WeCroak: An app that does what my brain already does

My friend, Kim, alerted me to a new app called WeCroak. It does one simple thing:

Five times per day, at unpredictable intervals, it sends you a message that says:

“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”

The app was created by Ian Thomas, a 27-year-old freelance app developer, and Hansa Bergwall, a 35-year-old publicist, 

“I would get to the end of the day and realize I’d forgotten the entire day to think about death,” Bergwall said. “And it occurred to me, This is so easy: I could just get my phone to remind me.”

If you know me well, you'll know that Kim alerted me to the app not because I needed to be reminded that I am going to die but because it's something I think about all the time. In fact, when I read about the app and saw that it offered five reminders per day, I thought, "Five? That's it? I think about death five times an hour!"

And that's truly a conservative estimate.

The result of two near-death experiences and an armed robbery that included a gun to my head and the trigger being pulled has left with a persistent, constant, existential bell ringing in my head at all times. And it's not an entirely bad thing. The never-ending reminder that I will someday die has caused me to be relentless in terms of pursuing my goals and making every moment count.

It's the thing that forces me out of my chair when Charlie asks me to play. It's the thing that compels me to pick up my tall, gangly nine year-old daughter every time she asks. It's what keeps the TV turned off when there is a book to write or a story to tell. It's what sends me to the gym on an almost daily basis, hoping to stave off the inevitable. It's why I drive to New York on a Tuesday night to perform despite the fact that I will arrive home in the wee hours of the morning and still be out of bed by 5:00 AM. It's what causes me to say yes to the craziest proposals.   

The constant ringing of my existential bell keeps me moving. Forces me to look forward. Insists that I make every moment count. 

But it's also what produces anxiety in me when times goes by and progress is not made. It's the thing that breaks my heart when I ponder all that will be lost when I die. It's why I can be so happy with my life while also be in a constant state of perpetual dissatisfaction.

Sometimes it's crushing to my soul.  

I'm not sure if it's something I would ever wish upon someone, though I have met people who wish they could experience life similarly.  

I once gave a Ted Talk once that attempted to offer the benefits of an ongoing existential crisis without all the angst and despair. I tried to thread the needle, so to speak. 

So although I didn't need the WeCroak app, I downloaded it anyway, much to Elysha's exasperation. I receive my reminder five times a day, accompanied by a quote meant to encourage “contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation” but does not.

I thought it would be amusing.

Then one night a couple weeks ago I was driving to Queens for a Moth StorySLAM. Though I had left with more than enough time, traffic was giving me fits. About an hour into my drive, it looked like I might be late for the slam, which meant I would have no chance to perform onstage. 

I considered turning back. If I arrived in Queens late, I was going to be upset. Yes, I would still hear some great stories and visit with some good friends, but my primary purpose was to tell a brand new story that I liked a lot. Try to win. Gain access to another Moth GrandSLAM championship.

If none of that was going to happen, maybe I should turn around now and spend the night reading to my kids, working on a book, and sitting beside Elysha. Why risk another 90 minutes or more on the road, plus a return trip, for nothing? 

I looked down at my phone to see what my estimated time of arrival was. On my screen was a message:

“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”  

That was it. I dropped the phone and pushed onward, hell bent on making it to the slam on time. 

I did. I arrived just in the nick of time. I dropped my name in the hat.
I got chosen to tell my story.
I won. 

Would I have turned around had I not seen that message?

Maybe. I would've at least pondered the decision a little more. Debated its merits. Wondered if the possibility of not having a chance to take the stage was worth all this trouble.

WeCroak at least cemented a decision I probably would've made anyway. Maybe. 

It turns out that even someone as crazed and obsessed with death can use a reminder every now and then.

Maybe you could, too. 

An unusual and exhausting but unforgettable weekend thanks to a July night in 2011

I'm often astounded by the places that a story told on a stage in 2011 has taken me.

This weekend I had the honor working with caregivers at Yale New Haven Hospital, teaching them how to tell stories about their own experiences as patients and the spouses, parents, and children of patients to doctors, nurses, and other clinicians in an effort to improve care. It was the second Saturday that I spent with these remarkable people, and their stories were incredibly hard to hear but so moving.

