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Life Lessons

A Year for More Picnics: Logging Off to Live Better

According to a 2011 Nielsen study, Americans spent 53.5 billion total minutes on Facebook last May. Collectively, that factors out to roughly 101,720 years - in a month. On a per user level, that means each user spent about 6.5 hours (roughly a full work day) of their life each month scrolling through status updates. Our newest Brains on Fire client hails from the DIY world. As we have delved into their universe, it has given me pause to consider the ways in which I use my hands. Along the way, I have come to the conclusion that I spend entirely too much time typing, scrolling and clicking, and not nearly enough time creating, exploring and doing.

A few months ago, I blogged about my predictions for the future of Word of Mouth Marketing: The Art of We. As we continue to put increased value on personal time, real life and real time, I expect we will also begin to consider the things we do (or don't do) with our time and our hands, and how those choices add to or detract from our quality of life.

You often hear people wish for "an extra hour in the day." We could do a lot with 6.5 extra hours per week. Meet a friend for coffee. Write and mail a real letter. Take the dog for a walk. Opt for the scenic route. Go on a picnic. Visit a library.

I am willing to bet there has never been a person in history who reached to the end of their life and wished they had taken fewer picnics. I doubt any of us will wish we had spent more time tweeting.

My Klout score is about to take a big hit, because this year I am making a commitment to spend less personal time online - and start making better use of my minutes and my hands. I want to create more and click less. I want to experience things as they happen - instead of retrospectively through the social media lens. I want to document my life in precious memories and present moments, not scrolling backwards through a virtual timeline.

Your turn to chime in: How do you find balance between your real life and social media life? Do you feel your use of social media hinders your ability to enjoy your real life to the fullest? What would you like to do with your time and hands in 2012?

5 Things I Learned Working at Brains on Fire

I have always liked Vicky's brother-in-law’s synopsis of Brains on Fire when she first came to work here. He compared it to “a place people work in the movies.” When people find out you work at a place called “Brains on Fire,” their first question is always “What the heck is Brains on Fire?” Their second questions is “What’s it like to work at Brains on Fire?”

I have been here nine months – and in nine months I have learned, experienced and grown so much, I could easily write a book. But for the sake of sparing you all a really, really long blog post – I decided to distill it down into five little lessons. So with no futher ado, I present 5 Things I have learned working in the creative space (and with the creative people) that is Brains on Fire.

This line of work wakes you in the night. When you choose to work in the creative world, you choose to blur the lines between your professional and personal life, if not erase them entirely. There’s no ON switch or OFF switch. Our work doesn’t stay at work. It can’t be arranged in a neat pile or simply filed away. Our work is an organic, living thing. It follows us home and it wakes us in the middle of the night. At times we find it stuffed in our pockets (post-it notes, anyone?) as well as tucked in the wrinkles of our brains. Why? Because to be good at what we do, you have to care deeply. And caring isn’t 9 to 5.

You learn a lot about yourself. That thing you never imagined you could do? You can. You just have to choose to do it. And once you do, you will. Creative work has no room for the meek. It’s sink or swim. Succeed or fail. There is no place for waffling, self-doubt or riding the fence. It’s a place for making things happen and speaking your mind. One of the best pieces of advice I received was “It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know,’ but it’s NEVER okay to say ‘I don’t care.” You better care, because our work is passionate action, and a magic that happens somewhere between heart and head. You learn by doing. If you’re lucky, you do it well. If you’re really lucky, you do it well surrounded by brilliant, talented people who can teach you how to keep getting even better. Listen to them. Each one is an anthology of experience and wisdom. They know what they’re talking about. Sometimes they’ll give you compliments, sometimes they’ll give you a dose of tough love. Whatever the case, trust in them. They will help you become the best you, because they truly want you to succeed.

You gain a new perspective on an old world. When I was little I loved Mr. Rogers. Specifically, because he so often took little adventures to try on other lives. A visit to the Crayola factory. An afternoon spent with an organic farmer.

