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Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Intrinsic Motivators

I was parsing through some old writing last night, and I found something I had scribbled on a napkin (cliche but yes, I’m that girl) three years ago, when I was living and working in Seattle:

“Walking to work today, for the first time in months I experienced a breath of the Seattle I moved to last March. Maybe it was the time of day, the movement of noon after a morning of working from home and drinking tea. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was stumbling through three parks that I never knew existed. Whatever it was, a wave of the initial March energy washed over me and my heart hurt, my like I was listening to a beautiful song, like I was singing and playing the guitar with Marius, like it did when I left Portland, and I felt hope. That’s a good sign, I think.

“Days like today make me want to drink too much coffee, to push all those feelings to the point of tipping and explore how it’s possible for happiness and sadness to feel so tangled up in each other sometimes. I think it relates to nostalgia, somehow.

“Work swallows that intensity as soon as I walk in the door, though. The eight hours a day that I’m in the office smooths everything into a professional state of numbness, the gravity pulling and draining my energy long after I’m home. I don’t know how to fit this unwieldy pit of time into the rest of my life. It doesn’t integrate seamlessly; it just drops, plodding, into the very center. The shards of what’s left – giddy songwriting between $1 PBRs, scooter rides on sunny days, shamelessly hip dance parties – vie for attention and finally fade away. Meanwhile, the only thing left to do is resent the mysterious force that leveled the frenetic energy and the moments of peace and reflection between, plowing creativity and leaving an orderly office building in its wake.”

This scratchy little piece of writing means something to me for two reasons. First, it reminds me how much I used to love all the little things when I lived in Seattle. I’ll always reference my time in Seattle as the best two years of my life, and there’s a huge part of me that wants to chalk it up to the place itself, to the salty fresh air, and move back. But it’s not that simple, and that last paragraph is the second reason this piece is meaningful to me: I used to have a really hard time reconciling work and life. And I still do sometimes. When things are the worst, I try to examine them the most mindfully, because that’s when I learn the most about what motivates me and how I think I’ll be able to motivate other people in the future. Here’s what I’m learning: it’s really natural for people to turn to a dichotomy of “work vs life” unless you help them smooth over the line. That doesn’t mean longer hours, though. I think for me, it comes down to what Dan Pink calls intrinsic motivators: feeling a sense of internal worth, purpose, and autonomy. Extrinsic motivators – carrots and sticks, bonuses or punishment – don’t work so well on me, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn I’m with the majority on that one. That whole TED Talk is wonderful, by the way.

When I started to think about intrinsic motivators and the Great Exchange, I wanted to let myself off the hook, because my immediate assumption was that all nonprofits have an intrinsic motivator built in (helping people). But I think that might actually be another extrinsic motivator in disguise.  What actually motivates me, intrinsically, is to have the freedom to work exactly how my complicated, beautiful little brain wants to work. I like working intelligently. I like working efficiently. I like working creatively and happily. I don’t like wasting time in meetings or putting in long hours to try proving my worth. And if this all sounds totally obvious, then look at the average American workplace.

It’s fascinating to read about the brain and discover how many workplace rules and systems go directly against the grain of our neurology. There’s another great TED Talk called Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work that illustrates one of these points really well; he points out that humans are phase-based workers just like they’re phase-based sleepers. So, being interrupted all day at work is pretty much the productive equivalent of having a sleep disorder. I should talk to you sometime about how well sleep disorders work out for people. Allowing people to manage their own time seems like such a simple concept. 

Anyway. When I talk about this stuff, the line is so blurry between workplace management and educational policy that sometimes I can’t tell if I want to run an organization or start a damn school. But I think it’s cool that all of this research can apply to both. I think we’d have much better leaders if we started teaching people, early and often, about the human mind.


