Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.
Accustomed to being a provider, teacher, administrator, and therapist, he was suddenly adrift. It was as though the sails, oars, and motor that had energized his boat had disappeared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “Who am I?” he asked daily, hoping for an answer. “What is my purpose?” “How do I fit in?”
I have heard his earnest lament during lunches over the past several years. At last I have caught the universal implications of Mark’s three questions. They are like a proof from my high school geometry days: Given (Who am I?), To Prove (What is my purpose?), and Proof (How do I fit in?) Similarly, they are like construction plans: raw materials (Who am I?), plans (What is my purpose?), and nailing it all together (How do I fit in?).
These three questions form a catechism for personal change. Not just retirement leaves people adrift. Divorce, moving one’s household, caring for a disabled family member, changing cities or countries, changing jobs, marriage, having a baby(ies)… After every such change, I suggest we would benefit from asking ourselves early on how the answers to these three questions are different. Here is a guide to addressing the three issues in the catechism for change, for finding new energy and direction for your boat—adrift after a major change.
- Who am I now? Fortunately, even under major, cataclysmic change, the answer to this question doesn’t change appreciably. We are our personality traits—sociable or solitary, casual or perfectionistic, skeptical or trusting. They are strongly based on genetics and are resistant to change. We are our mental abilities—verbal skill, visual/spatial skill, auditory acuity, kinesthetic prowess, strong (or weak) memory, critical thinking, creativity—and they don’t change. We are our values—spirituality, power, relationships, and they are not changed easily. We are our physical characteristics—allergies, hand-eye coordination, motion sickness proneness, and they seldom change. We are our memories—from growing up, from college days, from former jobs, from military service, from our travels and vacations, and those memories don’t change—we just add to them. So the answer to Mark’s first question is the easiest: Who am I? I am essentially who I’ve always been. Whether my change is retirement, divorce, or moving to Canada, I maintain my traits, abilities, values, physical characteristics, and memories. Change cannot take those away from me. But the answer to the next two questions can change immensely.
- What is my purpose now? This soul-searching question is about one’s goals, and goals can change dramatically when one’s life undergoes major change. In divorce, the former goal of building a quality relationship changes to building a strong sense of self, and then to perhaps finding a new partner. In retirement, the former goal of providing for my family changes to something else, perhaps something self-indulgent (I want to write a novel!) or socially beneficial (like volunteering at a school, hospital, or homeless shelter). We set new goals to express our changing purpose following major change. Goals for health, learning, spirituality, family. Stephen Covey called such goal-setting “sharpening the saw.”
- How do I fit in? This is the question about execution: What do I do with myself? It is about roles. Based on who I am and what my new purpose is, what roles do I need to play in order to be true to myself and to accomplish my goals? Teacher, grandparent, volunteer, scientist, friend, mechanic, tinkerer, chef, storyteller, housecleaner, musician, artist, writer, comedian, scholar, discussion group leader, soldier, politician, social activist, hobbyist, gardener, counselor, lover, organizer, consultant, manager, researcher, athlete, entertainer. Some of my roles will continue regardless of how my life changes (musician, chef, scholar), while other roles can come to a dramatic end with some kinds of change (spouse, at death of a partner; manager, at retirement; gardener, at a move to the inner city), and roles can be thrust upon us as the result of change (parent, upon the birth of a child; soldier, upon an act of war; health activist, upon suffering one’s first heart attack).
This is the time of year that many people take time to be introspective. That is the spirit of the New Year’s Resolution. That is the spirit of the Jewish high holy days, when they figuratively open the book of life on Rosh Hashanah, reflect on questions such as Mark’s catechism, and then close the book of life on Yom Kippur. For me, that time is between Christmas and New Year’s—a time of self-evaluation and personal accounting. What if we committed to beginning a journal in which we revisit Mark’s catechism both once a year and after a major change? That would certainly make for an interesting autobiography. I think I will begin a new file on my computer after finishing this draft, and I will enter an unending, recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for December 26-31 of every year to update my answers to Mark’s three soul-searching questions.
Oh, one more thing. Mark has answered his questions and is comfortable in his new skin. Who he is hasn’t changed—outgoing intellect with a passion for people. His overarching purpose remains the same: to make the world a better place, with some attendant subgoals that are new. What has changed is how he fits in. His roles as gardener, musician, husband, parent, grandparent, and scholar have continued in retirement, but he has added volunteer, homeowner advocate, mentor to young’uns like me, and great grandparent.
