Thoughts –> Words –> Meaning

My most valuable possessions cost an average of $6. And at the time of purchase, they usually feel a bit overpriced. But I buy them anyways, because I know what they will become. My journals start out as any other notebook, but accumulate their worth as I pour my thoughts onto their pages, store ideas and secrets within their binding, and piece together my emotions into meaning.

I didn’t intend to start a mini library of my life. I never intended to write for any audience other than myself. I simply started writing. And the only reason I allowed myself to write, was under the pretense that no one else would ever read it. But now, years later, I can honestly say that I became the person I am because I started writing.

Most of what I know about the world I learned through writing.  Most of what I know about myself I learned through writing.  And most of my ideas and the plans that made those ideas a reality began when I was sitting with a notebook and my thoughts. But the process of writing; of turning my thoughts into words and subsequently – sometimes – into meaning helped me (slowly) make sense of myself and my dreams.

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Writing about writing

There is something about the process of writing, of picking up a pen and organizing the thoughts in your head, of distancing yourself from the internal dialogue that otherwise exists only inside your head. You gain new perspective. You can focus on finding the roots of what your thinking and feeling. You can see new meaning and new opportunity.

I am a huge advocate for journaling/writing/reflecting. I include journaling in every class I teach. I am always encouraging my friends to “write it out”. It parallels creativity in my list of important skills to develop. For me, it was the foundation for developing metacognitive skills. And like I said, my journals are arguably my most valuable possessions. So with that, here are three common questions about this mysterious habit of “journaling”.

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Takeaways from Contagious (good book to skim)

Journaling… Is That Like Keeping a Diary?

I get that you don’t want a diary. I wouldn’t admit to that either. And that’s only one specific type of journaling. When I talk about journaling, I’m talking about taking the things in your head and putting them on paper for future reference. There is plenty to write about outside of your feelings (scary subject, I know.) You can journal notes on a book you just read. You can journal about your plans for the future. You can make a list of things that have been influencing you lately (music, movies, current issues or news, classes, conversations, etc.) But also don’t completely ignore those bigger, personal questions like figuring out what you are living for, what your fundamental needs are and what you believe in…

What does Journaling Look Like?

My journaling habits are always morphing. I prefer pen and paper, but if I’m getting picky I like editing my thoughts on a computer. I used to stick to the lines, to one color, to very linear thoughts. Now I prefer unlined, blank pages. I use color and different “font” sizes. Sometimes I make a list of thoughts or ideas. Sometimes I just keep trying to say the same thing in different ways to get it right.

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Different journals I have collected over time

My journaling habits are fairly sporadic. Sometimes I’ll write multiple times a week, sometimes I’ll go weeks without opening my journal. Sometimes I’ll just throw words on paper really quickly. Sometimes it’ll take me an hour just to even really start writing. Sometimes I filter my thoughts, other times they just fall onto the page.

What Am I Supposed to Journal About?

You might think of 5 words/phrases to document your day. Or pick a recent event/article/podcast and create notes about that. Right about things or people that inspire you. Write about the future or the past or some alternate reality where you have a super power.

Turns out other people have plenty of suggestions too… Google “journaling prompts” and voila, endless ideas. But even when you don’t think you do, often there is something below the surface to write about. A small “insignificant” memory from the day before. A silly story. A list of “Reasons Why ___” or “Advice for  _____”. Sometimes you just need to sit down and start writing. Aimlessly. About anything. Keep writing until you strike something that intrigues you. Julia Cameron presents this concept well in The Artist’s Way, she calls them Morning Pages.


Becoming the Multipotentialist I Always Was

I went to graduate school with the opposite intention of most people. I did not want to refine my expertise about one thing – I wanted to keep learning about a lot of new things.

I was starting to realize that that whole concept of a “career” did not quite fit my style, and more importantly that this was OK. No, that this was great. There are plenty of people trying to be civil engineers. There are very few people trying to blend environmental engineering with creativity, global development, experiential learning, and information science. I couldn’t have told you at the time but it was one of the biggest decisions I made, letting my inner nonconformist and creative speak up and start making “disjointed” decisions.

