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Leaving Well

04/12/2017

A few years ago, I joined a club/leadership group called Chicago Global Shapers.

It’s a chapter-based program for young entrepreneurs and leaders founded by the World Economic Forum. I felt way out of my league when I joined and I still do. Over the past few years, we’ve worked together on various volunteer projects in Chicago. And several of the members have inspired me with their work and supported me as I pursue my own endeavors.

But over the past year, my participation has declined. The combination of building Ei combined with an array of personal matters have required more time alone or with close friends and family.

I thought I could fade into the shadows, but that’s a bad way to leave a group – especially a group of friends and peers.

Thankfully, two of the group’s leaders reached out to check in and ask how I was doing and if I wanted to continue participating. They would have had every right to be frustrated, but instead, they were kind and gracious. Our mandatory annual retreat was approaching and they asked if I could participate. When I told them I wouldn’t be able to attend and that I should bow out of the group, they asked if I wanted to share any words with the crew. Another sweet offer.

It reminded me that leaving anything well requires consistent and thoughtful communication. The sooner you communicate, the better. And the more honest you are, the more you keep bridges in tact for the future.

I didn’t do those things, but thanks to those leaders, Elle & Sarah, I had a chance to share the few words below.

If you’re thinking about leaving… 
Remember that it’s ok to do so. But do your best to leave well. Address it sooner than later, be honest about where you are and why, and share gratitude for the time you had.

The way you leave may be one of the most memorable and impactful things you do as you navigate your work and relationships. Leave well, and you’ll help everyone involved be well.

Happy Wednesday,
Victor
________

Dear Shapers,

Recently, I stumbled on a note from one of my best friends. The note was written five years ago, almost to the day.

In it, my friend spoke about the ways he was seeing me change as I pursued my own endeavors. He was proud of me, but he also cautioned me about newfound tendencies he’d begun to notice. I remember it was a hard note to receive. But it was necessary. Very few people had such a close view into my life as this friend.

It was helpful to read it again five years later. Thanks to a few dear friends, I’ve kept some of those tendencies at bay. But a few of them have become habits and are now things I am now working through. [No, I’m not going to list them here.]

The point is that someone in my life was brave and thoughtful enough to notice my blind spots and call them out. With his help, I saw things I was missing. And even though I’ve stumbled a few times, I’m a much better person because of his courage and voice in my life.

When I think about a strong community like the Shapers, I think about being that kind of voice for one another. Not just people who make things together, but people who work through things together. When we do so, our eyes, hands, and hearts are multiplied by the number of people in the community.

It’s magic.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been that for many of you lately. I can blame it on being busy or a personal life that’s taken heavy hits, but there are no excuses. I simply haven’t been able to invest the time that this group deserves. I’m sorry for that.

Still it’s been a joy to be on the periphery. I’ve seen as you’ve worked through audacious Impact Projects, hosted meaningful Learn & Serve events, and kept the group moving forward through leadership changes. And you’ve done all of this by sending a mere 1,364,234 emails. Amazing.

Kidding, of course.

Thank you for letting me be part of such a special group. And thanks for speaking into my life at various times. You’ve given me counsel about Ei’s new programs, helped to launch Leap Kit, given me personal advice, and sent flowers and notes over the past several months. Your kindness is beautiful.

I’ll be stepping down from Shapers, but I won’t be far. If you need a hand, personally or professionally, I’ll always try to help or lend an ear. I know you will too.

And as you spend the weekend together, I hope you will be brave with your words to one another. Listen closely and share the things that need to be said. Your collective courage and investment in one another may be your greatest contribution during your time as a Shaper. It will lead you to your best work in this city and beyond.

In the words of the late Samuel Mockbee, Proceed…and be bold.  

Gratefully,
Victor

Try #2

04/05/2017

Over the past sixteen months, a few friends and I have been working on an idea. The first time we tried it, it didn’t quite work. But starting today, it has another four weeks to fly.

Rather than tell you about our story afterwards, I’m going to share it along the way.

Here’s the idea:
Create a semester-long work/study program that helps college students launch their career earlier while still earning full credit towards their college degree. It’s called Leap Semester.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Isn’t that what internships are for?”

