Are you waiting for permission?

I’m a huge fan of Amy Poehler’s videos on Smart GirlsIf you’ve ever wanted to start a large project, I suggest watching this video. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer met doing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. They created a web series based on their unique friendship and sense of humor, and it took off, leading them to the hit show on Comedy Central. In this video, Amy interviews the writers and talent behind this zany comedy, Broad City.

I love it when they talk about finding your voice, and how to get started on a dream. Everything they said reminded me of starting Writers Work 🙂

Abbi Jacobson’s response when Amy asks how someone can copy their success says it all for me:

“A lot of people wait for someone else to tell them it’s okay to start doing something or they have to be allowed to do this. But, no, we create that. You just have to start. No one’s gonna give you permission.”

What are your ambitions? Are you waiting for permission to get started?

Exciting News!

Do you ever have one of those months where everything finally comes together? I hope you do, because it feels fantastic. After a lot of hard work, I have some great news to share:

  1. I have a new website for my Writers Work conference series, and I’ve added a writer’s retreat feature! I used the logo you guys chose. Check it out and let me know what you think.
  2. I sent out my first query letter for my novel!
  3. I submitted a short story to The New Yorker and The Missouri Review.
  4. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY…discounted tickets are now available for the next Writers Work Conference 9/20/14 in Times Sq. NY! Have lunch with an agent, hear about authors’ experiences of getting published, meet approachable editors and publishers who want to share the inside scoop with you, and connect with other writers. It’s going to be an amazing day
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Ahhh the joy of getting sh*t done!

When to spend money on your dreams

Going after your professional dreams is already a scary endeavor and it can be especially intimidating when there’s money involved. Oftentimes you have to make a large investment before you have any guarantee that your ideas will pay off. I’m a huge advocate of staying thrifty in the early stages. While my baby product idea didn’t work out, I saved thousands of dollars by making my own prototypes and I had a lot of fun in the process. I wrote about how great it was to save hundreds of dollars by having my friend do a photo shoot for my Brutal First Impressions website. But recently I’ve been changing my tune. I paid for an amazing photographer for my first writers’ conference and I hired a talented graphic designer to create the logo for the conference series.

me at conference

I could have relied on my friends to take cellphone pictures like this of the conference…

Go social media!

but it was such a relief knowing that a professional was capturing all the great moments and that I would have something really beautiful to present to future sponsors.

So here’s how I’ve decided when to spend money and when to save:

When to be frugal:

  • If money is your excuse for not taking the next step.  Pare down your idea as much as possible and see what you can do on your own.  Taking a cheap, baby step forward will help you feel more comfortable when it’s time to take an expensive step forward.
  • If you enjoy doing it. I have a friend who makes beautiful jewelry. She could expand much faster and make more money if she hired people to help or outsourced the work entirely, but that would ruin the fun for her.
  • If it’s important to have a personal touch.  I wanted our wedding guest books to be personal. I could have spent a fortune to have someone else make them, but I loved giving out a hand-made gift with lots of personality.

When to spend:

  • If you’re supporting a friend in a new business.
    When Callan announced her new graphic design business I jumped at the opportunity to help a friend out while also benefiting from her services. If you’re starting a business, you’ll need your friends to support you, so start setting up the precedent by supporting them now!
  • If you’re not taking yourself seriously.
    I know if I put on a nice blazer I instantly feel more professional, and the same goes for the image of your business. Get some nice business cards, upgrade your website, get a real logo, sign up for a networking event. And while you’re at it, invest in a wardrobe that matches your dream job. Spending some money will remind you that this is not just a hobby but a future career.
  • You are asking others for money.
    How can you ask others to invest in you if you’re not willing to invest in yourself? Spend some money to present the best possible package to your potential investors and send a clear sign that you are serious.
  • If you’re stressed out.
    If you dreamed up the business, your creativity is your most important asset. Don’t distract yourself with things that someone else can do. If you have no intention of becoming a professional programmer, don’t waste time learning how to build your own website. Hire someone who needs the money and will do a much better job than you in half the time. Spend your energy on what you’re good at.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you decide when to save and when to spend? Was there something that was so totally worth it? Was there something you shouldn’t have wasted your money on?

Why are insults stickier than compliments?