Those hours spent in a conference room at the hospital with those extraordinary people will stay with me forever.  

On Sunday I traveled to Harvard, MA to deliver the sermon on a the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church. I told stories to the congregation and talked about the healing power of storytelling in your own life and the lives of others. Later, I taught a workshop to about 60 members of the church and members of the community who decided to join us. I met some remarkable people who are hoping to use storytelling to change their lives and the lives of people all over the world. 

Sandwiched on between those two things, Elysha and I produced a Speak Up show at Real Art Ways. Six storytellers joined me in sharing stories about hunger. For some, it was the first time they had ever told a story on stage. Others entered my life years ago through my workshops and shows, and I'm proud to call a few of them my friends today.

So, too, were members of the audience who I have only met through storytelling.

So many of my friends, and some of the best people I know, have entered my life this way.

I ended the weekend consulting with an attorney for the ACLU on his upcoming TED Talk, helping him craft an outstanding talk on subjects near and dear to my heart. Elysha and I are ALCU members, so it was an honor to assist in this important work.  

This was an unusual weekend to be sure. I'm not leading church services every Sunday or teaching a widow to tell the story of her deceased husband's hospital care. Rarely is my weekend so chock full of storytelling the way this one was. 

Frankly, it was exhausting. Also, I missed my family this weekend. A lot. 

But when I'm better rested in a day or so and I've made up for lost time with Elysha and the kids, I'll look back on this weekend and think about how lucky I am that I decided to do something back in 2011 that was hard and scared me to death. 

Budo, the protagonist of my third novel, says that "The right thing and the hard thing are often the same thing."

I try to remember this always, because I know how often embracing the hard thing has led to a weekend like this past one. 

I'm in a constant search for the next hard, right thing. 

Someone wrote a song about me! About me!

Spotify recently added podcasts to its offerings. Wondering if my podcast, Boy vs. Girl, had been added, I asked Alexa, our Amazon Echo, to play Boy vs. Girl.

She told me that she couldn't find it on Spotify.

Then I asked her to play "Matthew Dicks," hoping it might pick up my name as one of the hosts of the podcast. 

"Playing Matthew Dicks on Spotify."

Then Spotify began playing a song about me

You can imagine my shock. Also my glee. 

It's a song produced by the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library in conjunction with a TEDx Talk I gave in Somerville back in 2014 about the importance of saying yes.

I had no idea it existed. I was fairly exuberant about its existence. Elysha was also exuberant but became less so as I continued to play the song and express my excitement, pride, and lust for the tune.

I may have become insufferable in the span of about 15 minutes.

Still, a song about me! Mistakenly discovered on Spotify! I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

When you put things out into the world (in this case, a TEDx Talk), you never know what will come back to you. 

TEDxTheCountrySchool: Speak Less. Expect More.

This is a TEDx Talk that I delivered in April of 2016 at The Country School in Madison, CT. The conference was run almost exclusively by the students of the school, who were of middle and high school age.

It's a variation of a talk that I have delivered before about the idea that teachers should be speaking less in their classrooms and expecting more from their students. 

11 thoughts on yesterday’s TEDxBU event, including observations from the restrooms and my advice for future TED speakers.

A few observations from yesterday’s TEDxBU talk at Boston University.


1. I will never understand what possesses organizers like Ben Lawson and Salma Yehia to give up hundreds of hours of their time to pull off an event like this. I have spoken at four TEDx events in the past three years, and in each case, I am astounded by the level of coordination, leadership, and effort required. I am so happy that there are people like Salma and Ben who are willing to give of themselves and their time. They are better people than me.


2. I only accidentally went into the women’s restroom once yesterday, which was good for me.

3. TED events use hands-free, wireless microphones. I despise these microphones. They are unreliable and do not afford the speaker the level of nuance and modulation that a traditional microphone affords. My microphone was fine yesterday, but give me an old fashioned corded mic on a stand any day.  

4. Speaking of restrooms, an astounding number of young men did not wash their hands after using the restroom yesterday. Is this some kind of millennial thing?

