplish other tasks. My outlook. Everything.

One of the big challenges of triathlon is one that’s true of life in general: you never know what you are going to get on a given day: in this case, it might be wind, rain, heat, etc. But with preparing for the Ironman as with any other big project, I can offer this advice: begin with the end in mind. Have a clear, compelling goal.

Want to ask your passion-project-having parents for their advice and share it with us in the comments? We know you do!


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Balkan brass band plays a new venue: Sing Sing prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

Slavic Soul Party! is a nine-piece New York City brass band dedicated to the Balkan brass tradition and its incorporation with American music. Formed over ten years ago by drummer and bandleader Matt Moran, the group plays upwards of 100 times a year in venues throughout the world.

In 2009, SSP! started performing in a much different space than nightclubs and concert halls: Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York—a maximum security prison.


Slavic Soul Party!

About five years ago, a friend of Matt’s who worked at Carnegie Hall told him about a new program the venue’s Education & Community arm was initiating, called Musical Connections. The program would seek to “bring musical inspiration to people living with challenging circumstances,” and was recruiting musicians to play in places like hospitals, homeless shelters, senior centers, and correctional facilities.

Matt applied right away. For him, it was a no-brainer. “We wanted to be part of the program because as a brass band we’re always looking for situations where the fourth wall gets broken down. That’s what we’re about: street music, life music—not the separation of art and life.”

“When we auditioned, the Carnegie people asked us a lot of questions about ‘building community.’ I said, ‘We know about building community—building community means showing up. We’ve been playing at the same club in Brooklyn every Tuesday for ten years; we’ll come and play at the funeral when someone in our musical circles dies… That’s community: Be who you are, be honest, show up.’ “

They got the contract.

Sing Sing loves SSP

A portrait of the band painted by a Sing Sing inmate (Hurricane Sandy swirls in the background)

When they were accepted, the band was asked what type of place they wanted to perform in. They said prisons.

Matt explains: “For one, we’d never played in a prison. Two, of all the non-traditional venues Carnegie was serving, prisons were the one we as a band had the closest connections to, via personal experience or family members. And three, there is the undeniable cache of ‘cool’ about it—think of the history of music in prisons!”

SSP! was given their first gig at Sing Sing in the fall of 2009. Matt tells the story:

We were nervous as hell. We really didn’t know if what we were doing was going to be appreciated. We went through a tremendous security detail—they searched us personally, our instruments, our equipment… Then we were led to a room where we were suddenly turned over to a group of inmates. It was like, “What?! After all this security, we’re just let loose with these guys? Are we safe around these people?”

It turned out that the entire performance setup had been given as a task to a group of inmates—a handful of “good behavior” guys, who were also musicians, but no one had prepared us for that. We weren’t even sure what we were allowed to do—could we shake hands with them? There had been zero rules of engagement set.

Looking back, I realize that initially, their presence—because they were inmates—made us very uncomfortable, but that then they themselves—because they were so welcoming—soon made us very comfortable.

So we got on stage in the Sing Sing auditorium. The room filled up; over 400 people came. We got up and played hard; we didn’t want to leave any doubt that we were a really good band. They might not like it, but we wanted them to know that we were for real. It’s safe to say we all got goosebumps in that first concert.

The inmates are not allowed to stand; they have to remain seated. The fact that they’re in prison is always evident. They’re on total guard, personally, at all times. They’re always watching—everything.

But they still let it out, man! We have never played for an audience that’s yelled for so long between tunes; they even started chanting our names. When we were done and filing out, we continued playing in the hallways, which apparently you could hear in many places throughout the prison. We heard later from the Carnegie people, who had heard from the prison staff, that that little touch of empathy, that touch of rebellion expressed from us to them, made a big impression.

We went back to perform the next fall and the next—we’re currently in our fifth year—and in between we’ve been going back to teach some of the guys music and trade scores with them. Now when our band plays there, some of them get on stage and play with us. The community that’s been established there through Carnegie is incredible.

