The Importance – And Fun – of Saying “Yes” to the Unfamiliar

With a name like “Equity Schools, Inc.” you might think all we do is work on school projects.

Well, I really like schools a lot, I love what they can do, and probably 80% of our work involves them in some form: public, private, charter, PK-12, colleges, universities, urban, small town. And we are always thinking of how their challenges might be met by collaborating in some way with other friendly users.

Nevertheless, apart from schools we do get unusual project requests that might surprise you, and sometimes we wind up working on them. At the very least we offer ideas and a little help, but we’ve actually worked on about half of these:

  • Minor league baseball stadium
  • Retirement community

    Barney Fife, Don Knotts

    Officer Barney Fife, visibly intimidated by unfamiliar challenges.

  • State fair
  • Cannabis dispensary
  • Community center
  • Light rail transportation system
  • Refugee center
  • Zoo
  • Animal shelter (no kill)
  • Foster care organization
  • Arts center
  • Velodrome
  • Watershed biodiversity plan
  • Landmine survivor compensation
  • Continuing care retirement community
  • Aquarium
  • Blimp port (not kidding)
  • Property tax reform
  • Soccer complex
  • Women’s shelter
  • Performing arts center
  • Adoption agency
  • Disability services

It can be intimidating when you’re asked to work on something outside your wheelhouse. After all, what did I know about blimp ports or velodromes? Admittedly, not much. However, I do know that almost every question has an answer. I also know that if you don’t shy away from new and unfamiliar challenges, you just might be surprised at what you’re capable of.

You Don’t Have to Get it Right, Just Get it Started

Getting started is always the hardest part. But then, as we have found, ideas start to flow in ways you don’t expect. Sometimes you even realize that you’re having fun trying to solve a new puzzle. Turns out our brains crave dynamic problem-solving challenges, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need to get out of a slump.

So, I would encourage you to take your unfamiliar challenges head-on. Do you have a difficult or unusual project looming on the horizon? The first thing to do is get started on it right away, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. Before long, you’ll find that you know more than you thought you did.

These are the kinds of things – these challenges – that get me going in the morning (sometimes with the help of a little hot, dark, Fair Trade coffee).

Confession time: With the exceptions of great music, delicious food, and our wonderful grown sons, nothing makes me happier than a good challenge.

What’s the Point? Crafting a Mission Statement

One of the joys of running your own business is realizing you can do whatever you want. Yes, it might not generate income, or in the extreme I suppose you could get arrested, but my point is I think it’s important to stop once in a while to think about what you’re doing.

Really think about it. The daily pressures from everything else that needs attention makes it easy to forget: Why are we doing this? We all need to make a living, so it has to be more than that.

Frankly, at the risk of sounding preachy here, we all should think about this regardless of our business. But I can say unequivocally that if you’re trying to keep in business, you can’t stop to ponder these issues too often or for too long.

But I put aside some time recently to think about it, to boil it down to the least number of words that express why we do this work (aside from just making a living). And let me tell you – if you’re serious about this exercise, it can be much harder than it sounds.

Our Attempt

Here’s what I came up with. I know it sounds a bit grand, but what the hell. Why should any of us limit what we want to do with our lives? In practice we’ll all probably fall a bit short – I certainly do – but what the hell, shouldn’t we strive for something that matters to us, something bigger than meeting payroll and paying taxes?

Here’s my statement:

“We believe that every person is entitled to freedom in all its forms, and to health, a safe home, food security, quality education, opportunities for productivity, and a sustainable environment.

Yet most people lack the resources to secure these rights.

Our work is to help other individuals and organizations provide these rights for the lives of many.

We do this by finding necessary financial resources – by searching all possible sources, obvious and non-obvious, and then devising practical solutions that do not rely primarily on charity, politics or government regulation.”

And there you have it. That’s the best I can do to describe what I believe, what I care about, what I’m trying to do, and what I hope the other folks around here want to be a part of.

Some Advice if You’re Invited to Give a TEDx Talk

First, if public speaking really scares you, TEDx might not be a good idea. The rules say speakers should not use notes, a prompter, or a podium. It will be just you alone on the stage, facing lots of people who expect you to enlighten them. This is definitely live public speaking. Nervous is normal; scared is not something you need.

But, if you can get past that, it really is fun.

The next thing you need to know is that TEDx presentations are different. I’ve spoken hundreds of times to many groups, from small to very big, and on television and radio. TEDx is something else. I learned a lot preparing for it (eg, the importance of establishing a strong “through-line” and connecting it to everything you talk about). It’s not more difficult, just different.

The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson. Photo: Dian Lofton / TED

Note: This is NOT a sponsored post – my recommendation is based solely on the practical merit of the book. Photo: Dian Lofton / TED

Fortunately for me, I discovered an interesting public speaking book written and published by the owner of TED (Chris Anderson) only a month before my Talk. It changed my entire approach, I think for the better. If you’re invited I strongly encourage you to read the book. Actually, it’s pretty helpful for any presentations you may be preparing for, TEDx or otherwise.

The Steps

Preparation. You should allow more time to work on it than a normal presentation. A lot more time. You need to write a script, whether you’re going to memorize it or use it as a guide, and refine it as much as possible. Test every word to see if it’s the best choice or is even necessary.

Practice. Yes, you can do this by yourself, but it really needs to be out loud, and timed with any slides you might be using (interestingly, only about two thirds of speakers use visuals, but one third don’t at all). I practiced many times until I could consistently finish in 16 minutes without rushing, knowing I also had a two-minute video embedded that would take me to the 18-minute goal.

The real thing. Here was my mistake. I kept to my script pretty well, but my real Talk ran way over time. When I’m speaking to a live audience I like to use small pauses for effect, plus I used a little extra time to advance each slide. These seconds add up. Fortunately we were encouraged to edit the video before submitting it. A professional video editor is money well spent. The video and audio quality can’t be improved much, but the pacing and transitions can.

So that’s it. If you’re invited, be sure you are OK with speaking in front of a live audience, get the book, prepare a good script, practice relentlessly, allow extra time for all the little pauses, and get a good video editor. Voila!

Of course feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment if you have any questions or thoughts! And if you’re curious to see how my talk turned out, click here for the video (link will take you to YouTube):