Life Purpose, or Dreaming for Pragmatists
How do pragmatists learn to dream?
I used to think I was a pragmatist, incapable of dreaming. I never wanted to look too closely at what I might want to do with my life, because, well, what if I discovered my purpose but there was no way to make it happen? Wouldn’t I just end up bitter and disappointed? Besides, I had a husband with a dream and two little girls to support. Wasn’t it better to just put one foot in front of the other and inch along, paying the bills, with a less than inspiring work life?
Here are three ideas for pragmatists to determine life purpose:
1. Consider your history: What you have already done?
In my own life, I was actually putting my dreams into effect. By 30, I wanted a solid marriage, children, a home for family, and a sense that we as a family were headed to a better future. Helping to finance my husband’s doctoral degree provided the purpose and impetus to get up and go to work each day. I enjoyed feeling as if I was contributing to his ultimate dream of a professorial position teaching archaeology at a beautiful campus. As a supportive spouse, I was able to piggy-back on his dream without getting too worried about my own. Great delaying tactic for deferring a deeper look at my own stuff, don’t you think?
Between us, he finished the degree and I got us moved to South Carolina for his first tenure track appointment, then the universe lowered the boom: one horrible car wreck later and the dream was gone in an instant with my husband’s death. I was left with a really difficult question to answer: if I wasn’t a supportive spouse, who was I? Well, good pragmatist that I was, I had an answer: I could become the supportive parent. I could help my children grow up and get through high school. Again, being the pragmatist kept me from looking too closely at my own dreams… until the kids left home, heading out to achieve their own dreams.
Uh-oh. I was now 50 years old, still working in an administrative position with no chance of career advancement, and with no one at home to make it a justifiable choice. I had been “living on purpose” for everyone but me. The pragmatist was now in serious trouble. Plus, I did not believe in all that “woo-woo” stuff that was floating around about manifesting dreams. What’s a realist to do? Brain science to the rescue!
2. Visualize your best self: Imagination as an analytic tool
Our subconscious cannot tell the difference between “I pretend” and “I am.” The purpose of imagination is to help us analyze “What if?” The key word here is “analyze.” It’s a way to help us examine our assumptions about what we think we should do, what we want to do, and what we can do. When we imagine what we can do, our brain kicks in to help us do it. The fastest, easiest route to life purpose is simply to go into your mind’s eye and picture your best self, when you felt 100% alive:
- Where were you?
- What were you doing?
- Who was with you?
- What was happening around you at that moment in time?
- What was your impact on them?
This picture is your signpost. When faced with choices, you decide on the strategies and actions that will actually help create this picture, beginning with a sense of confidence that you can do it. As some would say, “Where you put your attention becomes your intention.” Whatever you do, or decide not to do, with your sense of purpose is up to you. Making your picture happen requires commitment, persistence, and discernment of new opportunities. And there is nothing “woo-woo” in that.
3. Know that you know: it’s OK to think big
No doubt, like me, you are already living your own purpose, even if you have never articulated it out loud. When you do, it may sound silly, corny, or grandiose, and that’s OK. You don’t have to share it with anyone else unless you want to. For instance, “I help light the way for others to find their dreams” is perfectly acceptable as long as it feels powerful, true, and motivates you to action. When we live “on purpose,” we feel fulfilled and delightedly connected with life.
“How” you specifically display purpose may change over time. At one point, you may be going to school, at another raising your family, at still another, leading your community in a larger action or going deep inside yourself to write about a transformational experience that you want to share with the wider world. The sense purpose, or calling, can remain the same throughout it all. Imagine your best self, then finish this sentence and you will have yours:
“I help ________ to_________ by_________.”
If you still aren’t sure of your purpose after this, know that your subconscious is not ready to stop protecting you, and that you are still in the mental phase that Prochaska and diClemente (1994) call “contemplation.” If you are willing to look, purpose will indeed become clear to you over time. Mine did: I am meant to help illuminate the path for others, from family to friends to acquaintances. If you need help finding your true purpose or path in life, contact me for a complementary strategy session.
Meanwhile, it’s spring, the ornamental cherries glorious pink clouds of blossoms float above hedges of new green leaves. Here’s to your new picture of your best self, blossoming exactly as you are meant to do.
What Is Your Leadership Style? 3 Fundamental Ideas
Leadership is a word with a wide range of connotations.