And the inmates’ own music group that they’ve formed together—they call themselves the Unofficial House Band—has codified into a real society within the prison. You can see they give each other tremendous support, and it’s given them peace, because it’s bringing music to everyone. Being part of that group offers a very real kind of protection: yes, emotional support and education, but also it increases their value in the prison, so they don’t have to worry as much about being threatened or shivved. That’s what inmates tell me.

matt_moran USE

Matt on vibraphone
(image courtesy sokillingman.com)

For anyone who’s interested in working with an incarcerated community, Matt says, “There are a lot of volunteer programs out there. It’s a bigger commitment than a lot of other volunteer work, that’s true. But it’s not that hard. Just go out and do it!”

He also offers these insights:

Dealing with the bureaucracy
“The paperwork load in advance of this gig was tremendous,” he says. “The Carnegie application process, background checks, researching to see if we had gang affiliations, security at the prison… Plus when you’re there, there are all these rules, like you can’t take photos, you can’t record any music situation where anyone’s full name might be said… But the experience has been so meaningful that I quickly got over the tedium of the logistical mazes.”

Rolling with the unexpected
Though the red tape Slavic Soul Party! has encountered has been extensive, they haven’t always been informed about what would or could actually happen. All that preliminary work and still they had no idea they’d be left alone in a room with a group of inmates minutes after their initial arrival? Or how about the time their performance was delayed because there’d been a slashing in the cafeteria?

“Yeah, it’s a tight system, but it’s still a volatile place,” Matt says. “Prisons are not the best places to work, as you can imagine. You have to realize that it’s potentially not going to be a Mr. Rogers experience all the time, and try to be okay with that.”

Relating to the inmates
“Almost everyone I’ve met at Sing Sing has seemed to me to be a serious, kind, compassionate person,” Matt says. “It’s hard to see people you’ve come to care about live their lives in there. You want to help them find ways to be happy and find peace.”

“No one talks to us about why they’re at Sing Sing. When our band is there, we’re all focused on getting into the music, because music helps you transcend adversity. It’s very clear that we all know that, and that everyone in the room is using music for that in their own way. So in that space and time, we’re all equals.”

Do you have experience working with incarcerated communities? Share your story in the comments.

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Seeking support? Consider flaunting your failures to garner good feelings

Are you trying to drum up support for a project you’re working on—monetary or moral?

Whether you’re drafting language for a Kickstarter page, getting ready to make a speech to city council about your new neighborhood initiative, or prepping for the fundraising event you’re throwing at a local school, the way you tell your audience your story can make the difference between their committing support and walking away.

There are countless good tips out there about how to make people sympathetic to your cause—things like opening with a joke, keeping it short, including real-life examples, and giving a call to action.

Another great one is discussing your failures to show the audience that you’re not afraid to admit your mistakes, are okay with being vulnerable, and—most importantly—that you’ve learned from the past and are better prepared to take on the task at hand as a result of previous missteps.


All eyes on you? Turn the attention from a misstep into heartfelt support.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

The failure you choose to highlight could relate directly to your current idea, or not.

For example, if you’re trying for the third time to start an after-school art program in your neighborhood, you can explain what you’ve learned from your first two attempts, and how that knowledge makes your plan uniquely equipped to succeed this time.

Or, if you haven’t failed at this particular endeavor before, try dredging up an experience from high school or your first job that relates—maybe you learned the hard way to ask for help when you need it, or to speak up when you see something amiss around you.

Whatever story you choose, here are a few pointers about how to tell great fail tales in print and in person from Brooklyn, New York writer, performer, and storytelling coach Andrew Linderman:

For many people (myself included), the only thing scarier than failing is talking about failure. Maybe you’ve hit a parked cop car, peed your pants in front of the high school rowing team or cried in front of a group of Chinese school children*. Whatever the case, you’ve probably failed a few times in your life.

