To Plan or Not to Plan?

This is such a great time of year as so many of us are wrapping up Commencement. We just returned from Jackson’s graduation at Denison University. Those graduates had an amazing 4 years there and really have enhanced who they are as humans and world citizens.

The student delivering the senior class address was named Sterling Keiser. Her message to graduates and incoming Denisonians: Have no plan. Yep. Contrary to the practice of millions of anal compulsives and control freaks world-wide. Her rationale: Her plan went out the window at Denison, almost from the get-go.

I can just hear my Dad grinding his teeth to this message. His message to young people: Have and pursue a plan; don’t give up. His rationale: If he had given up after small and large setbacks, he would not be where he is today (and I don’t mean the senior living community he’s living in).

That’s the trouble with advice. Like a horoscope, advice is so dependent on the person and the situation, it’s almost random in it’s utility. Nonetheless, there are pearls of wisdom in both offerings.   I would wordsmith the two messages into the following combination: Be open while planning and pursuing your vision.

Dad was pursuing his vision of living and working in America. Setback after setback did not deter him. He was flexible with the implementation of his plan and would find alternative paths around obstacles. What seemed like disastrous failures turned into much better options.  His dream was strong, compelling and authentic to him but also vague enough that it left much room for flexibility and opportunity.

I know less about Sterling and the plan that went by the wayside. Perhaps her original plan was too specific and narrow or not authentic to her true passions and desires. Indeed, too narrowly defining yourself and your vision for yourself means that you may miss out on something more wonderful or authentic than what was originally constructed. Those options often appear as setbacks, deterrents, and missed opportunities. Here’s an exercise: consider every “bad” thing or “wrong turn” that happens to you and envision the best possible outcome. Consider modifying your plan accordingly. Turning a closed door into an open window takes practice, patience, optimism, hard work and creativity but it might just take you places that you’ve never dreamed.

Making YOUR Dream a Reality

Martin Luther King had a dream, but somehow I doubt that early in the process he had any idea of the magnitude of his ability to change the country and even the world.  That’s the problem with our dreams: they are bounded by our ability to imagine them and they only come true if they come from an authentic desire.

There’s no question in my mind that MLK’s dream was an authentic passion that came from his sincere desire to improve the world based on his unique perspective, talents and vision.  For example, have you had dreams and desires that, no matter how hard you struggled to achieve, did not seem to materialize?  ‘I want to be a rich doctor’ is not an authentic desire.  It has to do with achieving a superficial level of status as opposed to an authentic desire to contribute something meaningful to the world.

Identifying your authentic desire is a powerful exercise, not only to give yourself something to work toward and focus on, but also in terms of changing your view of the world.  Once you identify your purpose, the opportunities and invitations that have been present your whole life but that have gone unnoticed suddenly become like an irresistible beacon to engage with your passion.  Those invitations are everywhere; simply being open to their presence and being willing to pursue their call can change your trajectory toward realization of your authentic desire.  The path to achieving your desire may be very convoluted, which means that planning it out in advance may be somewhat of a futile exercise and could even impair your ability to notice subtle invitations that are in line with your authentic desire but out of synch with your preconceptions or plans.

“Man plans and God laughs.” – Yiddish proverb

To follow your authentic path requires a willingness to be spontaneous and go with the flow.  Confucious, Daoism and Czikszentimhayli, a leader in positive psychology, speak to this importance of this spontaneity in the pursuit of one’s authentic goals.  Joseph Campbell, comparative mythologist extraordinaire describes this as being willing to “follow your bliss.”  In other words, let your passion take you where it will.  The outcome is likely to be greater than you can even imagine, so don’t restrict your potential by the limits of your imagination.

On this MLK Day, honor Dr. King’s dream by honoring and embracing your own.  Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up changing the world too.


Back to School

Back to school!

Back to school!

