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Adrift, But Not Sinking

December 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.

rowboat-adrift-jeff-marks

Rowboat Adrift, Jeff Marks, 2010. CC BY 2.0

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.

 

One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

Leaving Stuff Behind

I’d like to leave more than a tombstone for folks to remember me by.

German-American psychologist Erik Erikson wrote of the importance of generativity—of leaving something for future generations to value and remember us by. Something tangible that affirms our life has meaning for others after all is said and done. Our legacy. Recent happiness research confirms that working towards leaving something positive for others to remember us by provides us with a positive emotional boost.

Tombstone William Allen, Image Historian, 2007 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tombstone, William Allen, Image Historian, 2007. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Summer is opportune for working on our legacy. Whether on vacation or just chilling in the shade, the time is ripe for thinking about, choosing, and beginning work on what we will leave for those after us to remember our values, idiosyncrasies, skills, and so forth. What are the elements of your legacy, and how far along are you in making it real and lasting? Just this week Michael Jordan has added another element to his—a $500,000 investment in literacy. Just last night I added an eight inch plank to the hull of my wooden model of the 1492 caravelle Santa Maria—certainly a more modest gift for my grandchildren, but nonetheless satisfying as a small way of being remembered (unless it gets crushed, of course!).

Just in case you’re not already engaged in building your legacy, here is a list of some well-known forms of legacy, and also some that perhaps you’ve not thought of as such:

  • Writing a book of any sort
  • Writing a family history and putting it in one’s home town library
  • Building a cradle or a doll house
  • Constructing a scrap book or photo album, whether on paper or digitally (I have 13 Power Point photo albums!)
  • Painting a portrait of a family member(s)—or having someone else paint/draw them
  • Endowing a chair in a university, symphony, or…
  • Founding a scholarship
  • Creating an extended family mail list and sharing it with everyone in the family
  • Writing a song or other piece of music
  • Collecting family recipes and publishing them (or recipes from your religious group, scout organization, book club, etc.)
  • Designing a garden for public viewing and nurturing it to life
  • Sculpting something
  • Interviewing (and recording and transcribing) everyone in your family or circle for possible use by you or someone else in writing a family history
  • Write a poem or story or song to be read (or sung) on special occasions—Thanksgiving, July 4, Bastille Day…
  • Creating a video documentary of your family or organization
  • Contributing money towards having something named after you or your family
  • Building a mountain cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Building a beach or lake cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Write and enact a law or policy that the next generation will attribute to you with pride
  • Make costumes, ornaments, or other craft collections that will benefit others
  • Endow in your family’s name a permanent summer camp scholarship for a youth who otherwise would not be able to attend camp
  • Keep a personal/family diary, such that others may read it after your time is up
  • Build a Little Free Library for your neighborhood (littlefreelibrary.org)
  • Plan and build a sports or exercise arena of some sort—ball field, tennis court, and so forth
  • Through interviews and other media, collect stories from your family (or other organization) and write them up as an anthology. Start with the most senior members, and get as much detail as possible. Perhaps do group interviews, as in several cousins recalling stories about their parents/grandparents
  • Start a business or non-profit or social club that will continue indefinitely in association with your family or friends
  • Organize and start an annual family reunion
  • Build your family tree—consider using an online tool such as Ancestry.com
  • Write your autobiography, or dictate it to a youth who needs a class, scouting, or other project (as in the Senior Project)
  • Do the taxidermy thing and create a stuffed wall mounting to look down on future generations
  • Design and make a set of clothes for your grandchild’s doll(s)
  • Get a book like The Big Book of Whittling and Woodcarving or The Foxfire Book and make toys, statues, games, pony tail holders, and so forth to leave with your family or friends.
  • Create your family medical history, and distribute it to family members so that they may use your information as a starter for their own medical histories to leave on file with their family doctor
  • Get your spit tested for DNA (23andMe, Family Tree DNA, etc.) and share with your family your/their ancestry
  • Prepare your will thoughtfully—my mother made a list of all her possessions and valued items, then had each of her seven children, in turn from oldest to youngest, select what they wished for their own upon her demise
  • Knit afghans or piece together quilts for those close to you and/or for those in need
  • Win trophies for competitions in your special field, whether a Pulitzer Prize or a neighborhood tennis ladder
  • Preserve your scouting or military uniform or wedding dress or christening gown as a wall mount
  • Write a script for a play or some kind of event that documents and celebrates the history and characters of your neighborhood—record it and write it up
  • Start a neighborhood festival—the North Bronx Jubilee, or some such
  • Have an exchange student and continue the relationship after their year is up
  • Record your children’s/grandchildren’s voices once a year from birth onward, so that they have a record of the evolution of how their voice has changed over time
  • Collect stories and anecdotes about a favorite family pet or farm animal, and prepare them as a book, scrapbook, audio file, Power Point presentation…
  • Organize and execute a neighborhood event that will continue after you’re gone—e.g. Will and Gertrude’s Annual Halloween Wiener Roast for Amity Avenue (or South Fork Creek rural area)
  • Finance someone’s education (university, trade school, apprenticeship, professional/graduate school) who might otherwise not be able to pursue such

