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Feeling Alive | A big update

This is the last of post of my three part series about why we love quotes but often ignore their advice. You can find the other two here and here

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Writing makes me feel alive.

It has since my early years in college when I was struck with a strong desire to share stories and ideas with the world.

At the time I didn’t know how to tell my own story and I didn’t have the courage to put my own authentic ideas out into the world for anyone to see.

My solution was to tell the stories of others. I started, msuCatalyst, a website sharing insights and stories about interesting students, faculty and alumni of my university. I could share ideas and stories, help students pick up life tips and keep my own story and ideas to myself where they felt safe.

The first dozen times I reached out to someone asking for an interview I was certain the answer would be no. Why would anyone be interested in sharing their story with some random sophomore? To my great surprise, the opposite happened—people were honored to be asked and excited to share their story. It wasn’t just around campus, either. During a summer internship in San Francisco I started a discussion in a LinkedIn message for Michigan State Alumni and five, five!, people responded they’d love to meet and pass along the wisdom they’d gained since college. The meetings were exhilarating and I loved the challenge of condensing their insights into interesting articles.

As with many college passion projects, it fizzled after the second year; however, my penchant for learning from people did not. With two years of college under my belt and guidance from an exceptional teacher, I decided to tackle a bigger challenge: 52 Cups of Coffee.

My experience meeting 52 new people from all parts of the world was life-changing, challenging, emotional, fun, unpredictable, thought-provoking, rewarding, terrifying, uncertain, joyful and more. Experiencing the ups and downs of the project made me feel alive. I can’t count the number of times I walked out of a coffee meeting on cloud nine, my mind racing with new ideas or my heart full after feeling a deep connection with a person I’d only just met. But it wasn’t just me. 52 Cups readers felt it too, and I’d feel the same exhilaration when I’d read a kind comment or email from someone positively influenced by the story.

52 Cups was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also the most meaningful. I will never forget the indescribable feeling of satisfaction I experienced the day I posted the 52nd Cup.

So why, then, was my next major life step taking a 9-5 job doing very technical marketing for a tech company in San Francisco?

Because when I wasn’t busy writing stories in college, I was getting a degree in Marketing.

Marketing degree =  job in marketing after college.

Right?

Connecting with strangers and sharing stories wasn’t a real job. It was a hobby. My default assumptions what that hobbies don’t pay bills, degrees pay bills, which meant it was time to find a job in marketing. So I did. I found a great job at a great company with great people—and I was miserable.

When you follow up a year spent doing something that makes you feel alive with a 9-5 desk job (and 90 minute commute) it’s tough to be happy. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I found endless reasons why staying at my job was the right choice and chasing a crazy dream to travel and talk to people was far-fetched, foolish and irresponsible.

There was clearly a void in my life so I subconsciously started looking to fill it. This led me to conversations with good friends and lots and lots of reading. The emerging trend was that true happiness and success came from taking risks and chasing passions. This was the motivation behind this three-post series: advice tells us to chase crazy dreams, but the majority of people aren’t. Why? Are people wrong or is the advice wrong.

I decided there was only one way to find out: I started saving money so I could quit my job and jump back into the world of meeting people and sharing stories. Writing that sentence makes it seem like such a simple decision—like I just woke up with the confidence to trade in a stable, well-paying job for a life filled with uncertainty. I didn’t, I spent weeks filled with anxiety second guessing myself and the decisions I was making.

A major turning point was the night I received a text with a link to the The Risk Not Taken, the personal account for Bonobos founder, Andy Dunn. In the story was a line that echoed what Cup 30 told me about uncertainty and worst case scenarios:

The day after the Decision Elf visited me in the shower I saw a close friend at Stanford. I informed him of my decision — against an intimidating financial backdrop — to start a company instead of taking the job. I’ll never forget what he said because it rang true to the moment:

You’ll never starve, and you’ll always have a place to sleep. Worst comes to worst, you can always stay on our couch.

