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Learning to Risk. Risking to Learn.

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VISIT

Stop yelling

03/25/2015

It was the end of a long day. I had to attend one more meeting, then I could unwind.

I hopped onto my bike and began my journey down the busy streets of Chicago. Luckily it was one of the city’s first warm days in months. The sun was shining and the air seemed fresher than usual.

I pedaled faster.

The street I was riding didn’t have bike lanes, which isn’t abnormal for Chicago. However, this is an especially busy street where some sort of delineation between cars and bikes is needed.

As I was pedaling up a slight incline, I veered just slightly to my left, only to be greeted by a car that was weaving in between lanes to get ahead of traffic. He gave me a startling honk and whizzed passed me within millimeters of my handlebars. The sound and wind nearly knocked me over.

I was furious.

As I watched the car speed away in reckless fashion, continuing to aggressively switch lanes, I wondered if I could catch the driver and set him/her straight.

I pedaled faster than ever, powered entirely by my anger. As I rode, I squeezed between cars and dodged pedestrians like a madman. During this focused car-chase-mode, my mind rehearsed every possible scathing thing I could say or do if I caught up to the imbecile who had the gall to nearly kill me.

To my surprise, the vehicle came into my sights at a red light. I quickly made my way to the driver’s side of the car and noticed the window was cracked open.

This was my chance.

Then, during the final moments of approaching the old Honda hatchback, an odd sense of perspective came over me, “What would yelling/screaming/cursing do? What’s the point?”

As I began to open my mouth, all I could say in a gentle voice was, “Hey, sorry about that back there. There’s no bike lane, so it get’s tricky on this street. I’ll try to stay further to the right.”

The man, dressed in a slightly wrinkled blue button-up shirt, was probably nothing more than a young business professional on his way home to a newborn, or an evening event with a significant other, or an important work meeting. Perhaps, he was simply frustrated by something else that happened earlier in the day.

Whatever the case, my remarks caught him completely off guard. All he could stutter as I began to ride away was, “Yeah…no bike lane…tricky. Thanks!”

I pedaled more slowly for the rest of my ride. I thought about the sour mood I would have been in if I had reacted in the other manner. My actions may have followed us for the remainder of the day and made us even more upset. Instead, this stranger and I were in a slightly better state of mind.

I know the world isn’t always a great place; but, I’m not sure yelling at it will make it any better. Take responsibility for your part in being here and do your best to make it a little sweeter.

Life will be better for you…and, probably for the rest of us too.

friendshape

03/18/2015

If I was a circle, I’d put you in the middle so you would always feel embraced.

If I was a square, I’d make my home under your feet so you would always have a place.

If I was a rectangle, I’d be a bed so you could always find rest.

If I was a line, I’d split myself into dashes and trace all of your steps.

If I was a curve, I’d be the bottom of your boat so you could sail the seven seas.

If I was a triangle, I’d be the tip of an arrow so you could hunt all of your dreams.

 

This is an exploration of a different type of writing. It’s an invitation to add, subtract, edit, and share with someone close to you. If you’re able, send me what you make or write. I’d love to see it. 

You’ll Only Have One

03/11/2015
I squatted into the awkward position. I didn’t know where my hands started and where my feet ended. All I knew is that the instructor, a fit and gentle man in tight athletic clothing, was constantly reminding me to center myself on my intention.
As I followed the next instruction to “twist towards the heavens,” I wondered how anyone could center anything with their spine digging into their kneecap.
Nevertheless, I felt my my muscles stretch and retract and my bones bend and release as I unbound myself from the twisted, seated, crow-tree-table-dog pose (or something like that).
It has been refreshing to spend more time focusing on my health. I have taken classes at various gyms, explored two different yoga studios – and I’ve become a member at a new rock climbing wall. I even purchased climbing shoes and a harness for my weekly visits.

Very few things changed to make this possible. My workload hasn’t lightened, my level of income hasn’t increased dramatically, and my modes of living/transportation are just as simple as before.

But, it’s not just about making time, it’s about getting to the point where we crave those hours. It’s invigorating to feel our bodies be pushed in unique ways. We feel younger, more fit, and more focused over time. Yes, life’s stresses will still present themselves, but they’ll be managed in a different way.