This year, back to school takes on a whole new meaning.  For the first time, there’s no bus schedule (well, a different bus schedule), PTA night, fee night (replaced by a big tuition bill), teacher meetings etc since my youngest is now off to college.    Since we moved out of the suburbs before the ink on his diploma was dry, we now live in the city within shooting distance of the university.  His yellow school bus is replaced by the city bus to campus, and on the first day of school he called in a panic because he didn’t have the $1.75 bus fare.  Different worries, for sure.

But the boys are not the only ones back to school.  After swearing I’d never ever go back to school, guess who has her backpack packed this Fall?

Part of me feels crazy for doing it and a part of me feels I have no choice but to follow my passion in positive psychology.  After being out of school for 20 years and having written hundreds of exam questions for thousands of students, I’m going to be on the receiving end of voluminous reading and writing assignments, uninterpretable test questions, vague academic assignments, and unreasonable professors.  Turnabout is fair play.

I can’t wait!

However, I am noticing that, like re-entering the dating scene after a 20+ year hiatus, things are different now after the early 1990’s since I’ve been a student.  I admit I’m having a bit of a culture shock with the re-entry as a student into the education system.  There’s the online course management system, there’s a discipline I have no formal background in at all, there’s students that are 20 years younger than me (though many of us are mid-career), there’s the distance element to this program, and it’s a fancy-schmancy private school (with accompanying sticker shock) when I’ve always been educated (and worked) in public institutions, literally my entire life.

I’m also continuing my day job since it is an executive graduate program where we meet in person once per month, with online interactions in-between.  So, my 20 years of experience juggling commitments will be an essential and useful skill for me to be able to manage both full-time programs.  I have also picked up other skills over the 20 years I’ve been in the work world that will hopefully help offset the disadvantage of being unable to devote 100% of my time to the program, such as critical thinking, writing, and a great deal more wisdom than in my 20’s.

Even the logistics of taking notes is different.  Do I use my iPad, my laptop, paper/pen?  Just for some perspective, I didn’t get a personal computer until graduate school and it was the Mac II, with 1 MB of memory.  Post-It notes and email became widely available only after I started my job in 1993.    I actually used to take notes using a fountain pen, which back then was quaint.  Today it’s positively pre-historic.

Mac II computer

Mac II computer

I liken the re-immersion into the modern dating and graduate student world to an Epcot Center roller coaster ride:  scary, exhilarating, fun but also interesting and delightful.  Positive psychology teaches us that stimuli that are enjoyable but not challenging (eating chocolate, watching TV) provide positive emotion that is short-lived, but those that also challenge us will provide growth and long term enjoyment.  I’m already enjoying the ride!

Do Things Happen For A Reason?

Trial by fire

Trial by fire

As a person who considers herself more spiritual than religious, I’m probably the last person who should be tackling this question.

So, I won’t.

Instead, I’m going to defer to the wise rabbi, Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  It’s a great book – you should read it.  Really.  But for the purposes of this blog I’ll cut to the chase.  Kushner says this question of “Why do bad things happen?” is really the wrong question.  The question should be:  How do we respond when bad things happen?

I’d like to expand his thesis to just ask:  How do we respond to life?

In a way, having an easy life is really not always an advantage.  For example:

  • If you grow up smart, you don’t have to learn how to study.
  • If you grow up surrounded by loving people, you don’t have to learn how to be alone.
  • If you grow up beautiful, you don’t have to learn to develop your inner beauty.
  • If you grow up being taken care of, you don’t have to learn how to care for yourself or others.
  • If you grow up sheltered, you don’t have to learn empathy for others who differ from you.
  • If you grow up rich, you don’t have to learn to do without.
  • If you grow up with harmony, you don’t have to learn to deal with conflict.
  • If everything always goes your way, then you don’t have to learn how to struggle.

Having advantages doesn’t preclude developing these characteristics, any more than growing up without them automatically confers them.   Rather, there are just more opportunities to learn these traits when life is difficult. 

So if life is hitting you like a hammer, will you break or will you forge into steel?  We have a choice as to whether to view events, whether good or bad, as opportunities for growth and improvement, or whether to become complacent, closed-minded, cynical, depressed, rigid, or judgmental.