When Mark read this draft, he shared some of his earlier answers to these questions. When he was a child, older brother was (in his judgment) smarter; younger sister, more beautiful. So Mark evolved his goal into being the responsible one of the family—he calls it being “Goody Two-shoes.” He would get up at dawn and work in the garden while his siblings slept in. In high school, his purpose was to “be a good student.” Goals and roles both can change upon experiencing a major life change. He recalled with a smile his niece’s glee at learning she had a new baby sister: “I’m not the baby anymore!” Indeed.
The sleepy Davidson College campus awoke with a start.
It was graduation day in the Spring of 1960. I, a lowly freshman, sat quietly with fellow singers in the Male Chorus. We awaited our next turn to entertain with song. With the audience of faculty, parents, and fellow graduating seniors expecting him to dribble on for 15 minutes, graduating senior and poet-scholar W. Dabney Stuart had given an address that was not a speech but a dare. Here’s what he said, as I recall:
Many people have lived. Many people have died. One of these was Jesus of Nazareth. He said, “Love one another.” I have nothing of significance to add.
And then he returned to his seat. Some thought it an insult to tradition, a sign of disrespect from a rebellious hippy. I thought it the most powerful lecture/sermon/dare I had experienced. Often I have quoted Dabney, now a professor emeritus of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. At the risk of oversimplifying, Dabney had cut to the chase. He got to the point. Southern haiku, as it were. No meat, fat, gristle, or cosmetics–all bone. Life at its essence.
Sharing a value for poetry, I have subscribed to Poem-a-Day for many years. This program of the Academy of American Poets emails one contemporary poem every weekday to subscribers (for free, at www.poets.org,) and one classic poem on Saturday and Sunday.
To my surprise and delight, last Sunday I received Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Eros” (1847). I do not know if this gem was the inspiration for Dabney 56 years ago. It does not matter. What matters is that Dabney’s dare to live lovingly was nothing new:
The sense of the world is short,—
Long and various the report,—
To love and be beloved;
Men and gods have not outlearned it;
And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,
’Tis not to be improved.
I am amused to think that scholar-poet Stuart might have taken a professor’s assignment to paraphrase a poem and used “Eros” as his original. In either case, whether we say there is “nothing of significance to add” or “’tis not to be improved,” both Stuart and Emerson have struck the proper tone for any major religious or humanist holiday.
All politicians have weaknesses, but having a strong team compensates for them.
German-born political scientist Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), advisor to U. S. presidents and professor at the University of Chicago and City University of New York, is known for his theory of political realism. Something he wrote back in the 1970s offers insight into the 2016 U. S. presidential election.
Dr. Morgenthau observed that, throughout history, politicians’ weaknesses went mostly unknown until the mid-20th century. What changed this pattern was the birth and flourishing of modern journalism. With rapid travel, instant communication, and virtually omniscient research capability, journalists informed their public about every detail relating to political candidates of most interest. Unrelenting and effective investigations found all the warts, all the blemishes, all the skeletons.
In Morgenthau’s eye, this mushrooming of investigative journalism changed the basis for selecting politicians. Don’t select the best individual, he urged. Select the best team. If you focus on the individuals, you will see that both have blemishes. If you focus on the team that each would likely assemble after elected, the blemishes take a seat on the bench as the starters take the field.
Indeed. Whose team would you prefer to lead our country?
Abe Lincoln had blemishes, and he was aware of them. Professor Morgenthau quoted honest Abe as saying that
I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.
I have more terms of endearment for my wife than there are waves headed for the beach. And like waves, they just keep on coming.
Turn-of-the-century anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) first identified this phenomenon. People have more words for things that are most important to them. Snow is vitally important to those living within the Arctic Circle. North Alaskan Inuits have over 50 words for snow, and the Samis of northern Scandinavia have a thousand terms for reindeer.
In today’s advanced cultures, life is so complex that many of us seem to live under constant stress. So long as all of our balls remain juggled in the air, we are fine. But often they fall crashing to the ground, and we have to address the crisis. Stress is important because we can’t avoid it and we have to figure out how to alleviate it. Because stress is so important to us, we have developed quite a vocabulary to refer to these dropped balls, just as the Sami speak of reindeer:
- The sky is falling
- Everything has come crashing down
- I’ve just used one of my nine lives
- The s*** has hit the fan
- All hell has broken loose
- The end is near
- I’m packed in snowball that is rolling downhill gathering more snow
- Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket
- SNAFU (Situation normal—all fouled up!)