To help you tell stories about screw-ups, shortcomings and unfortunate incidents without coming across as a bitter shrew or a total moron, follow these rules and you’ll be able to talk about failure without looking like one.

1. Don’t pass judgment.

The point of storytelling is to recreate an experience for your audience, so avoid passing judgment about any of the characters (yourself included!) in the story. The easiest way to do this is to eliminate comparatives (i.e. “better”, “worse”, “faster”, etc) and superlatives (i.e. “worst”, “best”, “fastest”) whenever possible. Instead, turn these comparisons into declarative statements (from “the best shot putter in Brooklyn” to “the #3 shot putter in the 18-22 age cohort in Brooklyn”). Specificity will help your story while making the narrator (you) more relatable.

2. Avoid complex explanations.

If you’re talking about failure, it’s natural to want to explain away a decision through your own interpretive lens. Don’t do this. People love stories about a good flop, so don’t cheat them of the experience. One quick way to cut down interpretation is to eliminate explanatory words (“because”, “why”, “knew”, “understood”, “decided”, “realized”) from your story. Don’t tell an audience why something is important, show them how it is important.

3. Show (don’t tell!) us your emotions.

Stories are filled with emotions and feelings, but manipulating your audience into feeling a particular way won’t help them relate to your experience. Skip emotive words (i.e. “happy”, “sad”, “excited”, “worried”) in favor of active phrases (“I smiled and screamed: “Awesome!”) that show the audience how you’re feeling. When you spend the time to recreate an experience, the emotions will shine through.

It takes time to tell stories about failure, but if you use these tips, you’ll be able to get over life’s hurdles faster and tell richer stories in the process. In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

*All of these things happened to me

See Andrew’s original post in its entirety on his blog The Story Source, and read more about all the ways he helps people tell better stories on his website, www.andrewlinderman.com.

Have you ever told a story about a time you flopped to try to engage potential supporters? Tell us how it went!

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“If you want to pursue your dreams, do not tell them to your mother”

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.

The following post was translated from Elena Martín’s original on Idealist’s Spanish language site, Idealistas


Was that good advice, or are you shutting me down?
(photo courtesy CleftClips, Flickr Creative Commons)

You have an idea for a project—but you can’t seem to get going.

When you share your idea, some people tell you you’re just a dreamy idealist; some say you should straighten up and get serious; others might leave it at “you’re crazy.” You start to doubt yourself and don’t take any more steps forward.

Have you ever stopped to think how the people around you might be affecting your actions?

A friend of mine once said, “If you want to pursue your dreams, do not tell them to your mother.”

Clearly not all mothers are risk averse, but my friend’s point was that we’re more prone to act when we don’t hear well-meaning naysaying—things like, “Why don’t you just look for a good job with a stable company?” This can be the case especially when it comes to innovative social impact projects.

We may know in our hearts that going a safe-and-steady route won’t make us happy, but it can still be hard to brush off the dissenting opinions of others—especially when they’re people we really care about. We don’t want to disappoint them, and when they know us well, their advice can seem more meaningful.

So how can you determine who around you might be unwittingly shutting you down—offering you “wise” advice that actually aims to prevent you from acting on your dreams?

Think about whether you know anyone who fits these descriptions:

  • Loving family or friends who discourage you because they don’t want to see you suffer if your idea fails.
  • People who also have good intentions, but have never tried to act on them, or have tried and failed. They might be discouraging because they don’t want to be shown up.
  • Natural born critics who are negative in nature. They prefer to see obstacles at every turn, because if they saw opportunities instead, they themselves wouldn’t have excuses for not trying.

Even if you know some people with the above tendencies, the good news is that not everyone is like that. The world is full of positive people who are full of energy and don’t subscribe to blanket negativity.

These people don’t lose focus; they think and do; they have goals and listen to what people have to say, but don’t let discouraging comments lead them away from their committed path.

So ask this question: how can I surround myself with these positive people, instead of with negative critics (even if they mean well)? Who do I know that fills me with energy and motivation, rather than leaving me focused on the dark side?