Take care of your body and itll take care of you.
Despite our greatest technological feats, you’ll only have one. 
Treat it as such.

Sharing Leads to Learning [TEDx Manuscript]

03/04/2015

Last weekend, I gave a TEDx talk at the University of Iowa. I attempted a new format and a new angle, while also trying to condense 3 1/2 years of work into 8 minutes. It was a great challenge that rattled my nerves and pushed me to rethink every part of how I present.

Trying new things is never easy. But, those are the moments when we learn the most about our craft, our style, and ourselves.

The manuscript of the talk is below. Or, if you prefer, I’ve recorded the audio for you here.

Thanks for reading,
v

Title: Sharing Leads to Learning

Introduction
I pulled into the empty parking lot on a cool spring afternoon. I had just spent 30 minutes explaining to my friend Dan that, after nine months of exploring business school, I wasn’t sure the investment of time and money was wise for me. I told him about an idea to leave my work for a season and design my own education. As I put the car in park, I had begun my long spiel about the challenges of the idea – finances, family and societal expectations, and general failure.

Dan’s only response in this tense moment – my confusion and doubt swirling in the car…almost making it musty – was, “Oh…what a grand adventure…

I sat there puzzled. I had just shared an audacious idea and my deepest fears, and he shed an entirely refreshing light upon it.

Shortly thereafter, I resigned from a job I loved to design my own Masters, which would entail twelve projects around the world in twelve months all focused on design, business and social change. It would be called, the Leap Year Project.

I started a blog and a newsletter to share my journey with a group of friends and family and asked several of them to subscribe at $10/month to help fund the idea. In return, I’d share monthly learnings and find ways to connect the community throughout the year. The projects led me all over the world – from working alongside architecture firm, NBBJ, creating an art installation for a new onsite healthcare facility for Microsoft, to telling stories of positive change in Cairo during the Arab spring, to helping organize thanksgiving dinner on Skid Row with Union Rescue Mission.

Along the way, I invited others to take risks or “Leaps” to create change.

Over 250 people from around the world spotted the project, took a leap, and shared their stories.

2012 culminated with book of vignettes that was funded by the community on Kickstarter, a TEDxtalk where I staged my graduation, and the start of a new type of school called Experience Institute – where we’re exploring how to help others design their own education through experience.

[Pause]

On the surface, this may come across as some sort of vigilante, solo-millennial-mission-impossible gone (fairly) well. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That conversation with Dan on that day in April 2011 was the first of a host of conversations.

It seemed that the more time I spent thoughtfully and humbly sharing my journey, the more I learned and grew.

Sharing ideas
During the beginning days of working on Ei, I met a friend named Erik Olesund at a holiday party in Chicago. After talking for a bit, he mentioned that he attended Stanford, volunteered for the student radio station and that he’d like to share a conversation about higher ed on-air.

That conversation with Erik led to a visit to Stanford’s campus where I had the chance to meet with the team behind the d.school.

I learned of a project they were working on to explore the future of four parts of the campus:

  • The Library
  • Accreditation
  • Resident’s Life
  • Experiential Learning

They didn’t just tell me their ideas, they were genuinely interested in what we were attempting, and over the following months, our first five students and I had the chance to collaborate on projects and plans for @Stanford.

For the d.school, the project culminated with four provocations to higher ed entitled Stanford 2025.

For Ei, we gained new friends, and a deeper understanding of what we were building and why it mattered. Now, as we continue our second class, those ideas are shaping our curriculum and our relationships.

[Pause]

There are contexts when sharing may seem like a sign of weakness. But, I’m learning, when we loosen our grip on what we think we know and have, we strengthen ideas and relationships.

Sharing Resources
Now, to give you some quick context about Experience Institute, it’s a 12 month program that begins in September.

Students range from 18 to 39 years old, mostly strangers, and they begin in Chicago where they meet in-person for quarterly meetups that entail intensive classes and group projects.

We focus on five core competencies: Self Awareness, Community Building, Storytelling, Operations, and Human Centered Design. Since we meet quarterly, all of our staff and instructors are practitioners who are mainly funded by full-time jobs.

