Echoes of Your Former Self

Couple of weeks ago, we hit a sort of milestone that only the media could catch: we arrived at the “distant future” date of October 21, 2015 that protagonist Marty McFly time-traveled to in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II.   The media focused on where writers were on- or off-target with future technology in things like communication and transportation. Instead of the technology, I’m interested in that vision of the future as a reflection of our former selves.   Do you remember who you were in 1989 when you were envisioning that future? Were you excited, disappointed, skeptical or amused by this depiction? What does your reaction say about your former self? How does that compare to your current self?

The opportunity for this backward reflection is one of the many things I love about my job. On occasion, our alumni return and tell stories about when they were students. To me, it feels like time travel.  One day they graduated and poof! here they are, years into the future with a story to tell of the past. That story provides a reflection of our former selves, either as individuals or as an organization. Some of the things they found meaningful I may not recall at all. Things that I thought were monumental did not even register on their radar.

However, through these stories I can feel the old (younger) Susanna speaking to me in some way. She is either saying, “You have been consistently you for decades. Your beliefs and values carry forward, even to this day,” or she says, “You’ve made some mistakes which you may not have recognized at the time, but you’ve grown and matured.” Occasionally there is the, “Oh shit. I’ve been doing that my whole life and never realized how that impacted others,” in which case I end up with a long overdue apology. Some versions of myself are downright noble or prescient, qualities I may only recognize in hindsight or through the lens of another. Others are, well, not.

We need not wait for reminiscent volunteers to get a glimpse of our former selves. In the Reflected Best Self exercise, you ask  current and/or past acquaintances (30 is recommended) to share what they see as the best in you. This powerful exercise shifts what is often an overly negative and critical self-image into one that is more consistent with or balanced with how you’re actually viewed.

Whether solicited or volunteered, these remembrances are gifts of perspective that help us to understand who we once were and how we’ve grown over time. They may also help us to understand the person sharing the memory including their perspective and motivation.   If nothing else, they’re a fun trip down memory lane that allow us to savor our shared past. Perhaps a new exercise akin to the gratitude letter: share a fond memory with someone whom you admire or who has helped you.   You can both bask in your shared history, reinforce your relationship and help that person grow their own sense of growth and accomplishment. Thanks reminiscers!

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Message to Asian Parents

Growing up I was told that Asian kids are just smarter.  This stereotype seemed to be buffeted by all the hyper-accomplished Asian students with the perfect GPAs and mix of extracurriculars (BTW I was kind of just average or above-average or so all around). Indeed, Asians tend to be over-represented in institutes of higher learning and highly technical fields.   However, I’ve never seen any data that shows that Asians are any smarter than people originating from other continents.

Asian students do have a secret weapon though: their parents. It’s maybe not so much the parents per se as the culture. At least speaking for the Chinese American culture, it was simply a given that we’d go to college, and probably graduate school. We’d have a sport, learn Chinese, and play a musical instrument. Being cool wasn’t important, but your GPA was. Indeed, some of my Chinese American childhood friends went on to that Ivy League school and are literally world-famous.

For some of us, that formula and pathway works perfectly well; we’re 100% suited and passionate about a career in a STEM discipline, or maybe law. For the others of us, well, too bad.

Asian parents, I know you want the best for your children and economic security is paramount. I ask you, though, to weigh the degree of economic security (do they really need to make in the high 6-figures to be secure?) against the psychological cost of doing a job you don’t love. For me the toll was psychological, physical, and relational. My body and life were shutting down because I couldn’t keep doing that job.

Parents, I’m not saying that you encourage your kids to throw caution to the wind and hop a bus to LA in hopes of being the next “It” girl.   What I am saying is that maybe our young people should be encouraged to pursue that passion and dream but have a reasonable Plan B ready to go if that dream doesn’t work out, preferably one that allows them to pursue that passion at least as a hobby.

I didn’t tell you earlier that one of my Ivy League Chinese American friends ended up pursuing a non-traditional path (non-doctor/lawyer/engineer) and became world famous anyway. Many of the parents I know would not have supported that path, but fortunately for him, his did. In other words, it is possible to follow your heart and dreams and achieve that economic security. Had he pursued engineering, he might be secure enough, but would he be as happy or successful?

I know from my own experience that pursuing my Plan A (which temporally came to me in late life) not only means that I’m passionate about my job, but that work enriches my personal life and wellbeing too. And that’s worth all the money in the world.

Dear Mom

It has been nearly a year since you died. This year, Christmas is just not going to be the same without you. Our most important, annual family ritual will feel alien, since cooking that special holiday meal always had you front and center. We have been training and practicing for years for the inevitability when we’d have to cook the meal without you, and now that it is upon us, I feel unspeakably sad.

You know our path together has not always been smooth and easy, but what mother-daughter relationship is (I can just see all you women out there raising your hands)? But we found our peace with each other long before you passed, and for that I am unspeakably grateful.

It’s ironic perhaps that it took your death for me to find the psychological space to reflect on who you are separate and apart from your role as my mother. Now I see the person from which I inherited my thirst for information, caretaking nature, and zest for life. From you I inherited my need to influence my environment and to help those around me. With that, I feel even more intimately connected to you.