- The bottom fell out
- My life is like a three-ring circus without a circus master
- Everything is turned upside down
- I’m living in a whirlwind
- I’m feeling topsy-turvy
- The props have fallen out from under me/us
And there are more. I’ll bet you can add to this list by posting a comment below.
I recently wrote about “When You’re Not You.” Most people are not themselves when the bottom falls out. Those who are low in Big Five Need for Stability, or Neuroticism, are typically unaffected by life’s major stressors. It takes a prodigious amount of stress for these serene people to change behavior. That’s a minority of the population—about one in three. Good for them! But the rest of us—two out of every three—writhe as though someone were controlling us with an equalizer board turning our knobs to make us more intense in various ways. I am reminded of Auguste Rodin’s early 20th century sculpture La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gates of Hell). It depicts the Thinker posed before over 100+ figures in hell from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. The thinker represents those unaffected by turmoil—the calm one in three, while the characters in the background represent the rest of us who are affected by stress.
Most of us undergo a quantitative change under stress. We become more of what we have more of already. Each of us has traits that are stronger than others. For example, my imagination is stronger than my sociability, and my trust is stronger than my methodicalness. Under stress, being someone who is higher on Need for Stability, I become even stronger in imagination and trust. I will dream up wild escape plans and trust strangers whom I would normally keep at a distance.
To say we’re not our normal selves under major stress, I mean it in a quantitative sense, not a qualitative one. We are more intense in our salient traits.
- If we are normally trusting, we become more trusting under stress.
- If we tend towards perfectionism, under stress we become more perfectionistic.
- If we tend to have a temper, under stress we have an even quicker trigger.
- If sociable, more sociable.
- If solitary, even more solitary.
- If comfortable with the details, we wallow in them even more.
- If competitive, then even more so.
- If deferential, then we can become a doormat.
- If optimistic, then we become Pollyannaish.
- If pessimistic, then we become a doomsdayer.
So, the way we change under stress is that we become more of who we are, like a salty dish becoming more salty, a sweet dish more sugary, or a sour dish downright pungent. We change, but quantitatively, not qualitatively. In intensity, not in kind. Under stress it is as though our personality were a tongue that lost half of its taste buds and needs stronger flavors just to taste anything. Sock it to me, sock it to me. Turn up the volume.
A word to the wise: Perhaps this ramping up of who we are under stress has survival value, in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps it has worked to some creatures’ advantage to become more intense rather than different—to change how many stripes, not the kinds of stripes. Maybe fast gazelles ran even faster, clever creatures became even sneakier, when under attack. But we moderns are not always best served under stress by turning up the volume on our strengths. We need to question whether these natural tendencies serve our best interests. It might pay for us to consider not being more intense in who we are under stress, but the opposite. Maybe your sociability should yield to solitary reflection, my trust become more skeptical, and my imagination take back seat to being more practical and appreciative of the tried and true and what is known to work.
We are not gazelles who always need to run faster to escape the leopard. We are humans who can pause to reflect and consider our options. We don’t have to do it alone. Partners make great stress busters. In lieu of a partner, try aerobic exercise to find your calm spot that is conducive to problem solving.
 For a summary of the exploratory research that supports this statement, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for “State of Trait Levels under Stress”, by Bennett, Ey, and Howard, CentACS, 2015.
Give me a break! That was my first thought when I read these passages in a scholarly article:
- “How do students make meaning when they explore their strengths?”
- “Does their meaning-making influence their daily lives?”
- “Identify your strengths and give them meaning.”
- “Enabling a deep analysis of personal meaning-making…”
- “Depending on individual meaning-making, etc….”
- “…reflection and other meaning-making processes.”
- “…which leads to a more meaningful”
- “This can be a complex meaning-making experience.”
What do all these uses of “meaning” mean? For me, they are undefined jargon—terms used by a writer who cannot find a more concrete way to say what is on their mind. But “mean” and “meaning” are perfectly good, simple, and concrete words until they get elevated to the clouds and semantic obscurity. “Mean” comes from the Old English “mænan,” which is defined as to intend, to have in one’s mind. When we ask the meaning of something, we are saying we don’t know the definition of a word someone has used (What does expialidocious mean?), the purpose of a behavior (What is the meaning of that glare?), or what a written or spoken message was supposed to communicate (I heard/read what you said/wrote, but I don’t know what you mean!).
