Ask Ero: Answers for confused and baffled Idealists

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3In 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 questions about Google Voice, finding a career path in an unusual field, and the meaning of life. How were my answers? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with the questions!

I am writing you from the library of a renowned university, and I have cried my eyes out. I am a doctoral student, and need to know how I can cut five thousand words from a proposed chapter for publication, while still adding more information. Is there a trick to radical editing? St. Hildegard said one should lick sapphires to clear a dull mind. I’ve done this with the ring that my husband gave me for our tenth anniversary, and it did help me cut another 300 words. But I can’t keep licking sapphires from now until my deadline. Or can I?
-Your Friend Flora

Editing is much harder than writing! I think you have what’s known in the writing world as “too many ideas.” Whether you’re writing a chapter like yourself, a grant proposal, or a Kickstarter plea, what a beautiful problem to have.

The unfortunate truth is that what’s really important in writing is the ideas themselves, not how they’re expressed. Being understood often means using as few words as possible. Your goal here is the simplicity and austerity of a children’s storybook.

It’s never easy. But you can try to take a sadistic pleasure in destroying your own beautiful words. Repeat to yourself: “The more I delete, the better writer I am.” All those pretty metaphors, all those decorative phrases and moving examples and colorful asides are going to have to go. All of them.

Keep an untouched copy of your text so that you don’t have to feel like you’re losing everything. Then, in your new copy, be absolutely brutal. Reduce a paragraph to a sentence. Then another. Then another. Before you know it you’ll be left with ugly, bare, bony sentences that say nothing except tiny little ideas. This is your best writing.

You’ll have created something rare and perfect and you’ll be glad for all the struggle that got you there. I hope your ring will still be okay.

l have some substantial ideas for solving this healthcare crisis, and it does not involve ObamaCare. How should I try to promote it? It involves attempting to save Medicare and Social Security, for future generations, so I thought some might be interested in looking at the proposals.

Hi Jamesmmm! I’m glad you have substantial ideas. Ideas are important and powerful, and they’re how we start to change the world. (You can’t make an idea-list without them). There are a lot of great ways to share your ideas with others: you might, for instance, attend a Sunday Soup Potluck. Or an Ignite event. You might even find someone who’s an idea collector!

Now, the healthcare crisis is complicated, and a lot of very smart people have worked on it over the decades. You also mention Medicare and Social Security, which are big, complex institutions that aren’t much like each other. So your ideas must be pretty powerful.

What we really love at Idealist is people who take good ideas, and make them real, by finding ways to take action. Otherwise ideas aren’t worth very much, and you may as well just write blog posts, like me.

If you want to really make a difference, do things. There are 446 volunteer opportunities listed on right now that involve healthcare. Maybe you’re an expert in government planning, or maybe you’re a financial wizard who understands long-term budgeting. There are plenty of financial planners, economists, and budget experts needed in this world, and our site is full of organizations that need your help!

So please, make your ideas real, and take action to help people in your community. If you’ll do it, so will I; and we can start making this world a little better.

Top 5 albums you’d prefer to be stranded with (with a listening device)?

How’d you know I’m a fanatical music listener? Well, I don’t really believe that one person’s recommendations are better than any other’s. Music is one of the best ways to make sense of the world, and so it’s very specific to who each of us are and what we need.

This list totally misses all sorts of other things I love, but if I was really going to be stuck listening to only five albums, these would certainly do the trick:

  • Midnight, by Pandit Pran Nath. An amazingly rich document of Hindustani classical vocal. Listening to this album is like praying.
  • Bach Cello Suites, by Pablo Casals. Much of the beauty of European classical music is here; a belief in a divine order, in mathematics. But it’s balanced against the rustic, almost earthy, sound of the cello, and there’s repetition and sequential iteration that reminds me of raga.
  • Daydream Nation, by Sonic Youth. Noisy and punk-rock artsy and intellectual.
  • Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, by Charlie Patton. The foundation of Mississippi blues, and thus: rock and roll, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, and, well, most everything else afterward. And impossibly beautiful.
  • Monk’s Dream, by Thelonious Monk. This was one of the first albums I ever bought, and that crackly record, with its strange rhythms and inexplicably haunting chords, still sounds like everything I could ever hope for from good music.

That’s all for this installment. 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

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Lessons on being creative from highly creative people


Photo credit: Leszek Glasner, Shutterstock

Fast Company recently highlighted its top 100 Creative People in Business, including Nate Silver, Scott Harrison, and actors Bryan Cranston and Connie Britton. (Also Michelle Rowley, who we recently featured on our blog.)

The site went one step further, teasing out five habits that several of these creative people discussed—and what we can learn from them. Here are a few that stood out to us:

Max Levchin: Always be asking questions

We talked to PayPal founder Max Levchin about how he keeps snagging startup ideas. Turns out it’s a lot about controlling chaos in ways we’ve discussed about why ideas come at random and why you need to document everything.

