‘I Dare Me’ offers real, workable New Year’s inspirations

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By KATHY DES JARDINS CIOFFI
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Lu Ann Cahn may have written the perfect user’s manual for re-energizing your life. 

For anyone resolving to have some sort of transformation come January first – and it’s estimated that half of us will – “I Dare Me:  How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every Day” is filled with fresh ideas. 

Make that 365 of them. 

You won’t find much in the way of big, standard New Year’s resolutions here, no weight loss tips or get-out-of-debt strategies. Instead, Cahn, who grew up in Atlanta, graduated from the University of Georgia and went on to a 40-year broadcast journalism career that earned her eight Emmys, has filled her book with workable suggestions anyone can manage. 

Her message is simple: It’s the smallest changes that eventually change everything. Small as in organizing your pantry, driving the speed limit or going a day without cursing. Granted, she also tackled bigger challenges, such as zip-lining across a lake filled with alligators and swinging on a trapeze. But, generally, Cahn’s Firsts (the capital F is hers, for emphasis) spotlight the straightforward: Smiling all day, yo-yoing, watching “Jersey Shore.” Her often hilarious, always frank and occasionally heart-wrenching tales of a year that turned her life around have the power to do that for anyone similarly in search of a new, and easy, start. 

 “I feel like big goals like weight loss as a resolution can feel overwhelming and so big that we don’t do it,” she said. “The beauty of Firsts is that they can be extremely simple, they start us on a better path where we feel better and lighter and, once that happens, and we face some smaller challenges and even some physical fears, we gain enough courage and confidence to tackle the big things in our life.”

For Cahn, the idea of doing one new thing a day had its beginnings in 2009. At 53, she had enjoyed decades of TV news success in Philadelphia and had every reason to feel on top of the world. After all, she had suffered from ulcerative colitis and had her large intestine removed at 33. She had survived breast cancer at 35 and kidney cancer at 45. And, while she was healthy and happily married in her 50s, the economy was collapsing, her job was changing and Cahn felt “lost, angry and frustrated.” 

Her then 23-year-old daughter, Alexa Houser, suggested she get unstuck by doing something different every day and blogging about the experiences. So Cahn began her “Year of Firsts” blog Jan. 1, 2010, with a polar bear plunge in the Atlantic. For the rest of that year, she did things big and small and detailed each, often replete with video, on her website luanncahn.com. In 2013, the blog became a hardback version of “I Dare Me.” The paperback came out a year later and, in January 2015, Cahn embarked on a “30 Dares in 30 Days to 30 Cities” book tour, which brought her back home to Georgia for a bike ride.

“Of course, I had to make Atlanta one of my stops,” she said. “I have two sisters in Atlanta. I was just so proud of my one sister, Linda, for getting back on a bike for a tour on city streets.”

After the ride, Cahn headed to Johns Creek where her other sister, photographer Terri Dinardo, hosted a book party/speaking engagement at her Falls of Autry Mill subdivision.

“Terri really dared herself to pull together all of her friends and neighbors to come celebrate their lives and encourage each other to take on new daring experiences,” Cahn said. 

The blog-turned-book that Cahn was discussing is an inspiration on multiple levels. In addition to one- or two-page stories about some of the Firsts, divided into 10 chapters of loosely connected challenges, there are inspirational quotes from a who’s who of famous folks. (“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.” – Erma Bombeck.) There are scientific explanations bolstering many of her tips. (A Princeton researcher, in a study on rats, found positive social interaction can buffer the physiological effects of stress.) For anyone short on time and/or ideas, all 365 of Cahn’s Firsts are listed. And if you’re really pressed for time, check out the blogs and videos on her website.

It’s a concept Cahn has discussed everywhere from “The Today Show” and “CNN Headline News” to the Huffington Post and Woman’s Day magazine.

“The journey of doing one new First a day completely opened up my world and presented dozens of new opportunities to me. That’s what happens with Firsts,” she said, noting she routinely hears from readers who have taken her tips to heart and embarked on their own Firsts.

Yes, she has fans with extreme ideas for change, such as jumping out of planes. “You REALLY DON’T have to risk your life to dare yourself,” she cautions. But she also hears from people like a woman at a recent conference who was terrified to just drive beyond her neighborhood. Thanks to “I Dare Me,” that reader is now working on facing the fear that was limiting her life.

“I have had a number of people dare themselves to learn to swim. That’s a big one. I loved the dare of a breast cancer survivor who had tickets to a concert with a friend but her friend backed out. She was just not going to go and then decided to dare herself to go by herself and had an amazing time.” One of the first readers who reached out to Cahn was a realtor from Joplin, Missouri. “She told me, when she started doing first-time experiences, business picked up in January; usually her worst month,” Cahn said. “She believes it wasn’t a coincidence. She was relating to the world in a different way.”
Likewise, Cahn has also experienced firsthand what can happen when Firsts pave the way for major life changes. She recently went back to school for her master’s degree and started teaching, which she loved. After four decades in TV news, the last 27 of which were at NBC10 in Philadelphia, she left a year ago. She is now Temple University’s director of career services for the School of Media and Communication in Philadelphia. 

She also continues to dare audiences around the country to get their lives unstuck by takings risks large and small. “After 40 years staring into a camera, it’s wonderful to reach out and connect in person,” Cahn said. “We blow bubbles, laugh, cry, share dares and talk about ways to make sure we are not living in ‘Groundhog Day,’” the Bill Murray movie about reliving the same day over and over again. 

“If you are stuck, really stuck, any new thing is a good thing to try,” she said. “Turn left instead of right. Choose something different on the menu. Talk to the neighbor you never talk to. Say yes to the next invitation to do anything new even if every fiber in your being is saying NO NO NO. When we’re stuck, we say ‘no’ a lot and we don’t even know it.

“Tell your friends and family, ‘I’m doing new things.’ Let them give you ideas. Take them with you to try something new. Take a class. Document your Firsts. You will find these little experiences start to give you joy and confidence to start tackling some of the bigger Firsts in your life.”

Cahn continues to take her own advice. “I’m always doing something new. I made my Thanksgiving turkey upside down this year,” a First she called delicious but ugly. “I recently climbed a power pole. Don’t need to do that again. I’m working on some new hula-hoop tricks.”

As she said, “New challenges and dares are part of my life now. No day is ever the same.” ■           

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