challenges

I Have Gone Insane: Brutal First Impressions

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

On the subway ride to Central Park, I clutched my sign and bit my lip. “I can’t believe I’m really doing this,” I said to my husband. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears.

I made my way through Central Park, searching for the perfect spot: one with lots of foot traffic but still quiet, and I set up my sign and hat. I took a deep breath and prayed that no one would beat me up. Immediately people stopped and stared. Then the cameras came out. I started panicking that I would soon be ridiculed on the internet like the typewriting hipster.

A few months ago, I had the idea of starting a business called Brutal First Impressions. Most of us surround ourselves with people who wouldn’t want to hurt our feelings. While this can be good for our egos, it can also hinder our growth, and we can become comfortable with habits that might be off-putting for others. I figured that for a small price, I could be the one to tell it like it is: put on some deodorant, that shirt is terrible, you talk too much when you’re nervous…that kind of thing. But first I wanted to gain some experience. Why not try it out in Central Park!

The first guys to try it out.

The first guys to try it out.

I set the price at $5. At first, the people walking by would take pictures and laugh, saying, “that’s the best idea ever!” but they weren’t paying me for it. As soon as I lowered it to $1, people started lining up.

I asked each participant for their name, a handshake and a smile. Then I would ask them to take a few steps back and walk towards me, and then turn around slowly. At that point I would critique everything that I saw.

Here is some general advice I had to give almost everyone:

  • Make eye contact when you shake hands
  • Show your teeth when you smile
  • Keep your chin up when you walk

I couldn’t believe how many people needed that advice, and as soon as I said it and they tried it out, they seemed like new people.

2012-10-31 22.28.02It wasn’t easy being mean. A crowd would typically form around whomever I was critiquing and I could tell that they wanted to see tears. At one point I told a guy he had dandruff, and his friends practically cheered. I told another guy that he needed to pluck his uni-brow. When the crowd ohhed and ahhed at this, I asked to see a show of hands for who thought he should pluck his eyebrows. Almost everyone raised their hands. When I wasn’t mean, people would start heckling me saying, “Come on, this is supposed to be brutal.”

2012-10-31 22.23.04The whole time I was doing this I kept expecting someone to ask me my qualifications. I had my response all figured out: I’m classically trained in art and literature so I have a discerning eye and a critical mind. I learned how to evaluate presentation styles from my years as a teacher and teacher trainer. But the only person who asked for my qualifications immediately answered for me: “You’re a woman. Women know how to criticize.”

I was surprised that people were really interested in my story. At one point I had four guys sitting on the bench next to me asking my life story (ladies, this is a great way to pick up men if you’re interested). Everyone wanted to know how I got the idea and how much money I was making. So here’s the grand total…for 3 hours of sitting in the park, meeting interesting people, I made $43. I definitely want to try this again. I think I could make a lot more if I get better at working the crowd.

Originally, I wanted to do this because I thought it could help people present themselves better. At the end of the day I realized that I helped in a different way. I got people to laugh and not take themselves so seriously. I got people taking pictures and saying “only in New York.” I figured someone’s going to go back home and talk about the crazy lady they saw in Central Park. As an aspiring writer, I feel great that I gave someone a good story.

The magic of 750

If you were to hack into my email account you’d find something very strange. For the past three weeks my fiance has been sending me a blank email with the subject line: done. I respond with the word ditto. You would have no idea that this simple exchange has helped me to write over 20 pages about Albert Einstein and has helped Mike create music.

Three weeks ago Mike and I were kvetching about how hard it is to motivate ourselves to be creatively productive – even though that’s the one thing we really want to do. We realized that one of the challenges is that it really doesn’t matter if we don’t produce. The world won’t stop turning, no one’s going to yell at us, and we’re not going to get an F on our report card. The only one who cares is ourselves, and when we don’t work on our creative endeavors it leads to guilt, and then doubt, and then we sit and wonder if we really want to be writers/ composers/ artists at all. It’s too hard to rely on intrinsic motivation. What we needed was some gentle external motivation.

