Beauty and the Beast

our natural tendency to groom

our natural tendency to groom

I’m as vain as the next gal.  I like healthy skin, a good haircut, a trim figure etc.  It’s important for me to look good and try to present a well-groomed, clean and attractive image.  The amount of money I pay for my hair each month embarrasses me.  But I also have a daily routine that, aside from soaking in my luxurious bubble bath each day, comprises about five minutes each morning and evening.  That’s my patience limit for grooming, and some might rightfully argue that I should do more.

I guess I don’t understand why anyone would want to do more.  Even 5 min, twice a day, seems like a lot.  Anything that you do every day adds up to real time over a year, as that 10 min/day translates to 60 hours per year. 60!  And all that money!  According to, the US cosmetics market was more than $53 billion dollars in 2011.  Billion!  That amounts to approximately $150 per person in the US, including every man, woman and child.  You can buy a lot of raisin bran, or prenatal vitamins for that matter, for $150.

Yes, it’s important to be attractive, but at the risk of sounding like a plain girl’s rationalization, I wouldn’t go too far out of my way to be a beauty, a hottie, a fox – in the same way that I do not have on my To Do list to become rich, powerful or famous, or even to be liked, for that matter (I think my students will attest to that).  If any of those happen in the course of my endeavors, fine.  But they are not among my primary or even secondary goals.

My goals have more to do with making a meaningful contribution, having a positive impact on people, and having fulfilling, intimate relationships with friends and loved ones. In some ways, being too beautiful, rich, or famous can stand in the way of finding and creating intimacy.   You hear about all those famous, rich and/or beautiful people who feel utterly alone.  They are never sure if people are with them for who they are versus what they represent.

“She’s so lucky, she’s a star/But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart, thinking/If there’s nothing missing in my life/Then why do these tears come at night/Lost in an image, in a dream/But there’s no one there to wake her up.” – Britney Spears

I had a brief stint in a relationship (sort of) with someone who seemed to idolize me.  Fortunately, this has not been a recurring trend in my life.  Sure, it was flattering for about 5 minutes, but then, over time, it became apparent that he was more infatuated with my image, what I represented, rather than just me.  He wasn’t really interested in getting to know me, or understand me, and I knew in that instant that we could never be anything more than just friends.  At the most.

A girlfriend from high school, Monique, liked to talk about being “average above-average.” That’s my happy spot for many things.  I want to be reasonably attractive and modestly adept at most things.  I’m OK being disgracefully incompetent at others, but there’s a small number of things I want to really excel at.  My personal mission is to use active love to grow and improve the people and institutions I serve.  I’m not sure where department store cosmetics and manicures fit into that mission – I believe that money is better spent donated to nonprofit organizations that I support, or using that for personal or professional development for me or a family member.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves and spend the time and money to look good.  Not at all.  In fact, having a well-groomed and polished image is for many people a prerequisite to professional success.  And some people just inexplicably enjoy grooming, probably like I enjoy shopping.  But I wonder if we sometimes cross that line where appearance becomes more important than the substance.  I think we’re selling ourselves short in that situation.  We each have so much more to offer the world than how we look.  That’s where the “money” is.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”  – Marianne Williamson

A Mother’s Day Gratitude, Long Overdue

I have to confess I was not the most grateful daughter.  As a teenager, I’m sure I gave my mother several sleepless nights and ulcerating moments.  I think it sometimes requires that we become parents ourselves before we realize the full scope of what it means to be a parent.

I’m sorry, Mom, for all those times I took you for granted or got frustrated or impatient with you.  I have learned that being a Mom means worrying and working 365 days a week, 24 hours a day, but the Thank Yous only come on one day per year.

So here we go.  Thank you Mom for:

  • Doing the tasks no one wants to do
  • Doing those tasks without complaining
  • Saying the things that no one will say
  • Saying those things despite knowing you’re going to take the heat for it
  • Putting our needs ahead of your own
  • Putting our needs ahead of your own and often sacrificing a lot to do so, without making us feel guilty
  • Stepping up and doing that something extra for us
  • Stepping up and doing that something extra for us without any expectation of thanks or acknowledgement
  • Teaching us that we can all change and grow, no matter what our age
  • Teaching us that we can all change and grow, and not lecturing us about it
  • Always trying to do the right thing for us kids
  • Always trying to do the right thing for us kids, even though it feels like it will break your heart.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom.  I’m going to try to be a better daughter, 365 days a year, and not wait until Mother’s Day next year to try to be the daughter to you that you deserve.

