Inspirational mentors: Nikola Tesla

Tesla in his lab

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla!

Seeing as Friday is his 159th birthday and this was on my list of entries to write about “Inspirational Mentors” in my life, I decided who better to kick it off with. (This series of posts will highlight people who have had huge influences on my life and what I learned from them. I use the term ‘mentor’ loosely here, because obviously I couldn’t have had a close mentor relationship with him, but I’ve read several books including his and watched documentaries and just about everything I can find on the internet about him.)

Tesla is probably one of the most brilliant, but unacknowledged scientists and inventors of our age (and not like Apple patenting a rectangle with rounded corners — I’m talking real, unique patents and inventions). Besides his creations, he was also a prolific writer and had some genius philosophies (check out this list of some of his best quotes/thoughts). It wasn’t until the past few years that his contributions to the world have been really elevated with The Oatmeal’s “The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” information campaign and museum erection and Tesla Motors (using many technologies he invented). Here are the core reasons I really admire and what I’ve learned from Tesla:

#1 – His amazing story reminds me of the miracle that is our live in modern society: One exceptional, focused, humble and hard working person can truly change the world and make it a better place.

#2 – If you want to make exponential change in the world on many levels, you can’t own/exploit/ride every single idea you create. Sometimes you have to birth them and see if they take flight. Sometimes you have to give the ideas to others to let them own them. Many modern inventors or non-workaholic people in Tesla’s shoes would have likely take one of his brilliant inventions and just rode the profits out of it, but he was so focused on creating he didn’t have time for that (and ended up getting exploited by Thomas Edison because of it).

#3 – Nikola lived the #AlwaysBeShipping work life. Hustlers are the best.

Nikola Tesla

#4 – The importance of having some nerd swagger. While nerdiness is becoming en vogue in pop culture right now, it wasn’t always and probably won’t always. He was evidently kind of a ladies man in the NY scene when we came to America. Being a nerd doesn’t mean you have to be a diminutive or socially awkward person. Own your nerdiness and live the dream.

Learn more about Tesla’s live and impact on the world:

Iceland travel pro tips (also one of my best purchases for 2014)

The Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, Iceland towards the end of the 2015 solar eclipse (the timing was total dumb luck).

The Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, Iceland towards the end of the 2015 solar eclipse (the timing was total dumb luck).

One of my best purchases of 2014 was a trip to Iceland with my brother (which we completed/traveled in 2015). It’d been a long while since we’d adventured together and besides the brother bonding, it was a fantastic expereince — Iceland is amazing. We did a 7-day trip from DC and it was the perfect amount of time to explore but not so much that we were bored. In fact, I’d love to go back again during a different period of the year because it seems like the country changes every three months with the seasons/sun. Here’s a handful of quick pro tips and things I wish someone had told me (or that I had listened to/prepared better ahead of time):