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My current library loans.

I gave myself permission to pursue the opportunities that appealed to me most, rather than the ones that made the most sense. I discovered how to channel my creativity to all areas of my life, not just the occasional craft project. I unearthed skills I had long forgotten I had. I took a videography class. I found passion for things I had written off on account of being too far outside my field. I took a class on Japanese tea culture. I realized all my BIG ideas and idealistic dreams were asking me to take action, and then started noticing how opportunities to do so kept popping up.

Since then, I have told as many people as possible that the most valuable, accessible, and interesting opportunities out there today exist in the unexpected intersects and overlaps of fields. You do not need to pick one thing. You should not only pick one thing. We need people who can blend expertise from many fields, who can see from many perspectives, and who can approach the world as the complex, interconnected unified system that it is.

Turns out there’s a lot of others out there who went through a similar transformation, and my guess is there are even more waiting for that to happen. There’s a great book out there called The Renaissance Soul I’d suggest to anyone with an inkling this is them, and even a multipotentialite tribe congregating on the internet.

My parting advice: TRY DOING EVERYTHING – and don’t feel bad about it. Make yourself uniquely qualified to do something uniquely you.

The Art of Expanding Possibilities

People will continue to redefine creativity in their own words but my favorite definition will always be the art of expanding possibilities. To me, it’s this aspect of creativity that makes it so powerful. When you see the world as a space of infinitely unfolding possibilities it is easier to see room for the world you want to create. And if you can envision the world you want to create you can start down a path of creating that world.

I have done my share of wondering where this world is headed, had my share of pessimistic thoughts about our collective future, and gotten trapped in un-motivating thoughts of personal and societal failure. But ever since I have adopted a creative mindset, specifically a mindset that allows me to design my own possibilities, I’ve found myself with less pessimism and more optimism. There is a freeing empowerment when you can accept the state of the world at large while acknowledging the realm of what you can influence.

With a flexible mind you can argue that every single one of us changes the world, yet conversely no one has truly extended their influence so far as to change the whole world. We are not asked to. We are asked to influence those around us positively. We are asked to come alive. We are asked to live as well as we possible can, and to continue to stretch that further as we grow.

I’ve been doing a lot of life coaching lately (informally, for friends and family and formally, for students I am teaching) and I have seen the effects of people promised happiness (usually the wrong kind; the flashy commercial kind), of people with endless possibilities before them (paralyzed by too many choices), of people chasing our society’s definition of success only to be left with a lifestyle that leaves them empty.

There are alternatives. But they do require an alternative way of thinking.

My best advice (shorthand) is to start small, to start now, to start with only a next step not a life plan. Pick something. Pick one thing or two things that you are confident you like or confident you want to explore. Focus on designing an opportunity that encompasses those. From there you will start to see the expanding possibilities of where that will lead.

More on this to come. Or if a conversation seems more appropriate, email me: I’d love to hear from you.

Go on, it’s out there. Go ahead and find your bliss.

I am one of the lucky ones; the ones who does not consider my work “work”. But what if we were all this lucky?  In fact, why isn’t it an expectation rather than a dream to find satisfaction and joy in work? Or is it and we are just executing our expectations wrong?

I can’t speak for everyone but I know that I need my work to be engaging, purposeful, social, challenging and at times overwhelming. I am happiest when I am creating things that help others, when I have multiple projects all happening at once, when I have flexibility and freedom to run with ideas (and run I will). I think I even prefer a bit of chaos to order. I have found the work style and lifestyle that makes me happy. I have found my ideal or at least something so great that I can’t imagine wishing for better.

And now that I have found this bliss, all I want is for everyone around me to be able to say the same. That’s why I sneak as much life advice as possible to students when I am teaching. That’s why I nudge (sometimes push) my friends and family to make choices that get them closer to this dream, often flooding them with ideas and resources and inspiration.

