Archive for the ‘Do-gooding’ Category

Countering Conventionality

| February 4th, 2014 | 8 Comments »
SHANNA CUMBIA

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Shanna gets an insider’s view of her host culture; here, she and a group of teens are pictured in traditional Colombian cumbia attire as part of a local foundation’s youth development program, December 2013

Jammie and I are huge fans of Shanna Crumley, the blogger behind this guest post.  I mean, how could we not be?  We first met her in Northern California when she was in college.  Since then she has traveled the world,  interned at the State Department and relocated to Colombia where she is volunteering as a Peace Corps volunteer.  In this post she shares how she did it and what it’s like to live the international dream:

Conventional wisdom says that I should be paying off my student debt right now, working a stable job with good health insurance and settling into a lovely life. Better safe than sorry. Save for a rainy day. Find Mr. Right before your clock runs out (aka age 30, obviously).

Conventional wisdom DID NOT say:

–Take 5 years for two liberal arts degrees and rack up private school debt
–Spend every penny (and peso and euro) on mission trips, volunteer trips, road trips and internships
–Buy a one-way ticket to Argentina for a summer in the hopes of finding a volunteer position that pays in food (note: I was lucky enough to volunteer with ADRA Argentina as a videographer for three months, documenting community development projects)
–Move to Washington, DC, for three months to be an unpaid intern at the Department of State
–Stay in DC an extra five months as an unpaid intern at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
–Postpone grad school plans to spend 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America.

…and yet, here I am, sitting in a South American hammock, eating fresh papaya, studying for the GRE and writing a lesson plan on irregular verbs. Conventionality is overrated.

shanna adra kids-1

ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) Argentina youth volunteers making the most out of a finger painting activity, summer 2012

Can my passions make a difference in the world?

Let’s start with the fact that there’s lots of debate right now about Millenials following their passion, and whether that’s practical or sustainable. Suffice it to say that I believe in purposeful and passionate productivity!
I had to zoom out and ask myself three questions:

1. “What could I be passionate about?” I get excited about new ideas, research, sustainable development, international politics and community development. Like Gary Vaynerchuk puts it in Crush It!, there’s a niche for everything! What do you get excited about?

2. “What is the purpose?” or “How is that passion going to help make the world a better place and also keep me off of food stamps?” In my case, my passions combine into international affairs and development, two areas that have purpose and jobs. Luckily, these are areas that meet my skill set.

3. “How am I going to make my passion useful?” Whatever the passion is, you have a unique set of skills, talents, experiences and approaches to contribute effectively. I am working towards a career that contributes to sustainable development and policy, where my travel experience, extroverted personality and NPR addiction come in handy. What are your skills and talents? How can you make them useful to your passion?

With these career goals in mind, I needed to figure out how I could get the experience and network to be successful in my career–who were the best organizations working in these areas? What were their projects? What skills did they look for in job applicants? What were the best graduate schools for this field? Who is making a difference in the world?
I did what my generation does best: I Googled it.

Foreign affairs and budget meetings : U.S. State Department

After a lot of research, prayer, brainstorming and resume-revising, I chose foreign affairs.  I decided to apply for a policy internship at the State Department, the U.S. government’s foreign affairs branch, to get a feel for the big picture of diplomacy and development.

It was a competitive and extensive application process, including six months for a security clearance and a move to DC. Finally, I was thrilled to land an internship in the Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration, where I spent four months seizing every opportunity to learn about diplomacy and foreign policy-making, pitch in on policy and budget projects, take notes on countless meetings and get coffee with as many directors, foreign service officers, policy planners and co-interns as I could!

My State Department internship was a pivotal experience in my life: I left Foggy Bottom more certain than ever that I want to work in international affairs and development.

shanna with jfk pc poster

Shanna’s living one of her dreams: to serve in the Peace Corps, founded by President Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship.

Fundraising and NGO life: USCRI

Through my contacts at the State Department, I found a second internship, this one in fundraising & development at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration. There, I was able to cultivate a certain skill set in fundraising and data management while continuing to work with refugee policy.

Working at an NGO headquarters was an eye opener. I got to see the differences in policies, budgets and priorities between the government and public sector.

Grassroots development and Shakira’s homeland: Peace Corps

A natural next step was to apply to be a Peace Corps Volunteer: to serve at the grassroots level, gain international work experience and meet like-minded adventurers. On a personal level, I had always wanted to serve at a grassroots level, working directly with a community, and living abroad was a natural step. Professionally, the Peace Corps offered a chance to get two years of valuable international work experience, as well as membership in the “Peace Corps family,” a network of thousands of active professionals.

The application process took about a year, which required a lot of patience and flexibility on my part. It’s a huge commitment, both because of the length of service and because of the conditions: the Peace Corps can send you anywhere, to do any job, anytime!

The hardest part of the waiting game was the utter ambiguity of not knowing when or where they would send me. I spent the wait working extra hours at a gelato shop, wrapping up my internships in DC and practicing deep breathing. When I finally received my formal invitation–Colombia!–I did a Shakira-worthy happy dance on the spot and packed my bags for the Colombian coast. We arrived last August, receiving training in teaching methodology, pedagogy, curriculum development and other scintillating topics. Finally, we received our site assignments and began our work:  teaching high school English and working in community development (and surviving on lentils, oatmeal and Colombian arepas).

