Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bees and Sunny Peaks

My friend  Sister J came over yesterday to elicit my help in a project she was working on. She is the director of The Honeybee Project, a children's educational endeavor devoted to the integral role the honey bee plays in our lives.

Sister J is passionate about the honey bee, and gets how this insect is connected to many aspects of our lives. We rely on it for sustenance, for the propagation of plant life, for its societal intelligence. Knowing the honey bee more intimately may impact our own survival. Sister J sees the lessons of the honeybee as a valuable tool that children can not only learn from, but can contribute to. She truly believes that given the right venue, interaction with the honey bee can help kids find their own connection to this vast world and choose their part in making it a better place. All that from a tiny little honey bee!

Sister J described her dream for this experiential learning model, and it was so vast and expansive that it scared the bejeebers out of me! How could I possibly help her with a goal of this magnitude? I'm a mere mortal graphic designer – the online interactive aspect of her vision alone required information technology, child psychology, Flash and database programming, art direction, creative direction – all of which would require a massive amount of resources.

As Sister J darted around the topic, describing feature after feature, my mind made the assumption that she wanted to heap all the project's responsibilities on my shoulders - somehow, I had mistakenly inferred all this from her simple, open-ended request for help. The mind can be a quirky beast sometimes! The project started to feel weighty and oppressive, and I went into overwhelm mode. I felt incapable of helping with a project of this scale, and I sought an escape hatch.

I immediately began doing what I do best: criticizing. As Sister J drew from inspiration, I fed on desperation. My mind began dissecting the project, happily revealing all the flaws and pitfalls:

An online site for kids? There will be child predators! Video content? Adobe and Apple are at war and there is no one video format that is truly universal. Honey bees? What about Colony Collapse Disorder? Aren't their days numbered? And if that is so, humankind's days are numbered, too! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

As I rattled off my laundry list of perils, Sister J stopped me, saying something like "Let's forget about all that for the time being and let's just move on to the actual project." In essence, she was saying, "That's a lot of negative stuff. Let's look at the positives for awhile. Let's dream instead of panic. Let's explore sunny peaks instead of dark caves!"

We started to explore. We moved to the computer, and Sister J showed me The Honeybee Project website, and talked about how she wanted to take it to the next level. She spoke of the kind of visuals that would attract children to the project. She knew it had to include motion. I Googled up some innovative Flash-based websites to see what we can find.

"That's the kind of thing I want!" she exclaimed. We combed through some of the most innovative Flash websites, and had found the site for the "Got Milk?" campaign, which was full of whimsical displays and interactive games. "That's it! That's what I want!" she reiterated.

My mind returned to the cave. The scope of her vision would require the most inventive ad agency, an entertainment company the likes of Dreamworks - we're talking high-level stuff! Pie in the sky! Not even remotely possible!

I thought that mentioning the potential cost would bring Sister J back down to earth. "You know that something at this level of sophistication and scale will cost in the realm of tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands", I said.

Sister J didn't bat an eye. "Oh, of course - I was expecting hundreds of thousands", she replied. That startled me. What I saw as a roadblock, she saw as an easily surmountable hurdle. Sister J's positive passion was infectious.

Then something shifted for me. Instead of making another bee-line to the cave of "can't-do", I allowed myself to simply be open to the possibilities.

I realized that Sister J wasn't asking me to take on the entire project; she was merely asking me to go exploring with her for awhile. All I had to do is to leave the dark caves behind and spend a little time checking out some sunny peaks with her. We drifted around the internet together, and I remembered an organization I admired whose mission was to bring grand ideas to fruition: TED.

TED's motto is "Ideas Worth Spreading". They host a huge annual conference which attracts the best and brightest speakers from across the globe: thinkers, artists, scientists, athletes, dreamers, you name it. The TED organization also awards grants for people who want to change the world with their ideas.

I showed Sister J the TED website and we watched a few videos of the lectures that TED hosts. As it turns out, her project had already generated some serious interest from an innovative design firm called Ideo. We found a TED lecture given by Ideo's founder. The connections were starting to fuse together.

Suddenly, it was Sister J's turn to visit the realm of doubt. "Does this mean that I have to give a presentation in front of a big audience to get the funding for my project?" she gasped. "Public speaking is the last thing I want to do!"

In an unexpected role reversal, I became the encouraging visionary. I could picture Sister J on that stage, pitching the wonders of the honey bee. I knew if she could demonstrate the same passion she showed me, she would be unstoppable. I gently asked, "You love the honey bee, don'tcha? You would swallow your fear and do it for the bee, wouldn'tcha?" Sister J's eyes welled up with tears. She told me that she would definitely do what it takes to make the honey bee project happen, and thanked me for introducing her to the TED organization.

Turning back toward the realm of possibilities, Sister J said, "I just have to remember that everything is doable." Another huge roadblock had been transformed into a little hurdle.

After Sister J left, I recalled a few other times in my life when I found myself at a critical crossroads, mired in doubt and negativity. On both occasions, Jennifer, (a friend I've known since high school), was with me. Both times, Jennifer saw that I was at a crucial turning point. And both times, Jen pointed me in a different direction, saying, "Look over there! Look at the possibilities over there!" In essence, she was saying the same thing that Sister J told me: "Stop rooting around in that dark cave and check out that sunny peak over there!"