Nope. Internships aren’t fully accredited. A student may earn 3-6 credits. We wanted this program to be a full 15 credits per semester.

“How about study abroad?”

Kinda. Study abroad is fully accredited. But you’re still in a class for the majority of your time.

Both of these experiences can be great. However, we’re curious about students being in the workplace and delivering real work to real companies & organizations, and earning full credit.

Last Summer, our team at Experience Institute and our partners at SAGE Corps ran a prototype without a college partner. It went really well and we knew we were onto something. Then, we struck up a conversation with Columbia College Chicago, a media arts school down the street from our offices.

We worked rigorously to see if we could prototype the program this Spring. We launched in November and had a 2-week window to find ten students. We were on campus nearly every day: in classrooms, in the career center, on sidewalks, etc.

Good news! 
We found students who wanted to participate!

Bad News!
Academia is complex. We learned we hadn’t completed all of the necessary paperwork to run the program together. Also, students couldn’t use financial aid yet.

So we pressed pause and went back to the conference rooms.

The past three months have been packed with meetings, documents, and calls. It’s hard to explain why it was so difficult in a few words, so let’s try an equation:

college leadership + faculty + accrediting bodies + curriculum that will be completed in-person & online + career center + financial aid + travel & housing + companies =  OMG

And that’s the shorthand.

More Good News!
As of last week, we have the green light from all parties to try again.

The program is now fully embedded into a college. Students from Columbia College Chicago OR any other higher education program in the country can apply to participate. If they’re accepted, they’ll even be able to use their financial aid to participate in the program (upon receiving confirmation from their institution).

That’s great, right?

Mostly.

It took a long time for us to get to this point. So long that we now have to find a way to find students amidst a busy, noisy end-of-year season. Most college students are in a mad-rush to register for fall classes and figure out summer plans.

Let’s give it a go!
We’ve partnered with the Career Center, the Office of the Provost, our printing partners at Graphic Arts Studio, and a slew of friends to begin spreading the word.

It’s taken a long time and a lot of great people (SAGE Corps, Columbia College Chicago, a group of awesome students, and a few dear friends), but we’re ready to give this a second try.

If you know someone who should participate, we’re accepting nominations here and applications here. And the deadline to apply is April 28th.

In any case, I’ll let you know what happens next.

And whatever you’re working on today…if it feels like it didn’t work the first time, it might just need a second try.

Thanks for sharing the journey,

Victor

Fixing the Washer

03/29/2017

He was as old-school Chicagoan as you can get.
Loud. Plump. Simultaneously respectful and slightly crass. Nice. Hard working.

I’ve never had to fix a washer. It’s a big machine, so it seemed intimidating.

I’d watched several videos and discovered that the issue with mine was the boot seal – the large, rubber piece between the front-loading washer door and the rest of the machine. If compromised, water leaks. And water was leaking.

Even though I’d watched several repair videos, I still decided to hire someone. For the sake of this story, we’ll call him Frank. Frank Bhode.

Frank Bhode walked in, confident he could solve the problem. His confidence bordered arrogance.

The first trip was routine. He assessed the situation. We tried a few alternate fixes. Those solutions didn’t work. So we ordered the the new seal and I paid a deposit. By the time he left, I was uneasy about his ability to complete the job.

For his second trip, I blocked the entire evening. I’d hoped my hunches were off and that Frank could make quick work of the project.

But I was wrong.

At every turn, he either asked for a hand or I’d hear the sound of metal clanking joined by violent grunts and decide to leave my work and walk back to the machine. At one point, I had my computer open, showing him the videos I’d watched and then we would execute the task together.

As frustrated as I was, I was also fascinated by the machine. It was big, complex, well-built, and intimidating. On the other hand, it was like a simple puzzle. Everything had its place. And with a little patience and thoughtfulness, everything found its place.

We finished the job together. The final step was to run the washer to make sure it worked properly. We started a cycle and held our breath.

No leak. We were successful.

He was glad to be done. So was I. We high fived and chuckled at the experience we just shared.

Before Frank left, he offered me a job. Sincerely. But I declined.