Therefore, so-called good fortune can lead to a bad outcome and bad fortune can lead to a good outcome, or visa versa.  So, who are we to judge whether an event is fortuitous or unlucky?  What really matters is whether, on a daily basis, we are choosing to create good or bad outcomes out of the events in our lives.

Maybe, we should really change Kushner’s question to be:  Are you creating purpose out of things that happen?  If not, why not?

Related blogs –  Falling Up (Or, Breaking Down is Hard to Do), and When Helping Becomes Hurtful

Falling Up (or, Breaking Down is Hard to Do)

alice-falling-down-rabbit-holeRecently I had another* young woman crying in my office.  She had been in an ongoing conflict with another student, and the resulting discussions had her feeling completely off-balance and unsure.   Like everyone else who is surprised to find herself in a bad situation, she has participated in the dynamic with good intentions and a belief that she is not responsible for the conflict.  She was In the Box with her classmate but didn’t know it.

When we told her she was equally responsible for the tension that had been escalating in the lab, she was caught completely by surprise.  She felt she was being treated completely unfairly, that this was in no way her fault.   Despite her protestations, she was now having trouble working and concentrating, seemed to be in an ongoing tailspin, and could see no way out of her growing despair.

Her situation reminded me of the times in my life that I felt the same way, though sometimes to different degrees.  Once when I really felt like I had hit rock bottom was right around the time I was going up for promotion.  I had spent the previous six years as part of a dual-career marriage with two small children at home, trying to survive – no, succeed – in the publish-or-perish academic game of roulette.  The stakes were either tenure or my walking papers, with no middle ground.

Unfortunately I was not managing the work-life balance at all.  My health was down the tubes, my marriage was seriously on the rocks, though work was progressing well enough.  I didn’t realize I had a problem until one day, out of the blue, I just burst into tears while walking down the street.  In hindsight, I was probably depressed and creating my chronic pain conditions from my out-of-control stress.  Clearly, my self-awareness was nil and my denial absolute.  My lack of awareness meant I was probably taking out my stress, frustration and resentment on those around me while thinking I was being helpful and loving.

At the time, I felt my situation was hopeless:  I was stuck in a ridiculously demanding job and in an unhappy marriage with no end in sight to my miserable situation.  I did not feel I could change jobs or get a divorce with two elementary school-aged children at home.  I had no one I could really talk to since I rarely felt safe sharing my vulnerabilities with others.  I was on my own.

The breakdown was one of the best things to ever happen to me.   Hitting rock bottom was the beacon that broke through my denial about my life and my role in creating my situation.  I soon realized that I was at a crossroads:  to either continue my blame and denial game, or to do whatever it takes to fix my life.  Continuing to feel that bad did not feel like an option so I pulled myself together and made a plan to regain my sanity and save my family.

That decision caused me to begin a lifelong journey of introspection, self-care and self-discovery that has led me to find my life’s passion.  I am grateful that this crash occurred while I was still relatively young.  The crash forced me to get off a negative and destructive path and instead, to follow the light.

When facing a set-back, a disaster, a change, no matter how bad or hopeless it seems, we all have a choice.  We can either choose to continue our downward spiral or to view the event as an opportunity to grow and improve.  Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, calls this choice falling up, i.e. creating opportunities out of setbacks.  Falling up is a hallmark of successful people.

Thus, I told my student that I’m really happy this happened to her while she’s in school with supportive people here to help her, since a conflict of this nature was inevitable given her false self-image.  I also felt she was lucky that this happened to her at such a young age as I was at least a decade older when I was first forced to really confront my demons and finally set out on a healthy, happy journey.

I’m not sure yet but I think my student has decided that she will fall up too.  I will be here to fall with her, either way.

*This is a surprisingly frequent occurrence in my office, but since criers usually come back to talk some more I have to assume that I am not the source of their tears.

Student Pitfalls and Opportunities in Higher Education

It’s heartbreaking to watch students and parents make bad decisions that have expensive and lasting impact on their student’s academic career.  I have spent the last 20 years as an educator in a professional (post graduate) school so I’m a little removed from the undergraduate student experience, but I imagine the problems and opportunities are about the same, perhaps just occurring with different frequency.