The post helped me see that I have supportive friends and family looking after me, employable skills, and a tough heart: if I made a decision and failed, I would find a way to pick myself up and make the most of the situation. I realized I would rather fail chasing a something important to me than succeed at a job that felt empty.

So I quit to travel and launch a fresh round of 52 Cups. 

And last Tuesday, I sat down at a lovely cafe in San Francisco to drink Cup 1. It was amazing. I left feeling alive. I remembered what it felt like to be doing something you love. 

Where will it all lead? I have no idea. But, despite the fear and uncertainty, it feels right. It’s going to be an adventure and I hope you’ll come along for the ride (you can now subscribe to get the Cups in your inbox!). I’ll be posting Cup 1 next week(!) and have fun updates to share soon.

At the end of 52 Cups round one, I shared this take away:

Because I know that if I can continue to figure out what I love to do, find the courage to do it, and do it well— life will work out—and have a lot of fun in the process.

It’s time I took my own advice and start to feel alive again.

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Thanks to @jeannineyeah (officially my unofficial editor) for reading this.

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because interactive is all the rage

A question I often receive when I tell people out 52 Cups is, “Did you always go to the same coffee shop?” 

The answer is no. 

What started out as a simple experiment to talk to people in my community turned into an adventure that led me to many corners of the world. I met people in:

  • 29 cities 
  • 12 states 
  • 7 countries 
  • and 4 Skype meetings (pink dots)

I made a map to show the places I had coffee. Click here or on the picture below to open the map. Each dot has a description of the person I talked to and a link to the corresponding blog post. 

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Enjoy! 

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Hello!

To those that followed the project, I hope you’ve been well. It’s been too long since we last talked.

To those of you visiting 52 Cups for the first time, thanks for stopping by!

52 Cups of Coffee was my yearlong experiment in caffeine and conversation. I wanted to see what would happen if I spent a year talking to strangers so I invited 52 different people to coffee and asked them to tell me about their life and the lessons they’d learned along the way.

The result was 52 fascinating stories that fundamentally changed my outlook on life. You can find the list of people I talked to and lessons learned here, the inspiration behind the project here, and more info about where I was when I started the project here

To see what other people had to say about the project, check herehere, and here. This is what I had to say about it at TEDxQueensU. 

So what have I been up to since 52 Cups ended? 

A lot of brainstorming. I learned a lot of great lessons through 52 Cups, now it’s time to put them to the test. It’s too soon to release the details, but I’m very excited about it and I think you will be too. 

I’ll be in touch! 

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And if you’d like to get in touch with me, shoot me an email at megan.gebhart[at]gmail[dot]com or find me on Twitter.

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Cup 52

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m sitting at an adorable breakfast spot in San Francisco eating some of the best bacon and eggs I’ve ever had while enjoying a cup of coffee that the waitress will refill at least three times before I leave. 

All throughout senior year, people asked me where I’d be after graduation.  I assumed I would be in a cubicle somewhere climbing the corporate ladder on the fast track to a promotion and increasingly impressive job title and salary.  

Because that’s what you’re supposed to do with an expensive college degree. 

And it’s probably what I would be doing if I hadn’t decided to do this crazy experiment in caffeine and conversation. I called it an experiment because I knew meeting 52 new people would change my life. I just didn’t know how. 

I can tell you I didn’t expect it would inspire me to trade the job search for six months of traveling to 72 different locations in 15 countries. Six months of waking up excited about the uncertainty of where the day would take me.  

Going into my senior year, the uncertainty of where life would take me after graduation created a crippling fear. I was stuck in the mindset that I had one shot to figure out my life. The day after graduation was the first day of the rest of my life and if I didn’t have the perfect plan—and the perfect job—in place I would be setting myself up for irreconcilable failure. 

I don’t know where that thought came from, but I know it was a real fear. I also know that I’m incredibly grateful for those that helped me see the irrationality in my thinking. 