That’s when I remembered an article I read in O magazine months ago. A writer made a pact with her friend that she would write 750 words a day, and when she was done, she would email her friend the word: done. She didn’t share the writing, just the simple fact that it was done. I didn’t think highly of the process when I read the article, but when Mike and I were trying to think of a way to motivate each other this came to mind.

Mike, who wants to compose music, said he would spend at least 30 minutes a day on it. I said I would write at least 750 words. We promised that we would each send each other an email when we were done.

I cannot tell you how much this has helped me. I had a very ambitious idea for a story, and I was too intimidated to start it. The first morning I checked my email and saw Mike’s done, I gritted my teeth and started writing. I had no idea what to write so I started writing about the character in my head. It’s been like this every day. When I get his email I reluctantly open my word document, but after about 200 words I’m totally engrossed. I usually end up writing far more than 750 words, but I still feel just as accomplished when I do the bare minimum – those are the days that I really didn’t feel like writing, so it means even more to me that I actually did it.

It’s a very small unit of work, but when done consistently it builds up quickly. The great thing about this tip is that you can do it with anyone since you’re really not asking them to do anything except receive an email from you once a day. If you start doing this, let me know how it goes!

It’s never too late to be an astronaut

I love stories about people who ignore made up time lines for how your life is suppose to move along, such as the middle-aged law school student. Now I have a story about a guy who became an astronaut much later in life. Here’s where my inner-nerd comes out. Yes, I went to Space Camp (the greatest place ever), and yes, in my middle school year book when it asked where I would be in 20 years I wrote “Space.”

I think astronauts are the coolest people on the planet (and in space). You might ask why I didn’t pursue this career. I simply did not like math and physics enough to make that my expertise. I sincerely hope that one day commercial space travel will be available to the masses and I will get to  go into space without having to memorize a ton of formulas.

English: Michael J. Massimino, STS-109 mission...

On Friday I went to a free Tedx conference at Columbia. I decided I should start going to as many conferences as possible since I’m interested in starting my own. The last speaker was Michael Massimino, an astronaut who flew in 2 space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. He shared with us his incredible story of persistence and reward.

Starting when he was 6, when he watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon, he was mesmerized by space. When he went to college he really had no idea what he wanted to study. It was only after he watched the movie The Right Stuff about a hundred times that he realized how much he wanted to be an astronaut. He changed his major which ended up pushing back his graduation date by a few years.

After he graduated he wasn’t sure if he really had what it takes to be an astronaut, so he settled for an engineering job at IMB. Two years later (maybe he watched The Right Stuff again) he realized that he couldn’t give up on his dream, so he entered the prestigious masters program at MIT.

After he graduated from MIT he applied to NASA’s space program 3 times and got rejected even after interning there. He gave up and began teaching at Georgia Tech. Eventually applied to NASA for a final time and got accepted.

Micheal began telling us about how beautiful the view of Earth is in Space. How it was prettier than what he imagined heaven to look like. He even got teary eyed talking about it. That’s when he realized that none of his struggles, none of his doubts, none of the rejection was worth giving up on his dreams. The fact that it took him a few extra years to graduate seemed so silly to him at that moment. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It doesn’t matter if others don’t think you have what it takes. In the end it only matters that you get to do what makes you happy.

To dream the impossible dream

I’m a little speechless after watching this video, so please forgive me for not giving you much of an introduction. I just warn you, watch this in a place where it’s ok to cry. Thank you to Daily Dose of Noor for bringing this video to my attention.

An interview with Caitlin Kelley, founder of Africa Volunteer Corps (Part 1)

I met the vivacious Caitlin Kelley over a year ago, and she left a great impact on me. She’s kind of like Lucille Ball meets Princess Diana. While eating tacos in Union Square, she told me about the Africa Volunteer Corps, an organization she started with Jafari Msaki. AVC trains and mentors Tanzanian volunteers, utilizing natural talent and knowledge rather than importing foreign volunteers who (even with good intentions) might not being making the best impact. I was so excited to hear that AVC existed because it addressed all the personal qualms that I had when I was a volunteer in Mozambique. She is currently preparing for her event, Visualize Change, which you can attend (Tuesday, Oct. 9 5:30-9:30), so I’m very grateful she was able to take some time to share her story with my amazing readers:

Caitlin on the left in Tanzania

You volunteered in Tanzania after college. What attracted you to international volunteer work, and why Tanzania?

