Unplugged: Connectivity and Connection


One of my favorite assignments to give to my college students is a 24-hour media fast.  I ask them to refrain from using technology (their computers, cell phones and televisions) for 24 hours.  I ask them to disconnect from their devices and connect to their inner selves.  I ask them to put down social media and embrace social interaction.  And then, I ask them to write about their experiences.

I have been giving the assignment for many years, and each year it gets harder for my students.  For my student born in the digital age, the cell phone has become an extension of their bodies and their identities.  The internet, with its infinite information and endless opportunities for distraction, is always available to them.  They are in constant contact with friends and family, and yet they are oddly isolated, terrified of being alone.

I always find the papers deeply moving.  For most of my students, the experience is difficult and eye opening.  They come to appreciate the many ways that technology facilitates their lives and many of them begin to see the ways in which the same technology may be a hindrance to a more meaningful life.

Freed from their cell phones, they notice their surroundings more.  They have to find ways of entertaining themselves without a screen.  They have meaningful conversations with the people in front of them and discover that it is frustrating to have a conversation with someone who is simultaneously texting other people. They learn that talking to a stranger in line at the market need not be terrifying and that there are many different sounds in a city- not just the wailing of sirens.

Beyond the noises of the city, they begin to hear other things.  They experience silence.  And it scares them.  Many of my students discover that when they are silent, they can hear their own thoughts and get in touch with their own emotions.  They write to me about feeling overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness and fighting the urge to turn on their devices to distract them from the pain.

But for those students who are able to resist the pull of technological morphine, they discover something important.  They find that they can make it through the pain.  They discover catharsis in feeling something deeply and authentically.  They discover that the pain passes and that happiness and calm follow.  They get in touch with their own humanity.

Despite gaining insight from the experience, my students tell me they will never really be able to attain those feelings again. Without the outside pressure of the assignment, they doubt their own ability to go technology free.  They are struck by the realization that even if they chose to limit their own use of media, they would still find themselves immersed in a culture that demands electronic inter-connectivity.  They know that their friends will all be texting and updating status reports during conversations.  My assignment opens them up to new insights, and yet they feel powerless to do anything with their new-found knowledge.

Completely unplugging may not be an option, but I do offer my students some suggestions.

  1. Set aside time every day to be media free. During this time, avoid multi-tasking. Read a book.  Sit quietly and think or meditate.  Go for a walk.  For 30 minutes, be fully present in an endeavor.
  2. Make a deal with friends or family to turn off cell phones during meals.  Use meal times to interact and converse with the people in front of you. You can text and respond to social media and email later.
  3. Figure out which apps you use the most on your phone (usually social media such as Facebook or Instagram), and move them into a separate folder. By making it slightly more difficult to access the apps, you will be less likely to mindlessly turn to them.
  4. Turn off notifications on some of your applications. We are inundated by the sounds of our phones- from social media to texts, our phone are always buzzing, dinging and vibrating. We become like Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to respond to the sound of the phone.  Turn off notifications and limit the number of times you check your applications a day.

Gone are the days when we could imagine a life completely media free.  To live in the modern economy requires an engagement with technology.  However, we can set the terms by which we engage.  We can decide to use our tools and not be used by them.

If my students (and others) are able to unplug from their devices for just a little time each day, they will find more room in their lives. Less concerned with wireless connectivity, they may actually find connection.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part- and Perhaps, the Most Important

Spring

I live in the Northeast and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard about our record breaking winter that I am pretty tired of the snow. It feels unbelievable now that I actually welcomed the first blizzard of our season. Now as I look out on the towering snow banks and the menacing icicles hanging from my neighbors’ roofs, it easy to forget that a month ago I thought snow was beautiful. These days I dream of spring and wonder if I will ever see my lawn again. Given the sheer quantity of snow, it appears I am going to have to wait.

And waiting is hard. In our fast paced society we almost never have to wait and when we do, we measure the time in seconds or minutes. An hour wait is unacceptable to most of us. We have places to go and things to do. We have no time for waiting. We certainly have no time for winter.