5. Walking around with a TEDxBU speaker badge causes every person at Boston University to want to talk to you and assume that you are far more intelligent than you really are. I think I’m going to wear my speaker badge in public from now on.

6. As a TED talk veteran, many of the speakers asked me for advice. Since it was too late to give any input on the content of their talk, I gave them these three speaking tips:

  • Speak slowly.
  • A well placed pause is a beautiful thing. It allows the audience to digest your content and allows you to center yourself before proceeding. Don’t be afraid to just stop and breathe.
  • If your microphone does not sound perfect when you begin, stop and get your tech fixed before restarting. The audience will always accept a two minute delay in exchange for a speaker who sounds clear and strong.

7. If I was going to give my admittedly biased advice on the content of a successful TED talk, I would say the following:

  • Fewer PowerPoint slides are better. Make your talk so compelling that you do not require slides. If the projector fails and your PowerPoint is corrupted by the bird flu, you should still be able to present a compelling and engaging talk.
  • Fewer numbers are better. Use story instead of statistics. Contextualize.
  • Ask yourself this question: How much of this talk is story and how much is expository. Your story-to-expository ratio should be 2:1 at minimum.
  • By the end of your talk, your audience should know the people mentioned in your talk. They should know their names and personalities and wants and needs. Otherwise, why did you mention them at all?
  • Include humor. Make your audience laugh early. It will boost your confidence and make your audience believe that they are in safe hands.

8. I was asked by two people if I had a startup. I found this question very strange. My response:

“Yes. Four books and two children. Want to invest?”

Ironically, it was later pointed out by a friend that Speak Up is much closer to being a true startup than my books or children.

9. It’s a small, small world. I mentioned my former poetry professor, the late Hugh Ogden, in my talk as a teacher who changed my life. It turns out that one of the other speakers lived on the same street as Hugh as a child and knew him well.

10. I was identified by the organizers on their website as a teacher, writer, blogger, storyteller, minister, life coach, and DJ. The vast majority of the people who spoke to me were most interested in my career as a DJ – until they learned that I was a wedding DJ and not spinning records in a club.

11. This was the first time in a long time when I was not on stage in a t-shirt and hat. I didn’t like it. Still, I wore jeans and was the envy of two of my fellow speakers. 

Less lecture. More learning.

In 2013, I did a TED Talk entitled “Speak Less. Expect More.”


Unfortunately, the audio engineer failed me that day, and the recording was poor. Although my voice is discernible in the video, the audio is of such low quality that the talk never received any real attention despite initial excitement by the organizers to the contrary.

I hope to repeat the talk someday at another conference so I can get the version that people can actually listen to. 

“Speak less. Expect more.” is a hard lesson for educators to learn. So many believe that teaching is about talking. Lectures. Stories. Delivering content and imparting wisdom to eager young minds.

We call these teachers “sages on the stage,” and even though they work incredibly hard and are no less dedicated to their students, they would be far more effective if they simply stopped talking and allowed their students to do more.

If you were to ask my students what my ultimately goal is as an educator, they would tell you that it’s to do nothing. My dream is to sit at my desk, reading a book, answering the occasional question, while the students run the classroom and guide their own learning.

It’s unrealistic, of course. Pie in the sky. Nevertheless, I’m working on it, and you would be shocked at the level of responsibility that students have in my classroom.

What I’ve discovered is that children are far more capable than we ever realize, and that letting go of as much responsibility and placing it squarely on the students’ shoulders is good for everyone, but especially the kids.  

I mention all of this because I read a quote by Stephen Fry recently that summarizes my belief and my TED Talk so well:

"Education is the sum of what students teach each other between lectures and seminars."

If I were king, I would have this quote placed above the door of every classroom – elementary through college – in America.

Teachers: Stop commenting, positively or negatively, on your student’s physical appearance. It’s only hurting them.

As an elementary school teacher, I have made it my policy for more than a decade to avoid commenting on a student’s physical appearance. A student’s appearance should be the last thing of concern to a teacher, but more importantly, these comments, even when positive, can be damaging and hurtful to kids.


