Archive for the ‘Optimism’ Category

Adrift, But Not Sinking

December 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.


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.

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.



As-Salamu Alaykum

Khuda Hafiz



My prayers are with you


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.

Having and Wanting

October 30, 2015 1 comment

While I cannot find the source for this research, the point it makes is worth sharing.

Mental attitudes—mind over matter, thinking positively, reframing, putting a spin on things, looking for the silver lining, deciding to let go of a loss—some are easier to manage than others. I remember the first time I sent a book manuscript to my editor in Texas. It was returned with page after page of “queries,” a polite word for corrections and challenges. My first reaction pictured her as a malevolent high school English teacher determined to crush my ego with red ink. I wanted to quit. But something told me to reframe the situation—she was not my critic, but my teammate. Together we could make something stronger than either of us could alone. So rather than be bummed by her markings, I made a game of it. With future submissions to her, I tried to learn from her past corrections and anticipate how she might react to my new material. My goal was to minimize her queries. With that change in mental attitude, I have gone on to work with four additional editors on twelve different books. And to think I almost quit!

This recent research (whose source I can’t put my hands on) about mental attitudes and well-being found that two mental attitudes are associated with a higher sense of well-being:

  • “I want what I have.”
  • “I have what I want.”

Here are some personal examples of “I want what I have”:

  • I have a temperament that is uncomfortable around crowds and noises, and I have no desire to be any different—I don’t want to learn to enjoy noisy crowds (i.e., I like/want my quiet).
  • I have a lower-priced sedan that is safe and durable, and that is fine—I don’t dream about a more expensive car with more features.
  • I have a 3’ x 6’ N-scale model railroad to enjoy with my grandchildren (and any other children of all ages), and I have no need or desire for a larger layout.

And here are examples of “I have what I want.”

  • I wanted both children and grandchildren, and I have them.
  • I wanted a collection of early musical instruments, and I have them.
  • I wanted a laptop computer that would enable me to work anywhere, and I have it.

The research suggests that such attitudes promote a sense of well-being. They contrast with two attitudes that add nothingi want more to one’s sense of well-being:

  • “I want something that I don’t have.”
  • “I have something that I don’t want.”

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I have tried to minimize wanting something that I don’t have. Therefore, the three things that I will list are things that I have wanted in the past, but that I have decided that I no longer want:

  • I want(ed) a getaway cabin in the mountains.
  • I want(ed) to have less of a temper, i.e., to have a slower trigger.
  • I want(ed) a child or grandchild with whom I can play duets.

So, I have abandoned these three desires—for different reasons. The cabin, because 1) I have read that having a vacation home provides no boost to happiness, and 2) Jane and I like variety, so retreating to different locales has a stronger appeal than feeling that we have to go repeatedly to the same place to justify the investment. The temper, because I couldn’t change myself short of a pre-frontal lobotomy—but I’ve learned to avoid situations that trigger it, such as deadlines (I typically give myself false, early deadlines, so I don’t run up against the real ones). The musical kids because they just did not turn out to be musicians! And, as Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.”

Finally, three things that I have that I don’t want:

  • I have a lovely spiral staircase when I (we) should have no stairs at all (knees, back).
  • I have a yard that is more of a burden than a pleasure or source of pride.
  • I have a balalaika (3-stringed Russian musical instrument) that I have never learned to play nor have I maintained it properly (cleaning, and so forth).

We tried to address the first two items in 2008 by trying to sell our house and move into a condominium. Then the economy tanked—dream deferred, but still a dream. The balalaika, I would love to find a home for.

But there is something a little too neat and comfy about these mental attitudes. I like the idea, and it does make sense. But how does this outlook relate to the need for one to have goals in life? Does it mean, for example, that to have a Bucket List best things aren't thingsis a drag? One thing I want to do that I haven’t done is to create a multi-media show based on music and art that have been set to Psalm 150. Ah! There’s the difference. Doing something is different from having something! Just as the research shows that money spent on possessions is less satisfying than money spent on experiences, so having a list of things to do is different than having a list of things to have. In addition, the research shows that having goals are important, but that making progress towards those goals is more important than the goals themselves. Having a goal without making progress is like wanting something that you do not have. To have a goal and make no progress is a bummer. I have begun my multi-media treatment of Psalm 150—it’ll take a while, but it’ll get done. Making progress on a goal is like having it. There are a LOT of things on my Bucket List, and they are things I don’t have that I want. No, not things—experiences. Things I want to do, not to have, and I am slowly checking off one experience after another on my bucket list. One of these days Psalm 150 will be checked off.

