Last year, I wrote a letter to my little brother. Experience Institute was about to pilot a brand new 3-month program for college students and Johnny applied to join the very first class.
Our team was thrilled. The program would have been perfect for him. He was a pre-med student heading into his senior year. He was unsure about what he wanted to do after college. And he was hungry to learn about how his skills fit into other industries.
But then our dad was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and Johnny couldn’t spend the summer away from home. And in December, our family helped dad pass from this life to the next.
Since then, we have spent a lot of time together as a family to find our footing — meals, theaters, museums, discussions about our future. In particular, our older brother, George, and I have shared countless conversations about what Johnny could do after college.
Last spring, he told us about a company he’d been curious about for years. His friend’s father was the owner. The company specializes in creating people-centric solutions to other companies’ biggest challenges. But Johnny was getting his degree in biology and chemistry. What could he possibly offer? Working with them seemed like a long shot.
As spring approached, we brainstormed if and how he could pitch the small team for an internship right after he graduated college in May. He decided to give it a go.
For the next several weeks, Johnny and I chatted about the details of his proposals and interviews. I was so proud of the way he was navigating the ups and downs of the process. We discussed helpful digital tools for him to learn and I introduced him to a few thought leaders in the areas of Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Storytelling.
Finally, at the beginning of May, Johnny received a note inviting him to join the team as an Engagement Coordinator Intern for the summer. He was so excited.
Now, Johnny is in the middle of his internship. We’ve been sharing calls and emails regularly. He’s even taking Ei’s online course in Design Thinking and we’re treating him as part of our program.
All of this has felt like an amazing second chance for us to team up after last summer. And seeing him fly has made our team even more impassioned to support college students and recent grads in gaining meaningful experience that helps them reach their full potential.
Of course, we’re still learning how to grow as a team and company. But every story matters… Kali Lewis. Paul Girgis. Stephanie Kang. Joe Burgum. Christopher Carter. Carisa Leal. Dane Johnson. Muffadal Saylawala. William Ferguson. Batmanli. Alifya. Anna. Johnny…. The list goes on…
Whatever you’re working on today, there’s a good chance you have a sincere desire to improve peoples’ lives — people with real challenges facing how they see the world, make a living, and do their very best work. Just remember that impact starts with one person, and then moves to the next. And that very story is a glimpse.
PS: In the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing our community together for a few helpful events around learning and growth. Our next is called Build to Think and will be held at WeWork on August 2nd. Snag your tickets here.
Two weeks ago, I sent a short survey called Gut Check. Over 250 of you replied.
Why? Because this summer, we’ve been taking time to make sure we’re building things that are truly able to improve people’s lives through education. Your feedback goes a long way in making sure we’re on the right track.
One thing that caught our attention…
Even though “not having enough time” was the most common barrier to learning, it was the time-intensive learning models that you mentioned as your favorite way to learn (ie: in-person and apprenticeships/group projects).
It confirms what we’ve been seeing and hearing in different ways this year — that learning together, even when the learning is self-directed, is crucial. Support and accountability is more valuable than speed.
For those of you who love digging into numbers as much as we do, here is a closer look at the other things we read and lessons we learned:
What stage of life are you in?
92% of participants were career professionals (whoa!). The majority were either early or mid-career. And 49% identify as working at an established company.
I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised here. We sent the survey via email — during the middle of a summer day — which isn’t exactly the best way to reach high school and college students. Still, it was a helpful reminder that a lot of you have either just begun your jobs or are graduating to a new level in your careers.
Also, only 10% identify as being a student but nearly 20% feel like they’re in a place of transition.
What are you most interested in learning?
The three most common areas people wanted to learn more about were:
Business (Finance, Data, Sales, Launching & Leading a company, Change Management)
Software Dev (Coding, UI/UX, Unity)
Personal Growth (Peace, Wholeness, Time Management, Travel, Language)
Other interesting fields included Cybersecurity, Film, Writing, Community Health.