Qualities of a Successful Professional

Though I’m just beginning my career, there are a few defining professional qualities and character traits that I’ve noticed. The bright, engaging, driven and successful people were also the most patient, curious, committed and flexible. These are qualities that I strive towards.

1. Patience/flexibility–I hate to include these mantras, but they’re what gets you through the applications, the waiting time, the long days and the bureaucracy! Not to mention that in the Peace Corps, it gets you through the long bus rides and training sessions. As for flexibility, being open to any tasks, new ideas and changes of plans shows your employers that you’re adaptable and committed to the work.

2. Committed self-starter/perseverance–You have to drive your passion; nobody else is going to do the work for you. Stay extra hours; add extra finishing touches; show your dedication. Don’t get discouraged by the waiting game, the job search or the paperwork. Remind yourself why you’re on this journey.

3. Networking–This is a crucial skill! Once I “got my foot in the door” at the State Department, I made professional connections and friends that form an international network of advisers, references and perhaps future colleagues!

You don’t have to be a bubbly extrovert to be an effective networker; all it takes is a pocketful of conversation starters, a genuine interest in the other person and 90 seconds of courage to smile and shake their hand.

4. Say thank you and follow up–one of the best lessons my mother taught me was to always say thank you. Write a specific and gracious email; hand-write a thank you note; send a small gift. The important thing is that the person knows you appreciated their time and effort. This applies across the board, not just to new networking friends but also to colleagues and mentors. At the end of each job or internship, I made sure to hand-write cards with specific memories and things I appreciated, along with the person’s role in the experience.

Following up with someone is even easier, but still essential. People are happy to hand out business cards, but often the connection is your responsibility. Make sure to be timely, grammatically correct and professional! It’s the little things that count, right?

Passionate about the journey

Equipped with a purpose, passion and the above lessons, I feel better prepared to continue the journey of contributing my passion and skills to making the world a little bit better in some way. Conventional wisdom might disagree, but I think you and I have resources, talents and knowledge to invest in our world.

…And that brings me to my South American hammock. I’m five months into my two years of service and learning new lessons every day. After the Peace Corps, I don’t know what is next. It might be graduate school, teaching in Korea or going back to DC. But whatever it is, I promise you that it will involve a lot of traveling and passion and as little conventionality as possible! And another bowl of papaya.

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Shanna Crumley is currently living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where she spends her days brainstorming ways to make high school ESL more scintillating, learning to play tribal drums and testing the boundaries of her stomach’s tolerance to new and exciting foods. She is all about a life of adventure and service, which she blogs about over at www.pocketphilosophies.wordpress.com.

“People that say they don’t care about money usually don’t have any.”

| February 2nd, 2014 | 33 Comments »
No, we are not claiming enlightenment BUT...

No, we are not claiming enlightenment BUT…

“This obviously isn’t about the money.”  Late in the fall of 2012 my father-in-law was digesting the news that Jammie and I had quit our jobs to travel the world and volunteer.

“Nope,” I replied, faking a lot more confidence than I actually felt.

There was no denying it. At least for the next 12 months, this kind of a life decision was not going to be lucrative.  It was going to be a huge drain on our resources.

Here are the thoughts that gave me some peace:

Money doesn’t matter until it does – There are times when money really does matter.  If you can’t take care of the basic needs of you and your dependents, you have a problem.  Food, shelter, healthcare, education, retirement, emergencies – these are all things we should plan for (and as I have explained in prior posts, we had.)  Saying “money doesn’t matter” to someone that does not have a chance of meeting the above needs is entitled, heartless, irresponsible and rude.  BUT, simply running on the hamster wheel of fear-based greed is not a smart alternative.  If you do, you will continually want more and more and you will never think you have enough.  Without realizing it, you will make horrible compromises (working a soul-crushing job, ignoring your family, developing a cold, corporate disregard for basic human decency) that will make you and those around just that little bit more pathetic.

Observing the rich is a great education – My job for years after college was in fundraising.  Much of my work involved spending a lot of time around wealthy people.  It was an interesting life.  Some of my best, most trusted friends were millionaires.  I learned a lot from these very rich people.  Many were very happy.  Money had not skewed their values or their respect for those around them.  They lived carefully, enjoyed their wealth and helped others.  I recruited several of them as mentors and have made a point of keeping in touch.

With other wealthy types, the opposite was true: money emboldened all the worst in human nature.  They seemed to think they could say anything they wanted because of their wealth.  They cut you off in conversation.  They would openly patronize people.  They yelled at anyone that challenged their views.  They took an insecure pleasure in reminding you of their money and power.  When the markets were down they panicked like little children.

I realized, after spending six years working with this slice of American society, that having money was very clearly not the factor that decided if you belonged to the happy first group or the wretched second one.  At first glance, this looks like basic conventional wisdom: money cannot buy happiness or peace.  Something deeper hit me on a personal level though. Even if I agreed that more money couldn’t buy me what I wanted, my life reflected a subconscious belief that it could.  I made all kinds of life compromises to stay on the career and overall life track that I thought would bring the security and prosperity I craved.  Simply put, the realization that I was fooling myself led to our year-long experiment and what has, over a year later, proven to be a far better life.

How much is enough?

Some will say that the reason Jammie and I were as unconcerned with the financial ramifications of our life decision was that (compared to the wealthy), we didn’t have much money in the first place.  Maybe they are right.  Maybe we should have continued living the traditional, default life.  Maybe we will live to regret this.  But after this first year’s experience and after talking to people double my age that made similar life decisions, I doubt it.