By “leadership,” most people picture someone who holds a formal title in a corporation, organization, government, church, educational or military setting – with accompanying titles like president, director, department manager, provost, team leader, minister, project manager, chief, and so on. Is leadership confined to these contexts? Of course not.
Leadership actually occurs everywhere. Where there is life, there is leadership. A title does not guarantee true leadership any more than not having a title keeps true leadership from happening. Leadership is really a mindset much more than a title. How often have you seen someone without organizational authority be the person everyone turns to in a time of crisis?
The mindset at the heart of leadership involves two dynamics: impact and responsibility. This dynamic must be tied to communication that can travel either direction, from leader to follower, and vice versa.
Here are 3 fundamental ideas to help you become a much more effective leader, no matter what your current position:
1) Be aware of your impact: Impact is the effect that each person has on other people – their families, communities, the environment, and the world. When people are aware of their impact on others, and work toward having a positive influence on others, they are engaging in positive or desirable leadership. When people ignore their impact, work toward getting their objectives accomplished regardless of the impact on others, or are interested only in being self-serving, they are engaging in negative or destructive “leadership.” Let go of self-interest, and base your actions on the values you hold dear.
2) Take responsibility: A leader’s willingness to notice the impact they have, and to respond in a way that is conscientious and appropriate, is acting responsibly. People commonly reject responsibility by denying the impact they have had, or by blaming others for whatever has happened. It is much easier to deny or blame than it is to take responsibility, especially when something goes wrong. But people are more likely to believe in you when things go right when they have seen you take responsibility in a less than desirable situation.
Letting go of ego and simultaneously taking humble responsibility can completely alter an anticipated bad outcome for the better. The classic business world example is when Johnson & Johnson took responsibility in 1982 for poisoned Tylenol that clearly did not come from their factories.
3) Provide two-way communication: Provide a forum for voices to be heard. Whether by email, town meeting format, suggestion box, or regular private meetings with people. Make sure there is a safe place to talk. Regularly engaging in candid yet understanding talk will help those around you take more responsibility and be aware of their impact. The very best boss I ever had (and he knows who he is!) used to start any conversation about screw-ups with “I really don’t need to know what went wrong. Just tell me, how are we going to fix it?” In this way, he actually allowed for shared success in a positive outcome. You may be surprised at the amazing ideas that emerge from such shared conversations. Empowering talented people to succeed is at the heart of true leadership.
Imagine a world where everyone consistently pays attention to their impact, takes responsibility for it, and chooses a response that is conscientious and appropriate. It would change the world. If you consistently pay attention to your impact, take responsibility for it, and choose a response that is conscientious and appropriate, what difference would this make in your life and the lives of the people you influence?
You already are a leader. So, what kind of leader do you want to be? I’ll be teaching this month on these concepts at a teleseminar entitled The Leader in You: From Mindset to Impact filled with examples and tips to help you transition to a more effective leader. Click on the link to register now.
Do you, like me, sometimes lack confidence?
While the rest of the country was suffering through blizzard after blizzard, battling through drifts of snow to and from work, I was in Cuba with the Santa Fe Photography Workshop. It was an amazing experience but one I almost didn’t do. Why? I worried about whether I could leave my practice unattended knowing I would truly be out of communication for 7 days; I worried about the cost; I worried about whether, despite all that was said in relation to the People-To-People Cultural Permit granted by the US Department of the Treasury, this wasn’t truly legal; I worried about my rusty Spanish, and whether I would understand anyone; most of all, I worried about being with a bunch of professional photographers, when I had no experience and a brand new camera.
Despite all my doubts, I boarded the plane in Miami for the short 90-mile flight, landing mid-day in Havana at the Jose Martí Airport, where it was at least 85 degrees and humid. Looking out toward the car park, there was a billboard with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, probably known as the most prominent Communist fighter in the revolution that ousted General Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 and Fidel Castro became the country’s new leader. Many laws were passed during those first 100 days in office, including redistribution of land, nationalization of a variety of private companies, reductions in rents, and the end of segregated facilities for blacks and whites at places like swimming pools. All citizens were now allowed a free (state financed) education. The United States, fearing a Communist state so close to it’s borders, began a decades long trade boycott, and the rest as they say, is history.