Mom and me

Mom and me

Your Daily Legacy

Genetic ripples

Genetic ripples

When considering our life’s legacy, it would seem that most people think about their kids, their job, their community service and the corresponding long-term impact.  As life’s ripples go, these are indeed the ones that will have the largest and most noticeable effect on others.

But what about the smaller ripples?  You’ve heard of the butterfly effect:  how an apparently insignificant event in one part of the world can cause ripples across the globe.  We see this effect play out in the human drama all the time:  a tourist or reporter, in the wrong place at the wrong time getting arrested and creating an international incident (Louisa Lim), or a single person’s act of defiance (such as the man blocking the tanks at Tienanmen Square in 1989) or courage (Rosa Parks) inspiring the world.  In this era of instant and global communication, a single blog, tweet or posting can also cause baby ripples that eventually magnify into a tsunami.

Our lives are made up of an infinite number of baby ripples, that together, can cumulatively create the equivalent of a tsunami.  Often these baby ripples are created without our notice.   As a parent, I’m acutely aware of how what seems like an innocuous statement can have lasting impact on a child.  That impact can be either positive or negative.   Either way, it’s all too easy to have a profound influence on someone’s world view or self-perception, and not even realize it.

We also can unwittingly impact others outside our family, ranging from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or even mere strangers.  This impact may also be positive or negative.  Sometimes a kind word, look, or gesture can have a tremendously positive impact on someone who is struggling, while a cruel, careless or unkind word, look, or gesture can also have a tremendously negative impact on someone who, up until that time, has been doing well.  In Anatomy of Peace, the Arbinger Institute contends that war (manifest as dehumanization) begins within the heart of a single person.  That person’s hate recruits others to hate as well, until you have the tsunami of war.

Even if we do nothing against our fellow man, our mood and emotions affect others. Ever notice how moods are contagious?   We may not notice the impact of our anger, depression, aggression or hostility on others, but that does not mean those emotions are not contagious.  Similarly, our joy, gratitude and acceptance can positively influence how others feel.  I have heard some people say that if they’re unhappy, then they want everyone else to feel it.  I have to ask the question:  Why?  Isn’t life hard enough without you contributing to that?  How does that really help you?  Is that really the legacy you wish to create?

So, what kind of wake are you leaving, as you create baby ripples in your life?  What is your legacy… in this moment?  Is it something you’re proud of?

How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Finding our voice can be a difficult task, especially if we’re afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings or appearing needy, whiny, demanding, or inappropriate.  Yet, stating what we need or believe is essential to being authentic, having intimate relationships and resolving both spoken and unspoken conflicts.  Having a difficult, but necessary conversation is an important skill, and the how-to of it has been broken down into manageable parts by Patterson, Grenny, MacMillan and Switzler in the book Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.    Everyone I have ever talked to who has read this book has loved it, so I’m going to summarize the steps here. You might decide you can do this and wish to go get the book for more detail.

Admittedly, it is a somewhat complicated process, but you can practice parts of it at a time and improve bit by bit.  There are some parts that you naturally do already, and parts where you might need some practice and more guidance from the book.  Even if you don’t do all of it, just improving elements of your approach to difficult conversations can make a difference.

1.  Start with Heart – Figure out what you really want to achieve and focus on that.  Be honest with yourself, and refuse the Sucker’s Choice.  In other words, avoid the lose/lose scenario, such as “She must  change or she doesn’t love me.”

2.  Learn to Look – Ever look back on a conversation that has gone south and only in retrospect notice when it happened?   Learn to notice when a conversation becomes crucial – you or your partner may go to silence (avoiding, withdrawing) or violence (forcing meaning into conversation such as “this must mean you….”, controlling, labeling, or attacking).

3.  Make it Safe – Approach the conversation with mutual purpose/goals and respect:  “Lord help me forgive those who sin DIFFERENTLY than I”.  Even diametrically opposed groups often have very similar goals.  For example, if you’re about to begin yet another argument with your spouse, remember you both really have the same goal of having a happy marriage, and that you’re both trying your best (even if it doesn’t appear that way).