I didn’t always agree with your approach or subject of your change-project (too often, me) just as I know others don’t always agree with mine. But like you, our intentions are always positive and passionate, even if we are sometimes, oftentimes, misinformed. And to the degree that we’ve fumbled more than we achieved, and for the times that you took the difficult path out of love, I feel unspeakably humbled.

Mom, I hope to carry the best parts of both of us forward. We’ll probably never make them perfect, but they don’t have to be perfect to be amazing. I know you didn’t feel like a brave person.  Nor do I.  But I feel that your passionate spirit carried you places most people fear to tread. I know you have gone places I don’t think I could’ve, and I hope that I can go to the places that you have resisted visiting. Together, we’ve made more progress than either of us could’ve done alone. To that end, I feel unspeakably proud. Of both of us.

I hope Mom that you are continuing to watch over us as you always have and that you’re proud of all of us girls and your 7 truly amazing grandchildren. You earned it.

The Squeaky Wheel

Important/urgent grid

Important/urgent grid

I hope by now everyone is familiar with the 2×2 grid of urgent/important, which teaches us that we should be focusing our time on what is important (and possibly urgent) and less time on the unimportant (and often urgent).   For example, that shoe sale that ends at 5 pm is urgent, but my closet will tell me that it’s definitively unimportant.

This prioritization often falls into the category of easier said than done, like most things worth doing. We probably are able to achieve a measure of success with it most of the time, and that’s probably all we can reasonably expect (we’re just human, after all). Besides, a little retail therapy during a stressful period can be pretty important sometimes too, right?

I believe most of us probably view this grid as a guide to how we should be spending our time. But I believe this grid should also inform what we do with our resources. For example, as parents, friends, spouses, family members, managers and colleagues, we must decide each day how to allocate time, attention, money, promotions, recognition, autonomy and so forth. For example, the working-too-much parental guilt stereotype says we spend too much or are too permissive with our children instead of giving them the time we subconsciously believe they need.   We may also over-prioritize building our children’s self-esteem rather than building their character. Spoiling/overpraising may seem urgent and important, but what may be even more important are the long term or bigger picture goals of teaching responsibility, gratitude, patience, and compassion.

Same is true at work. Though we are less likely to spoil employees because of some kind of guilt, the analogy comes to light when considering the problem employee. We may spend the majority of our time, energy and resources on the squeaky wheel or “problem child” because it feels urgent. Those folks may get extra training and development, one:one meeting time, the choice projects in hopes they will finally perform, or even the promotion.   In the meantime, the superstars and team players are left to pick up the pieces and do the dirty work, as their needs may seem to be neither urgent nor important.

This approach is like giving the screaming kid a lollipop while the good kid has to run to fetch it.   The screamer learns that by screaming, he can get rewarded, and the good kid just feels ignored and unimportant. In the end, everyone loses.

This observation does not mean that we ignore the problems and hope they go away. Rather, I am suggesting that we reward (not just financial) the behavior we wish to cultivate as the first priority in all employees. We may also look for the deeper reason for poor behavior instead of only attempting superficial solutions. The screaming child may really need consistent positive attention (not urgent, but important) rather than a lollipop (urgent, not important), along with clear boundaries and consequences that are consistently enforced. Yes, those consequences may be uncomfortable and unpleasant in the short run, but they can potentially pay off in the long run.

Less obvious are the examples in our adult relationships. Who is acting out? Are you rewarding that behavior with time, attention or resources? If so, how can you discover the underlying issue? Can you focus on that instead but with the proper boundaries? In other words, you can help someone else with an issue, but realize that in the end, it’s their responsibility to manage that issue. If they can’t improve despite your attempts to support them, it may be time for them to suffer the natural consequences of their behavior. Otherwise, the entire team will suffer the consequences for them.  And shoe shopping won’t cut it. Unless maybe you go to Jimmy Choo.

The Best Stage of Life

As a parent, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for the next phase: when they sleep through the night, when they are potty trained, when they are in school, when they are driving, when they leave for college.

As an adult, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for my next phase: when I finish college, when I finish graduate school, when I get married, when I buy a house, when I start a family, when I get tenure, when I retire.

I spent far too little time living in the present moment, appreciating and savoring it.   Somehow I kept feeling like the next stage would be better, while the current, amazing and wonderful stage was somehow not good enough.

As time went by, however, I started to realize that the current stage was pretty cool, even if considered typically “bad”. I loved the Terrible Twos and studying for my oral comprehensive exams. Even when things got difficult during the marriage, I relished the challenge of figuring out how to step up and surmount.  I loved the challenge of each stage: somehow having the hurdle seem ridiculously high allowed me to let go of any of my own expectations about the outcome.