Getting Started

August 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Chaim Potok unwittingly pointed to this blog post when his narrator, David Lurie, mused early in the 1975 novel In the Beginning: “All Beginnings are hard…. Especially a beginning that you myeshivaake for yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.” David’s beginnings, as are ours,  were plentiful: starting life with delicate health, startin
g school amidst a den of bullies, initiating the study of Hebrew, beginning the path to becoming a rabbi, beginning the process of faith exploration in departure from his father’s traditional piety, and emigrating from Poland to begin a new life in the Bronx.

As I returned to the office this morning after a week’s beach vacation with our family, I asked myself what my blog topic would be for this week. This was not a new question, as I had asked myself several times over the last week what I might write about after the hiatus—work is seldom out of mind. Even though I keep a list of possible topics, I prefer to have a current, urgent topic that provides fuel for my fingers. Walking (in the shade as much as possible) across the office parking lot, it came to me: Getting started.

All my life, I have experienced a sense of dread, anxiety, and mental fatigue at the thought of starting something new:

  • Reading instructions for a new device or software application
    • How long will it take? Do I have everything I need to do it? Will I be able to understand it?
  • Designing a new course or program
    • Can I handle the graphic elements? Do I know the right math and programming language to write the necessary calculations? Is it really needed?
  • Returning a call from a customer or reader with a thorny question
    • Do I need to prepare for the call? Will I be able to handle to emotions and/or the details?
  • Taking on a home repair project
    • Do I have what I need? How long will it take? Do I know how to do it? Should I hire it out? Do I need someone to help me?

As an example, I left the large metal plant stand I gave my wife last December 25 unassembled for six months before finally taking the plunge. I feel a sense of weariness when I consider embarking on these new paths, so I put it off. Inevitably, however, once I begin and become immersed in the project, and put blinders on for the other temptations in my immediate environment, my course of action becomes clearer and clearer, and before I know it I have successfully completed it. The trick is setting aside everything else and just diving in—committing myself to getting started.

My father once told me about another student during his first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That student would spend hours talking and moaning about how much work he had, how hard the courses were, and how he doubted his ability to master the material. Dad said the student was plenty bright, and if he’d spent the time studying that he spent playing “Ain’t it awful?” that he would have graduated. The guy flunked out after one semester, a testament to hard beginnings and the difficulty of getting started.

Perhaps the most famous instance of hard beginnings and difficulties in getting started is so-called “writer’s block.” mind mapI remember some time ago when a friend of ours served a prison term for a white-collar crime. I committed to writing him an old-fashioned letter (he wasn’t allowed to use email) weekly. At first, I struggled with what to say, and it took over an hour to compose the letter. Then it occurred to me to use mind maps, a technique created by Tony Buzan. I use them to get started in both planning projects and writing chapters in my books. I took five minutes to draw out a mind map, jotted down a variety of newsy items, then assigned them a sequence number, and wrote. I then generated a five-page letter in under one-half hour!

More often than not, the hard part of getting started is making up your mind to take the plunge—to get started. Once begun, I tend to flow. At the beach last week, I had to begin a new chapter in a book I’m writing. As I reviewed the proposed chapter title, I said to Jane, “How did I ever think I could write an entire chapter on this topic?” I was on the verge of deleting the chapter from the outline. Then I took the plunge—I shut out all distractions (I burn a candle when writing to let others know I’m trying to get in a zone), I reviewed my notes, began my mind map, and before I knew it I had enough legitimate ideas on the topic to write a 20-page chapter! It was like entering a library thinking all the shelves were bare, only to find it filled to the rafters!

When you start, the initial struggle is normal. The struggle separates those with grit from those who quit. Later in Chaim Potok’s book of 1975, the Rebbe (rabbi) comments: “A shallow mind is a sin against God…. A man who does not struggle is a fool.” Accept the struggle. Yes, the water is cold at first plunge, but you warm up to each other.