We are uncomfortable with the rhythms of our ancestors who had to submit to the cycle of seasons. Indeed, merely several hundred years ago, people had to submit to the will of dark nights whose completeness was only punctured by the light of moon and stars and the flickering glow of candles and lanterns. We are now masters of the clock even as we become servants to our technology.

What we have lost is the value of rest and even hibernation. Perhaps you have experienced periods in your life where you have “gone underground” for a bit- when the demands of life seemed a little too much and too overwhelming and you responded by doing and communicating less. We are often made to feel bad about those times- as if our dropping out was cowardice or perhaps a sign of depression (and for some it may be). But for many it is actually a sign of self-care. Sometimes what is happening is that our bodies and our psyches are telling us that it is time to slow down. It may even be time for a nap…or two.

Quiet “unproductive” time is actually really important. Underneath the snow, plants and seeds are getting ready. They are gearing up for an explosion of color and life. They are gaining energy to grow and blossom. They are not dead (although perhaps just a little buried).

They are waiting.

The rest that nature takes culminates in growth and life. Similarly, the rest we take facilitates creativity and health. Sometimes we need to hibernate. We need to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and quietly grow things within ourselves. When we are ready to shovel out and step into the sun, we will be capable of more than we knew was possible.

So as I look out the window and see the sun gently warming the snow, I must content myself with waiting and the knowledge that beautiful things are happening beneath the surface.

Stop the War on Thanksgiving

War on Thanksgiving

For years I have been hearing about the “War on Christmas.” This bloodless war, whose primary weapon seems to be the phrase “Happy Holidays,” apparently threatens the spirit and soul of Christmas and Christians by recognizing that one fifth of the US population and over two thirds of the world’s population do not celebrate Christmas.  I was never worried about this war because it seemed that Christmas and Christians were doing just fine.

I am however, worried about Thanksgiving. Because folks, there is a War on Thanksgiving. Oddly enough, its chief combatant is Christmas, or more accurately, the retailers who seek to make Christmas shopping a year round activity.

I must divulge a little background. I love Thanksgiving. I always have. I love the smells of Thanksgiving, as the crisp air of Autumn shifts almost imperceptibly to the chill of Winter. I love the food and the decorations: cornucopias filled with autumnal gourds, the reds, browns, yellows and golds of fall foliage, the cinnamon and nutmeg of pumpkin pie and hot apple cider and the savory goodness of stuffing, turkey and gravy. I love the gathering of friends and family. I love our ritual of going around the table and saying what we are thankful for this year.

Thanksgiving is the one time of year in which I embrace my inner Martha Stewart, decorating the house with gourds and children’s seasonal crafts.But over the past several years I have had difficulty engaging in my seasonal ritual. Because whereas in my childhood, retail Christmas fervor did not take over until the day after Thanksgiving, today stores hardly wait until after labor day to begin the madness and by the day after Halloween, Christmas season has begun its assault.

The primary casualty of this Christmas Creep (aside from our wallets and our bleeding ears as the grating strains of “jingle bells” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” play on a loop for over 2 months) is Thanksgiving itself.

The War on Thanksgiving started in the retail setting. I began to notice over the past ten years that it was increasingly difficult to indulge my Thanksgiving decorating tendencies. Retailers began to push aside my cornucopia and autumnal colors for the ubiquitous red and green. Oddly cheerful turkeys gave way to Santas and menacing elves and our secular holiday of giving thanks was shunted aside for Christmas.

But the combatants in the War on Thanksgiving were not content with their expulsion of Thanksgiving from the retail arena. Bent on complete domination, they set out to banish Thanksgiving from our homes and our lives. Retailers like Walmart, Kmart, Staples, Sears, J.C. Penny, Best Buy, Toys R Us, Macy’s and countless malls across America have begun opening their stores on Thanksgiving itself.