It started during the first 10 Cups. I realized a very noticeable trend: nobody’s life went according to plan. Life throws you curveballs. Sometimes good ones: unexpectedly falling in love, discovering a passion, stumbling into an incredible career opportunity. And sometimes ones that test your strength: losing a loved one, experiencing a breakup, layoffs, unexpected illness or tragedy, major career failure, a downturn in the economy. The list goes on.

Understanding that life won’t go according to plan leaves you with two choices: let the fear of the unknown overwhelm you or embrace the uncertainty. 

I’ll tell you from experience that the former is easier than the latter. For two reasons. 

First, it takes a lot of faith (and confidence) to embrace uncertainty and believe you can handle what life throws your way. Faith I only found because I had a weekly conversation with people from various backgrounds reaffirming that, with the right approach, life works out. 

The second reason is that finding the faith is only half the battle. The second half is executing the approach. If you are open to go where life takes you, you will end up in incredible places. However, you can’t sit back and expect a great life, you have to go out and make a great life. 

The magic of sitting down with strangers—of putting yourself in a vulnerable position and taking time to genuinely learn about another person—is that you can put a story behind the advice. The advice becomes real and it becomes personal. I have a catalogue of anecdotes I now carry with me. 

On days filled with obstacles I think about Piotr Pasik traveling to Europe and playing indoor soccer despite having limited mobility due to cerebral palsy. When my dreams feel too big I think about Tom Izzo’s determination as a graduate assistant for the MSU basketball team, living off a measly $4,000 salary at age 30, because that’s what he had to do in order to one day become the head coach. 

When I think about what I want in a career I think about Torya Blanchard and what she calls her fight club moment—the moment she decided she was going to quit her job and cash in her 401K to start a (now-thriving) restaurant in Detroit. Then, when the fear of taking a risk sinks in, I hear Seth Godin’s voice in my head saying, “You’re not failing enough. I failed countless times before I was 30—and that’s what led to my success.” 

Dave Isbell’s words echo the importance of staying humble while Dave Murray’s remind me that life is about more than creating a great life for yourself, it’s about giving back and creating a great life for others as well. Encountering a vibrant six-year-old evokes memories of my conversation with Abby, an adopted Native American girl in a town without much diversity, who taught me that everyone has an interesting story but too often we make assumptions instead of asking questions. 

When I hear of tragedies I think of Betsy Miner-Swartz losing  both of her parents to cancer in a year’s time and how she used the love and support of family and friends to make it through the pain, one step at a time. Then I ask myself when is the last time I told my loved ones how much I love them—because it’s easy to forget they could leave us at any moment. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Every Cup changed me. 

The best way to describe the change is a quote from Cup 51, Elaine Rosenblatt: 

People need to learn to stop looking at life from the outside in and start looking from the inside out. 

When I started 52 Cups, I was so concerned with living up to other people’s expectations—concerned with people the person others wanted me to be. Over the course of this project, I’ve realized that is no way to live life. I have to look inside and figure out who I am and decide where I want to fit into the world. 

That’s why I decided to travel. 

I followed my love for travel and hoped it would lead me to the next step. And it did. When I stopped looking for the perfect job and focused on what I loved, the perfect job found me. Michigan State’s Alumni Association offered me a six-month position where I travel to various cities and connect with young alumni—a great position for a traveler with a love for good conversation.

And what happens once that job is over? 

I don’t know. 

But it’s okay. 

Because I know that if I can continue to figure out what I love to do, find the courage to do it, and do it well— life will work out—and I’ll have a lot of fun in the process. 

… 

It’s amazing what a little caffeine and conversation can do—if you’re willing to find out. 

When I set out to meet 52 new people, I didn’t realize the most important person I’d meet was the person that 52 Cups made me.

 

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Thank You

Before I post Cup 52 I want to take a moment to say thank you. 