This policy has been scoffed at by many of my friends and colleagues. I have been laughed at and criticized for my position. Told that I am taking things too far. Becoming too politically correct.

Yet I have articulated this position to every class of students over the past ten years, and I have never had a single student scoff or laugh or even question my policy. Every single student has appreciated and supported my position. Some of have tried to adopt it as well. 

It’s only adults who think I’m dumb.

Up until this point, I haven’t cared. I know I’m right. I know I’m doing right by my students. I’m accustomed to suffering fools gladly.

Then I watched Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk “Why thinking you’re ugly is bad for you.”

It turns out that Ramsey would agree with me. She would support my position. Endorse it, even.

In her own words:

“Why can’t we compliment people based upon their effort and actions and not their appearance?”

After listening to Meaghan Ramsey’s talk and learning more about the incredible struggles that young people face when it comes to physical appearance and body image, I decided that it’s no longer good enough to simply ignore my detractors. I need to change their minds. Convince them otherwise. Make them see the light. 

I want my policy of refraining from commenting on a student’s physical appearance to become a policy that all teachers adopt. I want this to be a policy that educators embrace and champion.  

If you are a teacher, I ask you to consider adopting this policy for yourself. Watch Ramsey’s TED Talk. Read my original post on the issue, which outlines my rationale. Ask yourself if there is any reason in the world to compliment the pretty dress or the new haircut in your classroom today. Of all the finite minutes that we have to spend with our students, do you want to use even a tiny fraction of that time talking about wardrobe choices and hairstyles?

Is that the culture you want in your classroom?   

If you agree with me, I ask you to do more than simply adopt the policy yourself. I ask that you become a champion for this policy as well.

  • Talk to your colleagues.
  • Forward them this blog post.
  • Share this blog post via your social media channels.
  • Pass along Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk.
  • Find like minded people who will support you, and when they cannot be found, convince them to be like minded.

Even better, talk to your students. They are likely to be more supportive of this policy than many of the adults with whom you work. Enlist the support of the kids. Turn them into the spokespeople for this issue.

If students rise up and demand that teachers stop commenting on their physical appearance, both positive or otherwise, things would change overnight.

I plan on doing my part as well. I have already reached out to several TED conferences, asking if I can speak on this issue. If you know of someone hosting a conference let me know.

Whenever I am standing in front of a group of teachers (which happens more often than you would think), I will speak about my policy, tangentially if necessary, and ask them to adopt it for themselves.

I’ll look for outlets with larger audiences who will publish my thoughts on this issue. Magazines. Journals. Online resources.

I will seek to change minds and convince teachers that this is the right thing to do.

And it’s not easy. When I first adopted this policy for myself, it took months to train myself to refrain from commenting on physical appearance, and I was never one to mention physical appearance to begin with. I had to reframe my thinking and construct strategies to avoid situations where complimenting a student’s physical appearance almost seemed necessary.

When a student walks into my classroom and asks if I like her new haircut, I had to learn to say, “I didn’t notice your hair at all, but I loved the way you didn’t give up when we were solving those problems in math yesterday. Persistence is going to get you far in life.”

That’s a hard transition to make. It feels incredibly awkward at first. It’s still a little awkward. Explaining my rationale to my students helped, but it was still a long road to where I am today.

Get on the road now. Don’t delay. And spread the word.

It’s the right thing to do. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Megan Washington’s stutter is just perfect

I’m not sure why this effected me so much.

Maybe it’s because I also spend a lot of time onstage, taking to strangers,  and can’t believe Megan Washington’s courage.

Maybe it’s her honestly. The grace and humor that she exudes. Her unwillingness to accept our sympathy.

It’s a beautiful talk, and it’s a beautiful song. You should watch.   

The three great leaders of my life

Truly great leaders are hard to find. In my professional life, I have worked for three.

Allison White and Jalloul Montacer were McDonald’s general managers.

Plato Karafelis was my principal for fifteen years.


Allison taught me the importance of being the thing that you expect from your employees. She taught me that every job, as small and insignificant as it may seem, should be done superbly. In many ways, she was the first person to see my own potential as a leader.