I suppose that the writer of the above bullets was referring to the degree to which an individual derived value from an experience, or how they reacted to it. What were they feeling inside? What do they know now that they didn’t know before? What did it make them think of? I am reminded of “Sentence Completions”–a facilitator’s guide to helping participants report to one another how they reacted to a shared experience. Let us say that you show a film about prejudice to a group. As a way of helping the individuals evaluate that experience and speak about it with the others, the facilitator might ask them to complete one or more of these sentence stems:
- I learned that I…
- I realized that I…
- I was pleased that I…
- I was displeased that I…
- I was surprised that I…
- I rediscovered that I…
- I noticed that I…
- I re-learned that I…
- I was amused that I…
- I was saddened that I…
- I regret that I…
- I look forward to…
- I wish I had more…
- I wonder if…
- I wonder why…
- I wonder about…
- I wonder whether…
- I wonder when…
- I wonder how…
- I plan to…
- I am optimistic that I…
- I am pessimistic about…
- I wish I could change…
- I wish I had…
- I need to…
- I want to…
- I was perplexed about…
- I’m planning to contact…
- I need more…
- I need less…
- I will never…
If someone is unable to fill in any of these incomplete sentences, then it is probably safe to conclude that they did not find the film experience “meaningful.” This list, incidentally, is taken from my book The Values Toolkit: Application Manual for The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, 2016). It is an activity called “Sentence Completions” and is based on a similar activity popular in the Values Clarification literature in the 1970s.
So when we think about asking someone whether or not they had a meaningful vacation, date, interview, trip, worship, or some other kind of experience, what we really mean (i.e., intend) is to ask them what they enjoyed, learned, hated, what was the high point/low point, and so forth. Did they have an emotional reaction or a cognitive gain? Or both?
Rather than ask whether something is meaningful to someone, try getting more specific. As in, now that you have read this blog, rather than my asking you whether or not it was meaningful for you, I will ask you: Was it worth your time to read this blog? If so, in what way? If you have trouble answering, refer to the sentence stems above!
Happiness is more like a car, less like a building.
I have written elsewhere that five modes of positive being are as good or better than happiness itself—
- Goals—making progress towards a goal
- Fit—having goals that build on who you are, not who you are not
- Flow—having goals that are challenging, but not too much so
- Altruism—having goals that entail service to others
- Relationships—pursuing goals in a way that builds high quality relationships
Some would put these five elements, or some other similar assortment of happiness “ingredients,” into a hierarchical arrangement, much like a building with floors. According to these theorists, you must satisfy one element before you can proceed to the next, and so on, until you reach the highest element—the pinnacle of happiness.
This is not my approach. I consider each of the five elements effective at achieving a sense of subjective well-being in and of itself. Of course, if one engages in all five, or a combination of the five, the payoff would be greater.
Rather than thinking of these elements hierarchically, like a building with five floors, I suggest we think of them as a vehicle—car, train, bicycle, bus, airplane…. Every vehicle needs a destination—a goal. Without a destination, the vehicle lacks a purpose. Unless one uses the vehicle to make progress towards a goal, why have the vehicle?
Every vehicle needs fuel to power it to its destination. For me, the equivalent of fuel in this analogy is the degree to which a person’s strengths are engaged in pursuit of their goal—their “fit.” To the degree that one’s salient traits, abilities, values, experiences, and physical experiences are engaged, a person will be more motivated, more energized, in pursuit of their goal.
The other three elements are like adjustments we can make in pursuit of our goals. We achieve flow—that sense of being totally absorbed in the moment—by taking on goals that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If bored, increase the challenge of the goal. If frustrated, decrease the challenge or increase your skill. We achieve service in goal pursuit by choosing goals that have a positive impact on others. This could be achieved by a wide range of emphases—from relieving misery to entertaining others. We achieve relationship quality in goal pursuit by involving others in our goals in a way that allows others to be fulfilled by our goal pursuit as much as we are—sharing, intimacy, interdependence, and all that.
Where are you going? What fuel will you use to get there? How will it positively impact family, friends, customers, co-workers, and citizens at large? How will you avoid frustration and boredom? How will you build high quality relationships during the journey?
A Note on Chilling: One of my teammates vetted this piece yesterday, saying “Excellent blog. However, there’s nothing like just chilling out and not worrying about goals and such.” I agree. On the other hand, there’s no chilling out like an activity that is characterized by fit, flow, relationships, or altruism. Chill by engaging one of your salient strengths—for me, that would be something that employed my imagination, love of complexity and analysis, or passion for beauty, especially music. Chill by doing something that is neither boring nor frustrating, but in flow. I chill by reading, so don’t read boring and don’t read excess complexity. Chill by hanging with a friend or pet and furthering the relationship. Chill by visiting someone who needs attention—take a bucket of whiskey sours to someone who’s moving into a new house and have a drink with them. Fit, flow, relationships, and altruism are fine ways to chill!