Levchin’s method is like this: He talks to tons of random creative people, asks them questions about their craft, takes extensive notes of their quandaries, and then compiles–and reviews–all of his research. What comes out of it? Companies–like his new mobile payment solution Affirm–and loads of paper. Dude has a crate of 200 legal pads sitting in his garage.

Kendrick Lamar: Be an example

What’s it take to make what many consider the best rap album of the decade? Kendrick Lamar unpacked a bit of the origin of his miraculous good kid, m.A.A.d City: he grew up in Compton, the California city that cradled gangster rap and serves as his inspiration.

“There are so many thoughts of being scared of failure when you’re trying something there,” he said. “And that’s what holds a lot of people back–when you’re stuck in this position, when you’re constantly seeing negative things and you want to do something positive but you’re scared that it might not work. I believed I could make an example for those around me–once I did and I started seeing some type of results, it made me believe I could represent the whole city.”

Creativity plays an important role in changing the world, as nonprofits and social entrepreneurs must be creative in their funding and outreach, collaborate with others working toward the same goal, and work toward constant innovation when it comes to solving the world’s problems.

How do you harness your creativity when you’re bringing your ideas to life?

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Idea File: Storytellers on loan at the Human Library

The idea

A female firefighter who rappels out of helicopters and slogs through swamps to help people in distress. A woman who has provided foster care to over 200 troubled teens in her lifetime. A young Somali man who escaped his country’s civil war, won a scholarship to a Canadian university, and now helps refugees.

They, along with others, have volunteered to be on loan at Surrey Libraries in British Columbia as part of the Human Library, an event where people become living books.


The Human Library is as straightforward as it sounds: instead of grabbing a book off the shelf, you sign out a person and listen to them tell tales for a couple of hours. Think audio book, but with a handshake (or better yet, hug) at the end.

This notion of bringing books to life began twelve years ago with a Denmark youth organization that wanted to challenge prejudices. The idea has since been adapted around the world, and can now be found in over 45 countries.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • New take on an old concept. Libraries everywhere have gone through many transformations (books rescued from the trash in Bogota and traveling donkey libraries in Ethiopia come to mind), and the Human Library further proves these institutions aren’t dying, but rather, evolving.
  • Respects and appreciates diversity. Everyone has a story to tell. People of all experiences, ages, and backgrounds are encouraged to participate, tapping into the knowledge and expertise of the local community.
  • Encourages empathy. We read to immerse ourselves in other contexts and see the world from someone else’s point of view. When talking to living books, you might find that your similarities thread you together, instead of your differences.
  • Values real-time conversation. With eBooks, iPads and everything in between dominating much of our time today, being able to look into someone’s eyes and connect around our humanity is refreshing.
  • Adaptable in many contexts. The concept doesn’t have to be limited to an actual library: it could work at schools, festivals, government offices, corporations, and more. Depending on resources, it could also be an ongoing program or a once-in-a-while event.

How you can replicate it

The folks who created the first Human Library want nothing more than for you to borrow their idea. They’ve already done a lot of the initial legwork for you; their website has a guide for organizers in eight different languages, sample evaluation reports and forms, tips for readers, and more.

Interesting fact: the first Human Library took place at a music festival in Denmark. (Photo via Ravi Basi.)

We also reached out to Ravi Basi, one of the organizers at Surrey Libraries, to hear her advice for people looking to start a Human Library where they live. Here’s what she had to say:

Finding living books

  1. Use your own networks. Relying on unsolicited offers from the public is too random and complicated of an approach. Instead, gather recommendations from staff, community agencies, colleges, and nonprofits in addition to scanning local newspapers.
  2. Set your criteria from the beginning. Living book volunteers at Surrey Libraries, for example, had to have a story to tell, good communication skills, be personable and friendly, and understand the concept and goals of the Human Library. If they met this criteria, they then went through an interview process.
  3. Incentives, while not necessary, are nice. The living books will probably be enthusiastic and eager to participate. But still, to show gratitude, you can do things such as offset parking costs, provide lunch and snacks, and give gift bags.

Organizing the event

  1. Start small. Rather than hosting a day-long event, try an afternoon or evening event of four hours. Learn the glitches, and then improve next time around.
  2. Allow readers to pre-register. To ensure the living books aren’t left without readers, devise a registration system where people can sign up for time slots in advance.
  3. Have a back-up plan. Err on the side of having an abundance of living books and line up spare readers to account for no-shows.

“Anyone who plans or participates in the Human Library will find it to be a valuable, even profound experience,” says Ravi. “It’s worth doing.”