Identify these people and commit to spending more time with them; you’ll see how your attitude and your world will begin to change. Good energy, just like bad energy, is contagious!

Do you have a story about a well-meaning person who inadvertently kiboshed your plans? Have you found success in surrounding yourself with overtly positive people? Tell us in the comments.

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10 lessons from a sharing economy organizer

This post by Mira Luna originally appeared on Shareable, an online magazine that’s all about—you guessed it—sharing. 

Get Down and Dirty Oakland!

Community organizing in action: 400 Oaklanders at the Laney College Community Garden for the Get Down and Dirty work party.
(photo via 350.org on Flickr’s Creative Commons)

I frequently talk with amazing social innovators that have great ideas, but don’t know how to implement them through community organizing.

It’s something that you learn by doing and takes years of on the ground experience, self-reflection, and feedback. I also studied community organizing in school and with groups who do trainings, which was helpful in getting a framework to examine why and how what I do is effective or not.

After 10 years as a practitioner, it seems community organizing is more important than ever. Occupy Wall Street is powered by participatory organizing structures. Community organizing was central to Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign. And new sharing economy companies like Airbnb have on the ground community or city managers to help build trust among users and grow their businesses.

So whether you’re a neighborhood leader, worker coop member, politician, or sharing economy entrepreneur, community organizing can help you better serve your community.

Here are my top 10 lessons from 10 years of community organizing that you can use today:

1. Involve the communities you want to work with from the very beginning to get their perspective on what you are doing.

Offer them something in return for their input. Especially involve different kinds of people you want to work with. If someone sees only people with green hair working initially on a project, they might think, “that’s a project only for green-haired people,” and people with purple hair might feel uninvited or simply uncomfortable at your gatherings.

2. Listen well and communicate.

The best community organizers listen to the people they work with rather than imposing their ideas. They adjust their projects based on feedback, sometimes even scrapping the project for an emergent idea coming from the groups they listen to.

But don’t take too much of their time. Think of specific questions and ways they might want to participate. Don’t drain their interest with endless debate, mandatory meetings, or bureaucracy, unless they really like that kind of stuff and have the time.

3. Make room for people and groups to participate, including leadership roles, project ownership, and increased responsibility if they desire that.

Offer them something in return for their participation, especially if you are working with low income communities (don’t be a parasite).

4. Adapt to the circumstances, and be willing to let go.

Community organizing is like improvisational dance. Only if you can gracefully respond to changing circumstances—including your own role, position, and ideas—will your project thrive. A healthy dose of humility and fluidity in project design go a long way.

5. Clarify your vision and values.

Try to work with people who at least share your basic values. When conflict arises, you will at least have some common ground to stand on and move forward. Lack of shared values, even in one group member, can sometimes tear an otherwise healthy group apart. Clear vision and values will help you figure out how to affect change and practice what you preach.

6. Have faith and tenacity.

If you can get past the phase where you feel as if you are going out on a limb with your project, you will hopefully notice people starting to express excitement about and commitment to it. This means you should keep going despite obstacles, because you have an idea that has staying power. Next you may need to convert the project to a functional organization.

7. Make your organization open but structured.

Use transparency methods, open meetings, accountability, and involve your members, clients, employees and/or volunteers as much as possible without being too cumbersome and dragged into trivial details. Delegate noncontroversial or minor tasks to committees, but involve as many stakeholders in key decisions as possible.

Try to get consensus. Only if you have buy in will you get willing volunteers or employees to execute it. Because of this, I believe consensus is more efficient in the long run, IF people have training in consensus and communication.

8. Relationships and partnerships are the crux of community organizing.

Be a good partner by communicating regularly, helping your partners, and asking them for support. Reciprocity and communication build healthy two-way relationships that are the strong foundation of a community organization.