My (Authentic) Nonprofit Resolution

I should begin by mentioning that my overall New Year’s resolution is to be more authentic. I’m not even sure if I have a deep enough understanding of what I mean by that to explain it, but I think a lot of it has to do with behaving more like the introvert I am and less like the extrovert I want to be. Maybe it’s as simple as really feeling how exhausted social interactions make me, without passing judgement on the feeling or trying to push through it. Or maybe it’s as complicated as forcing myself to write again – not blog, but write. Blogging has an affected nature to it, because you’re always thinking about what people might want to read, what information would be useful, what’s going to keep people coming back. Writing, which is much more vulnerable and much, much more frightening, is something I probably haven’t done in years.

So bearing that in mind, here’s a resolution related to the Great Exchange that feels authentic to me: Lead like a teacher.

Some of my favorite people in the world are teachers. They’re the ones who noticed my good qualities before I did and unraveled them so subtly and magically that I didn’t even realize they were doing it. I did my work well in school not because I cared about being a good student, but because I wanted to make my teachers happy. To this day, I can sum up the feeling of receiving praise and how good it felt; it’s a content, warm ripple in my mind that moves to my hands and encourages me to keep doing whatever I was doing to warrant that kind of encouragement. And it never, ever had anything to do with turning in work or receiving a grade.

I even started keeping a notebook in high school about things I wanted to do for my students if I became a teacher, often shamelessly ripping off the tactics of some of my own favorites. I had an English teacher, for example, who kept an old, faded, and weirdly comfortable armchair in the corner of the room that he called the “Ugly Red Chair of Reflection.” If a student was having a bad day or even just needed some time to think, he or she could tune out of class for the day, sit in the chair, and write. No questions asked. And the teacher never needed to see what the student was writing. How amazing is that? It’s such an understated but powerful way to tell your students that you’re there to teach and they’re there to learn but you get it; they have a life, and it can get hard sometimes. And sometimes, because students are human beings who exist in a world that’s much bigger than a classroom, they just need some time to untangle their thoughts. To sit with themselves and push through their discomfort without interruption, and grow.

I don’t want to be a teacher anymore but the inclination to understand learning styles, and people in general, is still there. Beautifully enough, all of the qualities that I’ve admired in my teachers can be translated to any leadership role, be it a business owner or a person who’s trying to mobilize a very small nonprofit. I don’t think it’s patronizing at all to consider employees as students, to view office time classroom time, and to hunt down and encourage exceptional qualities the same way a teacher would. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that positive interactions will lead to great work in the same way that mutual respect will lead to a good grade. And I don’t think it would be unreasonable to have an Ugly Red Chair of Reflection in the workplace.

So I’m done reading leadership books and I’ve moved on to teaching manuals. Neurology books. Mindfulness practices. Anything that can more authentically get to the heart of how people operate and how we can create something beautiful together. Great work isn’t the goal; it’s the bi-product. The goal is happiness, which means doing for people what my teachers did for me: really seeing them.


What can special education teach us about nonprofit leadership?

A lot, I would argue. A special education teacher’s job is to assess the individual learning styles and needs of each of her students, and create learning systems in which each person can thrive. IEPs, for example, outline a specific set of action items based on a thorough assessment of a student’s goals and abilities. Or they should, anyway; some programs are better than others. In the business world, IEPs are called “Performance Plans,” except they’re not as individualized and they’re not always mutually beneficial. They’re usually just a series of goals that will improve the company along with a financial reward if and when the goals are met (or sometimes, repercussions if they aren’t). That’s great if your business:

a. Has a lot of money to give, and
b. Works with employees who value the financial reward above other benefits

But because most nonprofit leaders won’t be working in a world where both a and b are true, they need to get a little more creative with their employees. And by “creative,” I mean “totally intuitive if you just focus on getting to know your employee and what s/he wants and needs.” That’s what IEPs are so good for. When I worked for Americorps, we didn’t really get paid a very livable wage, but one thing we did get was the privilege of devoting a certain amount of time every week to personal and professional development. This meant we could work on projects, take classes, volunteer at other organizations, meet with other people in our field, and just generally feel like our lives as well-rounded, multi-faceted people were being respected. For me, this made all the difference; incidentally, it’s also how I came up with the idea for the Great Exchange and started working on it.