I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this one.  I’m serious.  Let’s get some debate going.  I don’t expect you to agree with me.

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Why I Quit Medical School

| January 30th, 2014 | 7 Comments »
Jeremy and Lindsay

Jeremy and Lindsay

This guest post comes via one of my personal heroes, Jeremy Weaver.  His story has everything: another awesome guy called Bjorn (clearly, I list this first), guts, glory, exotic travel, intense moments of doubt, life-changing experiences, a HUGE decision, international relocation and YES, he gets the girl!  It inspired me the moment I heard it, so it is with much excitement that I hand this post over to Jeremy:

It hit me. Sometime around the time I was filling out my secondary application for medical school during my senior year in college… it hit me. It felt less like a swift slap to the face and more like a creeping, slinking hollowness… perhaps akin to a small but persistent elephant sitting on my chest. We’ll call him Chester. I would be able to shake this persistent pachyderm for days, perhaps weeks at a time, but he would always return. Scramble up my leg, nestle down just below my left collarbone and take a nap. Deep breaths wouldn’t make him go away.  Long runs wouldn’t shake him. Most of the time he was barely perceptible, but present nonetheless. Doubt.

Excitement and Doubt

The acceptance letter came. Rejoicing ensued. But halfhearted, fraught with thinly veiled concerns and flimsy self-assurances that this was the path I was destined to take. The letter was like a steroid injection to my ego and my newly muscled ego chased Chester away for a month or two. If medical school wants you, how can you say no to medical school. It’s a privilege, an honor even, to be one of the few and the proud… and it genuinely was. And yet, after the newness had worn off, Chester slowly slunk back to his customary perch. Doubt.

The crazy plan…

It was around Christmas break of this same senior year that my friend Bjorn Harboldt shared with me his seemingly laughable plan to travel from one end of the world to the other… in a year… quite literally. His plan was to start at the furthest southern city in South America Ushuaia in Cape Horn. Travel up through South America, Central America, and North America to Alaska. Find a way across the Pacific Ocean. Continue through Asia, up into and across Siberia to Eastern Europe. Down through Eastern Europe to the ancient shores of the Mediterranean. Cross that sea and traverse Africa to the farthest southwestern corner and the Cape of Good Hope. Quite ludicrous. Ostentatious even. A truly excessive bit of traveling.

“to live a year intentionally…”

At the mere mention of this trip Chester fled. My heart beat with a strong and assured thud at the thought of such an adventure. I did not have delusions that this trip would drastically change anything. I didn’t believe that I would “find” myself because I didn’t really feel lost. I didn’t believe that the trip even made “sense” in the traditional “sense” of the word. My parents and many friends thought that I had perhaps been given over to depravity of a most irresponsible, albeit innocent, sort. My thoughts were simply that this is what I wanted out of life. To broaden my perspective, to live adventure instead of only talking and dreaming about it, to follow the strong and clear thud of my heart, to live a year intentionally instead of following the prescribed plan, to take ownership of my actions.

Although I usually oscillate precariously over weighty decisions… It didn’t take me long to lay my cards on the table and tell Bjorn that I was “all in.”

Planning, saving, selling possessions, successfully attempting to get companies to give us equipment and unsuccessfully getting companies to give us money, getting medical school deferrals, graduating from college, packing, dreaming. It all happened so quickly. And then suddenly… we were getting off the plane in Chile with packs on our back, no reservations, and no real plan except to get to the Cape of Good Hope.

“It opened me up to options and ways of existing that my narrow mid-American worldview would never have even entertained.”

Traveling around the globe by any means possible...

Traveling around the globe by any means possible…

I will not regale you with the details as they can be read at www.thewholeworldround.wordpress.com. Suffice it to say that that year of mad capped traveling opened me up to a more global way of thinking. It opened me up to options and ways of existing that my narrow mid-American worldview would never have even entertained. I met people who were living, really living. Not just talking about pedaling a bike from Istanbul to Vietnam, actually doing it. Not just talking about riding a motorcycle from Boston to the bottom of South America, actually doing it. Not just talking about opening up a little hostel in Thailand…. Actually doing it. I met a lot of dreamers… that were actively turning their dreams and interests into realities.

The open road... the ultimate education.

The open road… the ultimate education.

First year of medical school

Chester was mostly absent during this year of exploration. The next time he showed up was the summer after I returned from the trip. He stayed with me all the way through the first year of medical school. He grew into a full-blown tusker of doubt. Doubt about the path I had taken. All the while I created a million well-crafted reasons why I was on the right path. People around me re-enforced this thinking. My own ego re-enforced this thinking. The self-denial was spread thick. I almost dropped out at Thanksgiving break, at Christmas break, at spring break, but my carefully constructed rationalizations kept me around until the end of the year.

It was around this time that I met Lindsay. She is now my wife. I did some hardcore re-assessing during this summer between my first and second years of medical school. I went to an intensive, interactive self-improvement workshop. I read a lot. I prayed a lot. I began telling myself the truth. I did some very hard and very personal growth work. And then second year medical school began….

“I realized that my life was not going where I wanted it to go.”