Working in a creative agency is a constant trying-on of different lives. It’s the ideal field for anyone who has ever experienced occupational-ADD. Every day my job allows me to dip my toe into other worlds – from a land of literary pixie dust to a collective of people changing the world by sharing the stories of everything they have overcome in their lives. Each mental and emotional venture into a new space has taught me something. And as a result, every client has reintroduced me to my own world. I see things differently. I have a better appreciation for the world around me. I have come to know myself better in ways I never could have imagined. All by stepping into someone else’s universe for a day.

You care about your clients – A LOT. “Clients” has never felt like the right word. It’s simply not enough. We don’t just WORK for our clients, we advocate for them by working WITH them, side-by-side, down in the trenches. Their success becomes our success. Their struggles becomes our challenge. We meet, we do a little slow dancing, and after a bit of poking around, we begin to see the best in them, and the potential that lies within them. We fall in love with them. We cheer for them. And, as the best loves are known to leave people feeling, we often experience such a sense of kindredship, we find ourselves wondering how there was ever a time in our lives before we knew them. They feel so much a part of us, it feels as though they’ve been there all along.

As a writer, you will never forget the way you feel the first time you see your work on a billboard. Even more, you will never forget the way you feel when a client you have never met face-to-face comes up to you in the office to give you a hug and thank you for what you have done for them.

Our clients are not just our clients. They are our tribe. Our pack. And our people. They are why we get up in the morning, stay late in the evening and come in on the occasional weekend. They are why we are here doing what we do.

You grow unthinkably close to the people you work with. When I started at Brains on Fire, I remember Robbin talking about creating a company of best friends. At first I thought it was strange she had specifically chosen the phrase “best friends” over “family,” but over time, I have started to understand. Family is something you are born into. Friends are the family we choose. Every day we choose to share our waking lives with the people we work with. We play off of each other’s thoughts, moods and energy. We generate happy moments, push and pull through sticky moments and celebrate awesome moments. We laugh and tease and bicker and help. We dish out tough love when needed, and love-love the rest of the time. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed. And if one of us fails, we all fail. Without one of us, our story is not the same story, because we are a team.

You cannot change the family you are born into. Their blood runs through your veins. But every day we choose the people we will call our friends. At any moment we could leave and walk away. And that’s what empowers a company of best friends to leave an imprint on universe by changing the world – one client at a time. Every day we choose to show up and be a part of Brains on Fire, because we believe in what we do here, we believe in the people we’re doing it for…and we believe in each other.

In conclusion... Thank you to all our clients – and everyone who has allowed me to be a part of their story in 2011. It has been an honor and privilege. A special thanks to my incredible, team at Brains on Fire. You not only rock my world, you rock my universe. On a daily basis. (And teach me new phrases like “son of a biscuit eater” between rounds of LMFAO.)

So, so-long 2011. Greetings, 2012. In the wise words of Jack Kerouac, “we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies...”

Passion, Purpose and Meaning

Today, I'm taking the day off from wordiness, and simply passing along a share. A few days ago, in one of those moments of internet serendipity, I stumbled upon this video. It's a clip very little need be said about. You watch it - and you get it.

It reminded me of a quote (from Tuesdays with Morrie): “Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

A little Thursday food for thought: What are you doing with your energy, your time, your one, precious life? Are you doing it with passion (or compassion)? Does it give you purpose and meaning in life? And if not, what are you waiting for?

An Apple a Day: Thoughts on Steve Jobs

The entire world is talking about Steve Jobs this morning. And rightfully so. Last night I sat in front of my Twitter stream - from the first tweet breaking the news to an unreasonably late hour - watching people from all corners of the world come together to celebrate an innovator who changed human communication forever.

Confession: until just over a year ago, I wasn't an "Apple person." After another run-in with a PC "blue screen of death," I finally decided it was time to jump ship and shell out the cash for a MacBook. When I brought my MacBook home in July of 2010, I spent the first 24 hours seriously considering returning it to the store because it didn't have a delete key. Sure, it had a <em>delete </em>key, but the MacBook delete key functioned like a PC backspace key. How could I live without a delete key and a backspace key? Furthermore, where was the left click button?! A few days (and keyboard shortcuts) later, and I was in love. Turns out... I <strong>am</strong> an Apple person.