Maybe it’s my internal optimism but I do not see why we can’t all design a lifestyle and life’s work we love. (“Job” “career” or even “profession” seem far too narrow to describe how we need to see ‘the-thing-we-spend-most-of-our-time-doing and earn-most-of-our-resources-from’).

I have too many thoughts to fit in a blog post to truly explain why and how this seems so realistic but it stems from this quote I just read and taking a good, long, informed, and open-minded look at what you truly need to survive and what you truly need to be happy. Money is part of it. Location is another. The ability to go out to eat, wear expensive clothes, and feed our technology addiction are others.

photo (17)There are a lot of variables to consider but more importantly is the ability to see these options clearly, to simplify, to envision alternatives, and to know the true expenses and benefits of different aspects of our lifestyle.

At one point or another everything we have –all our responsibilities, our possessions, our emotional baggage – we said “yes” to. We accepted into our lives. And every day we have the choice to reconsider that yes and remold our life and re-situate our responsibilities.

If you are reading this you are part of the 1% and you have the freedom to be happy – but too often it’s our past “yeses” that are weighting us down.

5 Reasons Why Being an Engineer is Essential to My Life as a Creative

If I am being honest, I did not feel like I learned much about creativity while getting my undergraduate degree in civil engineering – at least not explicitly, and not much about the first part of the creative process: having ideas. But I did learn a ton about the second part: bringing ideas to be.

And this second part – the part where you take an idea you are passionate about and turn it into reality – this is where most people get stuck. Some common conclusions of what starts as a great idea are: Hitting a road bump and losing momentum. Losing sight of how the big picture connects to the finer details that need to get done. A lack of clarity as to what an appropriate process for implementation looks like.

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The creativity model we developed at U of I

Why does my background in engineering help me avoid these common pitfalls? A lot of it boils down to these five reasons.

  1. I know how to get things done – even when I’m certain I have no clue what the final solution looks like, even when I know it is going to take a lot of grunt work to get there, even when there are way more unknowns than knowns in the equation. Because in engineering classes this is almost always the case. During undergrad I became comfortable working in this type of daunting environment, and now? It’s where I excel.
  2. I can fluidly think about big picture things all the way down to minor details. I have a lot of grandiose ideas lately (I’ve still got that stubborn determination to change the world one day) but I also know how to scale them down into something that I can accomplish in the next 6 months, 2 weeks, even 4 hours. It’s a matter of laying out: What is our goal? What resources do we have to work with? And how can we create something that meets both constraints?
  3. Along those lines, I have what is likely a very common “Confession of an Engineer”: In the back of my mind, I am always thinking about efficiency. Can we be getting this done faster? Is using that expensive option really necessary or can we bootstrap something? Do we all need to work on this part or can we divide and conquer?
  4. I find a certain kind of adrenaline kick when challenging myself to succeed beyond my perceived ability. In engineering, if what I was doing wasn’t hard work – I was probably doing it wrong. But if I worked hard enough I could not just get by but excel. After four years, (OK in actuality this trait might have started long before college…) working hard seeped deep into the depths of my being. But the thing about the work I do now is I find it challenging AND fun. If my new forms of hard work are this much fun, I’m that much more inclined to get things done.
  5. I can easily shift back and forth between creative (divergent) thinking and critical (convergent) thinking. Learning how my mind works has enabled me to turn on and off certain types of thinking. You need a variety of thinking types as you move through the creative process. Also worth a mention is empathic thinking – the ability to understand how others would feel or think about something. This mental flexibility comes in handy in many other ways. Really in just about every way.

To me, this process feels natural:

Analyze a problem (critical thinking), envision a solution (creative thinking), consider how other will react to this solution (empathic thinking), and sketch out the path and how much energy it will take to get from A to B (critical thinking).

True creativity – have ideas and bringing them to be – takes more than a creative mind, it takes a refined work ethic. Something engineering certainly prepared me for.