Create ways for people in your organization to take care of each other (like gift circles or rewarding with timebank hours) and your organization’s partners (e.g. give free tickets, classes, or reciprocal publicity). If partners’ needs aren’t being met, the partnership will not last.

Imagine and map your organization as web of overlapping and nested circles of participation, impact, and responsibility. Nurture your relationships at all levels from clients and consumers to producers and funders to community members who are influenced by your work, and all other stakeholders. Think how this web can become more connected, participatory, and stronger, which will make your work overall more powerful.

9. Create a safe space for people to criticize without retribution, including your partners.

This will help your project or organization grow and mature and will help you appear responsive to critics, maybe even converting them when they realize that you care what they think. For local businesses, this may mean a paid focus group with community organizations, members, or leaders.

Value everyone’s perspective—everyone has a piece of the truth. This will also help confront unspoken hierarchies that may threaten your group’s culture. Have a skilled mediator on hand for challenging conflict.

10. Have fun together.

Take time to just enjoy each others’ company. Eat and play together, have bonding time. Studies indicate that most relationships that thrive have a greater number of positive interactions than negative ones. People tend to add things up.

If you have good times together on a regular basis, the bad times will seem more like a bump or a curve in the road than the end of the road. Make the work itself enjoyable. As activist Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”

Do you have community organizing tips of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

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One thing I didn’t learn in school: How best to help

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

When I was in middle school, I had the annoying habit of giving my friends advice they didn’t ask for.

Eventually I learned that forcing my opinions on others was not the best way to help them. But then the question shifted from, “What’s the best advice I could give this person?” to “If I’m not going to give advice right now, how can I best help?”


How should you help? Sometimes the answer is clear-cut; sometimes not.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

I pursued this question throughout college and thought I found some answers. After I graduated, about a year ago, I looked forward to further exploring the concept of help when I joined an intensive yearlong program that prepares recent college graduates for working in urban schools.

When I started the program, I knew three things: 1) I loved all my past teaching experiences, 2) my teachers had shown me how transformative education could be, and I wanted to pass that on, and 3) I believed every person should have access to the high-quality education I had been blessed to grow up with.

What I didn’t know was how I could best help if I became a part of the education system. I didn’t know all its rules, contours, and controversies, and how I could best help from within it. The program I found seemed like a great opportunity to work in the field, help while I learned, and learn how to help. But…

Maybe here you expect a “I was horribly wrong!” confession. And maybe I half-expected the same.

But actually, the surprise was more subtle. At first, I thought I had everything I needed to launch into a perfect, meaningful career. I had teachers who knew the field inside and out, with experience teaching in and managing public, private, and charter schools; I identified intellectually with the mission of the program, and really wanted to be there—I really wanted to fight the good education fight. And yet, even with all the pieces in place, something didn’t fit. It dawned on me that no teacher, no theory, no discourse, no trend could answer my question of “how best to help.”

It would always be a question I’d have to answer for myself, case by case.

So many factors come into play: what’s “best” depends on what my skills are and what type of work I find fulfilling, as well as what are perceived to be the best methods of affecting change with any given issue. Plus, there are so many noble, legitimate, necessary ways to help—there’s no need for us to force ourselves into one way or another because that’s what we’ve been convinced is the “best” role.

So right now, I am no closer to answering my “how best to help” question than I was a year ago. But now I know I’ll never answer it once and for all—and that’s the lesson I really learned in school.

That’s also what makes finding one’s niche in the world such a wonderful, confusing, soul-poking challenge. I didn’t discover that education is not, and will never be, for me. I didn’t even find out whether teaching might be my career true love—I still don’t know!

But I do know that no matter what I wind up pursuing, I’ll ask myself “is this how I can best help?”, instead of hoping for someone else to answer.

How do you determine how you can best help in any situation? Share your thinking in the comments.

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Negativity gnawing at you? Shift your attention to break the cycle


(Image courtesy bluekdesign on Flickr)

In a blog post titled “Overcoming Your Negativity Bias,” The Energy Project founder Tony Schwartz explains that we all come with a built-in evolutionary imperative to pay more attention to the bad things in life than the good—the lion chasing you, for example, rather than the nice feeling you had after eating a delicious dinner.

