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About two weeks ago, I was looking for a good goat image to use in Etchstar‘s custom image engraving service. (A gift for a friend, if you were wondering.) Thumbing through Google’s image search, I learned an unsettling truth: many goats are ugly, and those unfortunate goats who aren’t, have ugly pictures taken of them.

Shoot, I thought, maybe I’ll have to get her something else. Or I might even have to draw an image myself.

It was just then that I stumbled across an adorable illustration. Perfect! Now, the practical ethics of tracingĀ  over or drawing over a photo I found might be questionable (when does a derivative work become a work unto itself?), but if I was going to use someone else’s drawing, I knew I aught to ask them. No problem, since this is, after all, the Internet, home of copyfighters, open-source heros, and generally lots of people who are just happy to have someone paying attention to them (like me!). I shot off an e-mail as quickly as I found the “contact” page and went to bed, confident I could place my order in the morning.

Or not.

Instead, I had a sternly worded e-mail explaining to me that the artist had worked very hard and generally starved quite a while to get to the point where she could actually demand payment for her work, and now that she had, she wasn’t going to let people trample on her rights (I’m paraphrasing, of course – she was a little nicer then that actually).

Who exactly had I e-mailed? Back on her site, it wasn’t hard to figure out. Turns out she’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Well.

It turned out, there was a slight misunderstanding. She had thought I was Etchstar, asking to use her work (for free) to print and sell lots of engraved notebooks to other people. No small wonder why she said no to that. I would have too. When I explained the truth of the situation (I’m just some dude, making only one, and at no profit) she was more understanding. Ultimately, we worked out an arrangement very similar to the one under which I am showing you the goat below (that is to say, a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License).

An adorable goat, no?

An adorable goat, no?

Of course, I’m grateful that she let me use her work without compensation. She would have been entitled to ask for it, regardless of how I was using her image. Instead, though, she let me off with the promise that I would do what I could to let people know it was hers. Which is what I’m doing.

Her name is Carolita Johnson. You can look at more of her stuff here, buy some of it here, or follow her blog here. So go, look at her stuff, and buy something! Tell her Zack sent you. And thanks again, Carolita!

(A quick note to would be, er, “friendly borrowers”: The arrangement Carolita agreed to with me was a personal favor, and I can’t say she would do the same again with that or any other piece of her work. At most I can tell you that anything on her blog falls under the Creative Commons license above, unless she changes her mind in the future. So if you like her stuff, then buy it, and if you can’t buy it, ask. Politely. )

(Another quick note: I find this whole story pretty hilarious, because really, the internet is so packed with amateurs and hobbyist who would do anything to get linked, looked at, or lauded, that it’s bizarre to remember that anyone successful actually uses this inter-tubes thing. Good lesson for the future though: before you e-mail someone to beg off their work, take five seconds to scan their site and figure out who they are.)

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On Starting

Sometimes, you know exactly what you need to do to be happy. The next career move, the new habit, the new person; it’s there for the taking, the path is clear, but you don’t go forward. That first step can be the most difficult one, even if it’s small, because we all fear the unforeseen consequences of change.

So how do you take that first step? There are lots of ways, most of them not very helpful. Of course we’ve all heard the old saying, “It’s like a band-aid, just go for it!” Even if we did rip band-aids off (I don’t), odds are that if it was as easy as that, you would have done it already. No, this stumbling block is a bit harder to move then a band-aid.

Another helpful tactic is to enlist someone’s help. It’s easy enough to find excuses for yourself, but typically these excuses sound silly if you have to tell another person. Find a friend you can rely on to boss you around a little. Have them go with you if you can. Knowing that they are counting on you can help a lot.

Finding another way to approach the problem can help as well. Maybe you need to rethink your first step (or how to complete it). If there’s more then one way to get it done, do whatever is easiest for you.