Flash forward a year. The tidbits and nuggets of my life are captured, stored and preserved in the form of photos, documents and videos in two places: my MacBook and my iPhone. My MacBook and my iPhone aren't my life, but they <em>are</em> tools that help me live better, think better, work better and communicate better.

If I could share one story with Steve Jobs, this would be it.

24 years ago, a 5-year-old version of me sat at Epcot Center, listening intently as the narrator's voice described a vision of the millennium ahead. He explained that one day we would find ourselves eating from flavored tubes of food like astronauts, bidding farewell to vehicles and skateboards in exchange for flying cars and hoverboards. From all the visions of the future I caught a glimpse of that afternoon, the one that has always stuck with me was the promise that one day I would hold a phone and be able see the person I was speaking to on the other end of the line.

I remember filing that promise away in my head. I remember making a conscious mental note, that if that day ever came, it must really be true that anything is possible.

Last month I connected to Facetime for the first time. On the other end of the line? My father. 800 miles away.

In the flurry of tweets last night, someone said it simply and eloquently (two qualities I think we can all agree Steve Jobs would appreciate): <strong>He was our Edison. </strong>

As for his legacy, I don't think I could sum it up any better that this passage from the Brains on Fire Book (page 14):

<em>If your company were (heaven forbid) to be hit by a bus tomorrow, would you brand live on without you? In other words, is your customer's brand loyalty so strong that it's self-sustaining? Are you the main drive of what your brand stands for? Is it in the ads that the marketing department prints in the monthly pubs? Or does it live in the hearts and minds of your employees and customers? </em>

<em>Brands that truly matter can, without a doubt, answer this question in a heartbeat. The culture of fans is so loyal that the brand they love so much will live on, even if it's not there to feed them anymore. And if something happened to you (or your company) there would be an outcry from your fans. Calls would be made. E-mails would circulate. You would be mourned. But, in your absence, those who love you would pull together and somehow continue the word you'd begun.</em>

<strong>We don&rsquo;t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.</strong> | Steve Jobs

Why Community Matters: On Life, Love and Loss

"A community needs a soul if it is to become a true home for human beings. You, the people, must get it this soul." | Pope John Paul II Once in awhile you come across an unexpected story that really puts everything in perspective. I had one such experience last week when I clicked the link to a video titled "Peanut Butter Pie for Mikey."

After Jennifer Perillo lost her husband of 18 years to a sudden heart attack, she made one simple request: that those wishing to celebrate her husband's life make a Peanut Butter Pie (his favorite) and then share it with those they love.

From Jennifer's blog: "As I spend Friday reflecting on the love and life that was gone in an instant, I'd like to invite all of you to celebrate his life too. Mikey loved peanut butter cream pie. I haven't made it in a while, and I've had it on my to-do list for a while now. I kept telling myself I would make it for him tomorrow. Time has suddenly stood still, though, and I'm waiting to wake up and learn to live a new kind of normal. For those asking what they can do to help my healing process, make a peanut butter pie this Friday and share it with someone you love. Then hug them like there's no tomorrow because today is the only guarantee we can count on."

Along with a outpouring of peanut butter pies, came an outpouring of love and support by way of Twittersphere and blogosphere...

Just spoke to the GM at @BlueSmokeNYC and they only had one slice of #apieformikey left at the end of the evening. How awesome is that?

I didn't blog it, but I did make #apieformikey, and I shared it with the people I love.

Just made #apieformikey after reading the very sad story. It's date night tonight, and I'm feeling very appreciative of what I have.

See how Yvette in San Juan adapted my #apieformikey cupcake recipe. Love is an international language!

My friend made the pie and printed Jennies post to hand out at her dinner. #apieformikey is impacting lives.

I just found out some of the students on campus have even been baking #apieformikey .