To get the most satisfaction from creating your legacy, choose something that expresses one or more of your values (see The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work) and incorporates one or more of your Big Five personality traits (see The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work or The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22). And, to read more about how this fits into your overall happiness set point, read The Owner’s Manual for Happiness.

Pick one or more and get going! And enjoy the process. Leave more than a tombstone…

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (6. Perfectionism)

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Good enough for government work—not! The government has its share of perfectionists, as well as its share of those with casual standards. Perfectionism is normally distributed throughout the world. It is neither a good nor a bad thing—rather, its value depends on the needs of a particular situation.

My wife once worked with a government department whose manager was noted for bleeding red ink over all outgoing correspondence generated by their office staff. Not once, but draft after draft. A professional might submit a draft ten times before the perfectionist manager found nothing more to perfect and finally approved the letter for sending.

What causes people to be perfectionistic? In five previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. Fourth, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. And then last week, how volunteering is not always altruistic. I call these multi-source behaviors. Perfectionism is sixth on my list. People engage in perfectionist behavior for diverse reasons.

Tibetan sand art

Gaden Shartse Tibetan Monks, S. C. Hargis, 2010. CC BY-ND 2.0

Swarthmore College social psychologist Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice (2004), identified two extremes of decision-making—satisficing and maximizing. A satisficer is the proverbial good-enough-for-government-work decision-maker who, for example, might go to one office equipment store, look at their desk chairs, try one or two out, and then make a decision on the spot. A maximizer, on the other hand, is the proverbial make-a mountain-out-of-molehill decision-maker who expands every decision into a do-or-die situation. The maximizer might, for example, go to ten office equipment stores, sit in over 50 chairs, comparing prices and features constantly, and finally make a decision, agonizingly, while the satisficer has used the same time to write the great American novel.

So, why do maximizers do it? Why do people need to make every decision a major event? And, on the other hand, why do some not care about zero defects, ever?

As with other multi-meaning terms, perfectionism springs from many motives. Pittsburgh psychologist Pavel Somov has identified four sources of perfectionist behavior:

  • Neuroticism: striving for perfection in hopes of receiving attention and approval—arises out of a personal sense of insecurity
  • Narcissism: striving for perfection, especially on the part of others, as a way of offsetting low sense of self-worth
  • High-principles: striving for perfection as a form of moral, even Puritanical, righteousness, which can cause a judgmental effect toward others around them
  • Hyper-attentive: striving for perfection because of an innate temperament that finds concentration natural and satisfying

I would add these possible causes:

  • Need for control: a form of micromanagement in which everything needs to be done “my way”
  • High will to achieve: a genuine desire to be expert, or even to be the best, similar to the motive that spurs people to aspire to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice described by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson
  • The consequence of mastery: the Dunning-Kruger effect asserts that the best of the best have an acute sense after every performance that they could have done better—they see flaws in their performance that second-tier performers are clueless about
  • Competitive threat: a genuine concern that unless one is focused on perfection that one will be destroyed in business by masterful competitors
  • Following a model: never knowing anything different, as the Tibetan monks who have grown up with peers who model perfection daily
  • Aesthetics: taking deep pleasure in seeing something perfectly executed