This may have been “one girl’s experiment” but it was anything but a solo venture. The beauty of this project comes from the wonderful people that have been a part of it. 

From the 52 people willing to sit down and share their stories with me to the readers that kept me writing during the days I really didn’t want to write; you have made a profound difference in my life. And to my wonderful friends with unwavering encouragement, fantastic recommendations, and much-needed advice; please know I couldn’t have done this without you. 

Of course, I’m not done yet. I’ve still got Cup 52 to post this week. 

But I couldn’t finish the project without taking a moment to say, 

Thank you. 

It might just be two little words, but those two words hold a whole lot of love and appreciation. 

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Cup 51 

Person: Elaine Rosenblatt 

Drink: Grande Americano

Date: October 19, 2011

Location: Starbucks in Skokie, IL

I’m going to be upfront with you guys, Cup 51 was hard to write.

There are a lot of explanations, or rather excuses, for why but I think the most relevant one is that I don’t want this project to end because I don’t know what comes next. The irony is that this post is about learning to let go and moving on to something better.

I met with Elaine Rosenblatt on a windy and gloomy Wednesday. I had taken the train to the outskirts of the city and arrived at the Starbucks first. When Elaine walked in I recognized her immediately. She looked just like her son Brett, the stranger that invited me to coffee three years ago, became one of my best friends, and showed me the power of reaching out to people you don’t know. Elaine lives outside of Chicago and when I was invited to attend a fundraiser I decided to reach out to her. I thought it was fitting that she could help me end a project that her son helped me start. Plus I’d heard enough about her from Brett that I was certain she could give me good advice.

I caught Elaine’s attention and introduced myself before we stood in line to get coffee. Because of her warm and nurturing spirit and the fact that we had a lot in common, we were already deep in conversation by the time we sat down at a small table by the window. 

I had a feeling the conversation was going to go in all different directions so I asked my most important question first—how did she end up where she is today. I really didn’t know anything about Elaine other than that she was a psychotherapist and has three sons. A mutual friend warned me that she’d likely be more interested in hearing my story than sharing hers so I was thankful when she launched into a narrative of her life. 

It started out as a very simple story. For as long as she could remember, the only thing Elaine wanted to be when she grew up was a mom. She didn’t consider college or a career.  She fell in love, got married and had a son in her early twenties. She had achieved her goal. 

Of course that’s not where the story ends. It’s really where it begins. 

Elaine’s marriage began to crumble, and before she knew it she found herself as a single mom with a child to support. Desperate for work, she took the first job she could find – working at a women’s care clinic where she unexpectedly discovered a love for advocacy work.

As her involvement in her job increased, she gained national attention for her work, becoming a sought-after voice for women’s sexual rights, often doing radio interviews and speeches on the topic. Although she didn’t follow the traditional educational route, she was passionate and constantly worked to learn more about her field and advance.

In the process of building her career, she remarried and had two more kids (the youngest was Brett). She said that even with all of her career success, raising her three boys was her life’s greatest joy. Being a mom was a perfect fit for her nurturing spirit. It also helped her realize she had a natural ability to counsel others and help them through their problems. While engaged in advocacy work she started taking classes to become a certified divorce mediator, and then later became a psychotherapist. 

Now calling Elaine a psychotherapist doesn’t capture her essence. Elaine is a strong, independent, complex and compassionate woman. Having coffee with her reminded me so much of that initial conversation I had with Brett—the conversation just clicked.

When I asked her how people get through a difficult divorce, her response was straightforward: “you just do.” Her son was depending on her; she had no choice but to find a way to get through the hardship.

That’s how our conversation took a deep dive into the nature of pain and hardships—two things that are inevitable in life. While that may seem like a somber topic, the conversation was very encouraging.

You see, it wasn’t until her strength was tested that she realized how strong she could be. It wasn’t until she was forced to find work that she realized she could create an incredible career for herself. It was because she could navigate through her own pain that she discovered she could help others navigate through theirs. In short, the unhappiness led her to a place of incredible happiness. 