If you find yourself in a tense conversation then first, APOLOGIZE for anything you might have done to contribute.  I realize this step is extremely difficult (or way too easy) for some people.  Remember it takes two to tango, and no matter how right or culpable you believe you are, you both have contributed to the problem, even if one person only played an unwitting role in a misunderstanding.  Then offer CONTRAST – say both what you want and don’t want to accomplish with the conversation.  For example, you can say “I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to change you or be critical, but I do want to make sure we clearly understand each other.”  Next, CRIB – Commit to mutual purpose (such as being able to communicate openly in a civilized manner), Recognize the goals/purpose behind their approach (they want the same thing), Invent a mutual purpose (such as having a peaceful and productive working relationship), Brainstorm new strategies (such as agreeing to engage in conversation before the situation gets too hot).  In other words, treat your partner like a partner, not an obstacle or a problem, in resolving your tense situation.

4. Master Your Story – Notice your role in this drama and reinterpret your role, avoiding the victim, villain and helpless roles.

5.  State Your Path – Share your facts, tell your story, and ASK FOR others’ paths, using tentative language, such as “It appears to me that the way you see this is…  Where did I misinterpret?”.  Invite their feedback and contribution.

6.  Explore Others’ Paths – Invite their facts and ask them to retrace their path to their conclusion. Use ABC  – Agree, Build on what you both agree upon and Contrast the areas where you differ.

“Most arguments consist of battles over the 5-10% of the facts and stories that people disagree over”

7.  Move to Action –  Decide how to decide how to move forward together.  According to the authors, there are four methods for decision making:  command (one person decides), consult (get someone else to help us decide), consensus, or vote.  CONSENSUS may not always be possible or desirable.  Don’t pretend everyone will get their first choice, but agree to allow no martyrs, undermining after a decision is made, or I Told You So’s.   Agree in advance to come up with a decision everyone can support.  End with ACTION – who, what when and how to follow up.

Like all complex skills, this will require a phased approach and practice.  At least you’re trying to improve, as pretty much the majority of us can do better in handling difficult conversations.

Directing that Competitive Streak



by Jackson, college student

Competition in modern America is ubiquitous. It permeates our daily lives, our economy, our popular culture, and our education system. But to really understand competition’s effects, I must delineate between two sides of the competitive coin, one negative, and one positive.

Negative competition results when it is targeted externally at a person or group. I’ve noticed this throughout my life in volleyball, academics, and fraternity life. Much of my athletic career was focused on maybe getting more blocks than the other team or really just outperforming the other team. In high school we had class rankings based on GPA. Of course it was silly to try to jump say, #50 to #2 but the marginal advancement suddenly became important. I recall people targeting the students who were one or two ranks ahead of them and trying then to achieve a high enough GPA to advance to those spots. Now, in my fraternity, we tend to set goals to beat another fraternity in intramurals, campus notoriety or, once again, GPA.

While this type of targeted competition creates a push to achieve and beat the opponent, it is inherently limited. It is limited because it is an entirely relative measurement of achievement. For instance, if I desire to move up one spot in my class ranking, it doesn’t mean that I am trying to move from #2 to #1. For all intents and purposes, I could be trying to achieve a 1.1 GPA in order to move from #430 to #429. When my only goal is to beat the rival volleyball team, that team could play their absolute worst and I would only need to play marginally better (which would still be terrible) to win. Targeted competition ties your performance to that of the competition, who may be underperforming.

The other side of the coin is self- directed competition. This side is far more positive and productive because your own performance is no longer tied to the performance of another. Self- directed competition means setting your own goals that are independent of anything that anyone else is doing. The concept sounds simple but the actual implementation is tricky.

Imagine yourself in a vacuum, devoid of anyone else but you’re still engaged in a given activity. Nobody else is in your class, only one fraternity on the Greek scene, and so on. Then, there can be no comparisons. What then? You must compete against your own goals, unlimited by the performance of others. Strive to achieve a constantly improving GPA instead of just to beat another person. Push for zero errors and excellent play in sports. These are examples of self-directed competition.

When you set and compete to achieve your own goals, you can achieve far more than if you were attached to the another’s performance. It also is a much healthier and more positive mindset and likely less damaging  for your relationship with the person you’re trying to best.  Where are you setting your goals too low by comparing yourself to someone else?

Dear Difficult Person



It’s me again, here to get under your skin.  I realize that my behavior or mere presence can be annoying to you, as your reaction is angry, defensive, disrespectful, contemptuous or passive-aggressive.

However, whatever you do, behind that façade of unreasonable, smug, churlish (I admit I had to google that word since I wasn’t sure what it meant) demeanor, I see the real you.  And that you is a beautiful, amazing person. Your behavior cannot blind me to your true spirit.