These retailers make their low wage employees give up one of the only days they have off with family to wage the War on Thanksgiving. These employees must abandon their families and their one day off together to feed retailers’ insatiable desire for profit. And we as consumers are asked to abandon our festive tables, friends and families to brave the crowds of shoppers looking for that elusive bargain.

I cannot tell you how sad this makes me. Thanksgiving is literally a holiday about giving thanks. It is a holiday that welcomes all Americans (though Native Americans may have some misgivings on this) regardless of religion. It is a holiday that celebrates home and hearth and asks us to be grateful for that which we have.

The message of the actual holiday of Christmas may not be far off. But the religious Christmas of December 25th is not the one currently being celebrated in malls across America. Retail Christmas demands you spend what you do not have and indulge in unmitigated greed. Retail Christmas tells you there is never enough and that you should only be thankful when people bring you more.

This year I will celebrate Thanksgiving. I will be thankful for all the good things in my life, very few of which were purchased in a store. In protest, I will not shop on Black Friday and this season I will only buy from retailers who do not open on Thanksgiving Day.

I will fight for Thanksgiving. I will stand with those who are fighting against the War on Thanksgiving. Join me.

The Voice, Mike Rowe and the Problem of Following Your Passion

Don't Follow Your Passion
I like to watch The Voice, and not just to enjoy the eye candy. As a coach, I am always interested in the ways that the four superstars “coach” their teams. Seeing the way they nurture, critique and inspire is interesting- showing there are many different ways to be a good coach. I am also always amazed by the people on the show- young and old who are pursuing a passion. All are very talented – indeed, I appreciate the format on The Voice where only the talented appear on stage- rather than American Idol which brings on people who have no talent in order to mock them.

The contestants on The Voice are not only talented, they are driven. I am always shocked by the number of them who are so committed to their passion that they have forsaken everything else. Hopefuls confess to the camera that they have dropped out of high school or college to pursue music – that they don’t know what they’ll do if they don’t get a super star coach to choose them.

I am always amazed by this. And not in a good way. As a Jewish mother, I worry for them and as a coach, I question the wisdom of their decisions. I think Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, captured it best recently. He explained to a fan that the worst advice he had ever received was “follow your passion”

It might seem surprising to you that as a coach I love Rowe’s statements- especially as it seems that one of the stock ideas of our work is “follow your passion.”

But the follow-your-passion-reality/talent-be-damned type of coaching has never appealed to me. Rowe eloquently states what I have always felt was missing from the discussion: “Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about? Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?”

There are many people who are passionate about something but do not have the talent necessary to make it their chosen profession. Perhaps even worse is that there are many very talented people who, for whatever reason, cannot “make it” in their field. For a million and one different reasons, life doesn’t always let us pursue our passion as profession. For so many of the talented folks on The Voice, this is the case.

But Mike Rowe’s comments would be little more than a parental lecture if he didn’t also include some insight and advice. Rowe, who travels the country (and the world) profiling people in “dirty” jobs that many people shun, points to the ways in which people find passion in places they never would have thought they would find it. He highlights people who are passionate about work that even they never thought they would be passionate about. Rowe offers this advice, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

What does this mean in real terms? As a first step, figure out what your passions are. The second step is to pursue those passions- with a deadline. Determine how long you will give your dream to take off and if the time elapses, re-asses. This does not mean giving up on passion- but it does mean adjusting. That adjustment will look different for everyone. There are so many people who resist having a Plan B because they feel that even to imagine not succeeding is to give into failure. But having a Plan B is not a sign of weakness.

I wish for all of those contestants on The Voice who do not make it to the winner’s circle that they find ways of channeling their passions that leave them feeling whole and satisfied. I wish for them lives that are full and meaningful. I hope that they allow themselves to develop new dreams and passions. I hope they bring their passion with them, wherever it is that they go.

Living by the List

 

I live by lists. Or, rather, I do now.

I came to lists later in life. Lists imposed order on the chaos of my life- on the deluge of commitments and appointments that often left me drowning and gasping for air. So many things were carried away on the currents of life that I found myself overwhelmed, over-committed and sadly, under-performing in many areas of my life.