  1. Really research and plan the time of the year you’re going to go — it changes massively every 3 months — from Northern Lights to puffins to daylight, roads / sections of the island closed due to Winter weather. We’d planned to try and arrive around an Equinox, when the Northern Lights are generally at their peak/most active, so we went from March 19-26 (March 20th being the Spring Equinox). We also just happened to be there during a solar eclipse (total dumb luck) which was awesome during the morning of our trip to the Blue Lagoon.
  2. Bring good hiking shoes. Seriously, there’s a lot of hiking to get to the awesome waterfalls.
  3. Bring a good rain coat. Waterfalls are water. There’s also a lot of weather changes, quickly.
  4. Bring warm clothes that you can layer. Seriously. It’s called ICEland for a reason.
  5. Bring a good camera — with a firm tripod. Especially if you really want to capture the Northern Lights. (This was my biggest mistake/regret on this trip.)
  6. Food and drinks in general are quite expensive (even for a DC resident), so plan accordingly. If you can bring in any booze or easily transportable munchies like nuts to cover a meal or something you can save a lot. It’s easily $10-20 per meal, even at the cheaper/less fancy places. If you can’t/won’t bring stuff, hit up the grocery store and explore some of the local cuisine and munchies. Do some picnic breakfasts and lunches and save your self a ton for a daily dinner out. (The restaurants and food is also not that exotic for the most part — mainly English/American/European, so it’s not like you’re missing much by eating a few meals of PB&J).
  7. Hit up the Airport duty-free and city-tax-free booze. My brother read something that recommended doing this and I kind of blew it off as an arrogant, experienced world traveler with a George Costanza stance on Duty-Free, but Iceland is drastically different. If you plan on drinking booze in Iceland, when you get off your plane I’d highly recommend picking something up at the airport duty free shop. (And if you plan on partying a bit while abroad, I might recommend on planning some vorspiel pre-partying in your plans because it’s expensive to drink out in Iceland.)
  8. Buy 6 months ahead of time or in the border seasons and you’ll save half a grand easily. Figure out in general when you want to go a while ahead of time and then watch the travel deal sites. We found a pretty excellent deal through Travelzoo that included air, hotel and two day trips for just over $100 a day each (contingent on double occupancy).
  9. Or do an Iceland Air stopover en route to Europe. Another trip planning option to consider is Iceland Air also offers an awesome option to do a ‘stopover’ in Iceland en route to one of their many European destinations. We were originally going to do that, but found this Travelzoo deal and went with that instead.
  10. Don’t worry about the language. Everyone speaks English (My brother was concerned about this). Sure, things have crazy Icelandic names but language is not a barrier at all.
  11. Check out Sad Cars if you’re going to rent and drive a car around (which you should do). They’re really cheap, super mellow and friendly and you can bring the car back with whatever gas you want (no need to fill it up or fill it to X point like many rental places). It’s kind of like if a Youth Hostel ran a car rental place. They’re not the newest cars, but the savings are worth it. We booked online ahead of time and also saved 15%!
  12. Try the rotten shark, dried fish, Skyr (yogurt), hot dogs with mayo and crunchy onions. It’s a thing. The shark is not as bad as you would think — it just smells bad.
  13. Most of their gas stations are prepay by credit card with no attendants or any help. It’s a little different than most places in the U.S. so make sure you have a credit card that is going to work abroad without issue because there’s no one there to help you most of the time.
  14. Fill up on gas when you can if you’re not going in a high season. Some of the gas stations are few and far between and very small/easily missed.
  15. Reykjavik can really be pretty thoroughly explored in about 48 hours. The museums are ok, but not all ‘must sees’. The most unique one is probably the Penis Museum, which is quirky enough to be worth the admission (the gift shop is reasonably priced too). Most of the other museums and galleries I could take or leave.
  16. Check out the flea market downtown for decently priced souvenirs, random interesting stuff and people watching. Everything is pretty expensive in Iceland (if I haven’t made the clear yet) and souvenirs are no different. If you really, really, really need some Iceland wool, the best price I found was at the Reykjavik Market.
  17. I recommend making your highest priority: Get a car and get out on the outer ring highways exploring Iceland. Stop frequently. We enjoyed that most, by far. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

I should also note, I consider this one the best purchases of 2014 because it was an amazing experience, not only traveling to Iceland, but to travel with my brother, whom I haven’t travelled with in a while. It was fantastic to reconnect and spend time together tooling around the island, like we used to do in out teens taking road trips with friends all over the Midwest and even across the country once. Traveling solo is great, but traveling with someone you care about and connect with is even better.

Pro tip: How to turn on your TV through Chromecast (and some other connected devices)


I’m a Chromecast fanatic. Even just for background noise or playing music through my TV, I use it for several hours on most days. One feature that I discovered this winter while looking into HDMI technologies was HDMI-CEC (or HDMI Consumer Electronics Control). This allows an external device plugged into the TV to turn on the TV when the device is activated, saving you a step and warm-up time when you’re using something like Chromecast.

The awesome thing is this isn’t some revolutionary new thing that will take many years to adopt — it’s available on most modern TVs with HDMI — it just sometimes needs to be turned on in the TV options menu and most manufacturers unfortunately try and rebrand it as some fancy new proprietary feature, rather that just calling it the industry standard name. Here’s what to look for in your TV settings (depending on your manufacturer) from Wikipedia:

Trade names for CEC are Anynet+ (Samsung), Aquos Link (Sharp), BRAVIA Link and BRAVIA Sync (Sony), HDMI-CEC (Hitachi), E-link (AOC), Kuro Link (Pioneer), INlink (Insignia), CE-Link and Regza Link (Toshiba), RIHD (Remote Interactive over HDMI) (Onkyo), RuncoLink (Runco International), SimpLink (LG), T-Link (ITT), HDAVI Control, EZ-Sync, VIERA Link (Panasonic), EasyLink (Philips), and NetCommand for HDMI (Mitsubishi)

Not all external devices support this, but Chromecast certainly does, so I hope this saves you a few seconds, searching for the remote and some button pushing in your daily to make living more seamlessly and enjoyable. :)

Watch this: Inspirational and transformational management strategies from The Profit

The Profit

I’m not a reality TV junkie by any means, in fact, I avoid almost all of them (and most TV in general). But one show I’ve been hooked on over the past year has been The Profit, a CNBC show about turning around failing businesses with investor and consultant Marcus Lemonis who invests his own money, sweat equity and expertise to right the ship.

