Start with the end in mind

This post is #50 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

Roughly 18 months ago, I began thinking of how I wanted to mark my 50th birthday.

The easiest part was eliminating what I did not want: a fancy trip, a lavish party, and above all, presents and cards and stuff stuff stuff. Aside from a few mission-critical hardware upgrades, and possibly a new traveling suit, I’m loathe to acquire much in the way of stuff.

So I started thinking of what I wanted to feel like on my birthday. This was far less complicated, although it was still easier to talk about how I did not want to feel: empty. Wistful. Lonely. Small. Powerless. Afraid. Sad.

And then, a few months later and entirely by accident, a thought was planted in my head: SELFISH. I realized that more than anything else, I did not want to feel selfish—not on that day, not on my birthday, not ever again. On the other hand, my previous forays into volunteering had been “enh” at best, disastrous at worst. Let’s just say that my blessings, while considerable, did not include a dominant follow-through gene.

So I decided that I would use what I did have to do what I could do, and then some. I could write. I could employ all of my old marketing and design and advertising tricks in the service of good. I could test the sturdiness of this (ugh) “platform” I’ve built over seven years of life on the Internet by seeing if it could hold up under the weight of a ginormous (double-ugh) “ask.” Yeah, theoretically I’d been building it to promote something of my own I could sell in the vague-but-foreseeable future—a book, a service, a something—but what the hell? Based on my previous track record and actuarial projections for a chronically ill middle-aged woman living in toxic Los Angeles, I could easily die before that happened.

Besides, as The Youngster used to tell me, “Don’t save ‘happy’.”

The pieces fell into place almost magically after that. When I decided that the tangible thing I’d do was to raise money for some cause already out there doing good in the world, the number $50,000 floated into my head. It felt insane—until I spoke it aloud to my friends Jason and Jodi Womack who said, “It’s not insane, and we’ll help you make it happen.” And said it with such conviction and such love that for the first time, I believed it might actually be possible. When I anguished over which of several worthy nonprofits to do this in support of, my friend Bonnie, whom I had introduced to WriteGirl, and who had subsequently become a mentor to an actual WriteGirl (she has a much better follow-through gene), reminded me of the “no-duh” choice.

Ideas for perks floated into my head, and friends ass-kicked me (nicely!) into making the terrifying-to-me requests for help. Jill Murphy materialized out of nowhere, while I was, as she put it, freezing my butt off under a strategically-placed vent in the PDX airport; equally out of the blue, my friends Jennifer and John Lehr graciously offered their home—their home, where they live—for the party.

I cannot begin to list all of the people who helped right now without running the risk of omitting some, but when has that ever stopped me? My friends Lisa and Heather shot and edited a fan-fucking-tastic video. Gabriel built a website. Overnight. My friend Jean and her partners Greg and Philip at Smile donated 50 copies of TextExpander. Jim Coudal sent me so many Field Notes, I had to stop seven times on the walk home from my mailbox, the carton was so heavy.

Friends stepped up, more and more of them, with alacrity and remarkable cheer, to offer help as I explained this Big, Scary Thing that I needed to do. Dyana and Donna. My friend Julie and her sister Gillian. A dozen people offered to do supporting projects: Mike Monteiro and Erika Hall and the whole Mule Design team, who indulged me with a special run of my favorite t-shirts, and then threw in half the proceeds from an entirely different set of t-shirts, to boot. Danielle LaPorte, who did a special “telejam” for her people, working together to raise a staggering $3295. Bee and Geoff hung themselves out there and created work to be auctioned off. Tim made art you can still bid onClaire and Mary & Dave sold their art. Pace and Kyeli raised over a thousand bucks and sang a filthy song with me. (Which O-Lan mixed, even though she was not supposed to be working. Because she is awesome.)

Ten designers created desktop wallpapers, 50-count-’em-50 lady writers contributed beautiful interviews, and a partridge in a motherfucking tree, stick a fork in me ’cause I’m DONE.

As promised, there will be a series of more thoughtful, detailed, and specific follow-ups on what I learned doing this Big Scary Thing, so that hopefully, you can use some of it to go do your own Big Scary (and, I hope, totally different) Thing. But for now, let me leave you with this: that thing you think you can’t do, because it’s impossible?

Maybe it isn’t.


P.S. Forgive me for making you do this, but there is some really big, fat, juicy effin’ news toward the middle of the above video. I know, I know—you hate watching videos (unlike that other guy, over there). But trust me, it’s more fun to hear or see it than read it. I know, because I about fainted when I was told, before I started screaming like a teen girl at JFK in 1964. So for you, a cheat: hit play, then advance it to 1:20. You won’t be sorry. And THANK YOU.


  1. Oh Colleen, I have such fondness in my heart for you. My father and my sister also chipped in, I believe, speaking of people I love. I haven’t asked my family to contribute to anything in quite some time. Hugs, kisses, thanks, and so much encouragement.

  2. I’m so proud of you, Colleen! What a fantastic accomplishment. I’m glad to have been a part of it. May the rest of your birthday be molto groovy!

  3. My dad once told me that I could only use the word awesome for things that are as amazing as the Grand Canyon. This feels like one of them. Congrats! This is so very very awesome.

    Wishing you the happiest of birthdays.

  4. “This started as one impulse I had 18 months ago to not be so selfish, and to do something even though I was scared I would fail. I decided to *do* this because I had to do it and because I really wanted to do it and you know what, somehow or other the world stepped up. Now the world doesn’t always step up when you want to do something, that’s clear, but there were so many things in my life that I thought were impossible and now I’ll never know, were they possible or not? I don’t know, I never tried them. But I’m not going to not try things anymore. And I hope this makes you feel like you can try something.”