I knew I wanted to work in development in Africa and I wanted to get my feet wet. From having majored in African history in college, I had a lot of problems with how many development projects are run because they often hurt more than they help by dis-empowering the very people they are aiming to help. I wanted to spend some time on the ground listening and exploring in order to see where I might fit, where I might be able to use my knowledge and passion to make the world a better place. I wanted to find where I could help without perpetuating the relationships of dependence that I had seen repeating themselves over and over again for 200-300 years.

I chose Tanzania because I wanted to learn Swahili. Swahili is very widely spoken in East and Central Africa, and I wanted to communicate with people on their own terms, so it had always been a professional goal to speak Swahili.

You had an amazing time while you were there, but I know that it was also troubling. Can you explain the negative side of volunteer work that you witnessed?

One of the negatives was seeing the chaos other foreign volunteers had created, mostly by not understanding the culture and staying for too short a time to make any real impact. It was also really frustrating to see foreigners coming in to do work for free that locals were qualified to do, which creates a disincentive to hire locals, which in turn harms the local economy, thus harming the very people the volunteers are there to help.

After this experience you came up with the idea for Africa Volunteer Corps, an NGO that unites passionate Tanzanian volunteers with local NGOs (non-governmental organization). How did your friends and family react when you first shared your mission?

I came home from my first trip to Tanzania right before Thanksgiving, so I made the announcement at the dinner table. Totally excited, I announced to everyone, “I am going to start an NGO in Africa!” Crickets. My family was really proud of me for having a bold vision, but they didn’t understand the vision so they were worried it wouldn’t work.

I realized very quickly that it didn’t matter whether my friends and family saw the vision. It only mattered that I did. One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” My vision was crystal clear and I believed very strongly in my ability to figure out how to make it a reality, so I just pushed forward, step by step, until I made it happen.

Did you meet resistance?

I can say I have faced a lot of challenges, but I wouldn’t say I’ve faced resistance. Most people tend to be very supportive, especially in Tanzania.

The main resistance that I face is inside myself, fear of making mistakes and the inevitable resistance of constantly pushing outside my comfort zone. I am constantly learning and growing and stepping into the unknown, which can be scary and intimidating and uncomfortable. I get resistance from my ego, which is afraid to be vulnerable or admit that I can’t do everything.

What helped you move forward?

I try every day to be the best version of myself. I embrace growth and am grateful for opportunities to learn and improve. I meditate every day and am a very spiritual person, which for me helps me keep things in perspective, learn from my mistakes, and accept the unknown and things I can’t control. I think positively and find the lesson and the gratitude in every experience. Every problem is just a challenge, and every challenge is an opportunity to learn and get better.


What has been the most rewarding part of running AVC?

Caitlin with her first group of Tanzanian volunteers (photo by  Tegra Stone Nuess)

Seeing the difference we are making in people’s lives. When one of our volunteers tells us that she always wanted to help orphans and street children, but she didn’t know how to go about it, and now she feels confident that she has the skills to start her own children’s center. When one of our volunteers tells me that she didn’t understand the realities of AIDS before working with HIV positive people, and now even though she sees things every day that make her want to cry, she loves her work because she I absolutely lives for those moments.

If someone has a dream for making the world better, what advice would you give them?


Take care of yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t think that making the world better has to mean you run yourself ragged. If you don’t take care of your body and do things that you love and take time off, you will burn out.

Listen to your instincts. People may not get your vision, and that’s ok. Listen and welcome new ideas, especially from the population you are trying to help, but trust yourself.

Fall in love with fear. Pushing outside your comfort zone is scary, so feeling fear is a sign that you are doing something right, taking risks and growing. If you feel like you are about to jump out of an airplane, you know you’re in the exact right spot.

Great words to end on! Hold tight for Part 2! If you’re interested so far, make sure to bet tickets for Visualize the Change this Tuesday.

Masturbation on the subway

A satyr masturbating. Detail of side B of a Gr...