And then- somewhere along the way- I discovered the magic of the list and now my life is ruled by its rhythms and routines.

As a person who once chafed against the constraints of schedules, worried that they would quash my creativity, I now embrace the list and the order it brings. I have learned to channel my creativity through the list and I am happier and calmer for it. My work is also better.

Now, my morning begins with a meditation and moves into lists.

With my morning coffee, I organize my day (and my thoughts and my life.)

I engage myself in a visualization of my day- where will I go, when and in what order. And as I mentally walk myself through the day, I write down the steps.

My list includes things like “shower,” “eat breakfast” and “call mom”- because you need victories in a day. There is a joy to crossing things off the list and it gives me a little momentum.

Not all the things on my list are easy to do. Sometimes my lists include blogging, client appointments, grading, lecture preparation and housework. On other days my lists include organizing, presenting, networking, and caring for my children. My lists can be subdivided into smaller lists (grade 6 papers, review readings for first half of lecture, promote blog, email son’s teacher, attend coaching conference, read LinkedIn posts, review math facts with daughter). And each task on my list may itself be subdivided when I sit down to do it.

My lists shrink and grow throughout the day as I cross items off and add them on as they come to me.

My lists are connected to yesterday and to tomorrow, with unfinished items carrying over, insisting on being finished and remembered despite the limits of a 24 hour day.

I externalize my memory onto a pad of paper because my own memory seldom can carry all of the things I need it to. My house is littered with notebooks filled with lists. They are the record of my days, weeks, months and years*- of a life full of tasks, accomplishments and meaning.

* Note to self- add throwing away old lists to the to do list.

Recipes for Resilience: Ideas in Opposition

Resilience
I was recently asked to speak at a local high school on the topic of resilience. I was flattered by the request, but my first thought was; “sure I know things about resilience from my professional life, but I may not be the best person to speak with in terms of personal experience.” And then I paused and laughed. I realized that I could come up with at least ten things in my life that had required resilience including the murder of a family friend, a major professional transition and having a child with a serious medical condition.

The fact that I could not come up with these examples instantly was not a sign of creeping senility (though I am not ruling it out), but actually part of resilience. The fact that these episodes in my life no longer define me and that I do not carry them with me every moment of every day, showcases my resilience- my ability to bounce back.

This moment of forgetting made me think about resilience in terms of ideas in opposition. When I spoke to the students, I explained the four sets of tensions in the following way:

  1. Letting Go & Remembering. Resilience is about being able to let go of past trauma and move on. If we carry our burdens around with us all the time, they are simply too heavy and we will not be able to move forward. Resilience requires a little bit of forgetting or letting go.However, this letting go is not about repressing bad memories. It is about integrating them. It is important to remember so that when we encounter difficult situations, we can access our own learning from the past. Resilience is about remembering the past in order to avoid that which we have learned is toxic and utilizing our hard won skills to handle what cannot be avoided.
  2. Knowing Who You Are & Being Able to Change. Resilience is about knowing who you are and what is important to you. Life is challenging and it’s a good idea to spend some time figuring out your values. What is important to you? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? Your answers will help guide you as you move through life. If you have thought about these things in advance, when you encounter difficult choices or problems, you will be able to make decisions that are in line with your values and who you are.However, the other side of the tension or opposition is the importance of being able to change. Life will inevitably challenge you and throw road blocks in the path you have chosen. Sometimes, resilience is about persevering and moving those boulders out of the way. But other times, resilience is about deciding that it’s time to chart a new path; that the rocks are too heavy or perhaps not worth moving in the first place. Life changes us and we should not be afraid to change course simply because it is different than the plan we once made.
  3. Connections and Being Alone. Resilience is about connections. Studies show that having deep personal connections with friends or family help foster resilience. It is essential to cultivate such relationships so that when life knocks you down, you have someone to give you a hand up (even if the hand is really just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on).But resilience is also about the ability to be alone. It is about being able to sit with yourself, enjoying solitude and quiet. It is about sitting quietly without having to reach for your smartphone to text or post on social media. It is about being whole on your own without needing another person to fill you up.
  1. Feeling Deeply and Humor. Resilience is about being able to feel powerful emotions- from love to sorrow, from joy to pain, from passion to fear. Resilience is about being able to sit with these deep emotions- even the uncomfortable ones. You can never outrun those feelings. It may take a little while- a week, a month, a year, a decade- but eventually the things you run from will catch up to you. Being able to sit in sadness and feel it- really truly feel it- allows you to move on. Deep emotions are where resilience (and our very humanity) is cultivated.In opposition to this is the importance of being able to insert just enough distance between you and the emotion to laugh. I have come to believe that humor is an essential part of resilience. Being able to laugh at absurdity and pain is an important coping skill. There are certainly people who use humor as a way of not coping- and I am not speaking of this type. Humor, at its best, allows you to see something from a slightly different perspective. This slight shift can take enough of the edge off a situation to allow you to stay and be present. Your humor can be snarky and sarcastic or light and fluffy- but laughter is truly one of the best medicines.