Two weeks into it all came to a head. The thin veil was lifted. I stopped lying to myself. There were no more rationalizations. I realized that I was in a place I didn’t want to be in. I realized that my life was not going where I wanted it to go. As strange as it sounds, I realized I had gotten there by default. I had gotten there by letting life happen to me. I was not happy. So I made a very difficult decision… I quit medical school.

“…taking ownership for my future instead of just floating towards a sensible default.”

I wish I could say that my life purpose instantly crystallized and it has been all rainbows and sunbeams since I made that decision, but that wouldn’t be true. There was an instant flood of relief once the decision was made, but it has been difficult to let go. To picture myself in the future as something other than a medical doctor. To start taking ownership for my future instead of just floating towards a sensible default. To take steps toward living more wholeheartedly. At some point during this process I realized that Chester was shrinking. Taking ownership for my path in life was causing the change.

Lindsay was with me through the whole process of leaving medical school. She was with me through the doubts, the valleys, the indecision, the oscillating, and even the tears. Six months after dropping out of medical school we were engaged.  Three months after that we were married. We had a lot of long talks and earnest prayers about what we wanted our life together to be like. Global development and humanitarian work was at the core of who we both were. We both love to travel. So we made the decision together before we even got married to do a Master’s in Global Community Development that would begin the fall after we got married. We decided to follow our interests and take ownership for our path. We decided to attempt to turn those interests into a sustainable livelihood. We decided to do this together.

I am writing this from Arusha, Tanzania. I am sitting next to my wife in a little bungalow on the grounds of the Colobus Lodge. We are in the second semester of our Master’s program. We are preparing to go to a rural World Vision project to work on building the capacity of the local office and community there. I can say with complete integrity that this Master’s program is the most fulfilling formal education I have ever had. We have some awesome prospects for international internships. I am seriously considering doing a PhD in International Development. The possibilities seem endless.

I don’t recall the last time Chester was home.

If you would like to follow our path into the Global Development World our blog can be read at www.nevereatsoggywaffles.net.

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How I told my Filipino Father-in-Law I was Quitting My Job to Travel with his Daughter

| January 27th, 2014 | 15 Comments »
The happy "after" pic. With Jammie's dad atop Baiyoke Tower II - the tallest building in Bangkok.... if only we could have skipped the "we're leaving" conversation...

The happy “after” pic. With Jammie’s dad atop Baiyoke Tower II – the tallest building in Bangkok…. if only we could have skipped the “we’re leaving” conversation…

I’m not going to say it went perfectly.

Just over a year ago, Jammie and I sat down with her dad and two brothers to give them the news that we had both handed in our resignations and were leaving on a 12-month service and travel trip around the world. It easily ranks as one of my most-dreaded conversations EVER (As a Swede in a Filipino family, there has been a steep learning curve on what to say and how to say it – see my last post for some of my lessons learned)… Here’s how we did it:

I practiced on my parents first – Since my own parents raised me all over the world, I decided to break the news to them first.  They were pretty good about it although there was definitely a little resistance to the idea of giving up good jobs for travel and freelancing.  The Swedish “hands off” approach to parenting adult kids made the conversation fairly easy.  Having done it once, I geared up for round 2…

Timing, timing, timing – Since Jammie’s parents lived 8 hours away from us (as opposed to on a different continent like my parents), we decided that we were goings to tell them in person.  Luckily, we had a reason to drive down to them (A LARGE family wedding).  We waited until about two hours after the wedding before dropping the bomb.

Group Dynamics – We gathered Jammie’s dad and two brothers around the table in the formal dining room that hardly ever gets used, took a deep breath and went for it.  “We have some big news…”  Everyone tensed up…. “We’ve done a lot of thinking and planning and…”  Yikes, this was harder than our practice sessions in the car on the drive down… “We have handed in our job resignations and we are going to be traveling around the world and doing service projects for a year.”  THERE! We said it!!

Charts and Projections – I pivoted quickly to the prep we’d done for the move.  I knew that a Filipino dad was going to be very no-nonsense about practicalities, i.e. just how did we plan on surviving?  So we talked about finances – how we’d saved up and found other ways to make money.  We talked about why we were doing this – the year was supposed to be an idea and relationship harvest for the future.  We wanted to make international connections for future career moves.

Prepared Answers – I’d done a lot of prepping for how to respond to family concerns and objections.  And sure enough, there were some (although, not a lot, surprisingly):  I had info on what the cost of living would be in the countries we were visiting.  I had planned a lot to make sure that career-wise, this trip would enhance my marketability rather than hurt my resume and I made sure everyone heard this.

Being real – We talked about risk.  The cities we were visiting were generally safer than your average American city.  Jammie’s dad made Jammie promise she wasn’t going to do any crazy exploring of back alleys on her own.

Wrap-up – As the conversation wound down we thanked everyone.  Amazingly, everyone gave us their blessing. We got out without too much lingering.  All things considered, things had gone well and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Final word – We were actually surprised by how easy most of our “we’re leaving” conversations turned out to be.  If you are planning on breaking big news to family, I think my big takeaway would be: be prepared but don’t over-think it.  It is hard to predict how it will go but don’t delay the talk because of imagined disastrous outcomes.  The most important thing thing is that you actually have the conversation.

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How to pay off $20,000 in debt AND save $80,000 by working in Korea

| January 16th, 2014 | 17 Comments »
Save AND eat awesome Korean snacks... it's a good life

Quality of life, delectable snacks AND savings… Julie lives a good life in Korea…

Do your finances worry you?  Do you feel trapped?  Like you have to put up with a horrible lifestyle because you can’t afford to leave a job?  Do you not even have a job?

