Not sure how to get moving on a project? Stop cryin’ and start taking baby steps

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

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

Do you want to help make a difference, but find yourself surrendering even before you begin because you don’t know where to start? Do you keep shaping an idea in your head but not taking any action?

You’re not alone. There are many reasons we can end up feeling lost when we want to change the world. Maybe…

  • You feel overwhelmed by all the elements you think it will take to make your dream a reality.
  • You believe you don’t have the time or energy to commit to a long-term project.
  • You’re not willing to pick just one of your good ideas to focus on.

The list could stretch to infinity. But whatever the reason, if you’re just standing by, paralyzed by procrastination and toying with excuses, fears, and doubts, you won’t ever start.

Luckily, there’s one simple key that can get any project going. It’s called: Just start somewhere.

It doesn’t really matter where. Your first step will dictate where your next one should be, and the dominoes will fall from there. You just have to get started.

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Don’t know where you’re going? That’s okay. Just take the first step.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Step by step

Here are some ways to take that first good step. Try them, and your project will begin to take shape.

  • Verbalize your idea. Share it with your friends and peers; speak it out loud. Talking about your project will generate a stronger commitment to yourself to take action. You even stand a good chance of finding allies among your listeners who will want to help so you don’t have to act alone.
  • Focus your magnitude. If you’re thinking of an idea so big that you can’t imagine how to address it, scale it back and start with something smaller. For example, if you want to fight hunger, don’t start with a goal to end hunger all over the world. Instead, begin by learning how to help those suffering from hunger in your own community and scale your efforts up from there.
  • Find a similar project. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Do some research and see if you can find a person or organization doing the same type of work you want to do. If you can identify a few, you can ask for their advice or see if they’re interested in joining your project—or you might find that you want to join theirs! This practice will save you time and enrich your perspective.
  • Divide and conquer. Define the main things you need to accomplish in order to reach your goal and write them out in chronological order as best you can. Then set time limits to meet each of the steps (you’ll have to estimate; just try to be realistic). Your goals and the timeline are likely to change as you progress, so modify the list as you go. But if you stay committed to it, you’ll keep your focus and avoid getting distracted.
  • Just take action, here and now. Think: what’s one step I can commit to right now? What’s one step I can take today? Don’t think about it too much; it doesn’t have to be anything big. In fact, at the beginning, it should be just enough to give you the feeling that you’ve taken action and gotten the ball rolling. This will motivate you to do more!

In short, if you don’t know where to start, just start by completing a first step as soon as possible. As Anne Frank wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

What project would you love to work on this year? What first step are you taking to start it?

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How the Natural Burial Company is putting old ideas about death to rest

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling individuals tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Cynthia and some of the wicker coffins and acorn-shaped urns which break down easily in the soil.

Cynthia with a selection of her company’s biodegradable woven coffins and urns.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

Two weeks after she registered the Natural Burial Company name, Cynthia Beal was diagnosed with cancer. Worried that she might be her first and last customer, Cynthia walked in the footsteps of future clients by writing out her wishes to be laid to rest under a cherry tree in a biodegradable coffin.

She never made it to the cherry tree, but she did take another journey.

Through the process of planning for her own death, Cynthia says she reached a deeper understanding of how being in the business of natural burials could help customers and families like hers through the somewhat misunderstood process of being buried in this way.

“I realized my friends and family knew what I’d meant about natural burial, but no one—not they or the professionals—really knew exactly what to do,” she says.

Founded in 2004, the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable and eco-friendly coffins, caskets, and ash burial urns. Constructed mostly from wicker, wood, and recycled newspaper, the coffins are designed to break down quickly in the earth, returning the elements of the body back into the surrounding soil system and the plants and trees that rise above.

These coffins, woven from seagrass and sugar cane, break down easily in the soil.

Seagrass and cane coffins.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

As she slowly worked to build her business, Cynthia was challenged by the public’s general lack of knowledge about end-of-life options and rights, as well as by dominant end-of-life industry monopolies on distribution.

Many existing cemeteries and funeral homes didn’t know how to offer natural services like a vault-free burial with biodegradable coffins. They didn’t believe there was any demand for this, either.

Working as a natural and organic grocer for 14 years, Cynthia knew this wasn’t the case. She planned to use the same strategies employed by the organic food movement to promote natural end-of-life products and services.

“Because of my natural products experience, I knew customers would want to have this kind of option. But I could also tell that the cemetery was the main bottleneck to going forward—sort of like when we needed more organic food choices but didn’t have the farmers to grow them yet.”

Giving new life to old cemeteries

Supplying natural coffins was relatively easy, but providing natural graves for her customers was a lot more complicated.

The newly emerging natural burial movement needed more information about sustainable burial practices to get cemeteries on board for this kind of management practice. Cynthia partnered with the soil sciences department at Oregon State University to build the curriculum for a first-of-its kind online course focused on sustainable cemetery management.

By teaching current and future cemetery business operators as well as policy makers, she hopes to change the dominant narrative of cemeteries today.

Trees mark the graves of the dead at a natural burial site the UK. (Photo credit Cynthia Beal)

Lush, young trees mark graves at a natural burial site the UK. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Beal)

“Without knowledge, we can’t make wise group decisions. Without research, we won’t ever know the potential for cemetery pollution, or be able to compare the post-burial costs of buried materials, or transition them to sustainability.”

And what would a sustainable cemetery look like exactly?

“Not all of us value highly manicured lawns and sterile, wildlife-free ‘zones of vegetation,’ and we don’t have to do cemeteries that way, either,” she says.

So, more like a park with flowering trees and bushes instead of a golf course.

“Cemeteries are the places we go to honor the lives of others we care for, to remember the people who helped build our communities. Cemeteries shouldn’t be just uninteresting parking lots for the dead that get abandoned to the taxpayer someday.”

On death and dying

Ultimately, Cynthia hopes to change the way we think about the bodies of our dead.

“I think one of the main challenges for us is that we don’t really see death in our daily lives the way our grandparents once did. And because we don’t encounter it, we don’t talk about it,” she says.

Changing our somewhat squeamish attitudes about death and dying is also an important step to building safer and more sustainable burial practices.

“When we realize that we’re walking around in bodies that were soil before they turned into us—and that we’re just borrowing the elements while we’re alive, and that we should return them in good condition when we’re done with them—we’ll have come a long way toward understanding the real cycle of life.”

Would you consider a natural burial? Why or why not?

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

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

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photo via facebook.com/asantemk

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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3 things you can learn about entrepreneurship from prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

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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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