"In full force, with fierce love and commitment, the online food community banded together as one family to celebrate Mikey and everyone dear to us. Under the twitter hashtag #APieforMikey , a beautiful explosion of peanut butter pies came pouring out of all our hearts to be shared with our loved ones." (via White on Rice Couple)

After discovering the video, I spent a couple hours exploring hashtag #APieForMikey on Twitter. It introduced me to people from all walks of life around the country (and world) sharing their own stories of love, loss and life celebration. People brought together by a tragic loss, a simple request and a social medium - in order to feel and heal together. Strangers surrounding one grieving family, lifting them up with love.

Take a few minutes to watch the video, and then go forth into your week. Whether you bake a peanut butter pie for Mikey, or just share a few minutes of conversation with a colleague over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - be thankful for this day, and the communities you are a part of.

SHARE | How has social media (or the relationships you nurture through social media) impacted your "real" life?

The Story of YOU (is really the story of US)

Monday was a new beginning for me. Not just a new week beginning, but a new decade beginning. A fresh start. A "round three." A clean slate. Why? Because on Monday, I turned 30. (I am still trying that declaration on for size.) As we are obligated to do with any milestone birthday, I decided to bid bon voyage to my twenties and welcome my thirties surrounded by a handful of my favorite people on the planet. I live in a little house. It was built sometime in the 30s. I chose to live there after a good friend (who happens to be an interior designer) shared her philosophy with me: "Buy the smallest space you can make work for you... in the nicest neighborhood you can afford." Essentially, quality over quantity. As it turns out, I love my little house. My only real complaint is the tiny kitchen. It would be generous to say there is an 8x8 square of floor space. It is walled on all sides. And ever since the first time I entertained in my little house, it left me longing for an open floor plan. Whenever anyone comes over, I find myself apologizing for the little kitchen. Frankly, the little kitchen irritates me.

So there we were on Saturday night, 20 or so of my nearest and dearest Greenvillains (I'm not sure if they realize I refer to them as such, but now they do...) strewn throughout the house, eating, drinking and reveling in a general sense of merriment. At one point in the evening, I glanced over my shoulder to discover that nearly all of the guests were crowded in the little kitchen. They were chatting and happy and enjoying each other's company - shoulder to shoulder, but nobody really seemed to mind.

In a moment so full of life and love - a little kitchen has never seemed so big.

When the last of my guests had left, I found myself giving thanks for the joy of dirty dishes, evidence of an evening well spent. And it gave me pause to reflect on the relationships in my life.

These most important relationships and people cannot be summed up by the "about me" section on a Facebook profile, but here is what I can tell you about them...

They are the kind of people who show up early, volunteering to help party-prep so you could enjoy the evening just a little bit more. They are the kind of people who bring your beloved dog a housewarming gift, too. They bring you homemade biscotti for the morning after - and wine for whenever. They are the kind of people who  pay attention to a dream you mentioned  in casual conversation, and months later, show up carrying the dream topped with a bow. They are the kind of people who arrive with a hug and take a hug one last hug for the road. They are the kind of people who can fill a little kitchen with so much light, you forget it is little at all.

For me, my birthday was less about celebrating me - and so much more about celebrating the people, experiences, choices and relationships that have filled the first 30 chapters of the Story of Me.

"Buy the smallest space you can make work for you... in the nicest neighborhood you can afford." It's a theory that applies to relationships, too. In a time where "more" is often equated with "better," many people have lost site of what really matters: quality. Fill your small space, your little kitchen, your one, precious life with the best people you can find. The best friends, the most passionate people, the believers, the celebrators, the enthusiasts, the dreamers and doers. Fill your days with people who care about and believe in something you care about and believe in, too.

These are the people who will show up to your party. These are the people who will get down in the trenches with you, and rise up and take a stand with you. These are the people who will not only tell, but help you write The Story of You.

Which, in the end, turns out to be less "The Story of You" - and more of "The Story of Us."

Who will tell your story?