1.   Keep your “nose clean” – One of the most difficult issues I see is students not considering or heeding the consequences of cheating, stealing, or breaking laws or university rules.  When you’re 18, it may be difficult to imagine the consequences or even the possibility of getting caught, but your behavior will eventually be noticed.  Do not put your academic career at risk by taking foolish chances and jeopardizing your standing in the university.  The faculty are like your parents – we have a 6th sense for nonsense and it does not escape our attention.  Ask yourself: Am I prepared to suffer the consequences of getting caught? Answer that question with the assumption you cannot finesse your way out of the hole you dug yourself into.  If the answer is No, don’t do it.

2.  Your grades matter – Unfortunately, the job market and college admissions are very competitive.  Students who do not take their studies (either in high school or college) seriously and end up with poor grades may someday wish their grades were more competitive.  By then it’s too late.  You may have had an epiphany halfway through your program, but you’re competing against students who have worked hard the entire time.   So keep your academic doors open, even if you’re sure you’re never going back.

Also, unless you’re related to Mitt Romney and can afford to just cash in some stocks, it’s foolish to spend vast sums of money to obtain a GPA that will not open any doors for you.  Be honest with yourself.  If you’re not ready to take your classes seriously, maybe it would be better to take a year off before going back to school.  Students who are paying for at least part of their own education are much more likely to take it seriously.

3.  Your behavior matters – Students don’t realize that they have entered into a small, tight-knit community.  In addition to keeping your nose clean, your attitude in school is noticed by the faculty, who will be writing your letters of recommendation and working or socializing with your future employers.  If you have a bad attitude, you show you’re irresponsible or lack initiative, you ask for favors and exceptions constantly, you demonstrate you’re not interested in the class, it creates an impression that could impact which doors open for you, or which ones close.  It is not always possible to predict when or where that will happen.

Your behavior interacting with school officials before you’re admitted also leaves an impression.  If you cannot, for example, be bothered to read instructions, follow instructions, or look something up on the internet, you may be perceived as not ready for admission into the program (see also Item 6 below).

The opposite is also true.  You can stand out for having a positive attitude, show you’re a hard worker, responsible, team-oriented, willing to take initiative, and eager to learn. You also cannot tell when or how a positive impression will help you down the road.

4.  Make the most of it – “I’ll just figure that out when I graduate.” Again, unless you have unlimited time and resources to get degree after degree, before you graduate you should really invest in trying to figure out your path after you graduate.  This is not easy since students, by definition, are studying, not working.  However, you can improve your chances of knowing what to do academically if you open yourself to experimenting with potential interests early on, starting at least in high school.  Yes, extracurriculars and jobs are resume padders, but more importantly, they can help you ascertain where your passions, interests, and talents lie.  Note that not all of these passions, interests and talents are academic.  You might find that you love/hate working in teams, problem solving, public speaking, drawing, marketing or selling things or ideas.  That self-knowledge can help you inform your career path.  So, get involved, volunteer, get a job, take an interesting elective, get an internship, study abroad, talk to people who are in fields you might be interested in, join a club, lead a project, serve on a committee.It’s through these varied experiences you can expand the breadth of your self-knowledge.   It’s not just to pad your application.  It’s to learn who you are.


5.  Have a Plan B – Hopefully you’ve gotten to know yourself, your interests and talents, and you know how to pursue your dream job.  Keep in mind that it could take some time for you to achieve that goal.  Know what your interim and back-up plans are, as events do not always turn out as planned.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask for someone to mentor you if you’re not sure what to do.  Most people are happy to help a bright, industrious student with a good attitude and you will learn more from them than you anticipate.  Yes, have faith you can make it happen, but know that the path to your dream job may be bumpy, windy, and at times, circular and that you need to pay your bills during this time.  Pursue your dream but don’t close yourself to opportunities that may present themselves or to the reality of the economy.  You may have other talents or interests that you are not cultivating by being so myopic.

