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 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.

Sinners, Saints and Mental Shortcuts

Heaven and Hell
Every day I drive past the Methodist church in my town. Of the six churches in town, (yes, six- I live in New England) it is not the most beautiful, but I look forward to passing it nonetheless. Why? Because this church has in its congregation (and/or employ) a playful individual who is always putting up inspiring little sayings on the Church sign.

Several weeks ago the sign read “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The quote is from Oscar Wilde, but its literary origins are less important than the message and the location.

When I drove past the sign the first time, I was not familiar with the quote but its simplicity and kindness struck me. In our lives we are quick to judge others and, at times, ourselves.   We place labels, easily categorizing individuals and situations. Part of this is the result of using what psychologists call heuristics- mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions and problem solve when we are faced with incomplete data. We rely on these shortcuts, basing decisions off of past experience and impressions.   Although efficient, these heuristics do not guarantee the best or even accurate decisions and assessments.

Using heuristics, we make assumptions about people we see. We categorize them as hard-working or lazy, virtuous or morally compromised and a million other shortcuts we have in our minds. We encounter them in a moment and having made a quick judgment, we see that judgment superimposed over the individual’s past and future. In this way we see an individual as born a particular way and living in the same manner until their death.

Of course, we know this is not true when we stop to think about it. But part of the point of heuristics is that their use means we are not really stopping to consider at all. In this way, our perceptions of others are incomplete, and if we are not careful, risk ossifying. We risk freezing someone in a single moment in time, or defining them perhaps, by their worst moment.

We do this to ourselves as well. We often believe that the way we have done things in the past is the only way we can do things. We let past behaviors, misdeeds and achievements define us. We justify unethical behavior in the present by coasting on earlier honesty. We discount current success, acutely feeling inadequacies from failures in our past. We begin to feel that we cannot change- that “we are who we are” however incomplete or biased those assessments may be.

Oscar Wilde’s quote points to the possibility of redemption- the most radical type of transformation. It asks us to see beyond a momentary mental shortcut and see the long arc of a life and the many choices that allow us to redefine ourselves over and over again.

I liked seeing the quote on the church’s sign. In a time when religions are often strident in their denunciations of the “sinner” but uninterested in helping those in need, the placement of the quote at a Church is welcoming. It is a recognition of the ways in which everyone we meet is merely at one moment in their journey and that the trajectory of that journey is not always discernable.

So wherever you are on your journey, know that the choices you make can continue or alter your path. You and the people around you are not frozen. We all have pasts and we all have the opportunity to change our futures.

Freedom on the Fourth

Statue of liberty
As we approach the 4th of July, American Independence Day, I have been thinking of what it means to be free. Freedom, of course, has different meanings to different people. There is freedom on the level of nations and the rule of law- a freedom fundamentally concerned with rights, but there is also freedom on a more personal level.

What does it mean to be personally free? Is freedom about the absence of constraints? Are we free only when no others have a claim on our lives, our allegiances, our affections? Yes- certainly that is a type of freedom and one perhaps that we wish for when we are feeling overwhelmed and pulled at from all directions.

But I think for most of us, that type of freedom would quickly grow tiresome. If freedom is only about being free of constraints, we will find ourselves isolated and alone. However, freedom can also be about the opportunity and the room to grow into the best versions of ourselves- to fulfill our unique potential and purpose[1]. And often this means being in connection with others and connection can mean constraints.

As a wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister,  coach and teacher, there are many constraints placed upon me. I am not free to pick up and travel to exotic locales on a whim as no one would be there to pick my kids up after jujitsu or tuck them into bed at night. Nor am I free of financial or emotional obligations or those associated with my work. But if I define freedom so narrowly I will never be free.

For me, freedom is in the broader choices I have made and the way in which I choose to live my life. I have entered into these obligations freely and happily. I have bound my life to others in service of something greater- a higher calling than just my individual desires at a given moment. I have freely chosen to participate in the world in a certain way and it has led to an expansiveness of spirit and a great deal of joy.