To this day, Jennifer doesn't think she did all that much for me, but I'm convinced she saved my life by coaxing me out of the cave and prodding me to explore some of the passions that have made my life worth living. (Had it not been for Jennifer, I may have never flown a hang glider nor played a fiddle.) I realized that I had helped out Sister J after all. Maybe, I had even pointed her in the direction she needed to go next?

Most of my life, I've been a dark cave explorer. A few years ago when I co-hosted a radio show, my broadcasts often focused on the pitfalls of our society. I was good at revealing connections between problems, crimes, corruption and malfeasance. On my Facebook page, I still post frequent links to news articles that suggest the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Finding problems is easy – but it's getting tedious.

If I'm going to survive the crossroads where I find myself today, I need to make the shift from exploring the dark caves to exploring the sunny peaks. I need to stop dwelling on problems and start searching for solutions. I want to be inspired, fueled and driven by positive ideas, hopes and dreams - and have fun along every step of the way!

Sometimes, it seems like a big shift to make. But if I could shift my thinking so quickly during an afternoon's visit with Sister J, maybe it won't be that difficult to learn how to embrace vision and positive thinking, and explore the sunny peaks on a permanent basis?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I'm Poor, Hear Me Roar

I created this blog so that I could share some of my experiences as I adjust to the financial changes in my life. I hope that by talking openly about the challenges of downsizing, it might help others who are going through or about to go through the same challenges.

I also hope that by writing this blog, I'll help myself: it's cathartic to share my thoughts and feelings in this forum.  I also hope to connect with people going through similar struggles so we don't have to feel so alone in this mess: if we can find each other, we can come together and help each other.

This week offered me an opportunity to tell my story to a wider audience. I learned that the Mountain Xpress, Asheville's local free paper, was looking for people to talk about how the economic downturn has affected them.

It seemed like a natural enough thing for me to do – after all, here I am baring my fiscal soul on Rich Richard's Almanac. But as I considered being interviewed for the Mountain XPress article, I felt some hesitation. Shame was creeping into the pit of my stomach.

It's one thing to share my stories on this blog. It's a relatively new blog that probably hasn't yet been discovered by many people. And, I don't really keep track of the readership, so I couldn't tell you whether this blog is visited by ten or a thousand people. That blissful ignorance makes it easier for me to share my information more openly in this forum.

The Mountain XPress is a different matter. It's a popular local paper, and the article will definitely be seen by most of my friends and colleagues, as well as thousands of people I don't know. How will they react?

Will some folks view my financial downturn as a reflection of the quality of the work I do and avoid doing business with me? Will friends think less of me? Will acquaintances look at me differently when they see me walking down the street? My parents grew up during the Great Depression. To them, falling from financial grace was about the worst social affliction that could happen to a person – a status blemish that should be covered up and kept private at all costs.

Naturally, some of my parents' shame about financial status was passed on to me. The subject of money was so tabboo that we never spoke about it when I was growing up. Consequently, I never learned how to manage my finances until I attended the school of hard knocks. I wish someone had taught me about money, about how to handle having it - and not having it.

If I truly believe in my reasons for founding this blog, then I have no choice but to continue to speak out. Really, the only thing that gets me into trouble is when fear or shame prevents me from speaking my mind. I want to break the chain I inherited from my parents, and not be afraid to talk about money.

The other reason I felt compelled to tell my story is to counteract some of the misleading economic happy talk that the mainstream media has been feeding us lately. The largest news outlets boast that the Dow-Jones has topped 11,000 (as if the stock market's performance has anything to do with the financial state of the average American), and that unemployment is waning. However, the larger media outlets are conspicuously quiet when Elizabeth Warren reports that there's no end in sight to the foreclosure problem. Maybe the stories of recovery sound rosy on the evening news, but I don't trust them yet. In my day-to-day life, I see too many of my friends and neighbors suffering still.

I agreed to be interviewed for the Mountain XPress article.

Understandably, the staff writer I spoke with told me that he was having trouble finding people who are willing to talk about their financial struggles on the record. I hope that by speaking out myself, others might feel more comfortable doing the same. If you live in the Asheville area and you want to speak to the Mountain XPress about how the downturn has affected you, email me and I'll put you in touch with the staff writer who is working on the article.

There's no shame in losing out to the corrupt bankers and financial manipulators who are causing so much suffering in our country today. Unless you are the laziest, least motivated bum on the planet, it's probably not your fault. Millions are losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their nest eggs, losing their pensions — not because they refuse to be self-sufficient, but because their jobs were moved overseas, because they suffered a major medical illness, because their mutual fund was destroyed by the infusion of worthless credit default swaps. Every one of these people would jump at the chance to restore their status as financially-stable, valuable, hard-working members of society.

I have never been afraid to dedicate long work weeks and focused attention to make my own success. I started my business on the West Coast in 1987, and survived the recession of the 1990s, earthquakes and even riots (during the Rodney King riots, it was too dangerous for me to go to my office). Throughout those calamities, I found ways to adapt. And I'm adapting now – though this time around, the downturn has demanded bigger changes than I've ever had to make before.

I know there are many others out there just like me: willing to make the tough changes necessary to adapt to the changing economy, wanting to make the right changes, wondering what those changes should be, others willing to stumble and fall, pick themselves up, and try again.

Our recovery and salvation may depend on people willing to speak the truth about their financial troubles. People who are struggling need to know they are not alone. They need to hear from other people like them who are simply trying to find their way, who are willing to help by sharing their struggles was well as their successes.