One other way I find useful is to put myself in a do-or-die situation. It’s not easy, but it can be done. I know that if I have something important to tell someone, it’s usually easier to drop them a message at some point saying “we need to talk” (perhaps by the quasi-anonymous e-mail or text message) then to just come right out and say it. True, it’s less direct, but when that person later asks why you need to talk, you can’t back out. Think about your first step; is there a way you can do something similar? Find a way to create a deadline for yourself that you can’t back out of.

However you go about it, the important thing is to start, even though it’s hard. Often, the things we really want are like a giant slide. It can be very hard to make that first move, to push off, but then you have your momentum, and the rest is fun.

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I have this hopeful, nostalgic idea that, sometime before now, people were moved by common decency to treat others well. I believe – or really, really want to – that at some point before our litigious, pre-nup signing, anti-social, isolated society, people had manners and showed hospitality. If nothing else, I choose to believe that people really did fear Zeus in ancient Greece, and showed good xenia.

However, it just doesn’t seem to happen that often anymore, and I’m not sure why. Do we really want to live in a society where the laws tell you not to offer people assistance in an accident, because it makes you liable? For that matter, in a society where you would sue someone for trying to help?

Ironically, it’s not just that our society doesn’t promote treating people well; people are actually confused by it. I love doing little things for my friends. One common one that never seems to go over smoothly is paying for dinner. (I don’t mean a big tab either!) I suppose a certain amount of politeness is to try to decline, but I think it’s better if it goes both ways, rather then not go at all. Whats mines is yours, whats yours is mine (with a please and thank you, of course).

I shouldn’t say it never happens, of course. In fact, Julio Diaz is an amazing example; he convinced his mugger to take his coat, some cash, and have a free meal on him, in return for surrendering his knife. It’s an amazing story.

And in case you need a selfish reason to be nice to others, how about this: according to a study conducted by doctors from Columbia and Harvard, generosity makes you happy. I’m sure at least part of that is payback from enriching your environment.

The (admittedly hard) part about this is to teach yourself how to decide what is fair. People do it all the time, but most don’t do it very well. Instead of fairness, they think of entitlement. “Well, it’s only fair that you do this for me.” But fairness is always a two way street, and you must give to receive. True fairness lies in saying, “Well, it’s only fair that if your going to do this thing that is really important to me, I will do this other thing that is really important to you.” I know, compromising is hard, but it’s precisely that it is hard to do that makes it so effective at building close, productive, and supportive relationships.
Keep in mind the – admittedly cliche – saying, “Trash in, trash out.” Put out generosity and compassion in your environment, and expect the same in return.

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In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs mentioned a book called Radical Honesty, which, it turns out, is part of a larger site and organization. In the book, he quoted them on the thrill of being completely honest (worthy of an amusement park ride). I don’t have first hand experience with the level of truth telling they mean, but I’m sure they’re right. On top of that, honesty seems like it should be good for you in many ways; building more open relationships, less stress, avoiding the repercussions of being caught in a lie.

I’m currently in the middle of a secular Lent (fasting from fried food), but I’m considering giving up lying (as well as gossiping) for a while after Lent ends on the strength of Jacobs’ story. (Amazingly, I’ve gotten a handful of people to join me to varying degrees, but more on that closer to Easter.) However, as with my fried food fast, trying to remove something from my life raises a lot of questions, some of which Radical Honesty has tried to answer.

My first response when I started to consider the project was, “I don’t really lie that much,” but the more I think about it, the more I catch myself doing it. A.J. Jacobs had the same experience; once he had to stop, he found he did it constantly.

We are always telling some kind of story, building a case for ourselves and trying to put on a best face… in a nationwide survey titled “The Day America Told the Truth,” 93% of Americans admitted that they lie “regularly and habitually” at work and 35% admitted they have had or were currently having an affair which they were keeping secret from their mates. -Radical Honesty

What exactly then constitutes lying, for those of us who would like to quit? Radical Honesty takes a pretty extreme approach; they suggest more then just truthfully responding, but actively speaking your mind, even as far as telling an ugly person they are ugly. He suggests this is a chance to start a deeply open conversation, I suspect it’s a good way to get a black eye. Jacobs takes a less stringent approach, and one close to my own thoughts. Flat-out lying, big or small, is wrong. Lies of omission, when done to deliberately mislead, are wrong too (but no one will call you a lier if you forget a little detail of a story by accident or because it really doesn’t matter).