The Best Life Advice I Ever Got

20140710_155926Don’t ask what the world needs.

Ask what makes you come alive

 -and then go do it.

Because what the world needs

is people who have come alive.

    -Howard Thurman

If I heard this quote before July 9th, 2014 I don’t remember. But since that day I will never forget it. There’s a long serendipitous story behind this involving a desperate message to a friend and a total stranger convincing me to do something I had been resistant of my whole life – but that can wait.

I like this quote for 3 reasons: It’s freeing, efficient, and TRUE.

First: freeing

You know what feeling stinks? Guilt. You know what often comes along with doing the things we love these days? Guilt. This spring I spent 4 months road tripping and throughout the entire journey I would occasionally get hit with this wave of guilt. “Waking up and doing what I want everyday is so self-indulgent.” “I should be being ‘productive’.” “Other people need this time off more than I do.”

But those thoughts are so twisted and terrible. Roadtrip Life will forever be one of the best things I do in life. I felt alive every single day. We brought joy with us everywhere we went. We met so many people, spread so much love, and hopefully soaked up enough joy of our own to power us through at least a school year of mentoring students.

This quote takes what we might consider selfish hobbies and says so clearly that this is actually the best thing you can do, not just for yourself but for the world.*

*I think there is some assumption that ‘what makes you come alive’ is not destructive to other humans, animals, or nature.

Second: It’s efficient. 

You don’t need money, or big houses, or lots of disposable/replaceable/destructible things. You simply need to identify the things that make you feel most alive and devote the bulk of your time and energy to those things.

The reality commercialism doesn’t want you to realize:

The purpose of having enough money to live comfortable is so that you can have the time and resources to do the things that make you come alive.

But when we get caught up in the complications of too many things, too many bills, to much mental exhaustion. Streamline this process: simply do the things you love doing for work. This way of working might not be worth as much monetarily, but you won’t need nearly as much money when you are naturally happy.

Lastly, it’s TRUE.

The world is about experiences. In the end, that is all we get from life: an experience. The worst way to spend this limited-time experience is to not be “alive” for it. I’m sure you can think of people who are not alive, people who have been going through the daily grind so long they are numb. They might be “successful” “happily married” or most likely, “well-off”. But if they are not alive then they are missing life itself.  That $7000 vacation they just took? Those picturesque photos they constantly post? Not worth any of it unless you are alive for it.

Being so happy you could cry. Smiling so big or laughing so hard it hurts. Feeling your heart beat in your chest: from exhaustion, from nerves, from terror, from complete silence, from a desire so strong your heart aches. Staring in awe at the world.

Moments when you feel this much do not fade from your memory. And they do not need to be few and far between.

I hope you are familiar with this feeling. Because if not, I think it is time to go find it.


Ok, if you really want the backstory: July 9th was one of those days I was lost in my head, looking for someone who could relate to the guilt of being privileged. I sent my friend a rambling message to which he responded something along the lines of “Get over it” and this quote. A few hours later, I am walking down the streets of Boston and decided not to resist the flyer being pushed into my hand. I wound up talking to Nika, this amazing woman with an amazing story who had overcome much worse than being ignored or glared at while street marketing. She mentioned this quote she had just heard which I am not making this up was the exact same quote. Let’s just say 45 minutes later I was convinced Plan International was a cause worth supporting. So now Fatima in South Sudan is the girl I will never meet but who reminds me to come alive.

From Where I Stand

I am one of those people who can get lost in my own photo (10)head. After getting caught up in a whirlwind of new thoughts and ideas, I sometimes emerge and wonder if it is possible to be in this world but not actually be a part of it. Then there are days I’m hyper aware of what is going on around me, watch other people move through the world in similarly detached or disjointed states of existence. Look around… We are living through the screens of our fancy phones. We are absorbed in our area of expertise. We are outspoken about the issue we have made our own yet silent on so many others. We are all guilty of treating others as less than human. We are all innocent on account of being human.