The last piece of wisdom I offered the students was that although I had highlighted these four tensions as keys to resilience, the truth is that there are as many variants as there are people in the world. What works for one person may not work for another. But cultivating resilience is about trial and error. And the startling thing about resilience is that one must encounter adversity to cultivate it. So the next time you find yourself knocked down by life, realize that life has offered you an opportunity to expand your resilience and if you need to say something snarky to life for that, go right ahead.

O’ Captain! My Captain!

Robin WilliamsRIP Robin Williams.

Robin Williams was an amazingly gifted man. His joys and his sorrows were palpable to the audience- whether he was performing stand-up or acting. He made all of us feel: laughter, elation, sadness and pain.

His manic style and twinkling eyes were a part of my childhood- and when I heard of his suicide- I cried. I was surprised by how hard it hit me, but I believe it is also a testament to his gifts as an entertainer that I felt so connected to a man I never met.

I also cried because it always devastates me when I hear that someone who has battled depression has lost their fight. The joy and laughter that Robin Williams gave to so many was not available to him when he needed it on Monday. And the world is surely a less joyous place as a result.

Robin Williams was always very open about his demons- his struggles with depression and addiction were quite public. His larger than life joy came with a larger than life sadness. His battles with addiction and depression were violent and on Monday he lost his fight.

And this is what is tragic about depression. At 63, Robin Williams had many previous battles with depression. There were, I am sure, many days where he felt the urge to end it all. But every other day he was able to fight. For whatever reason, he did not have enough fight left in him on Monday. And tragically, that means he will never have another day, another chance to fight again.

Depression robs you of perspective- blocking out the joys of the past and the promise of tomorrow. It is a total eclipse- one that feels like it will last forever and in its darkest moments, makes you believe that it is not worth living in a world without light.

But depression can lift. And the darkness of the eclipse, if given the opportunity, will lighten- maybe not to noon day sun right away – but at least to the misty promise of dawn. If you can hold on through that darkest hour, the light does return.

Too often our society asks people to battle alone. We stigmatize depression, mental illness and addiction. We offer callous advice- telling people to cheer up or suck it up. We call those who suffer weak when in fact; fighting depression requires Herculean levels of strength. There is help for those who have depression; therapy, medication, and even meditation. But clinical depression sometimes is resistant to treatment, just as some cancers do not respond to chemo and radiation. Still- it is important to keep fighting.

I don’t know what Robin Williams was thinking on Monday. But I don’t think he could have anticipated the way the world would grieve for him. I don’t think he knew the sorrow his death would cause. I don’t think he knew or felt how deeply he was loved. I wish he had because maybe, just maybe, that knowledge could have helped him to hold on just a little longer.

So to those who are struggling- hold on til the dawn. Reach out for help. Call a therapist or a friend. You do not need to battle alone. The sun will re-emerge and so will you. Live to fight again tomorrow. The dawn will be better for having you in it.