Time was the #1 biggest hurdle for ongoing learning.
Again, no surprise. People are busy. Especially people around Ei. They’re bold, working on big initiatives, and working to serve a lot of people. So time is tight.
What was surprising, however, was how many people noted the need for a community or accountability. Which tied into the next question:
Which method do you most enjoy for learning?
Nearly half of participants’ favorite way to learn was in-person — which is presumably the most time-consuming way to learn…but the most transformative.
Also, nearly a third of you mentioned apprenticeship/shadowing or guided individual projects and that the role of an expert/mentor is important.
I care most about the future of…?
37% Learning in the workplace 26% Future of Higher Education
Even though the majority of the participants are in a relatively traditional workplace, there’s a surprisingly strong interest in the future of formal higher education. Most of you have been down that road, and you want to see it change.
Where do we go from here?
Here are a few threads we plan to follow…
Programs for career professionals: Many of you know that your future is only as bright as the light you shine on it. And that light is learning. So, we’ll continue improving our 60-day program for career professionals. We’re also curious about ways to bring you together for shorter “pop-up” classes for you to meet one another and learn something helpful and meaningful, together.
Working with college students and universities: Life during and after college without real-world experience is a sort of the Wild, Wild West. Meaningful experiences are what give students the confidence and the ability to launch into their next step. So we want to continue infusing college with more opportunities for student-guided experiences outside of the classroom. Currently, that’s a work/study program during college. But we’re curious about other “bridge” opportunities right after college graduation. More on that soon…
Thanks again for being part of Ei. We love this work and hope to continue serving up helpful programs and tools for you and your community in the coming months.
Hey, I’m working on a couple of new projects for Experience Institute and they’re taking a lot of energy and thought. Before I continue, I need some help to make sure I’m on the right track. Think of this as a sort of gut check.
You can remain entirely anonymous if you’d like. Your response will be a simple way to hear more about you and your current stage of work & life.
Also, after completing the form will get a code for 15% off any item from our store and your name will be entered in a drawing for a Learning Box – a one-of-a-kind package with books and treats handpicked by the team at Ei.
A few months ago, a friend asked if Experience Institute had any open spots for an intern. Typically, we don’t work with interns because we reserve those spots for our own Fellows. And with a small team, we only have so much focus and attention.
But this summer, all of the current Ei Fellows were heading to other places. So we agreed. And On Monday our new intern, David, officially started his 6-week stint with us.
David just finished his junior year in high school, so we thought things might be slightly different working with him rather than the college or post-grad students we normally work with.
I know it’s only Wednesday, but we were wrong. David is sharp, driven, and a quick study for anything we’ve thrown at him thus far.
Still, I’ve been reminded that having another person working within our walls is something not to be taken lightly — for our sake and for David’s. So, here are eight lessons from past experience that our team and I hope to remember this summer:
Start well: Celebrate their arrival and make sure to go over any office rhythms, systems, tools, and traditions. We recently had lunch with David and invited him into our weekly Monday Morning Stand to kick off his time with us.
Set clear goals: Take some time to share one another’s goals for the internship. David was open to doing anything, but he really wanted a to chance to own a project or two – and specifically projects that could have clear metrics. So we’ve set up a project for him to re-think how we market and fulfill Ei’s physical products. There are other things that we can’t quite share, but each project has clear weekly goals and can be done within the timeline that he’s here.
In short, give them a clear and unambiguous explanation of what you want them to do.
Provide ample resources: Once you have clear goals, make sure they have the resources to complete them. That may entail technology, software, space, a team, etc.
Set the space: Speaking of space, set a space where they can interact with others. Even if they’re working remotely, consider where they can go (digital & physical) to engage, connect, and banter about their work. Part of David’s compensation this summer is to give him a desk at our WeWork office and it’s been great to have him around so far.