Of course, the important thing is the effects of being honest. Radical honesty promises a lot. Maybe they can deliver, I’m not sure. I do believe, though, that it can lead to better relationships (even when those relationships fail, but thats for another post), and a general sense of having done the right thing. Don’t most people feel at least some guilt when they lie? Besides, as Radical Honesty points out, the consequences of honesty are often less frightening then we imagine.

People can actually get furious at other people and get over it in 15 or 20 minutes. People can avoid being angry at someone else for 10 or 15 or 20 years, and if they actually got angry at them, they’d probably get over it in half an hour. -Radical Honesty

A friend of mine gave me similar advice about small children: it’s hard but sometimes you have to make them angry for their own good, but don’t worry, because they get over it. I think Radical Honesty has a point here. In the long run, it’s better to be honest and make them upset. If the relationship someone doesn’t mend, then it probably wouldn’t have been worth the effort of holding it together with a million white lies. At the same time, the possibility exists to have a much more open, beneficial, and ultimately strong relationship without the need to posture, exaggerate, and lie. And that seems like the sort of relationship that would make you pretty happy, at least most of the time.

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Two things I love about America: protests and hugs. Turns out some students in Mesa, Arizona have brought those two great things together to protest what might be one of the dumbest school rules ever.

Apparently, a local school, overrun(?) by public displays of affection, instituted a rule that kissing was completely off limits, and hugs could only last two seconds. When one girl got detention for hugging a friend a little longer, she organized a protest. The pictures are great; tons of people hugging each other to send a message.

(Also, in the pictures there is a copy of the rules; apparently “man hugs” of any duration were completely acceptable! How unfair to the poor girls.)

It feels like it’s going to be a good weekend. I wish you the best as we college students start that yearly madness/release called Spring Break. (No worries, Step Lightly will be back on Monday, as usual.)

Ciao!

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Monday morning, and I think most of us could use a little inspiration to get us going.

Randy Pausch is an amazing person. If he had given this lecture just as a normal Last Lecture Series lecture, it would be impressive. Instead, this is the whole story:

Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, who is dying from pancreatic cancer, gave his last lecture at the university Sept. 18, 2007, before a packed McConomy Auditorium.

He has to be one of the most upbeat lecturers I’ve heard, which is awesome. I wish I had a chance to take a class with this guy. Enjoy, and listen carefully.

If you can’t see the link on this page, you can watch it here, or see him reprise the lecture on Oprah.

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In honor of Valentines Day (a day notorious for making people either very happy or very unhappy), we continue the What It Takes To Be Happy series this week with a look at love, family, and friends. Enjoy, and I hope Valentines Day makes you happy. If not, just remember: it will be over tomorrow.

I’d like to start off by saying that not everyone needs a social life to be happy. There are lots of people who are loners, not because they are weird or socially inept but because they are happier on their own. If you’re one of those people (and you probably know if you are) fighting it to be normal wont make you happy.

That being said, these people are typically in the minority. For most people, some sort of social network is a big part of their life and happiness. Determining how much (if any) social interaction, and what sorts of interaction, are right for each of us is important to being happy. Certainly, if nothing else, almost all of us will need to deal with other people, and doing so in the right ways can only make life easier.

Of course, relationships are an incredibly personal matter. One answer wont fit for everyone. As always, doing what works for you is crucial.

However, I’ll make one broad statement: I feel that the most important thing to consider about our relationships is that, whether we like to admit it or not, the people around us effect who we are. Changing the people around you can change you, make you more or less the kind of person you want to be, and make you more or less happy. In short, it’s important! So I’m sure we’ll be back on the subject soon.

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