I’d learned all that I wanted to about washers.

How do you spend your days?

03/22/2017

Get up before 7. Don’t snooze the alarm.

Make bed.
Short shower.
Brush teeth.
Get dressed.
Make & eat breakfast while listening to the news.
Ride bike to work while listening to upbeat music.
Lock bike across the street.
Answer emails.
Set up meetings with students, universities, or companies interested in Ei.
Work on creative tasks that require time alone.
Share conversations with Ei Fellows who are designing their year.
Laugh about something with a teammate. Hard.
Co-lead a workshop for a corporate client.
Answer more emails.
Host one of the meetings I set up earlier in the week.
Unlock bike.
Ride to the grocery store.
Buy a few nice ingredients.
Ride home.
Check mail.
Go for a run. Do sit ups and push ups.
Cook while listening to an audiobook or podcast.
Eat dinner.
Call a family member or friend.
Daily writing.
Read poetry or a novel.
Fall asleep before 11.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

– Annie Dillard  “The Writing Life

How do you spend your days?

How do you want to spend your days?

Three things that matter most…

03/15/2017

There are only three things that matter:
Why you’re here.
Where you fit in.
Who you’ll be.

That’s it.

Not money. Power. Prestige. Possessions. Looks.
Or anything else temporary.

Knowing why you’re here gives you purpose. When you have a deeper purpose, your character has a true north. It’s what guides your small decisions – the ones you make when no one is looking.

A sense of fitting in with someone or a community gives you confidence. When you start new relationships, you don’t need something from those individuals. You begin to give more and take less. The more you feel like you belong, the more you can give.

Knowing who you want to become guides the big decisions: where you go to school, what job(s) you take, where you live, who you marry. When you get lost, look at the vision of who you hope to be. Then, go that direction.

Your responses to these questions may overlap. They should. But they should also be different enough for you to have a few anchors for how you live your life.

And don’t worry about figuring all of this out at once. You may drive yourself crazy. But when you start to worry about the things that will fade, come back to these questions. Wrestle with them. Discuss them. Remind yourself of how you answered them in the past and notice how your answers are evolving.

Everything else will, and should, matter far less.

Knowing Better

03/08/2017

I stood in front of the massive piece of work.

Its dark colors and many dimensions were mesmerizing. I didn’t know what I was looking at. The mystery lured me in.

My family and I were visiting the Kansas City Art Museum. It was the first time in 2017 we were spending time together since dad passed. We were filling the time with good food, walks, games, and films. On Sunday, there was just enough time to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

I’d never been to an art museum with my mother. It was sweet to see how intently she looked at everything. Her comments about several of the pieces were simultaneously childlike and profound. She’d point out minor details. She’d ask how we thought something was made. She awed at anything gold. She loves gold.

When we entered the modern wing, I wandered on my own. I found myself captured by this massive, mysterious piece.

Then, I heard my mom’s quiet voice behind me: “Unbelievable.”

I looked at her, surprised that she admired it. I had no idea my mother would appreciate such a modern piece. She could tell I was surprised.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”  She quietly said in her soft, Middle-Eastern accent.

I nodded my head in agreement, mouth slightly opened.

A few minutes later, I asked her about it. She went on to tell me how much she loved art and history as a child. She asked me if I knew various artists and if I liked their work. And though neither of us are experts, we talked about Pollock, Rothko, Seurat, Degas, etc.

I was floored.

How have I been my mother’s son for so long and not known about her appreciation for art? I felt ashamed and inspired all at once. My heart did something I didn’t know it could do: I respected Issis Saad even more.

I’m sure you know a lot about the people around you. But there are probably things you don’t know. There’s a question you haven’t asked or a story you’ve never heard. It can seem odd to ask seemingly random questions at various points of a relationship, but the conversations will lead you to new and meaningful places.

Because the real power in all of our relationships isn’t just knowing one another, it’s learning that we are all in motion. Always growing. Always changing. Always learning.

There is magic in that.

So get to know someone you know. Better.

And see what happens next…

Giving Gold

03/01/2017

Have you felt it lately?

The world seems a bit more off than usual.