Define consistent checkpoints with a teammate: Here’s the hard part: hold them to what you both agreed upon. This is hard because schedules and goals change throughout a project. So, make sure there’s a clear point person and a clear time to check in weekly. Though I’m working with David, I’m actually not his direct report. One of our other teammates, Katie, has taken that role because she’ll be closer to David’s work.
Give autonomy: Once you give them clear goals, resources, and checkpoints, let them run. Even if they’re not doing it exactly how you would do it, let them finish before you critique/adjust the work.
Ask for feedback: It’s not going to be perfect. Set a time about mid-way through to check in on how things are going. Give them space to talk about what’s working well, and also what’s been disappointing. Having an honest conversation can be tough, but also an opportunity for really rich learning, and talking things through at the midway point gives you time to enjoy the fruits of that learning.
Be generous with encouragement: A lot is about to happen in a short amount of time. Celebrate the progress on the projects AND the person. Kind words, high fives, notes, and quality time go a long way.
I know most people, deep down, want at least some comfort, stability, and certainty.
Sometimes, I want want those things too.
But I’m often reminded that hardly anyone remembers the comfortable stories. The ones that stay with us are ones that entail overcomingstruggle.
Here’s a glimpse…
Michelle graduated High School right on time.
She went to college and did well in school.
After receiving her degree in business, she found a good job at a local consulting firm.
She got married.
And settled down in her hometown.
That’s a nice story. But it’s missing…something.
Michelle came from a well-educated family.
The one thing her parents wanted for her was to get an ivy league education.
Her mom even purchased a Harvard sweatshirt as a Christmas gift during Michelle’s Sophomore year of High School.
But Michelle wasn’t sure what she wanted to get out of college. So after she finished high school, she took money she’d been saving and spent a year traveling and volunteering. She even found a short-term role with a small tech company.
She became wildly curious about technology and had an interest in helping infuse technology with a greater understanding of things like heart, soul, and passion. She enrolled in college to study Computer Science.
While in school she fell in love, but her partner graduated first and moved home to help with the family business. Eventually, their relationship fell apart.
She finished school and worked to launch her own business right out of college. Her college even helped her incubate her idea. But after two years, she realized she’d rather have the experience of growing within a company rather than continuing her own pursuits, so she put her project on hold. Thankfully, while working on her business, she met a few influential individuals who helped her find a job in her field of study.
Her parents are proud of the woman Michelle is becoming. And though she’s still finding her way, she knows herself better than ever.
Did you feel the difference?
Coming of age
You don’t need to manufacture struggle. You don’t even need to seek it out. The more true and honest, the better…the ones that surface when you are driven by conviction to make a change or when you face an unforeseen situation with courage.
So if you’re struggling to create, build, or just survive – know that this is part of the story. Move through the struggle boldly and share the ups and downs openly.
Over the past few years, around my birthday, I’ve set a tradition of reflecting on the previous year and writing helpful lessons from life/work.
This year, just before I made another lap around the sun, I added a new constraint by setting a timer and not editing or touching the content once the timer finished.
So here are thirty-one lessons written in thirty-one minutes from my last hours of being thirty-one:
31) Friends are more important than money.
30) Money is just a resource. It is renewable.
29) Time is not renewable.
28) If something temporal is stressing you out, cut it. Life is too short.
27) You can skimp on space only for so long. Make your home and office as comfortable and inspiring as possible.
26) Inspiration is like food. You need it to be full. Consume it in all its forms. And often.
25) A few nice things are more valuable than a lot of not-so-well-made things.
24) No one cares about you and your work as much as you do. This is liberating.
23) People do care about how much care you show. Listen. Respond. And show up.
22) Life is going to take shots at you. From all angles. Keep a thick skin and a soft heart.
21) The way to keep your skin thick is to only have a few close friends who know all aspects of your life. Just a few.
20) The way you keep a soft heart is by spending time with a lot of different people and placing yourself in their shoes as you listen to and work with them.
19) Try to make important functions of life automatic. Auto-withdraw money into your savings accounts. Go to sleep at the same time every night. Wear as simple of clothing as possible – consistently. Routines make space for the important things.