If and when I’m lucky enough to hire employees, I’m never going to presume that their entire lives exist at the Great Exchange. It’ll be a lot more fun for all of us if we see each other as people. I really believe that people who work at nonprofits are motivated by being seen. Well, all people who work anywhere are probably motivated by that. I think it’s undervalued by a lot of leaders, though, and that the basic concept of empathy becomes replaced by band-aid solutions and abstract explanations of where the organization is going.

So, you want to be a good leader with happy employees? Here’s what I propose:

Sit in on a special education class. Notice how many unique learning styles there are and how many people react in different ways to different stimuli. Notice how the teacher treats each student as an individual. Notice how the language gets tailored to each kid, notice the use of visual cues and the amount of space each student is given. And then scale back and realize that, in a much more subtle way, your employees are just like this.

One of the reasons I think non-disabled people can learn so much from disabled people is because people who have intellectual or social disabilities are a more extreme, and very illustrative, example of how we all have brains that work differently. And if you look at any great leader, you’ll probably notice that they understand this concept very well. I’m not completely there yet, but I hope to get there when I’m ready to lead.

Looking Forward

After what I’m officially calling a summer hiatus, I figured it was time to bring this blog, and The Great Exchange, back from the dead. I’d rather move things at an embarrassingly slow pace than not move them at all, and it’s oddly comforting that after four months of inactivity this little corner of the internet still gets about 30 unique views a day. Not much, but I’m frankly surprised we’re still seeing any traffic at all, and it shows that people are still interested in the cause.

My original goal for this blog was to keep it hyper-focused on nonprofit and disability-related material, but the fact is, the narrative spills over into my life all the time, given the personal nature of The Great Exchange. So on a personal level, I’ve been diagnosed with my own completely fascinating brain disorder. It’s called a chiari malformation, and the pressure it’s putting on my brainstem is the reason for my central sleep apnea. I also have syringomyelia, but if you ask me about that last one and I’m not around a computer to look up the name, I’m hopeless. And I’m having partial seizures, but they feel like nothing.

Surgery is sort of a “when, not if” thing, but it will be at least a year before the insurance company arbitrarily decides that I’ve paid them long enough for them to tend to my pre-existing condition. Still, I go to bed every night now with my arms wrapped around the comforting promise of a cure, and that feels great. Lack of sleep continues to be the most difficult thing I deal with, but it’s not really an excuse for failing to move forward with The Great Exchange.

So why am I moving forward with it again? Because it seems more important than ever. Because it still affects me far too deeply to go out to brunch with friends and see one man, clearly disabled, eating alone. Because the word “retarded,” even when it’s spoken with no malicious intent, still hits me in a primal and painful place. All of that.

And on an even more personal level, because I derive meaning from helping people, not making money; and until I can start doing that, I’m just going to feel like I’m spinning my wheels. It’s honestly a little depressing not to have anyone to help. I’m not trying to create a false dichotomy here, but it really seems like people are drawn to one thing or the other: financial impact, or social. And I actually don’t value one type of person over the other; but I do think it’s an important part of seeking happiness to determine which type of person you are.

So where does this go from here? Baby steps. The tiniest baby steps. And it’s hard to me to admit that, especially on a public forum, because it feels a lot like riding a bike up a hill in front of a bunch of other bike riders and finally acknowledging that you need to get off the bike and walk. Especially since my nonprofit friends are still reading this, and my writing friends too, and a lot of people who have made it very far – objectively speaking, farther than me – through pitch-perfect focus.

What I can do, this week, is clean up the internal pages of The Great Exchange’s site; and make phone calls and send emails until we have our first team assembled. The team doesn’t have to be big. I’d settle for ten Core Members and a couple of Allies who are particularly tenacious about getting through any nascent first-time confusion. And I think I can have an inaugural meeting within a month. And I think I can write one or two blog posts a week until it happens. And I think all of this is completely doable.

So, happy Fall, and here’s to a slew of meetings that get off the ground and a future that’s brighter than ever!