My freedom is my own and deeply fulfilling for me. For others, the choices I have made may seem confining (or perhaps not confining enough!) but personal freedom means the ability to pursue your own path- making the choices that are right for you.

To be sure- there times when we make choices that do not feel like our own- they are the ones we make trying to please others that also require us to sacrifice some essential part of ourselves. Indeed, one of the regrets that people most often have at death is that they did not follow their own dreams- that they did not pursue the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.

Thus freedom is a balancing act (and what in life isn’t?). But the first step to achieving this balance is to imagine what the best versions of ourselves look and feel like and then pursue opportunities to become that. Make no mistake- personal freedom is not always easy to achieve, but it is always worth the effort.

So on this 4th of July while you celebrate and honor the ways in which you are free, take a moment to declare your personal independence and honor your path to personal freedom.

 

[1] Isaiah Berlin discussed this in his influential essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” in which he defined the two types of freedom as positive and negative liberty. Berlin was writing about political philosophy and was concerned about the excesses of positive liberty as applied at a state level. But my remarks here are more confined to the personal level- leaving macro analysis for another time and place.

 

Bye Bye, Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus

“Mom, what’s your favorite aquatic dinosaur that gives birth to live young?” I still remember my train of thought when my five year old asked me this question. It went something like this: “Umm. What? They exist? There are multiple aquatic dinosaurs that give birth to live young? When did this happen?” I think I came up with something like, “I don’t know, honey. What’s yours?” (Apparently my choices included – but were not limited to- plesiosaurus, ichthyosaurus and the liopleurodon.)

As a child I learned about dinosaurs and even remember a model set I had with little figurines. But it felt basically like there were five dinosaurs; Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Raptors, Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Brontosaurus (that apparently is no longer a thing- it is now called the Apatosaurus). As my son developed the normal child interest in dinosaurs we bought many books on the subject and suddenly I was faced with dinosaurs that not only could I not pronounce their names, but that I could swear had not existed when I was a child.

At the moment my son asked me, I was confronted with my own ignorance on a topic about which I thought I had some knowledge. I began to feel that perhaps many of the things I knew to be true were no longer so. I’d like to say that I found this realization exciting, that I found possibilities in questioning received knowledge exhilarating. But truthfully, it made me nervous, defensive and disoriented.

I remember feeling a similar disorientation when scientists announced that Pluto was no longer a planet. Or that ulcers are caused by a bacteria. Or when I encountered certain ideas about non-attachment from Buddhist tradition that were so alien to my own Jewish upbringing. And the truth is that with advances in science, new models of business, interactions with different cultures and customs, and indeed, with each new life experience, we are all regularly confronted with situations and information that challenge our default and learned understandings of the world.

How we rise (or not) to these occasions will, in many ways, determine the way we live our lives. My reaction to my son’s first questions was to evade and hide my ignorance. I was embarrassed that my 5 year old’s knowledge exceeded my own. Eventually, I learned to be proud of his encyclopedic knowledge and have come to respond with curiosity, learning from him and growing as a result..

It is not easy. Sometimes the thing that changes seems central to our understanding of the world and accepting that change means a reevaluation of our received knowledge and way of seeing. Change at this level can be frightening. Many, when faced with such a challenge, retreat in fear, preferring the certainty of old ways- even as they learn that those old ways are no longer supported by fact. Lacking flexibility, they begin to see new experiences and information as threats to their ways of living and those who challenge their views as enemies.

However, if we can learn to respond to new information and situations with curiosity and openness and not defensiveness and fear, we will find that the world is full of opportunity and new possibilities. If we can commit to being life-long learners, we can avoid ossification. If we can approach our deficits as opportunities, we can escape becoming fossils in this new world. We can grow and evolve.

So Plesiosaur is my favorite aquatic dinosaur that gives birth to live young. (But Pluto will always be a planet to me…)