It was in one of these moments when I re-emerged from the thoughts in my head and wondered once again if it is possible to get pechakucha176away from myself. Is it possible to escape living in a self-centered world? To know THE World through something other than the mind in my head that creates MY World.  So far my efforts to experience THE World in pure form tend to get swept up in a perpetual focus on me.  

Well later that night I found myself at a Pecha Kucha event conveniently themed: ‘From Where I Stand’.  I spent the rest of the night getting glimpses into 9 people’s worlds through 9 very different passions. I left further certain that to an extent we all exist within ourselves, but that through shared experiences and dialogue we can share these worlds.

But what this really got me thinking about, was the difference between the physical space we occupy and the mental space we occupy – and how our feet are usually the one thing that bridge these seemingly incompatible spaces.  And when I think about our feet, I think about the power they give us to choose where we stand.  Which in turn gives us the powphoto (9)er to choose how we integrate our physical world into our mental world and vice versa.  Where we stand both literally and metaphorically determines how we interact with THE World and how each of us creates that space in your head that becomes YOUR World.

So what does YOUR World look like? Are you standing in the place you should be?

A New Face for the Familiar

I have a slight phobia of the familiar.

It’s come on a bit strong lately, since for the past 8 months I have made it my job to be a full time adventurer.  In that time, I developed a constant craving for novelty, a caffeine-like addiction to the photo (7)thrill of exploring new places. So my return to champaign, a city I can navigate backwards and blindfolded, has brought with it mixed feelings.  Ok if I’m honest, it’s brought a moment or two of terror where I am tempted to get in my car and not stop until I’ve crossed a state line (because that’s what we do when we’re scared, right Allison?)  But then I’ll return to one of my favorite places or a group of familiar faces and be flooded with memories and fondness for this town.  As I settle in to the comfort of familiarity, I am reminded of the benefits of being rooted, of knowing which park to run to and which door to knock on.  And once I allow myself to sink into this familiarity I am finding a new flow of thoughts, of voice, and of ideas.  It is reminding me that the thrill of expression, that tease of the next big thing I want to work on, these are things you can’t always have when you’re life is a whirlwind.

There is a flashy beauty that comes with novelty, but there is welcoming glow that comes with familiarity.  And as my eyes adjust to this new light, I am starting to see this familiar place in a new way.

Turns out this town isn’t done surprising me yet. Thanks for being endlessly inspiring Champaign.  It’s good to be back.

The Process of Experiencing

To me, the most valuable thing in life is experiences. And over the past few years I’ve started to notice something about experiences; the experience itself isn’t the whole thing.  First there is the anticipation, the preparation, the mental and physical readying yourself for what is ahead. Then there is the experience itself, for which, I have learned, it is helpful to be fully present. And after, there is the remembering; the reflection, the solidifying of certain elements of the experience in your mind.

photo (5)This is one of the reasons I actually prefer long journeys to get from A to B – you can use the transportation time to mentally prep for and reflect on the experience. I remember sitting on the plane to Kenya, pen in hand, listening to Trent Dabbs, grateful that I had 16 hours in airports to square away memories from home before befriending the new students, new teachers, and the new family that was waiting for me in Nairobi. I remember staying up far too late the night before to post this before I left, knowing I wouldn’t be able to write from the same mindset after I left.

The more I recognize the importance of this process, the more I realize how easy it is to pass over. Its hard to not schedule things back to back, to come home and tell your family and friends “I’m so happy to see you… my trip was great… give me some time and I’ll tell you about it.” I tend to process things introspectively and typically find myself needing some time and space before and after any major life changes.

There are of course many different ways to prepare for and reflect on an experience, but by not utilizing any of them we are robbing ourselves of some of the richest parts of our experiences. Conversation, journaling, packing, unpacking, looking back at pictures, reading relevant books or blogs, any of it – all of it – seems to help me make the most of the amazing experiences I’ve been privy to. To experience the experience well we must proceed through the whole process of experiencing: the before, the during, and the after.