Meet my friend Julie Tillotson.  She recently told me the story of how she and her husband, Ben, pulled off what many in the United States and elsewhere consider financially impossible by thinking and acting internationally.  Her story should inspire us all to realize that there are always better options out there if we are willing to be adventurous.

Below are my interview questions and her answers:

 1) What was it that triggered your decision to move to South Korea?

Financial insecurity and restlessness.  Having repatriated to the US after completing university and getting married in the UK, Ben and I were searching for jobs and living with my parents (Thanks Mom and Dad!).  After filling out 60+ job applications, we only managed to get part-time temp jobs with zero benefits.  Wanting to be self-sufficient and passionately wanting to travel, EFL (English as a foreign language) jobs in Korea offered that and more: free plane tickets, free housing, medical insurance, pension and full time work experience.

2) How much do you make per year?

My salary has been between 20,000-35,000USD* per year depending on the job and exchange rates.

*These figures do not include housing, pension or other benefits that vary from job to job.

3) How much is it possible to save per month?

Between 800-1000USD on a reasonable starting salary, more if you are super motivated.

4) Please elaborate on the school and other debt that you were able to pay off as well as the money you were able to save.

Unfortunately, I had a credit card run up to 20,000USD from school bills and emergency use while unemployed. It took 11 months for us to pay it off by each contributing 800-1000USD per month.  Over the next 3 years we saved a total of 80,000USD.  We used the money to do MA degrees in the UK without needing student loans.

Julie and Ben

Julie and Ben

5) What is your advice to people that are considering going to Asia to find work and financial stability?

A. Research! Customs, culture, and work environment are always more different than most expect. Familiar concepts such as contracts, employee/employer relationships, and set work responsibilities can be shockingly different to the unprepared.

B. Documents first!  It’s up to you and only you to have your work visa documents in order.  With criminal background checks it can be a waiting game, so don’t delay!

C. Quality photography!  It’s standard procedure to include a photo for job applications in Asia.  Professional appearance is highly valued in Asia.

6) What are the main risks in making a move similar to yours?

Stress and illness.  An international move, unfamiliar job, culture shock and contact with new bacteria and virus’ is a recipe for catching colds and flu.

7) How long do you plan on staying in Korea? Why?

Two to five years.  My job, friends and a comfortable lifestyle keep me here for now.  However, the declining birthrate in Korea will hit universities with all-time low student enrollment within 5 years, so university jobs will likely become more competitive.

8) If you were trying to sell someone on doing what you have done in Korea, what would you say?

As far as money goes, imagine what you can accomplish without paying for rent, car payment or gas. Korea has a growing economy where English teachers are in demand. Seoul is safe, has great public transportation, and there is always something fun to see or do in spare time.

With dining like this, who needs persuasion?

With dining like this, who needs persuasion?

9) What do you dislike most about living abroad?

Long gaps in seeing family and long-time friends.

10) What are your top relocation tips?

Don’t make assumptions about your host culture, take time to wrap your brain around things that initially seem strange to you.

Do make additional friends outside your workplace through volunteering, church, sports and clubs.

Do learn about local fresh produce and ingredients and create beautiful healthy meals at home.

Julie Tillotson is an American who has been living in Seoul, South Korea with her husband, Ben for the past 9 years.  She currently works at Seokyeong University in the General Education program and loves exploring the city in her free time.

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“Missionary” needs a facelift

| October 29th, 2013 | 25 Comments »

Above is the video of my favorite public speaking gig so far this year – the September 27 University Vespers at my alma mater, Andrews University, for Homecoming, 2013. About 700 students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members attended. I dedicated this speech to giving the idea of missionary work (which so often elicits negative reactions) a facelift.

The speech was actually an extension of one of the biggest goals of our trip around the world this year: to rethink how we can best live lives of international service. For Jammie and I, faith and service are very closely linked so we were also very keen on experimenting with how to live out our faith more tangibly through acts of service.

CultureMutt readers are a diverse bunch so whether or not you come from a Christian background, I would love your comments on how you think faith communities should reinvent the approach they take to sharing their messages around the world.

For now, here’s why I think the term “missionary” needs a facelift:

“Missionary” sounds oppressive.  Historically, missionaries were often backed by the military might of oppressive colonial powers. Religion was often forced on unwilling converts.  Today, centuries later, the bad taste is still in the mouths of many.  In many cases, those that go out as missionaries have more material wealth and education than those they are trying to reach.  This often results in an unhealthy dynamic where people convert to the beliefs of these missionaries more in order to gain access to these resources rather than because they are sincerely convicted of a religious ideology.

“Missionary” sounds kooky.  I grew up as the child of missionaries. We lived with other missionaries, a good portion of which were straight-up weird.  You got the feeling that they were working abroad, less for noble, save-the-world motives and more because their cult-like dress sense, odd social behaviors and blanket rejection of anything in pop culture that brings a smile, simply would not fit in back home.

“Missionary” sounds out-of-touch.  So often missionaries are only effective in distant lands but would be of no effect back home.  Often they are able to leverage their status as expats (typically from more developed countries) to gain a platform abroad and in the process, much of what they transmit ends up being thinly-veiled Western cultural ideas as opposed to any genuinely helpful spiritual insights.

