Why Haven’t You Done This Yet? (Part 1)

Fear-of-Looking-Stupid1By nature I’m a shy person but I hate being that way, so I do things that push me out of my comfort zone. Whether it’s hosting conferences, critiquing strangers on the street, or reading my work in public, I truly believe that when I feel nervous I’m actually growing. Improv was on the top of my list of things that scared me so I knew it was only a matter of time before I took a class.

I signed up for an improv level 0 class. Not level 1 but level big-fat-0, a four-week introduction to the art of improv with no daunting performance at the end of the course like most improv classes. While there are lots of improv schools to choose from in NYC, I picked The Peoples Improv Theater, lovingly referred to as The Pit, because it has a reputation for being really fun. Our instructor, Taren Sterry, immediately turned the classroom into a goofy, safe environment, while also offering the perfect level of critic to help us improve.

I have never had so much fun with adults. During our three-hour classes, there were moments I couldn’t catch my breath I was laughing so hard. When you’re having so much fun, it’s hard to believe that you’re learning, but I certainly was. Over the next few posts I’m going to share with you what improv taught me.

  1. Better conversational skills.

A conversation is about listening and sharing. Until I took improv, I had no idea what a terrible listener I was.  People tend to listen to the first half of someone’s story and then they’re already thinking of what they are going to say next. This leads to a conversation that is pretty flat. But if you really listen to a story about someone’s Aunt Trudy, you might pick up on a detail that could trigger a much deeper conversation. “Your aunt Trudy dated a Stan from Riverdale? My uncle Stan is from Riverdale. Maybe they dated?!? Maybe we’re related!” Even though I was having a blast, I left every class with a headache because I’ve never concentrated so hard in my life. The better you listen to what people are saying the more you can work off the golden nuggets they throw out.

I was amazed at how easy it was to converse with the other students during the breaks and after class. It was because we were all using the golden rule of YES AND. This rule is all about giving the other person something to work with. You affirm what they say and you add something to it. I have a terrible habit of giving short answers when making small talk. A part of me believes that if someone is truly interested, they’ll ask me follow up questions. I don’t want to be that person who overwhelms a stranger with my entire life story (I do that with my blog, thank you very much). But here’s a good example of a conversation that was improved with improv: Someone asked me how I was doing and my instinct was to say, “tired,” but instead I said, “I’m tired because I stayed up late doing karaoke.” See! because I added that tiny bit of info, the conversation began! We got into a big long discussion about the best karaoke songs to sing and that never would have happened if I just gave a one-word answer.

So there you have it, the first way you’ll improve from improv. Everyone could benefit from taking an improv class. I highly recommend The Pit, and more specifically my amazing teacher, Tarren Sterry. If you end up taking a class, let them know I sent you 🙂 Stay tuned for the next skill I learned from improv.

The Best Kind of Butterflies

Last week I stood outside a building in midtown, feeling like I was going to throw up. I had a meeting set up with an executive from a large publishing house, and I prayed desperately that he forgot about our meeting and I could go home. Was it too late to run away?

I had only ever felt this overwhelming physical anxiety once before and that was when I was going to meet my now husband for our second date. I knew in my gut that he was exactly the kind of guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. As I waited for the train to take me to his town, fear swept in and I began to question if I was ready for this next step. I had only ever been in unsatisfying relationships before, but at least that was comfortable and known. I didn’t know what it would be like to date someone who I was wild about.

Sometimes our fear of happiness can be greater than our present discontent. Fortunately, I got over my nerves, got on the train, and we had one of our best dates ever. Thank god I didn’t let fear stop me.

I remembered that train ride as I waited for the publisher, and reminded myself that it was good to feel fear: it means that my life is about to expand into a greater comfort zone. Eventually the executive from the publishing house came down to meet me and we had lunch. It was an incredible meeting. He was so positive and encouraging. He agreed to read 50 pages of my manuscript and if he likes it, he’ll put me in touch with the people who can help me get published!!!

If you ever feel fear before you do something new, embrace it. As Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, “Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.”

Strangers in the Woods

This past weekend, I met three strangers at a Dunkin’ Donuts, got in the car with them, and drove up to Bear Mountain. When I told people what I was planning to do they thought  I was crazy, and most certainly would end up involuntarily donating some of my vital organs to the black market.

Just when I was starting to get fed up with this asphalt paradise I live in, I found a group on the website Why Leave Astoria that was for people in my neighborhood who want to take day excursions to the many hiking trails outside of Manhattan. Some friends thought it was sketchy, but then I had to remind them that I met my husband on a dating site, so I’m willing to take a chance on strangers from the world wide web.