Jalloul taught me to respect and value every employee, regardless of their position, for your success depends entirely upon them. He taught me to seek out the most challenging assignments, for it is through struggle and discomfort that we grow. He taught me that hard work and grit should be prized above all. 

Plato taught me to respect the differences in people. He taught me to  understand that every person is at a different place on their journey, and what may work for one person will not work for another. He taught me that the best leaders quietly protect their employees, absorbing the undeserved, unwarranted, and unnecessary slings and arrows without any need for credit or fanfare.  

I thought of all three of these people while listening to Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on leadership. All three embodied his message perfectly.

Sadly, few leaders do.  

It’s a must listen for every leader and for anyone who wants to demand more from their leaders.

Stop and watch.

These two TED Talks, published on the TED Talk podcast feed last week, are extraordinary.


The first, by author David Epstein, is on the science of athleticism. Are athletes of today really stronger and faster than the athletes of the past? The answer will surprise you.

The second talk deals with autism in no uncertain terms. Doctor and researcher Wendy Chung explains in clear terms what we know and don’t know about this disorder.

Watch both.

Upcoming speaking events

In case you’re interested in hearing me blather, here are a few of my upcoming storytelling and speaking engagements:

February 18: Literary Death Match at Laugh Boston (7:30 PM)
I’ll be competing against three other authors for the title of Literary Death Match Champion.
Ticketing info here.


February 20: The Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works in NYC (7:30 PM)
I’ll be putting my name in the hat in hopes of getting a chance to tell a story on the theme “Escape.”
Ticketing info here.


February 28: The Mouth at The Mark Twain House in Hartford (7:30 PM)
I’ll be telling a story on the theme “Sex and Lust.”
Ticketing info here. 


March 20: Plainville Public Library in Plainville, CT (6:00 PM)
I’ll be speaking about my latest novel, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, as well as writing, reading, storytelling and anything else you want to ask.

March 29: Speak Up at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT (8:00 PM)
I’ll be telling a story and co-producing the show with my wife and host, Elysha Dicks. The theme of the night is Law and Order.
Ticketing info TBA.


March 30: TED Talk at BKB Somerville in Somerville, MA
I’ll be giving a talk on the importance of saying yes.
Ticketing info here.


April 5: Moth Mainstage at Music Academy in Northampton, MA (7:30 PM)
I’ll be telling a story on the theme “Don’t Look Back.”
Ticketing info here.

May 17: Speak Up at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT (8:00 PM)
I’ll be telling a story and co-producing the show with my wife and host, Elysha Dicks. The theme of the night is Bad Romance.
Ticketing info TBA.

My TED Talk (if you listen closely)

On Saturday, I gave a TED Talk on Creativity and Compassion at Western Connecticut State University. It was an interesting conference that was sponsored by the school’s Center for Compassion, which was launched earlier this year after the Dalia Lama visited the school.

Once the video has been edited and published, I will post it here.

Back in August of this year, I gave another TED Talk on Education and Innovation at the AT&T Conference Center in conjunction with Center for 21st Century Skills. Unfortunately (and incredibly frustratingly), the sound on the recording was poor.

I can’t tell you how annoyed I am.

I hope to give this talk again at another TED conference, but until now, this is all I have, poor sound and all.

Resolutions that didn’t make the 2013 list

In deciding upon this year’s New Year’s resolution, several were discarded for a variety of reasons. Among them were the following:

Set a new personal best in golf.

I may have excluded this from my list simply because I am afraid that it is not possible. My lowest score for nine holes is a 46, and my lowest score for 18 holes is 95. Without lessons or a dramatic increase in the amount of playing time, I just don’t see myself improving these scores without an enormous amount of luck.  

Launch a podcast related to teaching.

I already plan on launching a podcast related to writing in 2013, so my idea of bringing three teachers (my wife, my friend and me) together to discuss education and answer questions of parents, students and fellow teachers might turn out to be fairly simple once I learned about the process, but it may not. Even if I manage to streamline the technical aspects of the process, it will still take time to record. As a result, I thought that one podcast this year would be more than enough. If the second manages to get off the ground, it will be a bonus.

Deliver a TED Talk.