Singular Focus, or Lack Thereof: An Important Reminder

The more we grow up, the more we realize we can’t do it all, don’t we?

I’ve always known that tailoring every element of my life to taper down into the fundamental goal of The Great Exchange would be my biggest challenge. That’s not wisdom; it’s obvious. It’s life we’re talking about, here, with its natural bumps and curves and variables, and the degree of control we have over any of it is debatable. This is perhaps the paramount thing I admire about successful entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs; they seem to have this effortless ability to examine that line between “life” and “work” and then to erase it as if it were a mandala sand painting, beautiful but transient.

I believe I am closer to starting and founding a successful nonprofit than most because as I grew up, I didn’t have to work hard to erase that line. It just so happened that the work I loved to do–being a voice–coalesced perfectly with the injustices I had watched my sister and her peers encounter. However, there are external elements that exist today that continue to give that line a sense of indelibility, and I’m making a conscious decision not to erase it yet.

There’s a sense of acumen in acknowledging your willingness to be unready. I’ve brushed up against these signs of age (or lack thereof) in the past, and it always feels awkward and paradoxical to admit the wisdom of not moving forward. I’ve been on the “right” track educationally, but I was 21. I’ve been in the “right” relationship, but I was 22. And now, at the age of 26, I’m on the “right” path to start a nonprofit–but I feel undone.

I want a job. A real job–not independent contracting, not sporadic film work, not Americorps, not scraping by while I hold an organization together by its bootstraps. Those are all wonderful, life-shaping endeavors, but I’ve never experienced a professional life outside of them. I want a job like the one I started two days ago, one that leaves me exhausted by the days’ end but also intellectually satisfied, surrounded by companions, and secure. It is inspiring to walk into a beautiful office every day and watch my talented coworkers do what they do. It is inspiring to feel instantaneously rewarded for the goals I complete. It is inspiring to watch the founder and CEO of my company work his ass off around the clock in a way I have never seen anyone work before. And I need that, for now.

This blog will continue, as will the Great Exchange. But for now, the blog will serve as a composite of the lessons I learn from my day-to-day experiences that I will someday apply to the best and most heartfelt nonprofit the world has ever seen. I will continue to build on the weekends, and I even plan on launching our first major event soon; but I will also rest. And when The Great Exchange launches full-throttle, it will come complete with the knowledge that I’ve tested every experience I’ve wanted to test; that I’ve created an exhaustive list of what I want out of an organizational leader; and that I’m ready to commit fully without having to wonder about the other paths I could have taken.

And should you ever arrive at a similar conclusion, in any element of your life, please don’t see it as a sign of weakness. I can say wholeheartedly that the acknowledgment of unreadiness is one of the hardest things I have ever done. To stare your dream in the face–or a person, or a place, or an idea–and to say, “I need a couple more tests,” is bravery. It is human, and it will help you interact with a greater sense of humanity toward every person you meet. And I can promise you that in ten years I’ll be telling you, as the founder of the Great Exchange, that working for another company for a few years was vital. I mean that from the bottom of my heart, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

I hope the nonprofit professionals who follow this blog will continue to do so, as I will continue to use it as a venue for applying the lessons I learn from a successful for-profit web development firm. And I hope the lovely members or family members of the disabled community who follow this blog will continue to do so, because every single lesson is still an arrow that points directly to the fundamental human right of providing our disabled community members with the respect they deserve. But my hope, most of all, is for the aspiring nonprofit professionals who have contacted me: if, at any point, another path seems enticing, please take it without regret. I can say without hesitation that you’ll fall back into your heart’s work when you’re ready to, armed with the knowledge that there isn’t anything else you’d rather be doing. And that, friends, is the heart of a successful nonprofit.

Rechanneling, Slowly

Breaks in routine do funny things to people. Now that I’m back in Austin, it’s taking me awhile to ramp up again, in just about every aspect of my life.