“Missionary” sounds fundamentalist.  I’m not sure why it is true but so often, people that opt to work as missionaries have an extremely narrow definition of faith.  They cling to dogma for dear life and are rarely able to see the big picture.  The faith that gets transmitted is therefore very narrow and close-minded.  It is not a generous, accepting faith but rather an unhealthy VIP list for spiritual gold diggers who think they are the only ones headed for sublime bliss in the afterlife.

Being a missionary need entail none of the above.  Alright, here’s where I’ll get on my soap box:  It’s time for a new generation to redefine what it means to be a missionary.  There is nothing wrong with sharing authentic faith.  It’s actually a good thing. There is nothing wrong with telling your friends about the ideas, stories and truths that have had a life-changing effect on you.  There is a way to be an enthusiastic believer without stooping to the unfortunate depths of many a missionary gone before.

Start the facelift in the comment section!  There are going to be different takes on this one but to me personally, missionary work should be about what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”.  It should not be about forcing ideology but more about an open discussion about how to improve the world around us, fused with practical acts of service that actually help our fellow human beings.  I am convinced that, at the very least, this is where all so-called missionaries should start.

I would love your input and ideas.  Leave a comment below on what you think modern missionaries should be doing.  Be as open or as controversial as you like, this is about conversation, not about one right answer.

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Service — The truth

| September 20th, 2013 | 11 Comments »

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For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying the use of a thin, black vinyl raincoat. I never thought I would like an item of clothing this much, but it has provided a warm, dry shelter more times than I can count already, and it doesn’t look half bad on me, if I do say so myself. Besides being useful, stylish and indispensable, it was also wholly unexpected.

Here’s how I got it:

It was the last week of our donation sorting project at Stadt Mission. We had finished pairing and sorting the mountain of shoes the week before. As you may recall (but if you don’t, here’s a handy link), this project had not been one of my favorites. It was dirty, nasty, hot, isolated work and I was beyond relieved that we didn’t have to do it anymore. Instead, we were given the task of sorting coats that were to be given to the homeless and/or needy.

Surprisingly, the job was not so much about sorting as throwing away. Apparently, the organization receives so many donations that many of the coats had to be removed to make room for the new ones.  We were given very specific instructions. Coats with buttons (when you’re really cold/old/disabled, it is harder to button than zip), coats that didn’t look modern, and anything that had the slightest stain/rip/deformity was thrown into trash bags.

We must have filled at least 20 bags. At first it seemed like a huge waste of clothing. But the more I thought about it, the more I was touched by the thoughtfulness inherent to the instructions. Not only did they provide for the physical needs of the homeless/impoverished, but they also aimed at preserving their dignity.

During our break, the other workers called us into the main room for  drinks and snacks.  A rack of beautiful, real fur coats was in the room. I am defenseless against soft, furry objects and couldn’t help moving over to it to pet the sleeves.

One of the head volunteers (the donation sorting is run by a mother-daughter team) noticed and said, “As a goodbye and thank-you gift, we would like to give each of you one item of your choosing.” We could choose from anything they had down there. They literally had tons of stuff of every item imaginable. Not to mention those fur coats, which were worth at least 100 euros each (and that was the discount price they were to be sold at, not their original ones).

The offer was tempting but we balked. It just felt wrong. We had been doing this service project to help others, not ourselves.

We vigorously protested and hit upon the fool-proof argument that because of luggage restrictions, we couldn’t take anything. They kept pressing us to take something, at least one of the coats. We countered that as we were going to India, we wouldn’t need them.

Finally, the other head volunteer produced two new, black, weatherproof jackets. She pressed them upon us and we couldn’t say no to her (she is a Mom, after all). They were thin and light enough to refute our luggage concerns, and she said, we would need them.

She was right. Since we received our jackets about 3 weeks ago, the weather in Berlin has turned from sunny to rainy, from warm to chilly. That jacket has become my go-to outerwear item.

But I cherish that jacket not only because it protects me from the elements, but because it also serves as a reminder to me. When I see it, I don’t just see its color and shape, I see the kindness of the gift, that people wanted to take care of me despite my protests. I see that people were looking ahead into my future and trying to provide for my needs. I see that people literally fought to show their appreciation for me.

When I look at that jacket, I see the truth about service: When you serve others, you help yourself more than you know.

Self involved

In light of the above statement, some may conclude that service is inherently selfish; because you receive so many benefits from helping others, it is not truly selfless. From there it’s a hop, skip and an insanity jump to thinking  that you must make yourself miserable so that others can be happy.

I reject the notion that in order to perform real service you can not be as happy as the person you performed the service for, that you must make them happier than yourself. First of all, who can measure such a thing? If I am smiling and they are smiling, how do I know whose joy is greater?  If I am laughing and they are smiling, is it not condescending and incorrect to think that their joy is not as great as mine?

And why must there be a monopoly on the peak of happiness? Is it fair or even logical to think that because I or someone else is at the peak of happiness, no one else can be?

(Although if at the end of “helping someone” you are bubbly and cheerful and they are miserable and crying, or vice versa, I would say it’s a good bet real service did not occur. Real service does involve empathy.)

Real service: The enigma within the paradox within the swirling vortex of confusion

I believe it is possible to do good things for bad reasons. By that I mean: doing things to help others because your end goal is really about helping yourself, whether to curry favor or to look good, etc. But in the end, that is not real service.