What I love about this show:

  1. As someone who’s dedicated his live to trying to fix, improve and impact legacy organizations from media to the government with varying levels of management, process and product issues, I really enjoy seeing Lemonis’ process and how he drops in to any type or size of organization– from Key Lime Pie bakers to car dealerships to a custom furniture family business — and applies a simple formula to fix it. And most of the time, he seems to pull it off.
  2. His simple formula is fantastic. Focus on improving: People. Process. Product.
  3. It’s real. Sometimes the deals don’t always work out or things explode and then end up in litigation after the business backs out of agreements or didn’t disclose debts or other issues. One of the things that drive me nuts about most reality shows is their predictable story arcs that make them seem scripted (and without a doubt, some are). The Profit doesn’t always have a happy ending and I appreciate the realness of that.
  4. Lemonis’ interpersonal skills have been really inspirational to me. The way he drops into these organization, finds allies, champions and diamonds in the rough, then raises them up and helps them rebuild were instrumental in my leadership strategy in the last year at the BBG. Most of the time, the core issue with the business is the people. Process and product are generally easier to fix. People are often the hardest thing to change in failing businesses, especially changing a culture or a hard personality (without just firing away the problem which sometimes you can’t). Often in the show (and in real life at these kind of flailing organizations) issues are caused by people who refuse to give up control, refuse to try a new way or hand over control to the next generation of leaders. So learning his tools and emotional intelligence strategies has been incredibly helpful for me as a manager.

Check it out on CNBC prime time, the web on Hulu (how I watch it).

Go with the cheap wine — experts, normal people agree you can’t tell the difference based on price

Vox did a great piece comparing statistical research, blind tastings and analysis of wines at different price points and qualities and turned up something I suspected: Basically no one could tell a difference.

What’s even more interesting, in some of their results, the most expensive bottles were often *least* liked. I’ve debated this with some friends who are certified wine sommeliers and even syndicated wine columnists but never had the statistics to back it up since flavor is often a matter of personal preference. So treat your self to some fine boxed wine.

Don’t follow my methods though; I tend to buy based on the artwork and description, which is probably even less of a test for the quality of the wine. :)

All Men Must Die — Here’s an easy tool to help you get your house in order before you buy the farm

All Men Must Die

One of the best blessings/burdens of my father’s early death when I was still a teenager was a firm understanding about our mortality, which I think about fairly frequently and which also motivates me to achieve my best and live with the kaizen will.

In preparation for when your time comes, there’s a new handy tool for tying up all the logistics needed when/after you die for your survivors:
(Don’t go to the .com, btw.)

This website has sample templates for all sorts of logistical info you or your family will need when someone dies, including checklists of account info, Will and Power of Attorney forms. It’s a lot of chomp through, but spending a few hours one weekend to knock it out could save a lot of headaches down the road during a very stressful time. Share it with your family and make sure that everyone is set up to help each other out.

The creator explains the motivation for the site:

There are a few simple things I wish I had taken care of before my life went sideways, like a will, living will, and some details jotted down. Should the ground fall out from under your feet—plan now for a softer landing. In fact, it’s easy to finish the planning and basic papers your life needs.

In 2009 my husband was killed in an accident. In the following hours, weeks, and months I was shocked by the number of things we had left disorganized or ignored. Critical documents you can spend a fraction of the time doing now. Here are those core items, streamlined.

Get your shit together now and breathe a huge sigh of relief. You can do it.

Bonus Pro Tip: After you finish filling it out, set a calendar reminder to check and update it as needed when you do an annual file backup, transfer and computer cleaning. (I usually do these over the Christmas holiday break and in July.)

Nine metrics to use to evaluate if you should take on a side-hustle project


Back in 2011, I hit at a breaking point in my life and needed to make a change. I’d took on too much across all my professional work, a fellowship studying mobile tech, co-directing the Society for News Design’s St. Louis convention, co-directing the NPPA Multimedia Immersion, working on the board of the Online News Association including several committees and as Secretary of the executive board, freelancing, plus more than two dozen speaking and teaching engagements. My health, stress and general well-being was way out of whack and I had to start making life changes and being more selective about what I take on, saying “no” to some opportunities. It took a couple years to wind things down and become much more selective (and I still fall back to my old ways and overload myself) but I developed a checklist system for evaluating projects.