That’s not to say the results were always that great, or that the challenges didn’t take their toll. But I loved every phase of the boys young life (some I loved more than others) and for each of my own, I can really appreciate the value of what those challenges brought to me:

  • Baby and pre-school – Incredible innocence, authenticity, growth and change. They turn from little blobs into tiny people with their own personality and we have the honor of watching them discover their world and experiencing everything for the first time.
  • Elementary school – Their personality, cognitive skills, social skills and physical ability continue to develop. They begin to discover the nuance and depth of our world, and understand how they fit into the world.
  • Middle school – Admittedly this was my least favorite stage but it was also fun. The social relationships become most important and they begin to separate themselves from their parents. It was fascinating watching them experiment and navigate the parental separation as they simultaneously form their identity with their peer group. The physical transformation during this stage is also remarkable – you literally can’t recognize many of these kids after they go through puberty.
  • High school – They experiment with adulthood as they step out into the world with more confidence. Where do they fit into the wider world? What are their world views and how will they influence their world? You can start to have real intellectual conversations with them as they bring their own unique insights to the world around them.
  • College – They are coming into their own intellectually and are starting to explore their professional selves. They are also learning how to live on their own and manage their own affairs as they literally leave the nest.
  • 20’s – This is the decade where we struggle to establish ourselves professionally and start our family. I had the most potential and was at my physical peak in my 20’s, but had probably the lowest self-confidence. Ironic.
  • 30’s – This decade is a blur, building career and family simultaneously. This was the hardest decade for me, as I was starting to realize that my self-awareness and expectations were creating the perfect storm. Pity the fools that knew me!
  • 40’s – In this decade I make a breakthrough in my inward journey where I finally realize that my life is not going to be as I had planned it and I step out of my own self-imposed box. Just knowing the box is self-imposed was a big step for me and it freed me to rediscover myself. School this time around is for the pure pleasure and enjoyment as opposed to the end result of obtaining a credential.   We also switch to becoming caregivers for our parents.
  • 50’s – To be written….

Probably the biggest accomplishment for me is just living in the present and enjoying the stage I am in.   It makes absolutely no sense living for a future that may not exist, especially when the present stage is so full of wonder and is so fleeting.

So the Best Stage of Life is the one you’re in.  Go ahead. Savor the present. I dare you.

 

“Other People Matter”

Our professors told us that this quote by Chris Peterson summed it all up on our first day in our positive psychology graduate program.   At the time, I thought to myself “oh sure.”  But it’s true.

Here’s what I learned:

  • People in positive relationships are physically healthier and heal faster.
  • People in positive relationships have more positive emotions and are more resilient. Positive relationships help children become more resilient.
  • People who give have more positive emotion than those who receive.   Also, givers tend to be more successful than takers.
  • The meaning and purpose we feel in our lives largely pertains, ultimately, to our impact on others.
  • Our motivation to do a task depends on whether we can relate the task to impact on others or relevance to a larger goal.
  • Positive relationships enable an organization to rise to the next level.
  • Employee engagement is causally related to profitability and strongly related to having a best friend at work.
  • Our well-being is directly related to how much social time we get each day. Studies show that 5-6 hours per day provides the peak amount of well-being.
  • Our entire community impacts our well-being.   The friends of my friends and the colleagues of my colleagues can measurably impact how I feel each day.

In other words, the people in our lives make our lives worth living and also help us to live a good life.  The opposite is also potentially true.

Therefore, is your attention, energy and priorities where they should be?


The Things They Never Tell You About Being A Mother

Being a Mom isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

It’s so much better.

I never want to take for granted the gratitude of others.   But for me, Mother’s Day is also about celebrating one’s children and being grateful to them for enabling me to be in the best role I’ve ever had.

Here’s why I’m grateful to my children on Mother’s Day:

  • Yes, being a parent can be exhausting.  But for me, it was an energizing experience overall.
  • Yes, sometimes I just wanted them to go to bed or go to school, but mostly I looked forward to every chance I could just hang out with them, get a hug or hold their hand.
  • Yes, sometimes it was just hard work, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else, ever.
  • Yes, sometimes it was just yukky, particularly during the diaper or barfing (yes we had that) stages, but I loved seeing my naked baby several times a day and getting to play with his tummy (there wasn’t really an upside to the barfing stage, in retrospect, aside from the great stories I can tell – subject for another blog).
  • Yes , sometimes it was just frustrating and aggravating, but there was 10x as much joy as frustration. Besides, there was a lesson about myself to be learned during those times though I admit it took me a long time to learn them.  I had as much growing up to do as they did, and they were my teachers.  If you think about it, kids can only do what they can do.  So blaming the kid is like blaming a dog for barking or pooping:  it only reflected my need to control or my unrealistic expectations.
  • Yes, sometimes I felt it was a thankless job, but I know how they feel about me and the unique role I played in their lives.  Any time they willingly choose to spend time with me feels like a thank you note in disguise.
  • Yes, sometimes those life stages were difficult and challenging, but I thought they were all amazing and I enjoyed every one of them (some more than others).  It was an honor to watch them grow and transform through each stage.
  • Yes, everyone told me how much work it is raising kids but no one told me what an utter and complete joy it is.  I loved almost every minute of it and, now that they’ve flown the coop, the time with them is ever more precious.

So you Moms out there who are fortunate enough to still have your kids at home:  savor the moment, all of them, and find the silver lining and personal lessons during the challenging times (if you’re not already).  Perhaps the mothering experience will be more than you bargained for too.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com