Regardless of the motive for the occasions on which we are perfectionistic, we must realize that perfection is not always called for, and is often seen as satisfying more of a personal need that is of no or minimal benefit to others. To develop a sense of when, and when not, to be perfectionist is to develop the habit of asking for feedback from those who know us, and to develop the habit of being receptive to what they suggest.

showing up

Perfection Paralysis, Neshika Bell, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When You’re Not You

March 30, 2016 Leave a comment

“You just don’t seem your same self!” someone remarked with friendly concern. “What’s going on?”

What does it mean to be oneself? And, what does it mean not to be oneself?

One’s self is who we are in our shoes-off state—being able to take our shoes off is (usually) evidence that we are experiencing minimal stress from external demands, major disruptions to our lives, looming deadlines, or internal oughts and shoulds. We’re chilling, relaxed. If we were to take a personality test in this shoes-off self, we should get a reasonably good picture of who we are. At other times, we are likely to be adapting to circumstances, and thus not our true self.

In my shoes-off self, I am sedentary, resistant to taking on leadership roles, and imaginative. When I take a personality assessment, such as the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, I get extreme scores on those traits. So when I am being myself, for example, I am sedentary, independent, and creative. When I am not myself, I could go in one of two directions on those three dimensions: I could be more sedentary than usual (as in stopping my exercise) or more active than usual (as in increasing my exercise, doing less reading and desk work, and maybe building a deck or gardening). Or, I could be more independent than usual (as in taking even less responsibility for organizing, monitoring, and evaluating the activities of others) or less independent than usual (as in taking charge and laying down the law for those around me). Or, I could be more creative than usual (as in neglecting bill payments and other mundane tasks and designing new programs that have little likelihood of flying) or less creative than usual (as in obsessing over getting organized and cleaning house/office).

reading

reading, by Christine; CC BY-SA 2.0

What takes us out of our shoes-off self, our normal stride? When we do more of what comes naturally, as in a socialite being even more sociable or a perfectionist being even more obsessively perfectionistic, the cause is typically some kind of extreme stress, as in a major loss (job, friend) or change (in health, status). When feeling such extreme stress, we feel out of control, and doing what comes naturally to an even greater degree is the path of least resistance. The last time I felt major stress was two years ago during a major management crisis, and I can recall that my behavior was more sedentary than usual (taking comfort in reading), more independent than usual (performing even less leaderly functions than usual), and more creative than usual (working on a major family history project). In each case, I was doing more of what came naturally to me.

The other way of not being oneself is to do more of what does not come naturally. For me, that would entail being more physically active, more in charge of others, and more practical. What would cause me, or you, to do less of what comes naturally? The most likely culprit is a goal of some importance. This goal could be externally imposed (by my family, boss, or community) or internally composed (i.e., something I thought up and want to achieve for my own reasons. Whether internal or external in origin, I accept responsibility for pursuing the goal. Goals that entail activities that build on my natural strengths and behaviors allow me to be myself. Some goals, however, demand behavior that is not natural for us. It is these goals that cause us to adapt in order to achieve. When I was in graduate school, our second child was born. As she grew, we needed new sleeping space for her. We had neither space nor budget to expand the residence or buy a nice bunk bed. In order to have a bunk bed, I would need to buy a kit and build it myself. By accepting this goal, I committed to being something other than my natural self—for a while. If you had met me during that time, you would have thought me a highly active person, not sedentary, but if you had met me after the paint had dried and the tools were stored, you would have known me in my natural state—more sedentary. When we take on an important goal, we do what it takes, including sometimes engaging in behaviors that are unnatural for us. Clearly, the ideal goal is one that involves our strengths and natural dispositions. My imminent goals are to write a book (sedentary, creative, and independent) and to build a 19th century merchant ship from a kit with our grandkids (sedentary, somewhat creative, and independent). I look forward to both, and I will be being myself.