A satyr masturbating. Detail of side B of a Greek column krater showing two satyrs and a maenad in a Dionysiac scene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night I ran into Masturbating Joe on the subway. That’s my nickname for him because I’ve seen this homeless guy masturbating on the subway three times now. He’s always on a crowded subway, and everyone seems to just let him do his business, as if it would be rude to interrupt him.

I can’t help but think back to my days of student teaching whenever I see Masturbating Joe.

On my very first day, in my very first class I had a student that I will call little Joe. I asked him a question and he proceeded to slide off his stool and began to rub against it. I walked over to him and repeated the question. He kept rubbing against the stool and wouldn’t look at me. “Joe, you need to look at me, I’m asking you a question.”

That’s when my mentor teacher pulled me aside. She explained that Joe had been sexually molested from the time he was a baby until he was five years old. When he gets scared he starts to masturbate because he was so sexually over-sensitized from an early age it’s the only thing that comforts him. After this abuse was discovered he was put into intense counseling, but after 4 years he still wasn’t getting any better.

During the rest of my time student teaching, I really grew to love Joe. He was sweet and sensitive, and eager for my attention. While he never stopped masturbating in class, it was much easier to ignore it.

I think about him often. He would be 14 now. It’s one thing for a nine year old to rub himself against a stool, but another thing for a 14 year old. I wonder if he was ever able to stop the habit. If not, I wonder if he’ll ever be able to have a normal life. Who would employ him? Who would date him? Will he become Masturbating Joe on the subway?

What happened to little Joe was so unfair. He was robbed of a normal life. Once I knew about his history, it was easy to look past his unusual behavior, but I wouldn’t do that for the grown man on the subway.

When does that switch happen? When does someone’s disorder go from being understandable to unacceptable? It’s not like the circumstances that caused the disorder change as someone gets older.

I’m not saying that we should all take a seat next to Masturbating Joe and hold his hand. But I do think that we need to have a little more sympathy for people who do things that disturb us. You never know what caused them to be that way.

I’ve got a case of the doubts.

Lately I’ve been feeling guilty and confused. I set out on this HeSo Project in an effort to make my happiness and fulfillment a priority. I wanted to find a job that satisfied me spiritually as well as financially. I wanted to challenge myself to be creative and take risks. I assumed this meant being an entrepreneur.

I certainly felt creative and challenged while starting BeddyBye. I learned so much about creating an LLC, and dealing with internet business. I took courses in starting a small business. I hired a consultant to figure out the logistics of working with plastic. I made countless sketches, revised the design, and made four different prototypes. I was talking to safety engineers and manufacturing experts. It really felt like it was going to happen. Then…I lost interest (or perhaps confidence). The steamroller of doubt squashed this dream.

Every expert I spoke with told me I needed over 100k just to get started, and that there was really no way to dip my toes in the water when it came to manufacturing – especially when your making a device for babies. A part of me would like to sell the idea one day to a baby product company, so that’s making me feel like it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Actually no part of me feels like it was a waste of time. I learned a ton from that experience.

But then, when I was trying to come up with the next venture for the HeSo project, I called up an old friend to see if I could sub a few hours a week at her  school just so I wasn’t going through my entire savings.

Four years ago I was an English as a second (ESL) teacher and I absolutely loved it. The only reason why I quit was because I wasn’t making enough money. What added insult to injury was that the school was grooming me for a promotion, but it turned out that the promotion, although it was a great title, included a pay cut! That’s when I started working for my mom. I made tons of money but I was absolutely uninterested in what I was doing.

Well the subbing quickly turned into full time teaching. It’s an incredibly exhausting job, I’m working so much harder than I’m used to, and waking up earlier than I want to, and just barely making enough to pay the bills…but I love it. I come home full of stories. My students make me laugh all the time. I love the routine of work, I know I’m an amazing teacher, and I like being a part of a big team. Call me crazy but I actually like making a small salary. It’s making me appreciate the few things I do end up buying.

So here’s where the guilt comes in:

I feel like I set such a high bar for myself and I’m falling short. Of course my priority was to be happy, and I am. So shouldn’t that be enough? But another part of me thinks I should be doing more. A part of me thinks I’m not living up to my potential.