18) Spend a lot of time with your family. Especially your parents. They won’t be around forever.
17) Buy the nicer versions of the things between you and the ground (ie: shoes, mattresses, and tires).
16) Don’t be afraid of saying, “I don’t know.” But try to follow it with a helpful question or a possible solution.
15) Even if you don’t think you’re a writer, write. Getting things on paper is how you learn how to decipher between the shitty thoughts and the truth.
14) If you think something won’t work, test it in the quickest way possible. If it’s not working, don’t force it. Let it go. If it’s still on your mind months later, revisit it. Time away from things creates fresh perspective.
13) Take at least one day a week away from screens. If you don’t know why, you should probably take several days away from a screen. Because chances are, you’re losing touch with what matters.
12) Find one or two things you enjoy doing that has nothing to do with productivity. Get lost in them.
11) The world is messy and kinda scary. But you don’t have to be that way. You can control the way you engage it.
10) Move forward despite your fears and you’ll inspire others to do the same.
9) The best form of revenge is to continue.
8) The best way to honor those who’ve gone before you, is to continue with integrity.
7) You can’t do everything well. Ask for help. The sooner you ask, the less desperate you’ll be and the more others can truly be there for you.
6) When you travel, use packing cubes. They make traveling a cinch.
5) Plants are the best roommates.
4) Just because a leader is loud and brash does not mean they are good and right. Learn to lead with soul and conviction. You’ll know you’re doing this well when those whom you lead begin to hold you to your word and even add their own soul and conviction.
3) Keep good friends close for a long time. They get better with age.
2) There is no perfect formula for dealing with loss. But nature is part of every version of that formula.
1) If you’re unsure of what to write, set a timer and a theme. Then write until that timer goes off.
No matter how hard you try, nothing will be perfect.
I know that may sound pessimistic; but the truth is, most things will go differently than you expected.
The new thing you purchased will eventually break, get damaged, or become obsolete.
The idea you have will take more work than you envisioned and yield different results than you anticipated.
The thing you’re building won’t be as smooth or as polished as you had hoped.
Someone you greatly admired will make a mistake.
No amount of money or resources can change these scenarios.
But here’s the thing: It’s ok.
Perfection is an endless pursuit that leads to heartache, fatigue, and disappointment. If you’re feeling frustrated, redirect your energy from perfection to excellence.
Excellence is the act of practice multiplied by consistency and reflection.
It’s striving to do your best each day and in each moment – paying attention to the times when things went wrong and adjusting to make them better.
It’s hard to remember this in the moment. We are inundated with short snippets of lives that seem perfect. So we build grand ideas of the perfect partner, the perfect home, the right amount of well-curated possessions, the overnight-business success, and just enough unique experiences to seem cultured and adventurous.
Those pursuits of perfection may seem great on the surface, but they won’t leave you satisfied.
Find simple healthy rhythms and keep to them.
Push through the challenges by pausing to look back.
Lean on your community for advice and support.
Redirect as needed.
You’ll get to the end more healthy than when you began.
You won’t be perfect.
No one needs you to be.
But you can be excellent.
PS: Thanks for all of the support last week. We made it to the very last round, but didn’t receive the grant (quick story here). Thanks for your responses and support!
Ten days ago, I submitted a video and a few essay answers for a grant opportunity for Experience Institute’s work with college students.
A few days later, I found out we were a finalist for the mid-tier level, roughly $180,000. The final step is to pitch in front of a group of judges and a live audience.
After a crazy week of preparation on top of an already full schedule, I’m now on a flight to Detroit.
I land at 11:20am EST and pitch at 12:25pm EST.
So today, there’s a new mounting pressure that I haven’t felt in a while. I believe, to my bones, that higher education ought to be infused with more real-world experience, and those opportunities should be accessible to students of all backgrounds and demographics. And my team and I have spent years trying different things to support a wider array of individuals. I believe our most recent concepts are the most viable and these resources could help move that work forward.