But it didn’t happen overnight. 

When she married her first husband she expected to stay married to him forever and built her hopes and dreams around that scenario. It’s something we all do. We become attached to visions of the future—expected outcomes we have little control over—until the illusion feels like reality.  

Then something happens—the relationship falls apart, the job wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, the economy takes a left turn—and the illusion, along with the feeling of security, is shattered. 

It’s a story that’s happened to everyone at some point and a story Elaine hears frequently at work. The advice she gives really comes down to three-steps: grieve, believe, and wait out the discomfort (my words not hers).

When a major life change happens it’s alright (and normal!) to be upset. Trying to cover up or numb the pain doesn’t make it go away any faster. The best course of action is to embrace it and give yourself time to grieve. 

But in the process of grieving you shouldn’t lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.  Faith, religion, optimism—call it what you want it—it’s hope for the future and if you can’t find it in yourself, find someone who can help you find it. Like Brett said last week when I called him on a particularly bad day: “history repeats itself—if you survived tough times in the past, you’ve proven you can survive tough times in the future.”

Then, once you’ve found the hope, accept that there’s going to be a period of discomfort. Elaine went back to the tunnel metaphor. You know there’s a light at the end but it’s going to be dark and uncertain for awhile. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but if you keep pushing forward, you’ll make it to the end and be strong as a result. 

While Elaine’s advice was centered on hardship, it is actually a solution for any change. It’s a process for saying goodbye to what was and looking forward to what will be. 

52 Cups has been a big part of my life for the last year. Now I have to prepare for a post 52 Cups life. Leaving the security of this project for the unknown of the next project is a little uncomfortable. Coffee with Elaine reminded me that 52 Cups has prepared me for what’s next. While closing this chapter of my life is difficult, I can embrace the change and use the experience to make the next chapter better than the last. 

I have to hold onto that mentality through both the good and the bad. Elaine’s story is proof that keeping that mentality—through both the good and the bad—helps you navigate this crazy and unpredictable life. 

And find happiness in the process. 

Thanks, Elaine. 

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Cups 51 and 52 are on the way!

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I promise

I’ve already done the drinking. Now I just have to do the writing. 

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, which has made writing harder than usual. But that’s not the real reason behind the delayed posts. I’ve come down with a case of Writer’s Block, which is inconvenient considering I’m so close to the end. 

I suppose it makes sense. This project has meant so much to me that it’s hard to see it go and I want to make sure I give it an adequate farewell. I want the last two cups to be good enough for all the people that have followed me through this journey. However that’s stopping me from writing anything, which simply won’t do. 

Leave it to Cup 38, author Seth Godin, to help me realize this. He writes an amazing blog and this is one of my favorite posts

With that—I’m going to get these two posts finished and upload them shortly. Thank you for your patience and, as always, your support. 

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Cup 50

Person: Clark Bunting

Drink: Medium house coffee 

Date: September 19, 2011

Location: The cafe inside the Discovery Channel headquarters 

Clark Bunting is the president and general manager of Discovery Channel. For the past 25 years, he has been a part of the team that has brought programs like Planet Earth, Shark Week, and Deadliest Catch to life.

He’s also a proud Spartan so I reached out to him to see if he’d meet me for coffee. 

He said yes and a few weeks later I was at the Discovery Headquarters outside of Washington, DC. When I walked into the lobby I found a massive dinosaur skeleton, walls lined with photos of network celebrities, and a great assortment of memorabilia from Discovery shows. 

(A month after getting coffee I ran into Clark at Michigan State at an awards gala).

After going through security, Clark’s assistant Laurie met me in the lobby. We took the elevator up to Clark’s floor and I waited for him in a small conference room (where a picture of Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe covered in mud stared at me). Clark walked in and introduced himself before we jumped into a conversation that continued as we took the elevator down to get coffee on the first floor. 