Real service is about taking the focus off yourself, and doing things because you are truly thinking about others’ needs and how to  help them. In doing so, you can’t help but improve yourself as well.

It’s a paradox that still manages to surprise me. I guess because it seems so oxymoronic.

The message of society today that is subtly and not-so-subtly enforced seems to be: If I put others before me, I will suffer. It’s dog-eat-dog. Everyone must be in it to win it — for themselves.

Most everyone says: Of course you should help others! But the real subtext is: Help others—but only to a point, don’t let them get ahead of you and definitely don’t do it if it causes you discomfort in any way.

But Jammie, some might say, isn’t it possible to do good things for the right reasons and just wear yourself out? To be so attentive to the needs of others that you neglect yourself and end up feeling and being worse off than before?

To that I say, if you were truly trying to serve others, you would know that a mentally and physically healthy you is in the best position to help others. If you are working yourself to death, I would suspect there are other motivations fueling you. Real service spurs you to grow and to improve.

Common good

Many, many people have told me they admire what Bjorn and I are doing and that they could not do it themselves. But the truth of the matter is that everyone can.

Real service is not all big projects in exotic, foreign locations but the quiet acts performed in the details of daily life.

Real service is empathy and action based on it.

At the heart of real service is doing for others what you would want done for you.

So I guess those people who say that service is not self-less are correct, in a way. Your self must be involved.  You must give yourself to others to perform real service. You must involve your love, your concern, your time.

But in return, you get more than you thought possible. While gaining happiness for yourself should not be the end goal, it is a hallmark of real service.

Truly, a life of service is the life best-lived.

Fundraising: How to raise $10,000 in an hour

| September 3rd, 2013 | 17 Comments »

Back in the clean-cut fundraising job days:)

I’ll never forget how I learned how to raise $10,000 in an hour.

Before I get there though, I have to say that some things you learn the hard way.   In my first couple years of work as a professional fundraiser I learned a lot about how not to do things.

Inefficient Fundraising

Classic example:  In my first year I struggled to lead a sprawling committee of volunteers and hospital employees (I worked for a hospital) through months of agonizing planning for a huge gala event. It was super rough.

In the end we only made a few thousand dollars in profit from the event and I was just relieved to not be in the hole.

Take 2

A year or so after this messy attempt at fundraising I had my first experience of asking a couple for a large donation.

I sat down with them and, after some small talk, asked for $10,000 to support a certain project.  They agreed on the spot.

In less than an hour I had raised more cash than it had taken both me and a committee endless hours and huge stress to achieve with my gala event.

The key to success

What was the difference between these two experiences?  What made one fundraising method effective and the other a dud?

The answer is as simple as it is frustrating to newbies: effective strategy.  “What does that even mean??”

Well, for starters, if you just dive into fundraising with blind faith and zero tactics you may get lucky and raise some cash but generally your results will be terrible.

Getting to the point where you have a relationship with potential donors and you can ask them for $10,000 (or much more) takes careful thinking.

Relationship

You want to woo them to your cause. There are several critical elements in effective fundraising strategy but in this post I want to start with the most important one: relationship.

Let’s get back to my good news with the $10,000 “ask”.  The reason I was successful was that I had a very strong relationship with my donors. They knew why I was visiting them and they were ready to help.

Do you have a dream of supporting a big cause or starting a really innovative new business?  If you do, you are going to need support.

Woo your people

Make sure you surround yourself with the right people, with people that make things happen.  Treat these people right.

Support them and do all you can to understand them and help them out.  Be the best colleague/club member/tennis partner they have.  Hook them up when you can.  Nurture your relationships.  Bring your very capable friends close to your cause. Talk big, share your passion, ask for ideas.  Make the friends that you would like as donors feel invested in what you are doing.  They should feel part of the action, like they and their input matters.  They are your VIPs.

When the time is right, you can ask for their help and chances are they will be very, very helpful.  Possibly even “$10,000 helpful”.

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Things I wish I’d known about long-term world travel before I quit my job

| August 22nd, 2013 | 19 Comments »
August, 2013 - On a visit to London from Berlin

August, 2013 – On a visit to London from Berlin

It’s been nine months since Jammie and I quit our jobs to travel the world and do service projects. Nine months provides a lot of perspective. Here’s what I wish I knew about world travel back in the office worker days:

It’s cheaper than you think.

Living abroad can be cheap. Here are some monthly spending comparisons (each are totals for Jammie and I combined) showing the difference between our pre-trip California expenses and subsequent costs around the world:

Rent and utilities
California:  $900
Bangkok:  $200
Buenos Aires:  $450
Berlin:  $700

Transportation (the costs of getting around locally)
California:  $500
Bangkok:  $60
Buenos Aires:  $30
Berlin:  $150

Groceries & Eating Out
California:  $500
Bangkok:  $150
Buenos Aires:  $300
Berlin:  $300

As you can see, travel and international living can be cheaper, a LOT cheaper than staying put.  International adventure as the sole privilege of the super rich is a total myth.  Even after you add the price of your international plane ticket to your dream destination, the combined monthly savings of even a temporary relocation are often very big indeed.
There are other ways to make money

“OK, I understand that living costs may be lower abroad but how am I supposed to make money?” is one of the first questions people ask when contemplating extended world travel/relocation.  That’s the fun part.