But will it happen?
Will this be another “almost?”
What story will I write after this experience?
In any case, there’s a mission to pursue. A company to build. A team to support. And students, families, and universities who need this work. That’s what matters.
So whatever happens, I’ll be back next Wednesday.
And I hope you will too.
PS: If you’re in Chicago this Thursday and want to watch the finals at our workspace, WeWork Kinzie, RSVP here.
The first story I vividly remember hearing was, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.
I don’t remember how old I was when I heard it. Maybe seven. But I absolutely remember the teacher who read it to me.
She was tall. Thin. Long, flowing brown hair taken straight from a Pantene Pro V commercial.
I remember thinking she was the prettiest woman I’d ever met. I even told her that once.
One day during class…
My teacher asked us to gather on the floor around her chair. Then she showed us the cover of the book and read the title in a gentle voice that now reminds me of Sarah Koenig from Serial & S-Town.
But then something incredible happened. That sweet, calm, endearing elementary school teacher slowly transformed into a one-person theatrical spectacle. As she began reading the story aloud, her voice would rise and soften. And her face would scrunch and stretch.
As the main character, Max, sailed away, she was part of that journey. All of us were.
When Max made mischief, she made mischief.
When the wild things romped. She romped.
When he felt alone. All of us felt alone.
And when the story ended with a warm meal, everyone in the room was relieved.
It wasn’t just the magic of a good story…it was was the wonder of storytelling.
Ever since, I’ve fallen in love with stories — how they’re constructed, written, and shared. And over the years, I’ve become friends and teammates with some of the best storytellers I know. In fact, it’s part of Experience Institute’s curriculum for both our college and corporate programs, which means I get to help other people write and tell compelling stories. Our team has formulas and processes that we’ve shared with literally thousands of people. It’s been a dream.
Recently, I was asked to perform a story at a small private event.
I had one month to write and prepare. But to my surprise, I was stuck. Completely and totally stuck.
Eventually, I decided to break most of my own rules and try something out of the ordinary.
The story recently went live on the podcast that hosted the event. You can listen to the short 5-minute piece here or read the script below.
In any case, it was a good reminder, that stories don’t happen, they are told. And it’s up to us to tell them well.
I hate email.
I try to read and reply as quickly as I can. And I don’t normally reply to emails on Friday nights. Because Friday nights are for friends, not email.
But, on this one Friday night in March, I was working late. It had been a tough week. One of those weeks where nothing seemed to go right.
So for this Friday, I was home. Alone. And occasionally doing my routine phone check.
Then, I see an email from Tanner Woodford. I think the world of Tanner. I look up to him as a person and respect his work greatly. And his email photo is so cool. Seriously. He looks like one those legendary designers who’s been dead for …like…50 years. How can you NOT want to check his email. I’m being emailed by a cool design legend who seems dead but is really alive.
OK, the email….
Hey there! Chicago Design Museum opens its next exhibition on April 28th: Dan Friedman: Radical Modernist.|Leading up, I’m planning a series of events and a small installation at the SOHO House the weekend before it opens. More specifically, on Friday, April 21st at 6:00p, we’re bringing in the Nerdologues for a live storytelling show-turned-podcast. Your Stories will be recorded in front of a small audience in the theater, and features 10 five-minute stories. The theme is “Be Radical.” I can’t imagine the event without you.
Could you let me know by Tuesday if you’re interested in participating?
Thanks so much, and enjoy the weekend!
I re-read the email. Clicked on the links he shared. And realized, this could be cool. So I replied quickly,
Yep! I’m in! I’ll block out the evening of the 21st. Keep me posted on details.
I didn’t realize my mistake until a few days later.
Shit! I have to write a story. A good story. For interesting people. And it’s going to be recorded.
I felt like I’d said yes to going to homecoming with a girl I barely knew and my older brother was chaperoning.
But I couldn’t back out. Because it was for Tanner. Tanner Woodford. I gotta do this.