I was reminded of this list last week at the 9th annual Multimedia Immersion (yes, this is one of the few things I didn’t wind down, yet) when the amazing, humble and world-famous photographer Greg Heisler was speaking on stage during our freelance/career discussion. He said he had a handful of tests/motivation points for making decisions about when he would pick up work and relayed some stories where he took less than the money he should have received for the opportunity to work with cool people or for future gigs.

Here’s my list that I developed (in no particular order) for deciding if/when to take on extra side-hustle projects:

  • Skills — To learn new skills.
    (It’s important to be constantly evolving your skills, living the kaizen way.)
  • Impact — For the impact it makes on the world, to do good.
    (I’m starting to be much more critical about what real and exponential impact some work can have and trying to find bigger/harder/more impactful things to take on after reading “Bold.”)
  • People — To be around and work with amazing people.
    (As many people say, ‘You are the average of your 5 best friends,’ so finding more awesome people to influence you and raise your awesome average is always good.)
  • Money — For the substantial money.
    (As in $100/hr rates or as an investment that will likely have exponential returns.)
  • Challenge — To be challenged, solve interesting problems.
    (This can take many forms and be a dangerous one because some challenges can consume you if you take them too far, but accomplishing difficult things can be very rewarding.)
  • Pleasure — For the pleasure/calling of doing the work.
    (Some things like maintaining a garden or brewing your own beer, may not be lucrative or extremely productive uses of time, but there’s a personal pleasure you can derive from the experience.)
  • Resume — For the future career opportunities that will grow from this.
    (Sometimes this is hard to gauge since it’s hard to know when a connection to make helping with a conference could lead to a job, but the line on your resume is a little easier to quantify.)
  • Reputation — To build character and status.
    (Especially building a reputation of serial start-up successes, so that when people think of you they know you’ll deliver and are good to your word.)
  • Appreciation — To feel appreciated.
    (Although this frequently doesn’t happen easily, openly or very clearly, so this should not be the primary motivator.)

Not everything I decide to take on has to hit all these points to get the green light, and some things might just be incredibly high value in one or two, but ideally, I try and only take on work that fulfills at least half of the items on the list.

If I work through this list and I’m still on the fence, I sometimes consider what a (soon to be former boss) Rob Bole, said something at a BBG staff meeting encouraging us to innovate and push the boundaries (which I have had scribbled on a Post-It note on my desk wall since): “When you have the choice between two different options, choose the most dramatic.” New adventures stretch and grow your character and experience more than doing lots of the same thing year over year over year.

Samsung 1 TB SSD hard drive one of the — One of My Best Purchases of 2014

Samsung SSD

In 2014, after many years of delaying, I took the plunge and switched out my mechanical hard drive for an SSD and will never buy another mechanical hard drive in my life. I went for one of the big ones too — a 1 TB Samsung SSD — so that I could travel with all my files on one computer (I still do external backups occasionally). There’s even a new “Pro” version with a 10 year warranty for those of you out there concerned about the longevity of this ‘new’ (not really anymore) technology.

This is definitely one of the greatest purchases of 2014 and has extended the live of my laptop at least another two-three years before I will probably have to upgrade. By that point, I suspect all most all computers will be running SSD drives. (After doing a bunch of computer shopping this past week for an upgrade for my mom, I found many companies are already switching over and the choice seems to be have an optical drive and traditional hard drive or an SSD-driven computer.

The major benefits:

  • Speed, by far, is the biggest benefit for everything involving memory or hard drive space
  • Productivity/efficiency (because of the speed)
  • Heat/weight/cooling are all supposed to be better, but I don’t notice
  • Cost is going down (still SSDs are much more than mechanical) but price has improved hugely over the past two years

Even if your budget only allows for a small hard drive or even one of the hybrid models, I highly, highly recommend getting in on this SSD party.

Relocation & travel pro-tip: Where to get free, easy and high-quality moving boxes

Banana Boxes

During the first decade or so of my career, I moved around a lot climbing the industry ladder, accepting fellowships, buying houses and condos and working my way from the bottom-up in the industry. In the first 15 or so years of my career I had more than 12 significant moves from Toledo-Chicago-Sydney-Toledo-Stuart-St. Pete-Stuart-West Palm Beach-St. Louis-Columbia-St. Louis-DC. Throughout all of them one faithful companion has helped me move every step along the way (No, not my trusty 3-in-1 cart, at least not in the first 10 moves):

The basic grocery store banana box.