And, after getting started, when you feel stuck, more often than not you simply need a breather. When Thomas easy chairEdison got stuck on an electrical engineering problem at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he’d take a break and nap in his old, stuffed, easy chair in the corner of the lab, then return, refreshed, to his table and continue drawing, writing, and calculating. Sometimes all you need is backing away and getting fresh oxygen (i.e., fuel) to your brain. Let your recent work gestate and mingle for a few minutes while breathing fresh air. Then, see what emerges when the fog lifts. Aerate your brain and restart.

I get mentally fatigued just thinking about getting started. But once I jump in, the fatigue subsides and my thought processes take over. I am reminded of a cartoon that drew Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud walking the streets of Vienna. Marx was brooding that “Ach, Sigmund, religion is the opiate of the masses.” “Karl, my friend,” quipped Freud, “Just say no!” Well, what was true for Marx is just as true for my dad’s freshman friend and for the rest of us: Just go ahead and get started!

How You Ask Determines What You Get!

July 8, 2015 1 comment

Recently a colleague asked me a question about optimism. He had been reading Price Pritchett’s Hard Optimism, where he encountered Pritchett’s assertion that optimism was inherited at about half the rate of other behavioral traits. “Why would it be lower?” About a month ago I posted on positivity. In that essay, I did not address heritability. Here we go.

In order to answer his question, we must define optimism. As with many of life’s questions, the answers depend on how we ask the questions. And how we define terms is key to understanding the question properly. Optimism is expressed in many ways, and that poses a problem for assessing its heritability. So, my friend, just what kind of optimism tickles your fancy?

The word comes from the Latin optimum, for “best thing.” The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire made the term famous through his satirical character, Dr. Pangloss (“glossing over everything”), in his novel Candide. Professor Pangloss exuded the doctrine that his world was the “best of all possible worlds,” and that good would ultimately prevail. Today, optimism comes in many brands.

Explanatory Style. My preferred brand of optimism stems from decades of research on explanatory style. As a graduate student in the 1960s, I studied the work of Ohio State University’s Julian Rotter. He defined locus of control as either external or internal, whereby persons with internal locus of control believed that they were in charge of their outcomes, while external locus of controllers believed that their outcomes were beyond their control. They explained their outcomes in life, whether good or bad, as the result of their own effort and ability (or lack thereof), or as the result of outside forces such as luck, malevolence, favoritism, or some such factor.

As I aged in through the 1980s and 90s, so matured the concept of explanatory style through the research of University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman. Seligman kept the internal/external element but expanded it to include two additional elements: permanence and pervasiveness. In addition, Seligman demonstrated that explanatory style worked differently for good outcomes than for bad ones. Here is a simple description of his model:

  • When good outcomes are explained as internal (i.e. “I did it”), pervasive (“This good outcome will spread to other areas of my life”), and permanent (“This good outcome will last forever”), Seligman calls this explanation “optimistic.”
  • But, when good outcomes are explained as external (“It was just luck”), limited (“It will not spread to other areas of my life”), and temporary (“It won’t last very long”), Seligman calls this explanation “pessimistic.”
  • For bad outcomes, the explanations are reversed:
    • Optimists explain bad outcomes as external, limited, and temporary, and
    • Pessimists explain bad outcomes as internal, pervasive, and permanent.

While certain inborn personality traits predispose one towards a more optimistic or a more pessimistic explanatory style, or somewhere in between (i.e., realistic), Seligman’s model is learnable. To that point, one of his books is entitled Learned Optimism (1991). Metropolitan Life salespersons trained in Seligman’s model outperformed a control group. Depressive patients trained in the model showed significantly more improvement than those untrained. More recently, Seligman’s model has been taught to military leaders with the hope of creating more resilience in the face of combat-related stress.

So, if we use Seligman’s definition of optimism, then I may tell my friend that optimism is similar in its degree of heritability to other traits, but that, unlike many other traits, it can be increased (or decreased, in the event of persons who are excessively optimistic) through training (i.e., in Seligman’s model). In truth, optimism as explanatory style is more than just one trait, and it is associated with the presence of other traits—resilience, extraversion, curiosity, pride, and ambition. But one can have those traits and still be pessimistic in outlook.

However, Seligman’s model of optimism is only one brand.

Self-efficacy is the outlook whereby individuals regard themselves as capable of mastering a particular domain of knowledge or skill.