History is unfolding differently in Cuba now. There has been a liberalization of all kinds of things: citizens can buy and sell land (for years, the only plots they were allowed to own were family graves at the gigantic necropolis of Crisóbal Colón); repair shops that operated under the radar to keep all manner of machinery alive, from telephones to computers to old cars, are now allowed to operate openly for profit; Cubans can apply and get permission to leave the country for visits elsewhere that do not involve medical missions, and nearly every house that has a doorway to the street offers some kind of food for sale or is a paladar (as in “palate”) or a home restaurant. There is a fervent palpable optimism bubbling up, even on the streets of Viejo (Old) Havana, where many building are decayed.
The result was that this trip got me to thinking about obstacles. The people in Cuba have had some real ones, for instance, not enough food to eat beginning in 1991when the USSR collapsed and 80% of the Cuban food imports went with it. I spoke with a doctor who talked about the “Special Period” (as it was dubbed, in an amazing public relations spin) who remembered eating nothing but cabbages for days and days on end. Cuba still has food rationing to ward off hunger, but during this period, rations were cut to 1/5 of previous allocated amounts. When you’re hungry, it’s pretty hard to get too worried about whether or not you’re good enough. What’s good enough is getting the calories needed to live one more day, or as one person in our group called it “an island of scarcity.” My own worries about rusty language abilities and not measuring up to the other photographers began to seem pretty silly.
However, there is more to the story than just being reminded once again how privileged I am to live where I do, and do the work I love. This is also a story of stretching myself. Because this was a photography workshop, and I was traveling with a group, we did not go anywhere without all kinds of cameras, snapping everything in sight, from old cars to dancers in different studios to boxers and people sitting on the sea wall playing trombones. Initially, I was completely frustrated by the fancy camera I had been given as a gift for this trip. So many programs, commands, dials, and things to consider when pointing the lens that I often missed the shot I was trying to take. I would look around and everyone else seemed to have it together, bending down to shoot from this angle or that. Arggh. And we knew we would have to share photos with each other at the end of the trip. Scary.
Gradually, I began to master the equipment, and quit hitting the wrong button. Slowly, I began to learn how to focus a landscape versus a close-up. Bit by bit, I began to see how to frame things to tell a story with one picture. But I was still really nervous on the night of the showing. 2,000 photos winnowed down to 5 to share. How would I measure up?
The answer was: pretty darn good. Though not as technically adept as most of the others, it turns out I have a pretty good eye for composition. I’ve realized something else from this, too. For many years, my fear of not being good enough would have kept me from even trying, and I most certainly would not have shared my results. Now, not only do I have a new skill, I can have fun playing with it more. As Annie Lamott would say, “Wow.” So, now I ask you: What’s holding you back?
Change your brain, change your life.
We all know that change takes effort. But why is this so? It seems as if change ought to be painless. Don’t we shed and replace our cells day in and day out without realizing it? About 72% of you is replaced every 16 days, because 72% of a healthy human body is water that is exchanged. It takes about 56 days for your body to replenish the pint of blood you donate to a blood bank. We don’t think about this at all—it just happens.
And therein lies the clue to why change is so hard: the systems discussed above fall into the category of the involuntary or autonomic nervous system. The voluntary nervous system refers to the neurons over which you have conscious control. In other words, if you make the decision to change position by standing up or sitting down, you literally send this signal impulse from your central nervous system to the muscles. To stand up or sit down takes effort.
When we try to change old habits, it gets even trickier. We know the brain hardwires everything it can, and you have a lot of old wiring in there. Our brains are constantly processing information and scanning the environment for any possible threat to our survival. Even when we are simply sitting at our desk in an office, we can still experience the terror of a tiger about to pounce if the threat feels real.
It’s clearly safer to move away from a threat than to move toward it, and that is what you are more likely to do automatically. Whether you are planning for an interview, writing an article, sitting in a meeting, or discussing a book on stage, your limbic system is going to defend any perceived threat with a fight, flight or freeze response.
If you change your brain, you change your life. So what can you do? Know these 5 elements of sustainable brain change and how to respond to them:
1) Become aware of what exactly you want to change. Habit and automatic learned responses drive our behavior. Just like big organizations must have policies and procedures to operate effectively, so do we need to create ways of doing things that free our strategic brain for thinking, a much more demanding process.
2) Know that you are most likely to experience some resistance even after making a conscious choice to change. Remind yourself that habit, whatever it is, was created to serve you. It’s a comfort zone. Comfort zones and habits are hardwired. Whatever it is that you are doing is a whole lot more comfortable, offering some stability, than pushing back on it. In other words, you know what the current situation looks and feels like. You don’t know what doing it differently will look and feel like.