The Joy of Dirty Dishes (and passion people)

A couple weeks ago I had a joyful opportunity to hostess a small dinner party for a few friends. Once the wine was gone and the candles has been blown out, I settled down behind the laptop and spontaneously fired off the e-mail below to a dear friend… I hate it when people leave, but I love the silent hum and hush that fills the house after a happy evening with people you love. I spent my childhood sneaking peeks at my parents’ parties, trying to figure out where that magic comes from. To this day, I still haven't been able to find the right word for it, but I know what it looks like. Empty wine bottles, corks here and there. Layers of plates stacked on top of one another. Plate, wadded up cocktail napkin, utensil. Plate, wadded up cocktail napkin, utensil.  Stacks of dirty dishes in the sink - and for just one night, nobody cares.

It leaves the empty spaces between walls and floors, foundations and ceilings radiating with life.

It's hard for me to imagine many other moments in life when I feel more acutely aware of the passing of time than in the hum and hush. These moments leave me feeling deeply blessed, wishing for a bigger dinner table...and more minutes, more years, more dinners, more cheers, more refills and popped corks and cups of coffee (I won't drink) with dessert.

If I ever write a cook book, I'm going to call it "The Joy of Dirty Dishes."

And I will mean it.

That night, something unusual happened. For hours upon hours, I didn’t think about updating my status, checking in or tweeting. I don’t even know where my phone was, but I can tell you it wasn’t at the dinner table.

Real life happens offline. The people and things we love cannot be reduced to a series of ones and zeros shuffling around in cyberspace, any more than the value of our connections can be quantified by our Facebook fan count.

When I tell people I work at a place called “Brains on Fire” – they perk up. It’s not like saying I work for [name of regional bank] or [big name retailer] or [law firm of So-and-So and So-and-So]. Usually there is a brief moment of silence as they try to process what they’ve just heard. Inevitably, following up with something along the lines of “Um…what is that?” Which ultimately leads into a conversation about what we do.

I think the dinner party model says it well. On a very basic level, what we do at Brains on Fire is bring people together. And not just any people – passion people. The kind of people you would invite into your home to sit at your dinner table. The kind of people you want to share a meal and a conversation with. The kind of people with whom you share relationships that make you completely forget about the noise of the latest technology trends. The kind of people who inspire you to be present and passionate in the moment. The kind of people and relationships and conversations that leave a resounding hum in the hush long after the chatter has stopped.

Whether you're a brand, a fan or just someone who stumbled across the blog googling dishwashing tips, give it some thought today.

Who would show up for your dinner party?

Bring Your Heart to Work Day

I have recently fallen in love with StumbleUpon. If you haven’t used StumbleUpon, you should. But probably not when you have anything important or pressing going on (like running errands, getting to an appointment on time or remaining gainfully employed), as it is one of those amazing tools that can easily take you on a three hour journey down the rabbit hole. I know, because I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week doing just that. A few nights ago, I was stumbling along, and the story below popped up as a suggested read...

Our 14 year old dog, Abbey, died last month. The day after she died, my 4 year old daughter Meredith was crying and talking about how much she missed Abbey. She asked if we could write a letter to God so that when Abbey got to heaven, God would recognize her. I told her that I thought we could so she dictated these words:

Dear God, Will you please take care of my dog? She died yesterday and is with you in heaven. I miss her very much. I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick. I hope you will play with her. She likes to play with balls and to swim. I am sending a picture of her so when you see her You will know that she is my dog. I really miss her. Love, Meredith.

We put the letter in an envelope with a picture of Abbey and Meredith and addressed it to God/Heaven. We put our return address on it. Then Meredith pasted several stamps on the front of the envelope because she said it would take lots of stamps to get the letter all the way to heaven. That afternoon she dropped it into the letter box at the post office. A few days later, she asked if God had gotten the letter yet. I told her that I thought He had.

Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, “To Meredith” in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called, “When a Pet Dies.” Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey & Meredith and this note:

Dear Meredith, Abbey arrived safely in heaven. Having the picture was a big help. I recognized Abbey right away. Abbey isn’t sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays In your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don’t need our bodies in heaven, I don’t have any pockets to keep your picture in, so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by.