This is a Sullivan family pro tip passed down through generations; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had memories of my grandmother and mom lugging around banana boxes of junk to sell at the annual family garage sales. In my older age and many, many moves I’ve found their brilliant design, versatility and thriftiness to be an indomitable ally for transporting things from point A to B.

Here are more than 10 reasons why I’m B-A-N-A-N-A-S for banana boxes: 

  • They’re free and reusable. Go to any grocery store and ask and they’ll gladly give them away. And you’ll save a stock boy hours of box crushing and bailing these.
  • They have fixed, strong, built-in handles!
  • The top easily stacks inside the bottom so they don’t get lost.
  • They’re uniform in size so even if you mix up box tops/bottoms you’ll be able to fit everything together
  • They’re very study, hard and often waxed cardboard so they can often survive getting damp or wet.
  • There’s two thick cardboard layers, the top and bottom, glued and fixed, so they don’t crush and crumble like standard moving boxes from Home Depot or elsewhere.
  • There’s no packing tape and tape gun/scissors really necessary since they are already glued and fixed and the suction force of pulling the lid/bottom off of each other keeps them very firmly together.
  • Their size makes them ideal for carrying a reasonable physical size and weight load — it’s hard to fill a banana box to the point that it would be too heavy to carry. Even chocked full of books or magazines they’re still carry-able for a moderately healthy person a moderate distance. And a bunch of them filled with light materials like clothes or blankets can be easily stacked for quicker loading, less trips.
  • Their shape makes them basically impossible to accidentally tip over (compared to Home Depot moving boxes which tend to be taller than they are wide at the base).
  • The uniform and consistent size makes it easy to Tetris them into your moving vehicles, stack on any side or even upside down.
  • Because of their rigid shape and design, They can be stacked very high and hold a lot of weight without crushing. (I’ve stacked them 8 high, which is almost taller than I can reach and load safely.)
  • In a pinch, banana boxes can also double as a free or second suitcase (for souvenirs and gifts or if yours gets shredded somewhere in an emergency) since they’re pretty standard sized around the world and available at most grocery stores in most developed nations. They’re also under the normal check-in luggage size and with some tape can become secure enough to easily endure the luggage throwers and conveyor belts of the airports.

Pro Tip: Grab a Sports section of newspaper and throw them in each of the boxes you collect, this acts as a cover/filler for the hole in the center of the box if needed, but also can easily become packing material to protect the objects in the box.


Get free frequent flyer miles for online purchases places you probably already shop


One of my other frequent flyer mile travel hacks to keep the airline miles you’ve earned (since they usually expire after a year or two) AND earn new airline miles on purchases you were already going to make through websites, is buying things through one of many airline Online Shopping Frequent Flyer portals. (I know, I know, this sounds spammy or like a pain, but it’s actually really quick and fairly painless.)

A bunch of the major airlines have these affiliate programs that give frequent flyer rewards when you purchase something after being directed from their airline portal. It takes 10 seconds extra and gives me hundreds of thousands of extra miles each year on things I was already buying from Groupon, Living Social, Dell, Verizon, Kohls, Home Depot, etc. There’s thousands of sites included with at least $1 to 1 point earnings (and many higher than that). Pair that with an airline credit card and you could double all your mileage earnings!

The process is simple:

#1 – Before making a purchase, I’ll check my preferred airline’s Online Shopping Frequent Flyer portal (this appears to be the same white-label company that manages the portal for all airlines, so the same stores for Southwest are available for Delta, etc.) and I also know pretty well what stores I frequent that are included so I don’t check every time:

#2 – I’ll hit the store link through the Airline portal I prefer to earn miles on (usually Southwest).

#3 – I’m briefly prompted to log into to my frequent flyer account (which all the password info is automatically filled and saved using LastPass):

#4 – It redirects me to the store I was going to shop and and I make my purchase as I normally would. After the purchase (and some processing time, the points get posted to my Frequent Flyer account).

That is it!

These airline portals also sometimes have increased earning rates and specials, but I don’t pay too much attention to that. If I make a purchase at the right time and get extra points, that’s awesome. I don’t watch the portal like a hawk or anything.

Pro Tip: The time it takes for miles to get posted to your account varies WIDELY from the companies and airlines, so buyer beware and maybe check in a month after purchase if you’re using this as your primary means of keeping an airline frequent flyer account alive or if it was a big purchase with big rewards.