Ashoka’s selection criteria mentions that people who possess entrepreneurial traits often have little interest in anything other than their mission. I think it’s actually a little more nuanced than that; I think entrepreneurs instinctively understand that they can’t have much of an interest in anything besides their mission, lest they fall off the tracks. That’s not to say they’re all automatons; it’s just that thoughts and ideas are slippery, and when you redirect them, it’s hard to push them back to where they once were.

Thoughts are like rivers. Events are like dams. And damn it (ha) if the recent events in my life didn’t just start channeling my thoughts elsewhere.

The Great Exchange, and work in general, is moving a bit more slowly now, like a runner with a pulled hamstring. I don’t know how to repair a metaphorical hamstring; but if I’m going to see this analogy through to the end, I’d say the only way to do it is to rest a little bit more than I used to, take care of myself, and work back up to where I once was as slowly and carefully as I need to.

So I don’t know, maybe this blog post symbolized my first 100-yard dash. And yes, even this tiny little cluster of words took longer than it used to. And I guess that’s okay.

Entrepreneur Anxiety

Why does nobody talk about this? And no, I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill, “man, I hope this works!” anxiety. I’m talking about waking up in the morning and feeling incapable of categorizing all of my looming expectations. I’m talking about trying to weave something huge into an already vibrant and dynamic life that includes full-time work, friendships, a relationship, and, well, a pretty major and completely inexplicable sleep disorder.

at the sleep clinic

You must admit, I'm the cutest little sleep clinic patient you've ever seen.

Do I expect my life to become less full now, or ever? No. Do I expect it to stop me? No. But I do need to learn to manage expectations. For example, my full-time job will continue to be my full-time job, and that’s just the way it is. And I frankly enjoy the work I do a lot; marketing is a great way to leverage both sides of my brain.

So that means The Great Exchange is relegated to the early morning, evenings, and weekends, and to those magical times when it actually overlaps with the research I do for work. I think a lot can be accomplished within those windows, a lot can grow and coalesce, a lot of weekend team outings can begin happening. I have so many plans that would turn The Great Exchange into a full-time job–including an earned-income model inspired by my favorite store in Portland, SCRAP–but I wrote those plans down, they’re not going away, and that’s the best I can do.

There is no timeline for The Great Exchange and I need to continue to let it grow organically, without fear or obligation or pressure. And for the love of all that is holy, I need to be good to myself in the meantime, because my life does become just a little harder when I miss an entire stage of sleep every night. It’s manageable, but that’s because I have great friends and a boyfriend who does the brunt of the cooking and grocery shopping. Anyway, it’s time to start taking extreme measures. Yes, you know what that means.  Shambhala meditation! If anyone who reads this blog happens to live in the Austin area, let me know if you’d like to go with me sometime.

Why Entrepreneurs Watch Bad Television

the social entrepreneur's brain is like a dolphin

Much like a start-up, this guy never sleeps.

If you’re running a start-up, then your start-up is pretty much on your mind all the time. Even if your thoughts are engaged elsewhere–making rent by working 30-40 hours per week for another company, for example–your own start-up is still crouching in the shadows, waiting to emerge when any tangentially related feedback is triggered. It’s like there are two streams, not one, constantly running through your mind: the one in which you’re part of the present moment, kicking ass at your job or conversing with a friend at a bar or walking your dog in the sunshine; and the start-up one, which is always on notice.

This is true with one exception: when you’re watching TV. In my experience, television is one of the only things that puts my brain into a nearly worthless state. I don’t even get that luxury when I’m sleeping, because I dream about The Great Exchange. It can’t be any television show, though; it has to be the most banal, coma-inducing nonsense on the air. I find that reality TV works great.

If you want further proof that The Great Exchange is always “working,” here’s a sample page of the notebook I keep next to my bed:

An entrepreneur's brainstorm

This is all from a period of a few hours.

So here’s to you, Ben from “The Bachelor.” Thank you for saving my sanity by providing me with a much-needed 120 minutes a week of empty brain space. And the girls you keep sending home are too good for you, anyway.