Clark is often called the guy that started Shark Week, so I couldn’t resist asking him how he felt being known for such a cult classic TV event. He quickly pointed out that it was a team effort before sharing a few amusing stories from the production. From working with Andy Samburg to orchestrating live video shoots of sharks feeding in the middle of the ocean, it’s obvious that Clark’s job is really cool. 

He had plenty of stories to share with me as we headed back to the small conference room to continue our conversation about the experiences and insights he’s picked up during his last 25 years at Discovery.

Clark’s original plan was a career on Capitol Hill. After receiving a master’s degree from Michigan State University, he and his wife moved to Washington, DC where he got a job working as a legislative assistant. It was during this job that he realized politics might not be the route for him. He looked at many of the lifestyles of the people that had been on the hill for years; perpetually stressed and overworked, a high number of failed marriages, and problems with substance abuse. It wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted so he decided to look for a job elsewhere.
 
The job he found was with a very young company called Cable Educational Network. He met with the founder, John Hendricks, and realized they shared a similar vision and entrepreneurial spirit. At the time, a big void existed in television programming—there were news, sports, and entertainment channels, but nothing educational. Cable Educational Network set out to change that. The company grew rapidly, changed their name to Discovery Channel, and became the most distributed channel in the world. 

Clark, who was one of the original employees, played a pivotal role in the company’s growth. He helped bring many of Discovery’s popular programs to life before taking over as president in 2010. It’s a role that he takes very seriously because the shows they produce have an impact on millions of viewers around the world. It’s also a role that has led to a lot of fun. 
 
At one point in his career he was dangling a dead chicken over a hungry croc while Steve Irwin coached him through the feeding process (certainly nothing he expected when he responded to the classified ad). Clark said moments like that make you pause and think—how did I get myself into this position?

The answer to that question is a bit of luck mixed with creativity, passion and a lot of hard work. More importantly, he found meaning in the work. Discovery Channel uses the power of entertainment to bring light to important issues. Clark used Steve Irwin as an example. The two became close friends when Clark helped create and produce The Crocodile Hunter. The show, which became wildly popular, served a greater role than just entertainment. Clark said Steve’s genius was his ability to get people to care. He wasn’t just a crazy Aussie playing with reptiles—he was a passionate environmentalist that helped people see the world from a new perspective and generate positive environmental change. 

Clark explained that Discovery has succeeded because two things hold true for people: 1) they are naturally curious, and 2) they love to hear a good story. The Crocodile Hunter wasn’t the only show that told intriguing stories that served a greater purpose; Planet Earth was a remarkable series that let people gain a new appreciation and concern for the environment, Shark Week helped pass a law to ban shark finning, and shows like Myth Busters get viewers excited about science. 

As I listened to Clark talk, I was fascinated by the realization that he ultimately achieved the goal he was pursuing on Capitol Hill—but he had to leave the Hill to do it.  His goal was to affect laws and generate positive change. While he thought politics would be the way to do that, he discovered that entertainment was actually the solution. It reminded me of something Randy Pausch said in his famous Last Lecture:

“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life, … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.” 

Clark has lived his life around a certain moral foundation—he wanted to lead a good life for himself and his family, and he wanted to do work that mattered. It may have been a stroke of luck that he stumbled into a great opportunity, but luck won’t make you the president of a major company—Clark has worked hard to make Discovery Channel something fantastic.  He leads his life with integrity and the result is an incredible career that has changed lives. 

There were a lot of personal take-aways from Cup 50, but the most valuable lesson is a reminder that the way you get from Point A (the start of a career) to Point B (the end) isn’t going to be a straight line. But if you keep moving forward, if you have a goal you’re shooting for—and the right mix of hard work and passion—you’ll get there. 

Probably not in the way you expect. 

Or in the time frame you think. 

But if you persevere and live right—you’ll get there, and hopefully have fun in the process. 

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