Now you should know, I write a lot. I love writing.
Writing is to me like running, or yoga, or posting insta-selfies with too much makeup is to the next person. I write nearly every night of the week and I try to publish something every Wednesday morning. It’s my thing.
So I should be good, right?
But every once in awhile, a project turns into that piece of apple skin lodged in the back of your teeth. You keep trying to use your tongue to wiggle it loose, but you really need floss….but you don’t have floss…so you just keep contorting your tongue in weird ways hoping that shitty piece of apple skin will magically be gone and you’ll feel that great victory of not having to go to the store to buy floss.
That’s what this writing project had become.
My first thought was: I have lots of stories to share. I’ve lived this spectacular life where I’ve traveled the world and started a school and worked with big institutions and companies.
But writing about my work felt too…predictable.
So, I sat at my desk and wrote other stories…things like…
Being licked by a lion
Getting stuck in Cairo with 20 teenagers
working as a valet parker and having a stranger offer me $100/hr to smell my feet,
I wrote some of those stories. But, they didn’t quite fit with the theme.
So, I wrote the story of my dad being diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, 1 year ago, almost to the day. I wrote about getting the call while having dinner not too far from this spot. I wrote about my mother being handed a stack of papers and a crate of pills and a calendar full of appointments…and handling all of it with such amazing strength… I wrote about my older brothers’ wisdom, and how he’d never hugged me so hard like he did on the day of the funeral, and my younger brother’s hospitality and tenderness with everyone who he visited with. I wrote about how sweet my dad had become during the first few months following the diagnosis. And then how sad and even angry he’d become in his final days. And…I tried to add humorous moments so it wouldn’t be so heavy for you to hear.
But when I was finished, I couldn’t read the story… I just couldn’t.
And… for some reason, writing about cancer for this event seemed like “cheating.” Don’t ask me why. It just did.
I had to move on. … But now the event was only a few days away.
Then, another email. This time, from Eric….the organizer. He introduces himself, shares some house rules about the event, and then…the order of speakers:
1. Nerdologues member 2. Andrew Huff 3. Victor Saad 4. Christen Carter 5. Lloyd King BREAK 6. Alex Cox 7. Sam Rosen 8. Roman Titus 9. Joey Stevenson 10. Constance Volk
Shit, I think. I know a lot of those people. I think all nine of them also had cool email photos. I’m doomed.
I made one last ditch effort:
I went on long bike rides and listened to the Moth stories and past nerdologue episodes.
I tried writing from beautiful places.
I reorganized my bookshelf.
I strategized with friends.
At this point, Tanner is sitting on my shoulder talking to me — (really it’s just his photo…with a moving mouth), telling me this has to be extra funny, cool, inspiring…all without coming across as not trying too hard.
But I realize, I don’t have it in me. That piece of apple skin is still lodged back there somewhere.
So, here I am. Standing in a room full of people I really respect.
At a storytelling event.
And no story to share…
There are a lot of things in life we should be skeptical of.
Too much of a thing.
Things with no consequences.
Shortcuts to things.
Things where the reward is far greater than the cost or effort…
And I agree. You should be skeptical of those things. They are likely too good to be true.
But really good things, the things that are good to their very core, are so pure…they are nothing but absolutely true.
A mother who selflessly cares for her sons, even when she’s dealing with the loss of her husband.
An old couple reaching for one another’s hands on an evening walk.
Seeing a man return to his family in the airport after a tour of duty.
A community of strangers sharing a common bond and rallying for just and equal rights.
Spotting a young couple lingering outside of an apartment building, and finally sharing a parting kiss.
An embrace between people who come from different backgrounds and belief systems.
Catching the sun as it pours its rays through tree branches on an evening hike.
The list is longer than you think. It includes moments when the wrong in the world is eclipsed by the goodness before you. They are the things that spark hope and inspire you to be better.
Those are the things we need more of.
And they are the ones you and I can make. Anytime.