While the idea of delivering a TED Talk remains something that I would like to pursue in 2013, the amount of content that I already plan on producing is so large that I felt that some ideas had to be left off the list. A TED Talk was one of them. 

Write and perform a 5-10 minute standup comedy set in 2013.

I would like to attempt standup comedy someday, but once again, the amount of writing, storytelling and podcasting that I have planned for 2013 is already more than enough.

Launch a proposed business venture with a close friend.

A friend and I have a possible business idea on the drawing board that we hope to launch in 2013, and we are already in discussions about it, but it may take more than a year to accomplish, so I have left it off the list for now. 

Read a specific number of books in 2013.

Readers suggest this resolution to me every year. Three years ago I established the goal of reading a dozen books published within the same calendar year (and achieved the goal fairly easily), but that goal was set in order to force me to read more current material.

My attitude towards overall reading has always remained the same:

Read as often as possible in 2013. The number of books doesn’t matter if I am reading as much as I can. Therefore no resolution is needed.

Make one mortgage payment from poker profits.

I paid for our honeymoon with poker profits, and I’ve always wanted to make at least one mortgage payment via poker, but the amount of playing that I do today is limited because of my writing schedule. Also, the online poker environment became decidedly more challenging with the US restrictions on online gambling in 2010. While I am fairly certain that I could earn enough money via poker to make at least one mortgage payment if I dedicated time to the endeavor, it turns out that writing is simply more profitable.

Shut up, Torie Bosch.

In a piece about the Decembeaver (I’ll let you read about it on Slate if you’d like), Slate’s Torie Bosch writes:

So we’ve made it through Movember, that silly month in which men on your Facebook wall grow out their mustaches “for cancer.” (Because one cannot simply donate to groups like the American Cancer Society—a stunt must be involved.)

If you’ve never heard of it, Movember is an annual, month-long event involving the growing of moustaches during the month of November to raise awareness of prostate cancer and other male cancer and their associated charities. In its eight years of existence, the organization has raised hundred of millions of dollars for these charities and is the leading contributor to prostate cancer research in many countries around the world.

This is why Bosch’s comments annoyed the hell out of me.

First, she states that men grow mustaches for cancer, placing the two words in quotation marks presumably to express doubt as to these men’s intentions. But the organization has already raised hundred of millions of dollars “for cancer” already. Why does Bosch question the motives of these participants?

Why would anyone question the motives of people who are raising enormous sums of money in the interests of medical research?

Then she adds this parenthetical sentence:

(Because one cannot simply donate to groups like the American Cancer Society—a stunt must be involved.)

The stupidity of this statement astounds me.

First, part of the purpose of Movember is to raise awareness of prostate cancer and other male cancers, and in doing so, encourage men to get an annual check-up, become more aware of any family history of cancer, and to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

It seems to me that an army of men sporting newly grown mustaches around the world is a perfect way to garner attention for a good cause and raise awareness of a serious, often ignored medical issue. This is not a stunt. It’s a means of channeling the energy of millions of people into a single cause for a single month in the year, and in doing so, create a distinct, daily visual reminder about the cause.   

Second, does Bosch also think that every Breast Cancer Walk, Walk For Diabetes, Race for The Cure and the like should also be eliminated? Can’t these walkers and runners simply donate money without some stunt being involved? Why must thousands of people spend countless weekends walking and running around this country in order to raise money and awareness for worthy charities? Just hand over the damn money and be done with it.


This is what Bosch seems to be implying.

I would also point out that Movember is a sponsored event. Participants get sponsors for their mustaches, allowing them to contribute more money to the cause than they could ever contribute on their own and involving people who might not want not be able to grow a mustache but are more than willing to help. 

To imply that these men should just fork over some money and forget the “silly month” suggests absolute ignorance in regards to the purpose and ways in which these charitable foundations work.

Shut up, Torie Bosch. 

I have never participated in Movember, but I think the story behind the origins of the organization is fascinating, and I see nothing but goodness coming from the organization. I suggest you watch Movember’s founder Adam Garone’s TED Talk below. It’s remarkable how this organization has grown in just eight short years. The story is inspiring and amusing and a great reminder about the power of people pulling together.