It’s as if there’s a national head-cold going around. More people are groggy, grumpy, and calling in sick more than usual. Because of that, people are turning to an array of things to find solace.

But the best medicine isn’t more money or more entertainment or more stuff.

It’s encouragement.

The act of helping your friends, communities, and teams look ahead and see opportunity, or to look at one another and see possibility, that’s what drives people forward through challenging times.

One of my most talented bosses used to start each week with a “Monday Morning Stand” where each of us would share one celebration from the prior week. It led us to an array of high fives, cheers, and congratulations.

Every. Week.

It was such a memorable practice that I carried it over to Ei when we began.

Yes, some weeks are challenging. But we believe that encouraging one another helps us see our own potential.  And driving towards that potential is what leads us to reaching it. That’s why we celebrate our accomplishments and point out growth after we finish projects.

Some may think compliments and encouragement are signs of weakness or a shallow need for validation. But sincere and honest encouragement is gold. It’s fuel. It’s what good, kind, and driven people are made of. And it’s what they give.

It will seem odd to dole out compliments without notice, especially when the world seems to celebrate the brute, brash drive of the loudest voices. Encouragement can seem odd or awkward.

But as George Bernard Shaw once said:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”

Your team, your community, and our world needs your encouragement. Especially now.

The best part?
This is something you can do today.

Send an email or text message.
Make a call.
Write a note.
Pull someone aside.

You can even do it now. It only takes a few moments and it will make their day. Maybe even their week.

And I have a feeling it will make yours too.

Have a great Wednesday,
Victor

ps: If you decide to encourage someone today, let me know. I’d love to know the story. Send a note on any social channels to @victorsaad. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Open Doors

02/22/2017

He greeted us at the back entrance of the shabby, nondescript brick warehouse. It was a gray winter day.

Thirteen graduate level students began to funnel into the old space on Chicago’s Southside. None of us knew what to expect. We were nervous. We were excited.

Experience Institute was beginning a 2-day project with a group of people working in a field that none of us were well versed in: Urban Agriculture.

The man who greeted us was Derek – a tall, confident, lean man with graying hair just long enough to tie behind his head. He wasn’t very emotive; but there was enough kindness in his voice to know he was glad to see us.

The interior of the warehouse didn’t resemble its rough exterior. It was filled with bright lights, handmade wooden furniture and containers, interesting technological contraptions, and rows of luscious plants tucked into every corner.

We had been transported into another world, into Sweet Water Foundation.


Just a few weeks earlier, my colleague Aaron and I were considering how to best help Experience Institute’s year-long Fellows deepen their skills in the Design Thinking process. They’d already received an introduction at the beginning of their year in September, but now it was time to take it up a notch and source a project from a community organization during our second of four “Meetups.”

Our theme for the meetup was Community and Food, so we sent emails to our friends to find a relevant organization that could use a group of ‘consultants’ for a few days while two instructors taught the skills necessary to make an impact.

When Emmanuel Pratt replied with the information about Sweet Water, we had a good feeling. Meeting him and hearing his passion for the people and work confirmed that we found a great match.

Sweet Water Foundation teaches sustainable farming, woodworking, and agriculture, but its true mission is to build community and redevelop neighborhoods from the ground up. It brings young people and local residents in, lets them find places where they can connect, and then supports them in taking increasing responsibility and leadership. But SWF is so busy with its many projects that it hasn’t established rhythms for consistently capturing and sharing those stories.

So, we got to work.


The next two days were packed with interviews with the amazing staff, young people, and community members who surround the foundation. With each conversation, our Fellows grew more inspired by SWF and humbled by their grit and resolve. Lots of organizations talk about the importance of community building. SWF walks the walk. The staff, whether their trade is carpentry, agriculture, or cooking, spoke first of their relationship with the kids who come to Sweet Water.

The kids talk about what they’ve learned about plants and fish and nutrients. But what they all come back to is how Sweet Water feels like a family–how the adults have wrapped their arms around them (figuratively and literally).

And the neighborhoods SWF works in are far from simple. We studied the history of legalized segregation and disinvestment in communities of color and how the ongoing legacy of those political forces can still be found in everything from unemployment and underemployment, high rates of foreclosed homes from the subprime mortgage scandals, struggling schools, and heavy crime. It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of those challenges.