And, we haven’t spent exorbitant finances on a campus. Cities are our campus. Our Meetups have been held in every type of space from furniture showrooms to co-working spaces to rock climbing gyms. In each space, we consider what our offering is to the people who invite us into their space.

Student Experiences
The students then design their time in between by pitching companies for apprenticeships or pursuing ideas of their own.

Host companies share problems & goals & resource…students explore ways they can be helpful while building skills.

It takes something as age-old as an internship and mutates it into the core of one’s education and into a truly meaningful part of a company’s culture.

Students have completed an array of things ranging from award-winning sound design projects to building typhoon-proof earth-ships in the Philippines.

And, at this very moment.
+ Jonathan is working alongside a new design high school in the Bay Area
+ Toph is working with an digital strategy agency in Spain
+ Nicole just finished a stint at Dev Bootcamp where she learned how to code

And, Ei didn’t place them there necessarily. Sure, we have a network of host companies, but if we held everyone’s hand to the front door, much of the experience would be lost. Rather, we give tools, build a community, and teach a process for finding problems and pitching those teams to help find solutions. But it’s those companies and individuals who’ve responded by sharing space, sharing projects and providing compensation for the students’ time.

Along the way, students document their journeys through photos, videos, blogposts, newsletters, and other mediums to share how their growing. And, weekly coaching calls with staff help to bring the group together to solve problems and continue exploring how the content meshes with their work.

[Pause]

There is an ecosystem of learning based on a shared economy that makes designing education more feasible than ever. Companies receive great talent and energy. Students gain practical experience that builds their portfolio, their confidence, their skill sets, and their relationships — all without crippling debt.

Closing
As we look specifically at the realm of higher education, I’m insatiably curious about how to elevate the role of this type of self-designed education.

So much of education has been who am I doing this for: parents, future employers, society at large.

But perhaps the questions should be,
“Who am I doing this with?
What am I sharing rather than what am I getting?
Who might I become, rather than how much will I make?”

Hopes
My hope is that someday, every company will leave a seat at the table for a learner. And, perhaps, more importantly that each of us will remain learners throughout our lives.

And that anyone who’s at a point of transition would not only consider designing their education through experience as a means to blunt cost and achieve necessary skills, but that doing so would be seen as a credible and transformative way to learn and grow for anyone, anywhere of any background or stage in life.

It won’t be easy. It’ll take time and energy, and sometimes, things won’t work.

But to that I say, “Oh…what a grand adventure…

 

Do hard things first

02/25/2015

When you wake up in the morning, you are the strongest.

Sure, you may need a cup of coffee (or two), but your mind has recharged, your heart has calmed and your body has rested.

You have two choices: face what challenges you with your best energy, or wait until tomorrow to consider it again. Usually, the latter is the beginning of never.

Sometimes, doing hard things isn’t a matter of time, it’s a matter of energy and fear. The hardest things are the ones that make us wonder if we can become as great as we hope to be. If we attempt the hard thing and fail, then we may lose hope. If we do it and succeed, then we may find ourselves facing even greater challenges.

Either way, it’s a place that swells with uncertainty.

Still, if you wait, it may never get done. Or worse , your hardest and most important work will be completed with less than your full ability.
So, do it now. It’s important work, and it needs your best.

To Risk…

02/18/2015

In all my speak of relationship, it’s humbling to admit that I sometimes shy away from connection. With each new person that crosses my path, I know there is a chance they may change my life, for better or worse. If I allow it, someone can influence how I think about myself and how I will see the world, possibly for the rest of my life.

The hesitation deepens when I realize I have the same potential impact. Will my presence in one’s life leave them better or worse, wounded or with hope? Whether I care to admit it, I have that power. All of us do.

Therein is the core of risk – to attempt to love and to let ourselves be loved.
Some of life’s greatest risks will have little to do with money or travel or school or possessions, and everything to do with who we care for, how we care for them, and the willingness to let others care for us.

To risk is to love.

To love is to risk.

Humans & Heroes

02/11/2015

For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a hero. You know…the one who saved the day. I envisioned myself fighting evil villains, saving people in the nick of time, and secretly using my powers to give the underdog an advantage.

I learned quickly that, though I hope to be ready for those valiant moments, they rarely happen.