I got my first client for Brutal First Impressions yesterday! She wrote to me today telling me how useful my service was and how much she appreciated the unbiased opinion. I read her sweet words and was flattered, but then I went about my day as usual. A few hours later, I checked Facebook, and noticed a stranger had shared my BFI facebook page with a message saying “who would ever pay for this?” After reading that I was in a bad funk for hours.

Why did the great words someone went out of her way to write to me affect me for a few short minutes, but a mean comment lingered in the back of my mind for hours? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all dwelled on compliments the way we dwell on insults.

At the end of the day I have to embrace any insults hurled at my business because it means that I am growing. I’m leaving the safe bubble of people who care about my feelings, and entering a larger playing field where, yes, some people might not like me or my ideas.

It’s ironic that I have such thin skin when I have a business where I brutally judge people; however, I think it’s my thin skin that makes me better at consulting. I know how to give feedback in a caring, sensitive way that motivates someone to improve themselves not tear themselves down. I want to continue helping people be the best versions of themselves and grow my business so I know I need to thicken my skin so I don’t waste hours in a funk. The only way to thicken my skin is to expose it to the elements and that includes insults. But it also means surrounding myself with supportive people as well. Please follow Brutal First Impressions on Facebook, and remind me that I have an amazing support network 🙂

You guys rock!

2014-03-23 15.56.14Thank you so much for the feedback on my new website, Brutal First Impressions. I got over 400 hits on my website in the last two days!  From the legal advice, to the copy editing, to the opinions on the layout, I really took your comments to heart and I think the website is much better thanks to my readers’ suggestions. The layout of the mobile site is still a little funky, but it’s getting better.

Now’s your chance to share it 🙂 Please tell everyone you know about Brutal First Impressions. Facebook, twitter, linkedin, email, word of mouth, any way you can share it would be awesome! You can also follow my BFI account on twitter. I can’t wait to share my success with you 🙂

A special thanks to Alice, Dale, David, Deanne, Eda, Francis, Jeff, Jerry, Mandi, Marie, Melissa, Mike, Sojo and Tricia.

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 Worst Thing You’ve Ever Done

Over the last year, I have been blown away by my experiences with Defy Ventures, an organization that gives business training and mentoring to people with criminal backgrounds. I must admit I was pretty nervous the first time I walked into a room filled with people who had rap sheets, but after everyone introduced themselves with a bear hug, and I got to hear why these people were choosing to change their lives, I could no longer hold on to my fear or negative assumptions.

 A Clean Slate  Through her M.B.A.-style program, Defy Ventures, Catherine Rohr is helping former prisoners, including Maliki Cottrell (left) and Marlon Llin (center), learn how to launch their own companies.

A Clean Slate Through her M.B.A.-style program, Defy Ventures, Catherine Rohr is helping former prisoners, including Maliki Cottrell (left) and Marlon Llin (center), learn how to launch their own companies. Photo credit: Miller Mobley

I believe in potential; I believe that people grow and become better versions of themselves, and I know that I’m not the only one. But in The United States, we do not extend that faith to people who have been behind bars.

What would it be like if you were permanently known for the worst thing you’ve ever done?

This is a line from Catherine Rohr’s article in Inc. CEO and Founder of Defy Ventures, she has helped transform the lives of thousands of motivated individuals, and by extension, strengthen the communities and families that they came from.

I urge you to read this article. I urge you to question the beliefs that you have. I urge you to support an organization that bolsters our society with the very people who are shunned by society. Oh yeah, and I urge you to like them on facebook!

Show up

Woody Allen

Woody Allen (Photo credit: ThomasThomas)

“80% of success is showing up.”

I always thought that was an Einstein quote, but apparently it was Woody Allen. One of the things that I love about Woody Allen is that he’ll try anything. Some of his jokes are really stupid, but there are others that make me cry from laughing, and he seems to deliver both varieties with earnestness. It’s like he throws as many darts as possible hoping at least one of them will hit the target. I really respect that level of effort and candor.

I’ve been a big fan of this quote because I see it’s truth all the time.

The other day was a perfect example. While volunteering with Defy, there was competition to see which team of two could do the best presentation. Every team was going to have two minutes to make this presentation and since there were 50 people in the room, there would be five rounds. We had ten minutes to prepare our speeches.