Happiness is the dominance of positive emotions (joy, ecstasy, delight, amusement) in one’s life and the relative absence of negative emotions (sadness, anxiety, anger, disgust)–otherwise known as a “sunny disposition.”

Well-being is the outlook that one’s life, while not necessarily rosy and delightful, is nonetheless fulfilling, satisfying, engaging, and headed in a good direction.

Hope is the belief that good things will happen, that everything will turn out alright (thehalf full essence of Panglossism). Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” (American Standard Version) So, is hope the same thing as faith? Is hope the optimistic element of religious faith?

Positivity. Pollyanna popularized this approach. Norman Vincent Peale expanded it. I cautioned against it in the blog referenced back in the first paragraph, and close this blog with a comment on excessive positivism.

Escalation of commitment, or the black hole phenomenon—throwing good money after bad, based on the “sure” (i.e., optimistic) feeling that ultimately the investment will pay off. The Vietnamese Conflict is often cited as a black hole. Also, the practice of continually pouring money into a car, home, and such when cutting your losses and starting over again may be the wiser policy.

Grit. Sticking with a goal until successfully completing it—comprised of persistence of effort (i.e., getting up after being knocked down) and consistency of focus (e.g., not abandoning one interest or goal in favor of another). The difference between grit and escalation of commitment is that, while both involve persistence, grit is based on evidence of progress made, while escalation of commitment entails persistence without evidence of progress.

Risk-taking. There are many kinds of risk-taking—financial, social, intellectual, entrepreneurial, health, and so forth. They all involve a willingness to engage in stretch goals—goals whose attainment is not assured, that draw on some unknown aspect of one’s abilities.

Gambling. The kind of optimism that risks one’s resources on a feeling that one is sure to come out a winner; akin to escalation of commitment.

Narcissism. Akin to Dr. Pangloss’s “best of all possible worlds,” in that one sees oneself as the best of all possible beings; also known as an excess of high self-regard, an excess in which one regards one’s breath as e’er sweeter than a baby’s cheek. Also related to self-esteem.

Self-confidence. Akin to self-efficacy, but more general. Self-confidence is trust in oneself—trusting that one can do what one is asked to do—the feeling that, whether it is walking a mile, giving a talk, entertaining a guest, writing a book, or building a deck, one can complete the task satisfactorily.

Self-esteem. Seeing oneself as just as worthy a human being as others are, as opposed to seeing others as more worthy as human beings (called low-esteem). Includes elements of pride, but not the kind of arrogance associated with narcissism.

Self-directed. Some people do not require others (parents, leaders, bosses, teachers, coaches, etc.) to tell them how to direct and structure their lives—they are called self-directed. They set their own goals and figure out how to attain them. I cannot imagine someone being self-directed and not optimistic.

Aggression. A form (often negative) of optimism characterized by seeing every situation as a competition with the intention that oneself will be the winner in that and all other situations.

Leadership. Willingness to assume a leadership role is intrinsically optimistic, but not all optimistic people are willing to take on leadership roles.

Starstruck. And, then there are the good folk who commit to becoming expert in their field—be it medicine, sports, theatre, teaching, music, or statistics—and they bang out the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to get there.

One caution about all of these brands of optimism—most are context-dependent. For example, I might feel self-confident in musical endeavors, yet lack self-confidence in social settings. In high school, I took on the challenge of playing a Mozart horn concerto without batting an eye, but I sat by the upstairs telephone for two hours trying to build up the nerve to call a girl for a date. A strong leader in one situation (e.g., combat) might not be a strong leader in another (e.g., small business). One might exhibit hope in the health arena but not in the financial realm.

So, my friend, which kind of optimism have you in mind? Depending on which brand, your optimism may be more inherited (e.g., happiness) or more acquired (e.g., self-efficacy).camel tied

My concern is less with the nature/nurture composition of optimism than with the necessity of balancing whatever kind of optimism you embrace with some sense of real-world constraints.

The 9th century Islamic scholar Jami` at-Tirmidhi told the story of a Bedouin leaving his camel untied to a stake. The prophet Muhammad reportedly asked him why he did not secure his camel. Upon hearing the Bedouin’s reply that he put his trust in Allah, the Prophet advised the optimistic, faith-filled Bedouin: “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah.” (At-Tirmidhi, 2517)