So, I tried my hand at simply helping anyone at anytime – doing what I can do. It worked fairly well. I gained favor, got invited to several work parties, and people thought I was the “Nicest. Guy. Ever.”

That seemed fine until an honest realization surfaced: I wasn’t actually paying attention to people. I was just doing things for them. My acts of service were a mask for who I am (or who I’m not). I was helping because I didn’t think I was a good enough hero, not necessarily because I truly cared for the person across from me. Helping was just a way to feel good.

[Yeah. I said it.]

Heroism is honorable, but it has its downsides. Thankfully, I’m not a hero. I’m just an ordinary guy and, sometimes I’m the one who needs to be saved.

I think that makes me human. And the more human I am, the more I can honestly relate to who you are and the better the person I can be to and with you.

Sometimes we do need heroes. But, mostly, we just need humans.

Being a Station Wagon

02/04/2015

When I was in middle school gym class, my teacher would make us run the mile. He would divide us into models of various cars. The fastest students would be Ferraris. Then there were the Mustangs. Then VW Bugs. Eventually, he arrived to the Station Wagons. Since I was quite the plump Middle Eastern boy, I was in that group.

As I ran, it was my goal to catch up to the next group, but I never could. Why were fast kids at the front of the line anyway? And why did they get a head start? Shouldn’t Station Wagons leave first so we could all finish together like one big happy car family?

(Sorry…I’m still bitter.)

I ran as hard as my flabby legs could handle, but I always finished last.

When I got to the finish line, however, I realized something interesting: most of the kids who were ahead of me were just as tired as me. They had run their hardest and they were spent – sweating, panting, kneeled over. Sure, they were faster, but we were now at the same place…the finish line!  

Some races should be raced with speed, but life isn’t that type of race. It’s long. Really long. It may need urgency, but urgency is not synonymous with speed. At the finish line, everyone will have run the best they knew how.

So, it’s ok if you see people seemingly ‘ahead’ of you. You’ll catch up to them eventually – whatever that means.

Just don’t stop running.

Sincerely,
The Station Wagon

_____
PS: We just opened nominations for Experience Institute’s 2016 Class starting this Fall. If you know someone who should join the program, nominate them here: www.expinstitute.com/nominate. It’s going to be a special year.

Thanks for your help.

Be there

01/28/2015

Sometimes, you need to be the one to make reservations. You’ll meet after a busy day and walk to the restaurant, recalling major events of the past few weeks and sharing a few laughs; but, you know there is more beneath the surface.

You’ll sit down and look at the menu and realize the food is slightly more expensive than expected. You’ll suggest to split and they’ll offer to order an extra side.

Then, you’ll need to listen. You’ll hear about the challenges of work, school, home, love, distant dreams, lingering sadness, and the challenge of managing everything at once.

But, you won’t just listen. You can’t. You’ll need to be vulnerable too – sharing your recent joys, failures and ambitions.

The waiter will interrupt at awkward times.

The food will become nothing more than a prop.

The bill will come too soon.

You’ll schedule the next chat before you leave.

You’ll hug.

And, as you walk away, you’ll realize there was nothing more important than being there, for those moments, and with those people.

Making Sense of Chaos

01/21/2015

On the surface, it may seem like there is order in the universe. The days consist of twenty four hours. The sun creates light. The night gives stars and moon a chance to shine. Animals live in the wild while humans live in cities and villages. The earth spins. The planets rotate. The seasons change. Life starts and ends each day.

But if we look more closely, we see a remarkable number of things that cannot be explained: love and anger, hope and fear, dreams and uncertainty, youth and death, kindness and malice. At closer look, the universe is utter chaos – simultaneously orderly and unpredictable. It leaves us clawing to know anything and hiding what we wish we could explain.

Amidst the chaos, there is one powerful thing that offers a dose of clarity…beauty.

Beauty has the profound ability to focus even the most distorted lens, just for a moment.

A painting, a song, a home, a piece of furniture, a speech, a view of nature.

When we see or hear beauty, we experience something that has been made. It is the wonderful collision of intention, passion, and craft.

It allows a ray of light to pierce the blur of our fast-paced lives – illuminating a path that has been traveled in order to make sense of this world. When we find it, we are inspired. We are moved.

Because when we see beauty, we catch a glimpse of who we are and what we are capable of.

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