Thank you for the beautiful letter and thank your mother for helping you write it and sending it to me. What a wonderful mother you have. I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings every day and remember that I love you very much. By the way, I am wherever there is love. Love, God

According to her mother, Meredith was comforted by the book and letter and was unastounded that God saw fit to write back. “She wasn’t surprised because she had such faith that her letter was going to get to God.” (The oldest of the Scrivener children, 6-year-old Andy, was impressed, though: He “thought it was pretty special his sister got a book from the angel,” says his mum.)

While Mrs. Scrivener considered asking at the post office about the package, she decided against it. “I kind of like not knowing,” she said. “I don’t know who took the time to do it, but it was an angel. We all think about doing these things, but no one takes the time to do it.”

Before you write off the story of Abbey and Meredith as another well-intentioned load of internet hooha, you should know that it has actually been confirmed as true by Snopes. As remarkable as the story is, what struck me as even more remarkable is that somewhere, someone working in the dead letter office took the time to perform a random act of kindness that changed a little girl's life. They didn't just do their job that day, they found a purpose.

Speaker Betty Bender once said, "When people go to work, they shouldn't have to leave their hearts at home."

Most of us spend at least 40 hours a week at work. We may not all have an opportunity to write a letter on behalf of God, but we can all make a difference somehow. As we embark on a fresh week, I challenge each of us to bring our hearts along for the ride. Let's make every day Bring Your Heart to Work Day.

Have you ever been the recipient of a random act of kindness? Do tell.

Know the Cleaning Lady: A Lesson in People

Hello! (I say with a smile) Once in a great while, the magic of internet serendipity passes something my way that gives me pause to stop and think. The following story is one such thing. Like so many bits of interweb wisdom, it seems nobody knows exactly where this came from for sure.

Know The Cleaning Lady

During my second month of college, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and had breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?"

Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade.

"Absolutely," said the professor. "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say "hello."

I've never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.

A wise book once said "It's about people, stupid." We will meet many people this week - clients, customers, colleagues, the checkout girl at Publix, the guy at the parking garage toll booth. All are significant. Be on the lookout for Dorothys, quiet leaders and silent heroes. Remember that each person that crosses our path is an opportunity for a touchpoint. Even if it's just a smile and a hello.

Be present with your people - and passionate about them.

Happy Monday, friends.

Be Remarkable.

Don't live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. | Wendy Wasserstein Last Friday, BOF kindred spirit (and resident massage therapist) Kim Herbert and I decided to venture beyond our usual dinner dives. Truth be told, Kim had a Groupon for a local Brazilian restaurant, so in the name of couponing, off we went.

The restaurant was modest, but it was filled with families and friends gathering to share a meal together. The staff was friendly, and clearly took pride in sharing the culinary traditions of their homeland.

After we had finished the last bites of our meals, the plates were cleared and we entered that strange post-meal phase when you're not quite ready to wind down the conversation, but feel like you're on borrowed time. Typically, it comes to an abrupt halt when the check is dropped on the table. A polite "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" moment. You know the one I'm talking about - it comes with a dinner mint as a parting gift.

Except this time the mints didn't come. We continued chatting away. Eventually, the owner's husband came by to say hello, ask about our meal and inform us that they don't bring checks to the table. Why? Because they don't want to rush people out. They want their patrons to feel relaxed, unhurried and able to enjoy the company of their dining companions.

As delicious as my dinner was, the food isn't what I will remember a month or year from now. What I will remember are the ten extra minutes of unhurried time I enjoyed with a friend. What I will remember is generosity of time and spirit, clearing a space for friendship and conversation. After many a hurried experience, it was - in a word - remarkable.

It was an important reminder that being remarkable doesn't always have to cost a lot of money. It doesn't always require case studies and focus groups. Being remarkable doesn't even have to be a big thing. Many times, remarkability is in the little things. And more often than not, finding your remarkable is as simple as putting the focus on people - your staff, your customers, your fans and your friends.

Or as volunteer firefighter Mark Bezos says, when it comes to being remarkable: "Not every day is going to offer us the chance to save somebody's life, but every day offers us an opportunity to affect one." You can check out the rest of his TED talk below...