If you’re inspired to bring the Human Library to your community, feel free to email Ravi for more advice:


Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Rescuing books from the trash in Bogotá

How one man’s idea to rescue books from the trash contributed to everyday life in Bogotá.


José Alberto in one of his many libraries

Recently my colleague Elena interviewed José Alberto about his success in recycling books for schoolkids in Bogotá, Colombia. (You can read her original post in Spanish at

In his work as a trash hauler, José Alberto observed usable books discarded by households throughout the city.

He knew that children in the low-income neighborhood near his home had difficulty getting the books they needed for their school work, there was no bookstore nearby, and the nearest library was a long way away.

So fifteen years ago, he decided to rescue them and make them available to the kids in his neighborhood. Starting in the ground floor of his own home, he has expanded the network of bibliotecas into eight neighborhoods of the city. As word of his project has spread, more and more Bogotános donate used books directly to him, avoiding the detour into a waste bin.

Elena says that José’s entire family has been involved in this never-ending project for 15 years now: “They don’t have a car or even a little motorbike, and frequently they cross the city after somebody’s call to pick up boxes of books that then they carry in buses all across the city.” By opening his own home as a place to find books, José Alberto started something that has changed the lives of thousands of children (and their parents) in Bogotá.

Did you know we have a Spanish site? parallels the offerings of Idealist with jobs, volunteer opportunities, and frequent updates on its blog. If you can point out a project or activity that should be highlighted for visitors to Idealistas, please let us know.

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Are you a bureaucrat?

If you’re reading this, it’s definitely possible.

In a recent New York Times piece called Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day, Russell Bishop explains that the roots of the word “bureaucrat” come from the French word for desk or office and the Greek word for rule. So if you sit behind a desk (even part of the time) and develop procedures for others to follow (even if not very often) then you fit the classical definition of a bureaucrat.

Many people arrive at social change work—either starting up their own social enterprise, or taking a nonprofit job—because they want to avoid bureaucracy. After all, everyone has encountered a frustrating roadblock that’s explained as “just our policy,” and sometimes even the people most directly involved have only a hazy idea of why that particular policy exists or what it’s good for. Who wouldn’t want to break free?

But it’s easier to start something than it is to stop. So policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have a tendency to multiply, complexify, and persist. Piecemeal reforms often make things worse by tweaking one part of the problem but leaving the rest unchanged and even more difficult to understand.


Turn those frowns upside down. Photo: Glen_Wright, Flickr/Creative Commons

But Bishop believes there’s a cure. It’s not necessarily easy – but stick with it and it may be fun and liberating.

Is it your job to administer a rule that seems to chafe? Then figure out how to ease the pain. Find deeper-than-average ways to review why the rule exists, how it might be changed, and what the benefit might be.

Put together a little group of people affected by the rule – including, of course, the people who need it to make their lives easier or safer. Bishop suggests three short questions that might guide a conversation with these people:

  • Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • And what do we need to start doing?

A candid talk about the whys and wherefores of any rule should generate suggestions for change and ideas about how to smooth out the rough spots.

I think it’s worth a try. I’d love to live in a world where bureaucratic barriers are less common, where rules simply help everyone to succeed rather than tripping people up.

What do you think? Is it possible to be a good bureaucrat?

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Idea File: Creative marketing? Think inside the (pizza) box.

Today’s idea sharing model

As a native New Yorker, loving pizza is part of my cultural DNA. Besides the delicious combination of cheese, sauce, and bread, it’s the only food that makes me think about both Sunday family dinners and late night grease-fests with friends.

And now I can add idea sharing to that list thanks to Lonesome’s, a pizza place in my new home of Portland, OR. With every pie I order, I’m guaranteed to find on the inside cover a story about a local artist – plus their CD or DVD. While chomping on a slice recently, I read about a funk band that was in the process of opening up a music charter school in Portland.


The names of their pies make me giggle. I recommend “My dad vs. your dad.” Photo credit: Heather Zinger (

I’ve ordered from Lonesome’s before, but it was this bit about the charter school that made me think about using pizza boxes to  get the word out about nonprofit programs, raise awareness around a particular issue, and/or highlight good ideas.

This idea doesn’t have to be limited to pizza. If you own a business or know someone who does, think creatively about how you can use your products or services to get the word out about all the awesome community work going on. Letting people know about an innovative bartering schoolis a much nicer use of space than, say, promoting the latest flavor of Mountain Dew.


  • Novelty. Create buzz for both the project and the pizza place.
  • Cost effective. All you need is photocopies, glue, and someone to spend the time attaching materials.
  • Community engagement. Local businesses + local efforts = a win-win connection.
  • Universality. Who doesn’t like pizza? According to Food Industry News, 93% of Americans eat pizza at least once a month. Maybe that number will increase once there’s some local do-gooderness in the box.