But now, in a time when most of us don’t have to worry about hungry lions, consciously shifting our attention away from negative thoughts and onto positive ones “such as joy, contentment, interest, pride and love pays huge dividends.”

This practice is sometimes referred to as “overcoming negativity bias.”

“It’s a simple concept,” he writes. “We construct our internal reality–our experience of the world—in large part by where we put our attention. More often than we recognize, we can make that choice consciously and intentionally. Doing so influences not just how we feel, but also how we perform, individually and collaboratively.”

In the world of ‘doing good,’ it can be especially easy to let negativity encroach: your program didn’t get the funding you were counting on, your star volunteer called out at the last minute, the wrong email went out to donors—and it’s hard not to take it all to heart because you’re passionate about what you do.

Try this quick tip: the next time you feel negativity creeping up and your energy grinding to a halt, take two minutes away from what you’re doing and write down everything you feel grateful for in the present moment.

Schwartz writes of his own experience with this attention-shifting practice: “Saccharine as it may sound… I got on a roll, and after just a couple of minutes, I was not only feeling remarkably better, but also far more able to concentrate on the task at hand.”

Might be worth a shot, huh?

Read Schwartz’s original post in its entirety for more insights about letting stifling feelings of negativity go.

What do you do to overcome negativity when you feel it coming on? Share your wisdom in the comments below.

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“The need for kindness and all the things working against our achieving it”


George Saunders (photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times)

If you’re reading this, I’d wager you’re a pretty kind person. After all, you’re visiting Idealist—likely looking for an opportunity to help someone or learn something about the world or otherwise make use of your altruistic inclinations. And good on you!

But kindness is a curious thing: few would argue its merits, the cultures and religions of the world have long lofted it, we often recognize it as the basic instinct behind all our good intentions and the actions we take to make them real—so how can it seem at times so scarce, so elusive, so hard to maintain?

The concept of kindness often comes up in the works of bestselling author George Saunders. In this excerpt from the convocation speech he gave to Syracuse University’s 2013 graduating class, he articulates a few of his thoughts on why kindness is important, what obstacles can keep us from being as kind as we could be, and how we can maximize our kindness potential. Read the beautiful speech in its entirety here.

…Here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything.

…Quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Have you been inspired to better practice kindness? Tell us your story in the comments.


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Ask Ero: Answers for baffled and confused Idealists

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3

In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions (regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them.) Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers, or a work-safe Dan Savage.

In the last installment of this series, I answered a question about being a older jobseeker in a world of entry-level jobs. How was my answer? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with this installment’s question!

Lately, as I apply for jobs, I’ve been noticing that many nonprofits rely heavily upon corporate donors.

How can we reconcile the reliance that some nonprofits have on corporations whose actions are the very antithesis of the compassion, cooperation, and ethical behavior that most of us in the nonprofit sector are trying to promote?  — Elena

Some years ago a very wise person I know, who founded a successful nonprofit and who now works at a prestigious foundation, referred to her work as “the revolution.” I thought at the time that this was ridiculous and pretentious. To me, “the revolution” meant activists in the streets, not liberals working on fine-tuning grant proposals. But I’ve begun to understand what she meant.

The world often seems like it’s run entirely by the visible and violent hand of the market: multinational corporations squeeze communities dry, war profiteers rain bombs on the less fortunate, and only the rich truly succeed. Capitalism isn’t all banditry and the might-makes-right, but it often seems as though it were.

But the human experience is much more than just grasping for power and status: we’re here on this earth to love each other and help each other too. So how do we express that in our daily work?

The nonprofit world is one answer to this. At its best, this is a new and different order than any other; those of us in the sector are participating in a different kind of marketplace, one driven by conscience and funded by the act of giving. We do our work because we believe in it, and we’re paid because someone else believes in it too.