    I had to transcribe this part of the video because – wow. Yes, Colleen, you have definitely opened my mind about what might truly be possible. I don’t want to not try things anymore either. Happy birthday, and thank you.

  5. Colleen: First PLEASE keep putting videos in your posts, please. I totally love what you have created here, & that I could be tiny part of it. That it is so wonderfully successful is whip cream but the real deal, is that you went for it. That you inspired us each to do the same with you. I have such a fear of writing, wow, what I would have given to be one of those 300 write girls & get that kind of support growing up. I ditto Chloe & will print that quote out as well. And please have more videos. And thanks for crying, I needed it too. Peace n’hugs.

  6. Colleen, a huge congratulations, have just watched this so teary-eyed. Your message about not trying things was so poignant. Hope you had a flipping awesome birthday and I can’t wait to see you with a shaved head! xxx Amy.

  7. Holy crap Colleen, you are amazing!!! I’ve worked in the fundraising field for 20 years and try to explain that, when we do it right, we help people live their values. I’ve seen people so happy with the impact of their gift that they have tears in their eyes … but you Baby are the best. To see that kind of joy you experienced is overwhelming – I’m crying too.

    You’ve also helped me today. I have moved to my dream job running a tiny organization that supports the arts. We have very little donor support and today I was trying to drum up my old enthusiasm to speak with 4 different donors. Your excitement was exactly what I needed to remind me how truly joyful philanthropy can be when the fit is perfect. You reminded me why gently inviting people to participate in something important matters to me.

    p.s. I am going to forward today’s message to a group of very tired executive directors who sometimes wonder if their efforts matter.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  8. Oh. Wow. Additional matching donation, another donation….it rises and with that so does opportunity and potential.
    You have inspired me, and countless others, beyond anything I could have anticipated. Thank you for showing us that we can take action, we can make a difference and we can have an awesome time doing it.
    You are Truly inspiring. This has been deeply profound and utterly beautiful.
    Congratulations…blessings and all of THAT!

  9. Love this.
    You made me cry – but it was a happy cry.

    This project is doing so much more than raising funds for a great charity. It’s reminding people that amazing things can happen if you’re willing to just try.

    Thank you.

  10. Oh Colleen I am crying, and loving you, and this project,and the world that stepped up so very much!!!


    I am stepping up my game and trying some things!!!!!!


  11. Colleen-
    I have admired you from afar for a while now (but not in a freaky stalker-ish way, more in a a “I wish I could write more like her” way). I admire your writing, your humor, your honesty. And now your incredible and fearless fundraising ability. Thanks for inspiring so many of us.
    Happy happy birthday!

  12. I don’t get you. All this work, and still you take time to thank someone for a thank-you note?

    Darrell and I have “impossible” screaming at us from more than one direction at the moment, as you know–but at least for today we’re smiling and saying, “Yeah, whatever. Colleen says it ain’t so.”

    Katie choked up at your video, but don’t ask her to admit that!

  13. Wow! I am so impressed with what you’ve accomplished. You are one amazing old bag. (Just had to say that!) And don’t deflect your glory onto us. YOU made it possible! You’re the best!

  14. I love everything about you. And today has been a better place because of the words you left us with, last night. “Are you SURE it’s impossible?”

    That has become a new mantra for me, and I am so grateful to you. I never doubted you for one stinkin’ minute, and now you’ve given me the gift of not doubting myself either.

    THANK YOU. <3 <3 <3

  15. Congrats Colleen! Tim S. got me into this and I can’t believe that I am sitting at my computer sobbing over the wonderfulness of what you’ve done and how you inspire me. It got me talking with a friend about organizing locally and you have especially inspired me to get rid of “things” – they get in the way of “experiences” which are much more valuable. Maybe I was already for this, but you pushed me over the edge. Thank you!

  16. This is amazing. I am so grateful for your work and your will to take the leap in the face of fear. You are a true inspiration.

    Congratulations on surpassing your goal!

    All the best,


  17. You are absolutely amazing. I was crying right along with you. You are an inspiration and such a lovely, caring woman. I hope your birthday and everyday is filled with love and magic.

  18. HUrray! Congratulations and happy, happy 50th birthday. You’ve made the world a better place, and given us a chance to be part of it.

    Don’t apologise for crying. It’s a lovely video. I hope you keep doing them from time to time. I feel like I’ve got to know you a bit through them.

    It also helped me cry over something I’ve felt numb about this week, so thank you for that too.

    BLessings, love (if I may) and have a wonderful birthday and head shaving

  19. Well, hot damn. I didn’t know about the matching grant till this moment. You just gave me a boost as I sit here rewriting my bio to reflect what I really give a damn doing in my business.

    So, I’m not with people I love, nor am I doing anything amazing today. But in light of your video, the least I can do is say what I darn well need to say in my bio. Geez.

    Maybe we should all brainstorm a list of what or who we would help if we had $109,000.

  20. Oh! I just looked at the photos – you look very cute with no hair – a nice head!

    Hope it’s staying warm where you are so your new bald head isn’t too cold!


  21. Found this post through @chrisguillebeau and it was SO what I needed to hear today. What an amazing and inspirational story. Congratulations and Happy Birthday! Even though it’s too late to contribute through 50 for 50, I will send something directly to WriteGirl. You rock!!!

  22. Congratulations, Colleen! What an accomplishment for you and everyone involved. So happy that you not only met your goal, but you blew it out of the freakin’ water! Really amazing. And your head is quite lovely. :)

Comments are closed.