When they asked for five teams to volunteer to go first I raised my hand immediately. This is not my usual mode of operation, but since I’m a mentor I thought it would be good to exemplify leadership behavior.

When the five teams went to the front of the room the moderator announced that competition was over and that the first group automatically won. The people who hadn’t volunteered were upset, but it was such a valuable lesson.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re actually being judged on. One of my friends described an interview at Google where they asked a ridiculously hard question and it turns out they were judging how he reacts to pressure and not his actual answer. It turns out the competition was not about who can give the best presentation but about who was willing to take risks and step up to the plate.

How many times do we sit back and wait to be called on? How much time do we waste perfecting our arguments and never saying them out loud. This little social experiment was the epitome of Woody Allen’s quote. It doesn’t really matter if your the best, smartest, funniest, whatever. It matters that you’re eager, and ready to get in the game. The more time I spend with successful business people the more impressed I am not with their amazing intelligence or insight, but with their willingness to dive right in.

While we’re on the topic of Woody Allen, here are some other quotes of his that I love:

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

“My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”

Defy Ventures

Do you think you could ever hug a man who has killed someone? Could you look him in the eye and feel a connection? Would you care about him and want the best for him? You’re probably shaking your head no, and I thought so too…until I volunteered with Defy Ventures.

Catherine Rohr, founder of Defy Ventures, with some of her ex-con students. (Photo credit: CSMonitor.com)

What does it take to become a successful entrepreneur?  Leadership, vision, guts, and drive (just to name a few traits). What would it take to become a powerful drug dealer? Leadership, vision, guts, and drive.  The clever folks at Defy Ventures realized that a lot of the people in jail have what it takes to become successful business leaders they just never had positive role models. They never had a chance. Defy offers an MBA-like course for ambitious former criminals in the hopes that they can turn their lives around and use their skills for the greater good.

Last month I signed up to be a judge for their business pitch competition. The students in the program, who have all gone through intensive business training as well as deep self-reflection about their pasts, have all come up with ideas for their future businesses and it was our job to listen, give feedback, and then decide which businesses we would back if we were venture capitalists. All of the judges were extremely successful business people: the guy sitting next to me had just flown in on his private jet! I must admit I was intimidated to be in the same room as them, so I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be one of the students pitching a business idea to them.

The competition was so much fun because I felt like I was on Shark Tank, but I was also in tears for most of the day because their stories were so hard to hear. One man talked about how angry he used to be that his father wasn’t around to look after him, and then he realized he was doing exactly the same thing to his sons by living a life of crime and ending up in jail. He swore to do whatever it takes to be a positive role model for them and completely turned his life around. Another man told us how the only people who treated him with respect and took care of him were the gang leaders in his neighborhood. When they realized how driven and smart he was they kept promoting him and eventually he became the leader of the gang. How different would his life have been if those gang leaders who saw potential in him were successful business leaders instead?

After that experience I signed up to be a mentor. It’s a 6 month commitment and I get to work with one of these amazingly motivated individuals and try to help them win the final competition. At the end of the year, they all present their business plan to win actual money for start-up capital. The winner can take in as much as $100 grand!

The winners of last year’s competition are running highly successful businesses and employing other hard-working individuals from the program. They went from making minimum wage and not being able to support their families to supporting several families. More importantly, they are representing an alternative lifestyle in their communities. In an interview with Oprah, Jay-Z said,

“The drug dealers were my role models. Rappers weren’t successful yet. I remember the first time I saw the Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train. I was 11 or 12. I was like, “What’s going on? How did those guys get on national TV?” And then, when I was a little older, a rapper from the neighborhood got a record deal. I was shocked. “They’re giving you money to do that?” Because by this time, the music had taken hold of the entire neighborhood. Just like crack had before, now this music had taken hold. Everyone was either DJ-ing or rapping.”

Sometimes you just need to see something before you can imagine becoming it. I grew up knowing that I could do anything. Both of my parents own their own businesses, and I knew people in all sorts of professions. Until I volunteered with Defy I didn’t know how lucky I was just to have that sort of exposure. The amazing people who go through the Defy program end up showing a little kid on the street that they don’t have to be a criminal to make money. That makes everyone safer.