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The popolopen creek.

We hiked the Popolopen trail on Bear Mountain. It was steep and super muddy from all the rain, but absolutely gorgeous. I can’t believe it’s only an hour drive from the city – it felt like a different world.

A 360 degree view of the Hudson Valley.

Honestly, I was surprised at how well we all got along. Lynne, our fearless leader, researched the trail, and was well prepared. The other two woman had been on hikes with her before, and we met up with her friend when we got to the trail. There was none of the awkward small talk of getting to know strangers because we already had so much in common: a love of nature, living in the same neighborhood, and a willingness to try new things.

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Third time I’ve used the timer on my camera. I’m glad it didn’t fall down the side of the mountain.

I had been planning to do a hike for a while now, but I wasn’t in the mood to rent a car and balance my friends’ busy schedule to find one weekend four month from now where everyone’s available. This trip was so easy, and had the unexpected benefit of introducing me to awesome people in my neighborhood.

I’m taking away two lessons from this hike:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is a group on the internet that is planning to do whatever you want to do. Don’t wait around trying to plan it yourself, join a group and start doing it!  If you don’t have a neighborhood based website to find other people than I suggest browsing MeetUp for groups, and How About We which is more of a dating site but is based on doing activities together.
  2. In this day in age, we seem to focus on the worst of humanity. We hear one terrible story about a stranger murdering someone and then every stranger seems capable of murder. These sensationalized stories are so rare that they overshadow the best of humanity. You are more likely to be hit by a falling tree branch than be attacked by a serial killer. Don’t let fear control your life.

That said, please also use common sense. I don’t want to be the reason why any of you loose an organ 😛

A note on using people

As you might know I’m working my way through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. You might not know that one of the things that has helped with this process (tremendously) is meeting with three other women to talk about our journey to discover our hidden or stifled artist.

Two topics that come up quite often is:

  • If you know what you want and ask for it, doors will suddenly open up and if you’re brave enough you’ll accept that gift.
  • The fear of not wanting “to use” people.

I don’t understand the latter hang up. I personally love to open doors for people, and I doubt I’m the only one. As soon as someone mentions something they want to do and I can think of someone who is in that field I get really excited to introduce them. It makes me feel useful and invested in anything good that comes out of the union.

I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine (and I’ll even remove all the fleas).

For example, I’m looking for a job right now which is always an excruciating process. When I finally had a lead, I realized the actual job was not going to be challenging enough and I would quickly grow bored with it. A part of me want to take the job anyway, cause I don’t know when the next offer will come around, but another part of me said that would be a decision made from fear. Someone else would kill for that job, so why should I take it and not appreciate it. Then I remembered an old co-worker who just graduated from college. She was describing the kind of job she wanted and I knew she would be a perfect fit  for the school. To make a long story short, she got the job and is happy, the school’s administration is happy that I helped them get a great employee, and I can only hope that when a higher level position opens up, they will keep me in mind. In this situation everyone is happy (well I’m still out of a job, but at least I feel good about helping others).

It helps me believe that when I know for sure what I want to do there will be an army of friends and acquaintances who will want to open doors for me. Success and happiness are not limited resources; if someone helps you achieve success they are not giving up any of theirs, and it oftentimes helps them feel more successful.  So if you know someone who might be able to help you, by all means ask them for help. And if you can help someone offer to do so. If your friend doesn’t want the best for you, than maybe they are not a real friend.

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.

Would you go to this conference?


While I was in a D.C., I met a guy who’s throwing an after party for a conference on the West Coast. We got to talking about popular conferences, and something started tingling in the back of my brain. By the time I got back to the hotel the tingle became a full blown thought. What if I started my own conference for the HeSo project?

Would you come for a weekend conference in NYC and hear stories from people who followed their dreams and started living a life dictated by the whims of their heart and soul rather than their fears and apathy? Would you attend a panel discussion on dreams vs reality? Would you network with other people who want to start living a HeSo life?

I’m really interested in your opinions on this. How much would you pay for this? How many guest speakers would you want to hear? How many days would you go for? Do you have any guest speakers you would recommend?

Please bombard me with your thoughts and suggestions 🙂


Where’s the advantage?

If you’ve ever asked your parents for a little help with rent, or if you’ve ever given your child some money for the rent, you know that receiving help does not make you a bad person. We all need help to get by sometimes. But what happens if you don’t have a support network to help you?