I can also see that, like the rest of us, you are doing the best you can, even if I don’t understand your choices.  I know that you are abiding by what you believe is right, even I don’t understand that either.    I know that sometimes you use anger,  hostility, or manipulation to protect yourself from your own fear or feelings of loss, just like I do, and that you might blame those feelings on me.  I also know that we are both on a journey to understand the experience of being human and finding meaning and purpose in our lives.

So Dear, Difficult Person you are my brother, my sister, and we are partners in the most human and worthy journeys of self-discovery and self–actualization.   Even our very conflict is an opportunity for us to grow and learn more about ourselves and each other.  After all, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of a learning opportunity.

Personal Stagnation

The word sounds like some kind ruminant mammal government overthrow but the reality of  stagnation is much more insidious than a government coup.

I most often associate stagnation with getting stuck in a routine unawares, though stagnation can also result when one is paralyzed by fear.  At least with the latter, you can name and conquer the beast.  In theory at least.  Sometimes it is hard to name the fear as the source of stagnation since it may present as excuses involving money, time, access, helplessness or approval instead.

I have spoken to many students, friends and colleagues who over the years have been unable to make a decision about their lives or careers because of the fear of making a change or taking a risk.  Often this involves a measure of self-doubt or fear about their ability to be successful in their new venture.

I have faced a similar decision when deciding to take a job seeking tenure in a research university.  I remember agonizing over whether to take the job for a couple of days – in reality it was probably much longer – but I eventually realized that I want to make major life decisions based on desire, not fear.  Otherwise, I felt I would always live my life with the regret of “What if?”

I believe this is a common theme for couples in a bad marriage.  I’ve written previously about my failed marriage and my reluctance to walk away when I knew it was not working out.  A healthy dose of fear is useful to make sure each person commits 100% to making the marriage successful before giving up.  But if you’ve done that and you know it’s never going to change despite all efforts, is fear keeping you from taking the leap?   If you’re afraid of being alone, maybe this is an opportunity to rediscover and reinvigorate your relationship with yourself.   I might also add that if you’re terrified of being alone, then maybe your dependence on your mate has been contributing your marital problems.  When I eventually realized I would rather be alone than in the relationship, and that we had already done everything we could think of to try to make it work, I knew it was time to move on.

Stagnation also seems to commonly result from inattention.  In my life, I have experienced stagnation because I was overwhelmed, depressed, or too comfortable.  The problem with being overwhelmed and depressed, besides having those uncomfortable feelings, is that it is difficult to shift gears and take a pro-active and positive perspective about your life under those circumstances.  You’re too busy, you’re too tired, you have too much going on to stop and re-evaluate your perspective or priorities, you’re unable to feel optimistic.  Part of me regrets that I had to hit rock bottom before I would really re-assess my life to make some important changes, but according to Joseph Campbell, expert in comparative mythology,

“Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden from others.”

Feeling bad is a wonderful incentive for insight and change.  It is your cue to re-evaluate.

“Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold.” – Joseph Campbell

The other source of stagnation is being too comfortable.  My job is comfortable, my relationship is comfortable, my life is comfortable, why change?  This might be the most insidious source of stagnation.  Fear, discomfort and depression can motivate change, but comfort rarely does.

I guess one could argue that if I’m comfortable and successful, why change anything?  I guess if your goal in life is to be merely comfortable, than maybe you should stop there.   My reason for change during comfort has to do with my belief about living and life.  I’m no gardener, but I know that when my plants stop growing, when I fail to see new green shoots, then the plant is unhealthy and has a date with the compost bin.  So am I.  When I stop growing and learning is when I should consider retirement, resign myself to the figurative couch of life, my main comfort being the remote control for my remaining days.

I’m not saying that I should sell everything and move to Tibet if my life is good and easy.  Rather, I feel the need to keep growing on some axis – whether intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise.  One of our truly illustrious alumni told our students recently on a return visit, “Do something every day that makes you uncomfortable.”  In other words, push yourself out of your comfort zone on a daily basis.  There, you will find growth, insight, and self-knowledge.

You may surprise yourself with your hidden abilities.  I recall taking antacids literally every day for three months prior to my first research seminar when I was a first year graduate student.  Terrified would hardly begin to describe how I felt.  But I found after that day that I have a love of public speaking and teaching, and if I had caved to my fear and avoided the exercise, I would never have discovered this as a passion.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” – Joseph Campbell

Where can you push into unknown territory?  Go where you are most afraid and discover your treasure.

“You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.

Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else’s path.

You are not on your own path.

If you follow someone else’s way,
you are not going to realize
your potential.”  – Joseph Campbell

Couch potato

Couch potato