October 31, 2010

You Are Going To Die

You are going to die. I am going to die. We are going to die. Tunga and I were just watching "What About Bob?" and there is this wonderful scene where a young boy named Siggy talks to Bob and says these lines. Bob, played by Bill Murray, is terrified. He already has a wide range of psychological problems which he feels define him, but this is a bit too much for him to handle. The look in his eyes is hilarious but understandable, it’s the same look that many people have when they consider the idea. You are going to die.

That’s the fact though, isn’t it? It’s not like it’s a surprise to us. It’s a part of life we can all count on, the end part. And it’s also not surprising to us that we probably won’t know when it’s going to happen. One moment we will be breathing, the next moment we won’t. It might happen in a car, in a plane, at the breakfast table, walking down the street, who knows. Very, very rarely do we have any clue when we will die. So, we know it will happen, we know we probably can’t predict when, and yet we prefer not to think about it. Why in the world would we prefer not to think about it?

I like to think the more we think about it, the better we begin to live our lives. If you consider the possibility that you will die next week, petty frustrations become obvious, life becomes less of a bother and every interaction becomes more precious. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul, a wonderful book I highly recommend,
"Let’s say you’re living life without the thought of death, and the Angel of Death comes to you and says, “Come on, it’s time to go,” You say, “But no. You’re supposed to give me a warning so I can decide what I want to do with my last week. I’m supposed to get one more week.” Do you know what Death will say to you? He’ll say, “My God! I gave you fifty-two weeks this past year alone. And look at all the other weeks I’ve given you. Why would you need one more? What did you do with all those?” If asked that, what are you going to say? How will you answer?"

Since joining Peace Corps I have started to take my life a lot less for granted. I regularly reflect on the idea that today could be the last day, remember that I probably won’t know when it’s going to happen, and try to live the best I can and not spend too much time on the small stuff.

The end of the scene in “What About Bob?” is fitting. After accepting that they are going to die, Bob and Siggy wake up the entire family by jumping up and down on their beds (they are bunking together that night) while screaming profanities at each other pretending to have tourette syndrome and laughing about how life could be worse. It could be over after all.

October 23, 2010

Why You Should Consult Your Advisors Often

"The best effect of fine persons is felt after we have left their presence."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Moving to the other side of the planet probably wouldn't change who your trusted advisors were, I know it hasn't for me. They are the people who have been with us, sometimes since kindergarten, who know who we really are. If you find someone like that, even just one, they are worth holding onto.

Yet, somehow we forget to hold onto them. Now that technology has sped up our lives it's tempting for us to be doing something, anything, ever second. It’s easy to forget what's most important to us. We fight so many little fires during the day - filling up our time with urgent things that aren’t that important - that we put off that letter we wanted to write back to our friend, or that conversation we've been meaning to have.

In Stephen Covey's famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he uses a great example. If you have a jar, he says, and two groups of rocks – one group big and one group small – how would you go about filling the jar? If you put the small rocks in first, the big rocks won’t all fit in later. But if you put the big rocks in first, the small rocks will fall all around them and both can fill the jar. The analogy to our lives focuses on priorities – if we put first things first then all of the more urgent things fall into place around the more important things.

I would argue that your advisors, the people who inspire you, encourage you and support you, are big rocks you should always put in your life first. The technology that has sped up our lives has also given us an unique opportunity to contact others in more ways than ever before. Finding the time to Skype together, talk on the phone, meet in person or write letters will pay you back tremendously. You can start today by just making the time for one big rock - one call, one meeting or one letter - and see what a difference it makes.

October 19, 2010

How to Raise $1000 for Your Cause

Fundraising can be very difficult and frustrating, but also a very rewarding and necessary activity. Over the past few years I have watched several of my close friends raise thousands of dollars for projects and charities through running marathons, asking for money to help disadvantaged students travel abroad, and even help pay medical costs and save the lives of their friends. After watching them closely, and raising funds for worthy causes myself, I think I have seen some qualities which great fundraisers seem to share.

Being Sincere and Having Integrity
This can't be overstated. Through the life you lead and the places you put your own money, people will watch you much more closely than they listen to you. If you demonstrate your commitment to an idea by putting your heart into it, people will notice. And if you want someone to part with their money, which they have worked hard to earn, they will want sincerity and integrity from you as the fundraiser. I've been humbled by this more than once, when someone doesn't even need to hear the entire explanation behind why I need to raise money for a cause. They just smile, say "I trust you" and give me much more than I was asking for.

Giving Yourself
In a similar way, the great fundraisers I have watched gave a tremendous amount to the projects or charities they were championing. Sometimes this meant money, but more often it meant time and energy. You can demonstrate your commitment to an idea through letters, personal conversations, events and even running, swimming and cycling for miles on end. People are inspired by energetic leaders who don't say, "You first," they say, "Come on, I'll go first."

Openness to Ways People Can Help
Allowing people to help you in more ways than just giving money can be hugely... helpful. A lot of incredible people will be ready to give you their skills, time and energy if you say the right words. Being open when you approach someone and figuring out what they love to do might unlock a door into your work that you couldn't have predicted. Maybe the person you are talking with can help you make a website to promote your cause, or share your charity within a club they love, or take photos for you or get donations from their professional contacts. The list goes on and on. If you show an interest in what they love to do, they will probably return the favor and help you out in surprising ways.

Following Through
This is very personal and can be taken in creative directions, but it revolves around both the cause and the supporters. I've seen people send out monthly updates, thank you notes, certificates, personal letters and individual communication - all which help people feel appreciated. People often give without wanting anything in return, but being thanked and shown how what they did made a difference can be very rewarding. Think about why people would want to give to your cause or ask them why they did, and then try to honor that in some way. It's a nice touch that people appreciate.