If you are willing to be a little creative there are lots of ways to make money while traveling. Anyone who tries to deny this simply hasn’t done their research.

These methods will not only make you “survival” money. If you apply yourself you can often end up saving more money than you did at home because, again, your expenses are lower.

Here are some ways Jammie and I make money on the road:

Blogging (ad revenues)
Article writing for various paying publications
Other freelance/contract work

Want some other options?

Here are some ways friends of mine and other liberated vagabonds make money while traveling:

Consulting
English teaching
Online businesses
Selling their other skills – You would be surprised how many businesses and organizations would love to use your expertise abroad. For example, I was shocked how often individuals and organizations wanted to use what I had to offer in the way of fundraising coaching. What is your current profession?  Often there is a great way to use it to finance a more liberated life of travel.

It’s something that you can easily put off but you really, really shouldn’t.

No boss is going to fire you if you put off a dream like world travel. Typically the only person that knows if you put off this kind of life achievement, is yourself or, at best, your inner circle of family and friends.

This is horrible because it means you can delay action on something that has tremendous positive potential to change your life.

It’s better for your most important relationships.

Let me take this one in two parts.  Firstly, if you are traveling with the one (or ones) you love, travel, by its very nature, allows you to invest far more time and quality attention into the relationship than you could normally.  Secondly, even if you are not traveling with those you are closest to, travel often gives you the space and perspective that allows you to consciously appreciate your key relationships in life far more than if you are sprinting madly in the rat race.

Your health improves with travel.

In my first nine months of travel I’ve lost 20 lbs.  I feel healthier, I don’t suffer from sleep disorders the way I did before we took off.  The other day I discovered some old pictures on my iPad of me back in the office worker days. I was shocked. I was puffy-faced, clearly world-weary and my eyes were bloodshot.  It brought back the memories of sleep deprived commutes, torturous, mind-numbing meetings and a very unhealthy liquid diet of energy drinks just to get through.  Gone are those days…

You really can be a lot happier.

This is going to sound cheesy but I haven’t been this happy in years. And I’m not the only one that is noticing.  Friends of mine that I’ve known for years are saying things like, “Wow! You’re back! This is like meeting Bjorn 10 years ago!”  Travel allows you to reconnect with a younger you, to rediscover your actual passions, the things that really make you tick.  This is exciting on a very deep level.  You owe it to yourself to experience it.

You need to stop making lame excuses.

I’m being this blunt because it took a number of people being very blunt with me before I sat up and noticed:  STOP MAKING EXCUSES.  No job or imagined disastrous consequence is worth your putting off the better life that long-term travel can bring.

There are enough corporate cop-outs out there already, shuffling towards the fools gold of an ever-distant retirement.  Don’t stay in a job because of fear or tired, conventional thinking.  Be bold.  Take the leap.  A far better world awaits.

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Top 7 ways to be a boring public speaker (compiled from personal experience)

| August 11th, 2013 | 1 Comment »
Photo: Yesterday, my first sermon in Germany...

August 10, 2013 – My first public speaking gig in Berlin

Bad public speaking is physical torture to listeners.  I’ve done my fair share of it and received a lot of feedback over the years!  In the process I’ve gone from being pretty horrible at speaking in public, to feeling really comfortable and winning Speaker of the Year Awards at my local Toastmasters (public speaking) club.  I’ve still got a long way to go but here are a few things I have learned to avoid.

Sure-fire ways to bore your crowd:

1)  Start with something boring like a long introduction.  DO NOT thank everyone that invited you and share your thoughts about what what you “thought when first asked to speak today”.  Nobody cares.  People put way too much fluff in their intros.  Hop to something more interesting like a dramatic statement.  Which brings me to the next point:

2)  Lose their attention in the first 30 seconds.  30 seconds is all you have got.  After that, people start playing with their phones or otherwise switch off.

3)  Too many ums and ahs.  I was (and when especially nervous, still can be) a major culprit in this area.  If I hadn’t prepped enough, I would use “fillers” like ums and ahs in between my thoughts.   Don’t do it.  It is super annoying and will totally bore your crowd.  Obama does it way too much when he talks off the cuff —- listen to any of his press conferences.

4)  Use Powerpoint.  Trust me on this one:  you can generally do your public speaking with fewer slides.  You can often completely eliminate slides.  Nothing puts an audience to sleep more easily than stupid charts and bar graphs on a crooked screen in a dim room.  STOP IT!

5)  Too many tangents.  One of the worst things you can do is forget to stick to a very clear structure with your speech.  Make three points or less and then sit down.  DO NOT meander through your speech, recalling random stories and factoids. People will hate you for it.

6)  Neglect to chop your material in half.  Less is better guys!!  I sometimes get way over-earnest and try to fit in every little point I could possibly make on a topic. This is obnoxious.  People will never remember your huge list.  As with #5, stick to the bare essentials and be brutal about cutting the fat.

7)  Thank people at the end.  One of the WORST things you can do in a public speech is say “thank you” at the end.  It may seem like the polite thing to do but it does not add anything helpful to your speech.  It is a boring, standard, crappy way to finish.  Be dramatic instead.  End on a challenge or a rousing quote.  Surprise people.

Last thing: If you want to change the world around you, public speaking is a great way to do it.  Nobody is born a great public speaker so get all the practice you can.  And don’t be boring.

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