The other day I was riding the subway and a couple came on with their child. They started to make an announcement about how they were homeless and needed help. I must admit that I’ve become quite callous towards homeless people on the subway, but there was something about them that caught my attention.

They said that they were living in an apartment with help from the Advantage program, but since the State was no longer funding that program they would soon have to go back to the homeless shelter. And since shelters don’t allow mixed genders, their family would be split up.

I looked at the woman as her husband announced this and she was crying and holding her toddler’s hand tightly. She was ashamed, but it was also clear that she was scared she was going to lose her family and her sense of normalcy. Before they spoke they looked like any other young family, but any day now they were going to slip through the cracks, and I can’t imagine how you would ever get back up.

The Advantage program helps pay the rent for individuals or families in order to take them out of the homeless shelters and work towards self-sufficiency. Adults under this program need to work a minium of 20 hours a week, and participate in career development  courses or continuing education. It lasts up to 2 years and in the first year the individual must pay at least 30% of the rent, and in the second year 40%. While I was in college my parents paid 100% of my rent, but most people aren’t that lucky. This program provides a head start for people who never received one.

There’s no easy solution for the homeless problem in NYC, and there are a lot of flaws with the Advantage program, but it was a good start. Witnessing the family on the subway going through the fear of returning to a shelter was just another reminder of how much we neglect the people who need help the most. What is going to happen to their child? Imagine the two possible outcomes for a child growing up in a home with his family, or growing up in different shelters and never seeing his father at night. There are currently 15,000 families in the advantage program. What is going to happen to all of them?

Everyone wants their taxes to be lower, but no one seems to see the price we pay for that.

A generous soul

If you have a creative bone in your body you should definitely read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. A handsome and witty blogger recommended it to me. Ok, it was Mike. I just finished the book and it felt like she was my friend commiserating and encouraging me all the way. I love her annicdotes, and was moved to tears when I read this one about giving.

An 8 year old boy had a little sister who had leukemia. He was told she would die without a blood transfusion. The doctor thought he might be a good candidate for a blood donor. That night they ask the little boy if he would save his sister’s life by giving her a pint of blood. He told them he would have to think it over.

In the morning the little boy told them that even though he was scared he would do it for his little sister. The two little kids sat in the hospital hooked up to IVs. The boy was silent. When the doctor came to check up on him, the little boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

The Power of Vulnerability

One of my amazing friends directed me to this Ted talk about vulnerability. Since I know you’re all busy I decided to summarize the key points. But watch the video if you can because Brene Brown is absolutely charming and insightful.

Brene is a social worker and she wanted to understand what causes shame. While she was doing her doctoral thesis on shame, she interviewed thousands of people and realized that shame comes from the belief that something about you is not good enough; if someone were to find out the ‘truth’ of you they would not love you.

Although everyone she talked to had experienced shame, people tended to fall into one of two categories: those who had a strong sense of love and belonging and those who struggled for it. The people who had a sense of love and belonging believed that they were worthy of love – as simple as that.

Courage was the common character trait of someone who felt worthy of love. She points out that courage is not the same thing as bravery. The Latin routs for courage translate to “tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Wow! The Latins were really onto the HeSo project 😛

Here are three things that all these courageous people had in common:

-they accept their imperfections

-they are compassionate towards themselves

-“they are willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they are”

Most importantly, a person must embrace vulnerability. These people who had a strong sense of self-worth believed that vulnerability was part of what made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability as being difficult or easy – just a necessity.

“They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.  They thought this was fundamental.”

This conclusion really bothered Brene because she couldn’t understand how vulnerability can cause the very pain that makes people feel shame, but it can also be the cure. It bothered her so much that she needed to go into therapy for a year to wrap her brain around the idea.

It’s true that vulnerability can open you up to pain and rejection, but it can also open you up to personal connection and acceptance. I was afraid to admit that I was feeling doubt. I thought since my blog is about inspiring people and staying positive, I shouldn’t talk about negative feelings. However, so many people reached out to me and said they feel the same way too sometimes. And it really made me feel better.

She argues that today’s society works so hard to numb the negative feelings that we also numb the positive. We try to be so certain that we become close-minded. She gives the example of organized religions transitioning from the power of faith to the power of being right.

We need to start accepting some of the inherent struggles of life. We need to start accepting that we will never be perfect. We need to start questioning ourselves and being honest…and loving the truth of ourselves.