There are considerations of supply and demand, as there are in the larger society, but the fundamental economics are very different. And they should be different. Because of this, working in the nonprofit sector really is a (slow-motion) revolution: we’re creating a new model of work, that operates by different rules and has different values.

But we’re not an island, and the nonprofit sector is inextricably involved in the larger society’s compromises and corruptions. As you point out, well-meaning nonprofit organizations often act, wittingly or unwittingly, as public relations maintenance for truly disreputable corporations. If an organization’s charitable work is funded by a company whose profits consist of making assault rifles or addictive substances, is that organization really trustworthy?

There’s a utilitarian answer: because it’s better than the alternative. Because it’s better to do good in the world. Because nothing happens in this world unless someone starts to take action, and the nonprofit sector offers a million great ways to do good right here and right now.

I think I do speak for Idealist.org when I say that I believe that nearly everyone has good intentions, and that if we work together we can make those good intentions real, despite all the obstacles and compromises. We’re all in this muddled world together.

Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I do mean anything)? Ask me.

Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at ero@idealist.org.

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3 tips for making the most of failure

Christine Prefontaine is a jill of many trades: strategist, organizer, writer, and advisor (among others). Through her extensive work in international development, as an advocate for reforming current publishing methods, and as founder of the social engagement and innovation consultancy Facilitating Change, she has encountered failures on levels large and small, and learned from each one. Here are some of her insights and advice.

I see two trends right now, in international development in particular, but in other fields, too: We want more transparency and openness but at the same time we want more innovation. These two trends, with our current ways of thinking, can clash with each other. For example, what if money is spent on something new and it doesn’t work and now stakeholders can see that?

Similarly, you can’t say to your client, “Those five hours I billed you for? Well, I didn’t get your deliverable done, but I learned a lot.” So while we may need to fail to innovate, certain types of failure may never be accepted.


Take it from Christine (left): Don’t be too afraid of going off the rails.

Then there’s FailFaire. Seeing and presenting at FailFaire [in 2012] was huge for me, because it’s this open forum to at least start talking about failure. People from consulting firms, government, activists, developers—everybody was there to talk about it.

I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm and joy at an event; the collective sigh of relief of, “We can finally talk about this stuff.”

So it’s just thrilling to me that we have these FailFaires now. I think they’re a great step in familiarizing more people with the concept of failure as an experience and process that we can benefit from.


1. Set yourself up for mini-fails.

I look at innovation broadly: often it means using things we already have to solve problems, but utilizing them in a new way. And in order to do that, you have to experiment, and when you experiment, it’s a given that you’ll screw up a lot. So build failure into your system—that’s the whole fail fast/fail forward thing.

Prototype and iterate and test quickly, at the most granular level you can, so that your failures are kept on a low level. That’s where failure is really helpful and less scary. Little models can show you what the big result would be. Don’t go too far down one path without testing or you’ll waste tons of time.

2. Make it okay to talk about failing.

In my career, I’ve tried to surface the reality of how things actually get done; to work transparently. It allows for more efficiency and learning if everyone involved can understand the nitty-gritty of how things actually work.

We all understand how it could be seen as undesirable or unimportant to talk about messing up, but you have to. And it’s a time issue, too—time has to be made to talk about what didn’t work, as much as a safe space has to be made in which to do it. But if we could make more space and time for failure, fewer things would snowball downhill.

3. “You can’t talk about failure without talking about learning.”

There will always be people who say that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry, especially in international development. But you just can’t talk about failure without talking about learning, whereas if you talk only about success, the learning tends to get vapid.

Also, stories about failure are more likely to go viral, for this reason among others, like the fact that we all love good gossip.

Actually, FailFaire could be called LearningFaire, because that’s what it really is, but the name they chose signals their attempt to inject some humor into the subject, which I think is one great step toward greater acceptance.

Reach out to Christine with your thoughts and questions through one of her websites or in the comments below.

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