101 Things in 1001 Days

There’s this challenge my friend Jenna introduced me to called “101 Things in 1001 Days”. Basically you make a bucket list that has to be completed in 1001 days – just over 33 months. It’s a fun way to dream up things you want to do and then start acting on them. Making sure to tick off one every ten days or so.

Mine is from June 3, 2014 – February 28th, 2017.  38 days in and I’ve completed 6 of them!  The Day Zero Project is a website with ideas from other people’s list and it will help you make your own.

1. Learn more constellations and their stories
2. Bike from Chicago to Milwaukee
3. Go to a living room concert
4. Host couchsurfers
5. Fund an idea on Kickstarter
6. Go a month without any processed food
7. Build a sandcastle
8. Climb a mountain
9. Take a painting class
10. Go 6 months without buying anything new
11. Host/create a monthly dinner party
12. Teach something & learn something in a learn-a-thon
13. Avoid cars for a week
14. Write a book
15. Swim in all of the Great Lakes
16. Compete in a triathalon
17. Go on a multi-day bike ride
18. Grow a vegetable garden
19. Hike part of the Appalacian Trail
20. Organize an overnight canoe/kayak ride
21. Learn how to sew well enough to hem pants, repair buttons, etc.
22. Give a stranger something worth over $200
23. Organize a community event
24. Go to a drive in movie theater
25. Sew yourself an outfit
26. Make ice cream
27. Become a better tennis player
28. Start a new annual tradition
29. Spend a day in silence
30. Knit a hat for someone
31. Serve in a food kitchen
32. Strike up conversations with strangers everyday for a week
33. Give up added sugar for a month
34. Go on a solo backpacking trip
35. Run a 6 minute mile
36. Make 3 more short movies
37. WWOOF in a new state
38. Learn survival skills
39. Read 20 more classics
40. Make a friend over 60
41. Learn the basics of car repair
42. Learn the basics of bike repair
43. Perform poetry
44. Take a dance class
45. Give a chapel talk at Onaway
46. Go to Scandanavia
47. Organize a trip for students
48. Practice and perform a story
49. Become a mentor
50. Create a public art piece
51. Build something out of wood and nails
52. Go on a trip with my mom
53. Help someone get their first library card
54. Paint something worthy of a wall and a frame
55. Lead a soul collage workshop
56. Get a mentor
57. Read books by authors from 5 foreign countries
58. Rekindle an old friendship
59. Author a collection of 30 poems
60. Become proficient in Illustrator/InDesign
61. Make (vegetarian) sushi
62. Go to Maine
63. Visit Sam in Boston
64. Sponsor a kid to go to summer camp
65. Go on a winter camping trip
66. Go a week without the Internet
67. Make something out of clay
68. Go on a sisters trip
69. Go on Roadtrip Round 2 (and three..)
70. Make another calendar
71. Buy a nice camera
72. Keep a “My Day in Six Words” journal for 2 months
73. Take a picture for each letter of the alphabet
74. Complete a 2 month photo challenge
75. Write a letter to myself to be opened after the 1001 days is over
76. Leave an inspirational note inside a book for someone to find
77. Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity
78. Leave a 100% tip
79. Participate in BookCrossing
80. Sleep in a blanket fort
81. Walk barefoot in the snow
82. Answer the “50 Questions That Will Free Your Mind”
83. Make a list of 100 things that make me very happy
84. Memorize a poem
85. Plant a tree
86. Go swimming in the sea at night
87. Visit an old teacher
88. Organize photographs from when I was a kid
89. Dance in public like no one is watching
90. Bike to work for a month straight
91. Throw a surprise birthday party
92. Join a food coop
93. Sketch something everyday for a month
94. Continue Gratitude Ambushing
95. Get to know someone who is barely holding it together
96. Play chess/checkers in a park
97. Make acroyoga friends
98. Start a storytelling project
99. Speak at a conference
100. Get a tattoo
101. Run a Ragnar race