“Get off my back—I can’t fly when you are weighing me down!”
Such is the lament of the underling suffering from micromanagement—the uninvited incursion by a manager into the how to’s and wherefores of a subordinate’s day. Just last week a client asked me, “How do I get her off my back? I’ve about had it.”
The problem with managing micromanagers is that their motives—the needs they are satisfying by micromanaging—vary among individuals. I call this a “multi-source behavior”—a phenomenon I did a series on recently (“Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” or, “What You See Isn’t Always What You Get”). Just as smiles don’t always convey liking, micromanaging doesn’t always convey judgment on the employee’s work. Hence, one needs to address micromanaging based on the trait, or combination of traits, that drive the manager to take over your wheel while driving.
You begin the process by understanding their trait profile. We use the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, which provides information on 23 subtraits of the Five-Factor Model. Here I highlight the traits that, in my experience, tend to lead a manager into pastures best left alone (names of the actual WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0 dimensions are italicized):
- High anxiety (N1+, high worry). Some individuals live out their days in perpetual fear of less than desirable results. This was true before they were promoted into management, and it continues after their elevation. An effective way to manage one’s boss’s anxiety is through active listening—as in, “You feel doubtful that my approach will lead to the right results—is that right?” And keep listening, paraphrasing, asking narrative questions (Where, How, When, What, Who, Which…). Anxiety is often calmed by talking it out, as discovered through brain research.
- Low trust (E5-, low trust of others). Some are born skeptical of others, and it isn’t going to change…much. The key to avoiding the crushing feeling of being mistrusted is to understand that it is not personally directed at you—micromanagers typically mistrust everyone! I know that doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t make it hurt any less when you hear their mistrust of you, but in your rational self you can tell yourself that you’re not being singled out for special treatment of the mistrust variety. Internally laugh it off and say (silently) to yourself, “Yeah, this is just Barb being Barb” (or Barb sending barbs!)
- Detail orientation (O4-, low scope). Some can’t see the forest for the trees—they love to wallow in the details. And, if you don’t play that game, it can be infuriating. On the other hand, if you are a big picture person, you may find that a detail person can become a partner, whereby they help complete your where that you didn’t have the patience to dot every “I” and cross every “t” for. Often individuals are promoted into management because they were best at handling the details of their job, and now they are mishandling (or overhandling) the details.
- Personal agenda (A1-, low others’ needs). Some are more concerned with getting their personal priorities met than addressing the priorities of their associates, subordinates, or customers. It is all about them. When this is the case, ask them what is so important about their involvement, so that you can help to shape your work in a way that helps to address their priorities. If their priorities conflict with yours, then discover their motives AND share your motives in order to negotiate an agreeable compromise.
- Competitive aggression (A2-, low agreement). Some people just have to win, to have the last word, to perhaps even put others down. They can be real pills, a cod-liver-oil-type-of-foul-tasting-pills. Like mistrust, it is not personally directed—it is just who they are. Normally it is testerone-driven, so approach them at a time when they are lowest in testosterone (after they’ve been defeated at something. Men begin their day with high testosterone levels that gradually decrease throughout the day, with lowest levels in the evening. Work at home in the mornings and go to the office after lunch? Just kidding. Women are highest in testosterone around ovulation time, so wait a week or so after a particularly difficult incursion before approaching them again.
- Pride (A3-, low humility). Goeth before the fall, right? Pride is associated with wanting to look good based on the sterling work of one’s team. Some micromanagers hover over subordinates because they want to shine after the work is done. Begin as assignment from them by asking what their standards are for success. Make it a joint effort for achieving star status, yet be prepared that they may take credit for your work.
- Assertiveness (A4-, low reserve). Some managers just talk a lot. It is not that they are anxious, dubious, competitive, or any of the other traits we’ve mentioned, but that they just can’t keep their mouths shut. Talkativeness can come across as micromanaging. I once had a manager who went on and on. I tried establishing false time limits, as in “Yes, I can meet with you now, but I need to go take a call in ten minutes.” It worked.
- Perfectionism (C1+, high perfectionism). This is probably the most common motive for micromanaging—the obsessive need for every output to be flawless. Buy the person a copy of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice for their birthday. It is about maximizers and satisficers. Hopefully, your micromanager will learn to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer.
All of these traits have the potential to appear in micromanagers. At CentACS (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies), we especially track Low Trust of Others, Low Scope, and High Perfectionism in our Consultant’s Report.