So what’s the point? Be aware that, during extreme stress, our natural behavior may or may not be helpful. Know what you may neglect under stress and find a way to account for it—by delegating, finding a crutch, or just forcing yourself to do what is necessary. And be careful to prefer taking on goals that build on your strengths and natural tendencies. When you must take on a goal that leans on your weakness or unnatural behavior, again, find a way to account for it—by partnering, delegating, finding a crutch, or grinning and bearing it.

Starting in Focus

January 6, 2016 Leave a comment

My worst score on the archery range was the day I had no target.

My least satisfying year was when I had no goal.

It helps me refresh my outlook from time to time with the five basic modes of positive being. Observing them daily leads to flourishing and away from languishing. Use these five guidelines to shape your goal-setting for the new year.

  1. Progress towards Goals. Not only must we have goals, but we must goal steps
    make progress towards achieving them. I have a friend whose goal for 15 years has been to write a book on leadership. He has made no progress, and that contributes to a sense of languishing. Write an outline for his book, and he would tilt the scale towards flourishing. A little progress from time to time is a wondrous thing. Jared Diamond calls it invention by creep (as opposed to leap)—incremental progress rather than all at once.
  1. Fit. Ensure that your goals require use of your strengths—goals that require use of your weaknesses and aversions invite procrastination, and sometimes they lead to health problems. A coaching client of mine aspired to be a plant manager—and made it, but he was introverted, kind, creative, and spontaneous. He had to suppress all his natural behaviors and be outgoing, tough, down to earth, and disciplined. He developed high blood pressure. I recommended to management that they move him from line management to a staff management position. They moved him to headquarters in Michigan as a VP for Research and Development, and his blood pressure smiled.
  1. Flow. Goals that require too little of you lead to boredom, while goals that require too much of you lead to frustration. Find ways to stay in flow by having goals that require a moderate stretch for you, and work on your skills and resources to stay on top of your goal requirements. At this moment, I am trying to integrate the Heath brothers’ (Dan and Chip wrote Made to Stick) guidelines for sticky language into this blog, which is keeping me from being bored by using new standards of writing on a topic that is second nature to me.
  1. Altruism. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and a kind deed a day keeps languishing at bay. Ever notice the inner glow that follows an act of kindness?
  1. Relationships. Two guiding principles for nurturing important relationships: more positive emotional events than negative ones (attaboys/attagirls versus “you ignoramus”), and divvying up the onerous tasks so that one person in the relationship doesn’t get all the drudgery.

My book on happiness devotes a full chapter to each of these five modes of positive being. Observe them, and have a happy new year!

 

May the Force Be With You, But Do Your Homework

December 16, 2015 Leave a comment

The Force will be unleashed on a hungry public this Friday. Popcorn and slushies will fertilize the minds of moviegoers eager to digest the wisdom of the Jedi warriors. Or, if not to digest wisdom, perhaps to accompany sheer entertainment.

How many times have we jocularly tossed “May the Force be with you” to friends and family? Such empowering valedictions are a (usually) well-meant attempt to boost the energy and sharpen the focus of loved ones embarking on a challenge.

Peace!

ShalomYoda

As-Salamu Alaykum

Khuda Hafiz

Namaste

Om

My prayers are with you

Insha’Allah

Blessings upon you

The urge to pray or otherwise lubricate the channels to ease the journey of those close to us is universal.

NPR talk show host Diane Rhem once asked her guest, former President Jimmy Carter, to describe his prayer life while in the White House. After Carter affirmed daily and frequent prayer while president, Ms. Rhem followed up with “Were your prayers answered?” With a sheepish grin (I’m sure) that could only be imagined by radio listeners, the peanut farmer quickly responded with “Yes, all my prayers were answered. But, you must understand that sometimes the answer was “No”!”
Prayers for self and others can only hurt if they become an excuse to slack camel tiedoff. Hope must be accompanied by effort. The Sufi master: “Trust Allah, but tether your camel first.” Or, more crudely, Frank Loesser put it to song in 1942 in response to Pearl Harbor attacks with “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Every sign of the cross preceding a foul shot must be accompanied by hours of practice. Prayer isn’t enough—there’s work to be done. But for many, prayer is an unseen partner that makes the work more standable.