When it comes down to it, fundraising is about asking people to share their priorities out in the open. Money, time and energy are resources which demonstrate what we care about and what we feel like are worthwhile causes and experiences. Not everyone agrees on the specifics certainly, but I have found that respecting others, listening to them to understand what matters to them most and trying to find out how we can work together and help each other really goes a long way. I think deep down everyone wants to do good and offer what they can to help. In fact, I am regularly surprised by how much people will give when you ask them if they could.

October 16, 2010

On Writing A Fulbright Research Grant

Just today I finished a process which began over a year ago: understanding, designing and submitting a Fulbright research grant. In January I will know if my application made it past the National Screening Committee to the final round, and in April I will know whether I was accepted as a Fulbright Fellow for the 2011-2012 year. However, before all of that I wanted to share a little bit here to catch everyone up to speed.

About Fulbright
The Fulbright Program began, much like the Peace Corps, when a United States Senator decided he wanted to help "bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship." Since 1946, the program started by Senator J. William Fulbright has sent over 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists to and from more than 150 countries worldwide. Now the Fulbright Program includes more than a dozen different programs, including the U.S. Student Program for which I applied.

About My Research
With my intended Fulbright research I hope to dive deeper into a field which I have loved for a very long time: meditation. My research is titled Mindfulness Meditation and Health in Mongolia and the primary aim of this research study is to develop a deeper understanding of mindfulness meditation, how it is affecting the Mongolian people and what that means for the future. The findings and resources developed will bring together organizations and community members, encourage dialogue and cooperation, create publications and integrate valuable information for future generations in partnership with national and international health organizations.

About The Process
The Fulbright application for a research grant (in addition to a personal essay and lots of background information) requires a detailed proposal which explains the who, what, when, where, why and how behind the research you plan to do. Here you can view my application, including my personal essay and my grant proposal. Additionally an applicant must have letters of recommendation and letters of affiliation from organizations inside the host country where they wish to conduct research. My proposed affiliation in Mongolia will be with the National University of Education's School of Psychology. 

Thank You's
Since I began tracking my activities a year ago, I have had the encouragement, help and support of many incredible people. These included close friends, professors, monks, fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and lots of new friends along the way. Thank you Dale, Annie, Dr. Metz, Tunga, Dr. Weaver, Shaw, Jim, Taylor, Tsoogii, Terendondov, Brian, Chase, Amy, Darren, Mom, Dad, Katie, Dr. Guzman, John, David, Ankhaa, Dr. Barry, Jenn, Dr. Bartlett, Nomin, Dr. Hubbard and Erica. We still have a long way to go, but it's been wonderful so far and I know it will keep getting better. Thank you all so much!

More Information
To learn more about my intended research visit travishellstrom.com/research
And to learn more about the various Fulbright Programs visit wikipedia.org
Also, to received monthly updates on this and other projects visit travishellstrom.com/updates

October 12, 2010

How The 80/20 Rule May Matter For You

You might have heard of the 80/20 rule. Also known as the the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule has a variety of interpretations and implications throughout business, economics and popular teachings. In general the rule states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

For instance...
  • In health care in the United States, it has been found that 20% of patients use 80% of health care resources.
  • Several criminology studies have found that 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals.
  • In Microsoft by fixing the top 20% most reported bugs, 80% of the errors and crashes were eliminated. 
  • In his book, Tim Ferriss recommends focusing one's attention on those 20% of things that contribute to 80% of a person's income as well as letting go of those 20% of customers who take up 80% of one's time and cause the most trouble.

In my life I have found an 80/20 situation which you might find you are in sometimes too...
  • I can get a tremendous amount of work done (80%) in a very short period of time (20%) when I am passionate, focused and free of worry. 
  • However, when I worry, procrastinate and nit-pick at stuff I find myself spending a huge amount of time (80%) on a very small amount of work (20%). 
  • I found this was especially true with the Unofficial Handbook, writing on this blog and working on projects.
The take home lesson for me has been focusing on the passionate 20% time and letting go of the worrisome 80% whether I am writing, working on projects or trying to prioritize my time. If you find yourself worrying, agonizing over the tiniest details, or getting stuck in some random fear, feel free to label it as that 80% and let it go. It's probably not worth it in the long run.

October 9, 2010

Starting Our Unofficial Community

The Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook has been a long-running project that I began almost four years ago when I was applying to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. It is based on the idea that we (applicants, trainees, volunteers) all go through experiences that are shared around the world and make us part of the Peace Corps community. I kept track of my questions, as well as questions that other people have shared with me, and then wrote down answers to those questions a little bit every month. In August, the Unofficial Handbook was released as a paperback and hardcover book and there are already copies on several continents around the globe!

It took a lot of time and hard work, but it's been very rewarding and especially wonderful to connect with so many volunteers worldwide. We had an incredible team of people come together to share stories, advice and wisdom and we have received wonderful comments and support from dozens of readers. It's really been amazing to be in contact with so many great people all around the world including returned volunteers, experienced volunteers in the field, trainees leaving America, applicants getting their invitations in the mail from Peace Corps, and people just starting their applications. I feel very fortunate and humbled to have access to technology that allows us to share our experiences and reach out to help each other no matter where we are.

This really is only the beginning. We are raising hundreds of dollars for Peace Corps projects, starting great conversations about an incredible organization and sharing wonderful experiences with people all over the world.  I look forward to connecting more with incredible people in our Unofficial Peace Corps community for many months to come.