  • Buy in. Nonprofits might think it’s too weird, and navigating the bureaucracy of big chains might be challenging. Local mom and pop restaurants are probably the best bet.
  • Adding to the marketing clutter. More paper that might end up in the recycling bin.
  • Disinterest. “Please, I just want to eat my pizza in peace.”

What do you think – might delivery boxes be another way to communicate with your community? What’s the most creative partnership you’ve seen a local business strike with a local organization?

Read more Idea File posts here.

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Cash prizes for your artwork, ideas, or international work

Want to do some good in the world but could use a little help? Check out these contest folk and grantmakers who want nothing more than to give you their money:


Total amount of cash up for grabs in this post: $157,000. What are you waiting for? Photo by Yomanimus (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Rice Award
Are you a professional between the age of 18-30 who is making some serious headway in the field of global development? Apply to receive a $1,000 grant, an inscribed plaque you can bring home to mom, and an honorary year-long membership to the Society for International Development (SID). Caveat: applicants must have an affiliation with SID. Deadline is April 29.

BE BIG in Your Community Contest
For over 50 years, Clifford the Big Red Dog has been making children laugh with his larger-than-life antics and saving them from the doghouse by imparting kind lessons. Everyone big and small is invited to submit their ideas on how to use Clifford’s positive traits to better their neighborhoods. Grand prize is $25,000 with smaller amounts given to second and third place. Added bonus: Scholastic, HandsOn Network and American Family Insurance will work with the winner to ensure their idea comes to life. Deadline is June 17.

Back to School 2011 Contest
Tired of teen pop stars like Justin Bieber overtaking folders, notebooks, pencil pouches and more? Instead of doodling in class, use your creativity to design artwork that inspires action in your community related to education, environment, peace and volunteerism and a healthy lifestyle. Do Something and Staples will give the winner the opportunity to see their designs in Staples stores nationwide and a $1,000 scholarship toward school. Applicants must be between the ages of 13-25. Deadline is July 22.

The folks behind this new NYC-based nonprofit believe solutions start with you. Anyone over the age of 18 can submit their ideas on any issue in the five boroughs – although the target demographic are tech-savvy Gen Y do-gooders. The selected handful of emerging leaders will each receive $5,000 plus tools, guidance and promotion to help execute their project within six months. The first wave of awesomeness is currently underway, but look out for the second one starting in July.

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Idea List: A cathedral made of waste, sleepy drivers, and more

Need some inspiration for that project of yours, or just interested in new ideas from around the world?

Here are some fresh ones I’ve found while browsing the web lately:


Refashioned cathedral took 50 years to build. Photo from Dubas (Flickr/Creative Commons)

  • Elderly man in Madrid builds cathedral from salvaged materials (Inhabitat)
  • Horses provide therapy to the disabled and veterans on Long Island (Idea Mensch)
  • Women take baby strollers to the streets in 19 cities across Sweden to celebrate International Women’s Day and raise awareness for global maternal mortality (Matador)
  • Prettier fruit bowls prompt schoolchildren in a NYC lunchroom to eat healthier (Big Think)
  • The Anti Sleep Pilot mobile app in Denmark alerts drivers when they are getting drowsy (Springwise)

Did you read, see, or experience something lately that you think deserves more attention and maybe a copycat or two? Leave a comment below so we can add it to the next idea list!

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Spotted: Contests and fellowships to fund your great ideas


Buoy your idea with the help of others. Photo of colorful buoys by Flickr user hermanturnip (Creative Commons).

Competition makes the world go round, and pushes us to make good ideas even better. Here are some folks who want you (yes, you!) to throw your hat in the ring for a little—er, a lot—of support:

  • MIT’s IDEAS Competition. Grab your fellow world changing nerds, reach out to a community partner and come up with a solution to a problem of your choice. (Caveat: one third of all teams must attend MIT.) If you want to win $10,000, get your proposal in by February 5.
  • Yoxi’s “Balance Your Digital Diet” Competition. Curbing digital addiction – can it be done? Yoxi, a hip social game, invites you to slim down on tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, and more. Register your team by February 7 to be in the running for up to $40,000.
  • Toyota Ideas for Good Contest. From a solar powered ventilation system to advanced injury simulation, the Japanese car company has implemented some pretty awesome technologies in its vehicles. The challenge? Use ‘em to drive change outside the automotive world. Deadline to submit and win your own ride is February 28.
  • PopTech’s Social Innovation Fellows. Are you an ambitious changemaker with a bright idea? Nominate yourself, or someone you know, for the chance to gain tools, skills and contacts in the social entrepreneurship field, as well as an opportunity to speak on stage at PopTech’s annual conference. Nominations close March 11.

Know of any others? Leave a comment below.

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