But Sweet Water leverages urban gardens, aquaponics and home renovation as a means to build hope and camaraderie on a daily basis.

After few days of interviews, research, and brainstorming, our fellows presented their ideas for helping Sweet Water more effectively tell these stories. Ideas ranged from a portable “Stories To Go” box that staff and youth leaders could use to interview and capture stories from visitors, to a simple method for measuring immediate impact of educational programs, to a system for engaging philanthropists, to a redesign of their website.

SWF is working on bringing some of these ideas to life. But, as is normally the case in these situations, I think the time with SWF was even more beneficial for us than it was for them. Their open door to Ei nourished us and taught us, once again, that learning and collaboration happens best when doors remain open.

Thanks to Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom for helping to write and edit this piece and the EXP4 Fellows for their thoughtfulness and hard work. And special thanks to Emmanuel Pratt, Roman Titus, and the team behind Sweet Water Foundation. We are in your corner. 

One Thing at a Time

02/15/2017

There’s an unspoken expectation of everyone in society. It’s so prevalent and so common, that we’ve all been poisoned and no one knows it.

Every so often, someone will point it out. We gasp at its presence and vow to avoid it at all costs. Yet, as quickly as the air rushed into our lungs, we forget and accept it.

It’s the expectation that we should do more.

It drives us to want to create more things. Make more money. Cram more into each day. Complete multiple tasks at once.

It’s why we text and drive.
Try to schedule two meetings with different people around the same time and place.
Open multiple tabs in our browsers.
And why our task lists and folder systems and notification settings are all overly complicated…(or even that there are programs specifically designed to handle those things).

Everyone is expecting more of you. Your parents. Your peers.Your managers. Those who went before you. Those who are watching you.

Because you are privileged.
You are smart.
More translates to better.
You should be able to do more.

This is tyranny. The expectation is enough to not only drive you mad, but also keep you from your best work and relationships.

There is a reason that when you see the finer things in life, they are more simple.

Healthy dishes, well-made cars, timeless furniture, solid crafts. There is less involved – less ingredients or bells and whistles or “extras.” Our best products or experiences bring about a sense of calm. And the few details that remain have been agonized over. That’s why they are considered sophisticated, elegant, smart. The maker decided “more” wasn’t their target. Instead, they aimed for excellence and longevity.

As you can, do a few things well. The less the better.
You’ll fly further, higher, and be able to help others do the same.

Empathy

02/08/2017

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Thoughts about US. It was one of the most widely read and shared pieces I’ve written. Even though the readers of these Wednesday Words hold an array of varying beliefs, every response was gracious, thoughtful, and kind. Some of you even chose to create your own list of centering beliefs. It’s been great to read your thoughts. Thank you for replying and sharing.

One of my friends and someone I greatly respect wrote the following response. It’s a helpful critique and addition:

I don’t know if you’re conscious of it, but there’s an unwritten word woven through every thought in this essay: empathy.
It should be the filter through which we as humans view every interaction. While I like the somewhat simplistic mantra of ‘all you need is love’, I think the real key to bridging divides is by challenging ourselves to see the world through the eyes of another without judgement. It seems simplistic to have to articulate this fundamental truth, but people have a really hard time setting aside ego and personal preconception, and just listening. Lord knows I have to be reminded from time to time, but when I do, in general, I find my life enriched and my connections stronger.

Thanks for the inspiration. We’re gonna need a lot of it in the days ahead.
– Timothy Hogan

Those words have stuck with me.

Empathy is the act of listening. But not just listening – it’s pausing, placing yourself in the other person’s shoes, and staying there with your eyes wide open.

The longer you stay there, the more you’ll see and feel the world in the same way as that person.

It’s the best kind of listening.

There’s been a lot of anger over the past few weeks. Understandably so.

But our greatest act of growing together as a community is pausing to see where others are coming from and why it matters to them. It’s a gift that settles the most tumultuous situations.

Because the opposite of anger is not being more calm.
It’s being more empathetic.

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