6.  Helicopter parents need to tone it down – Helicopter parenting is problematic for your child from at least two perspectives.  First, your student needs to become independent eventually, preferably by the time they leave home.  All the hovering and enabling is simply an obstacle to their development into an independent adult (see when Helping Becomes Hurtful).  In addition, once your child is 18 they are expected to manage their own affairs.  Your visible intervention with grades, admissions, hiring, job or admissions interviews, or other academic proceedings convey that your child is not independent.  Faculty or employers do not want to constantly deal with a third party for every bump in the road.   How would you like to hire a seemingly competent young person only to find you have to answer to the parent every time feedback is needed?

Do not take this as permission to teach your child independence by cutting off your participation in their lives. Your job is to be supportive, to listen, to make suggestions if asked, to provide training  and coaching as needed, but let your child take increasing responsibility for their own affairs.

7.  Don’t equate income with happiness or having a life – Despite the pressure and expense, college should be some of the best years of your life.  You will be growing intellectually, psychologically, socially, and emotionally, and you should enjoy and embrace that as much as possible.  Yes, having a good income is a nice and one of your goals.  But when you have a job, there is often just as much or more stress and much less flexibility and freedom.  So, don’t wait to enjoy yourself, relax or try something new (as long as you keep your studies your first priority), as life does not begin after your start a job/buy your house/start your family/retire.  Life occurs in this present moment, no matter the stage of life you are in.

Mourning the end of an era

This one might be a hard one for some of you to understand.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand as well.   But I’m mourning the end of my son’s high school volleyball season.

No he hasn’t played all his life.  No he isn’t the best vb player in the state, much less the district.  No I don’t play myself, nor am I some vb fanatic.

But between our two sons, we have been eating, drinking, and living volleyball for the last 5 years and it has been a wonderful, joyous ride that has abruptly ended.  Our younger son is a senior and the season is over.

Vb has been a place where both my boys have found a passion and have used it to find personal excellence.  Both have taken natural athleticism and have optimized their play using their individual talent set.  Jackson, our oldest son, was able to use his strategic thinking to maximize his efficacy, finding the best spot on the court to hit for best effect, or knowing when to hit hard or just tap it over.  Our younger son, Simon was able to develop and improve his strength and athletic ability to improve the speed and vertical of his attack.  Simon has always had the ability to make flying through the air look effortless and graceful, and this has only improved with time and hard work.  His ability to improvise on the court and make a micro-second shift from hitting in the middle to outside position within a single play has always astounded me (non-vbophiles: usually players play one position the entire game despite the rotation).

Vb has also allowed each boy to discover and develop his individual leadership style. Jackson has always been more like me, a visible leader that enjoys developing relationships and does not mind being the central leader figure.  He was a natural and effective leader on his high school team, assuming the team captain role starting his first year.  Simon, however, is the type of person you’d never expect to be leader.  Quietly guiding, encouraging, role modeling, he has emerged as the prototypical humble servant leader almost completely under the radar.

So it’s not that I’m some adrenaline junkie looking for that rush that comes with a beautiful “kill” or block, but the loss of vb means losing the boys’ platform for personal development, an outlet for the passion, an escape from the real world where sometimes the impossible happens.

But this blog is about finding positivity, optimism and gratitude, not mourning the end of an era.  I have to admit I am a naturally optimistic person but sometimes it is harder for me to find the silver lining in a situation.   I lay awake in the wee hours of the morning contemplating where the silver lining is for this loss.   I admit I had to fall to an old, tried-but-true standby:  when one door closes, another opens.  In this case, not only the boys but the whole family has an opportunity to do something new and fresh with the time, energy and money that is now available in abundance.  Jackson went to college and is relentlessly pursuing his interests in leadership, governance, and taking advantage of social opportunities in quantity that only undergraduates seem to be able to maintain.  What will our young son do?  Will he find a new sport?   A new hobby?  A new hairstyle?  Will he find yet another vehicle to develop, mature and contribute to society?  I can’t wait to find out.