Yesterday one of my co-teachers said it was her 3 year anniversary of teaching at the school. I congratulated her, but she said she thought it was the saddest thing ever. She got into it just to pay the rent while she was auditioning for acting rolls. She said it was like she had become a career waiter. It made me wonder if I’m settling. Then that made me wonder if I’m letting someone else’s opinion taint my happiness.

I haven’t really come to a conclusion. I just wanted to get that off my chest. Any thoughts?

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: The Catskills

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places: #7 The Catskills

Two summers ago, Mike and I dusted off our boots, filled out water bottles, strapped on our backpacks and headed for the Catskills. we’ve both done a bit of hiking (Mike was an instructor in New Mexico and I took a 5 week camping trip across California and Colorado) so when we studied the maps and saw that most of the peaks were under 3,500 feet we thought it would be an easy stroll in the park. Big mistake!

These were some of the steepest trails we’ve ever done. We could only walk about 5 miles each day because the terrain was so difficult. It was also a dry season, so almost every stream was dried up. We found out afterward that the trails we took were better suited for day hikes because there are no sleeping grounds and hardly any water sources. That’s right – we’re hard core!

One of the coolest finds was a plane that crashed into the mountain in the 70s. It’s been slowly decomposing, but you can still see the control panel and the engine. It’s amazing that everyone survived.

I loved seeing all the stages of a forest. These saplings (in the above picture) were growing on top of a giant bolder. One day their delicate roots will brake the boulder into tiny rocks. Pretty impressive how small changes can make a big difference!

Nothing brings out your inner child like being out in nature!

When we reached the highest point, and it seemed like there was no one else around, we took of all our clothes and had naked lunch! I have to say this was even better than skinny dipping. Nothing feels as good as lying on a warm rock on the top of the world in nothing but your birthday suit. It’s the closest you can get to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

On the third night it started to pour. The pounding on our tent kept us up all night. In the morning we were soaked and shivering, and dog tired. It made the next part of the hike much more difficult. The picture above is a just a small sampling of what the terrain was like. Those rocks were covered with wet moss. It’s extra scary when you have a thirty pound backpack pull you backwards.

But all the rain made the streams much more picturesque!

The trip was definitely hard, but fun and romantic. You really get to know you partner when you’re eating cold sardines in the rain.We had to be cheesy teenagers and carve our names in the rock. Our plan was to visit this spot every five years, but for the life of me I will never be able to find it again. Let me know if you come across it 🙂

I don’t know about you, but when I go hiking I want to feel like a hermit. We only ran into 6 people the whole time, so that was a big bonus. The Catskills are beautiful, and challenging, and a must see. It’s no wonder there’s so many people in the Catskills 3500 club – to become a member you need to hike all of the 35 peaks that are above 3,500 feet and you need to do the four hardest ones again in the winter! We climbed 4 of the 3,500 feet peaks in our week long trip. We seriously considered trying to join the club, but the winter clause reminded us that we are not that crazy.

Find a Partner Dosey Doe

Soft ice cream

Image via Wikipedia

At my gym there’s posters everywhere telling me the benefits of working out with a friend. I know they’re just trying to get more people to sign up, but it’s not total b.s. Having a partner in a large goal helps you stay accountable, and keeps you working even when you feel like quitting. Also, it’s just more fun. If you don’t believe me read this article.

And that brings me to the HeSo project. When I first started posting about wanting to find a career that made me feel happy and fulfilled, I sought out other blogs with similar themes. I looked at them as my work out buddies. Two that stood out were Logy Express and Tara’s 30 Blog. Both writers had goals of having more fun and creativity in their lives. Both asked, is it possible to get paid to do what you love? Although we never stated explicitly that we would motivate each other, they have left me supportive comments, and I have been encouraging them.

Recently they both broke through on what they want to do. Logy started taking her love of ice cream more seriously and took a course in ice cream 101. Tara started a website called Horizon Speaking and she will be coaching people on public speaking. I’m proud of them, and I’m very encouraged by their movement forward. It reminds me to keep up 🙂

If you have a daunting dream or goal that’s easy to give up on, I encourage you to find a partner. Find someone who shares that same goal and can motivate you when you’re feeling down, and vice versa. I guarantee you’ll get much further.

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” – Frank A. Clark