3) Remind yourself that reappraisal and readjustment is OK. It’s what your autonomic system is doing when it replaces that blood. You may set off alarm bells with the decision to change, since it means you’ve made a judgment against yourself that the previous way of doing something is wrong. Cut yourself some slack.
4) Pay attention to your threat responses. Remember, your limbic system is taking control from your cognitive system to ensure your survival. Below are a few of the threat responses that can upset your strategic planning system:
- Your motor functioning will increase in some way (you could hyperventilate, feel your heart beat harder, or begin to sweat);
- Your field of view will literally (and perhaps metaphorically) contract;
- Your working memory will be reduced (threats must be dealt with immediately);
- Your ability to have an insight or make an unexpected connection will be reduced (necessary relaxation is at odds with self-defense)
- One threat may become generalized (“everything” feels threatening);
- You will err on the side of negativity, focusing on “what’s not working here” (your brain uses mistakes to learn).
5) Self-regulate your thoughts. Realize that where you focus your attention will draw out your physical, emotional and cognitive response. The more you focus on the sense of threat, the more you will be compelled to address it. The more you focus on distancing yourself from the threat by labeling it, addressing it directly and being mindful of its effect on you, the better results you are going to get. The old saying, “Marshall your thoughts before you act,” has a basis in brain functioning. Managing thoughts can allow you to change your behavior in a way that serves you, rather than staying fearfully stuck in the same place.
There is more on how to create sustainable change, including descriptions of some models for the change process in my 15-page booklet, Change: Thriving, Not Surviving, Transitions now available for $5.00. In the meantime, remind yourself that you can create new neural pathways to avert that sense of threat by consciously focusing on what and how you want to change, then actively addressing it.
It is possible to rewire your brain for a new and better life.
How do you make changes with confidence?
Last month, I wrote about shame versus confidence; and reminded me that resolutions are often a bad idea (see Tips for Resolutions). It’s perfectly natural this time of year to look forward and say, “I am going to do [insert change here] differently.” We set some sort of perfect ideal self up against our real, actual self, and then we fail ourselves, leading to a loss of confidence. This month, I want to talk about managing change without berating yourself or losing confidence in whatever it is you have set out to achieve. Sometimes, like the “bird-dog” hatching out in the photo, you get unexpected but surprisingly fun results, if you treat yourself with compassion.
So, what if being kind to yourself becomes your one and only New Year’s Resolution? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said, “I’m going to go on a new diet and finally lose those unwanted 10 pounds,” or “I am going to read more non-fiction than fiction,” or “I am finally going to write that book.” Only to fall off the wagon, time and time again, then feel bad about my inability to stick with a program. Where was my discipline?
In his book The Pursuit of Perfect (2009) Tal Ben-Shahar writes, “We routinely refuse to accept our own humanity…If your daughter did not earn first place in a competition, would their imperfect record diminish your love for them? Probably not. And yet when we ourselves fall short, we often regard ourselves as wholly inadequate, utter failures.” He refers to it as the “all or nothing” judgment: either we are completely perfect or we are completely imperfect. Either a world champion or a complete slouch that does not even try. Much more likely that we are somewhere in between.
We all have a love/hate relationship with change. We love changes that make our lives easier, new inventions that save us time or make it more convenient to get something accomplished like smart phone apps to locate nearby restaurants with our favorite cuisine. On the other hand, we detest change that is forced upon us by circumstance: the transfer by our employer to a new section of the country, the end of a relationship that we did not see coming. Forcing ourselves to change is also somewhere in between.
We give ourselves a goal, we fall short, lose confidence, and give up. Why not just admit that making ourselves change is hard? That it is not the end of the world when we slide back to our old behaviors from time to time? This does not mean we should give up. For every time we get back on track, it is often a little bit easier to stay the course a little bit longer. This kinder path let’s us build confidence. Having some compassion for our failures can lead us to new self-discoveries.
Sometimes letting ourselves off the hook can create serendipitous connections. For the wordsmiths among us, the first noted use of “serendipity” in the English language was by British writer Horace Walpole (1717–1797). He noted that it wasn’t just the unexpected thing that happened, but that there had to be an awareness (“sagacity”) to link together the unexpected with the old for a new understanding. In his book Accidental Genius (2010), Mark Levy talks about the importance of disconnecting from old thoughts, then reframing them (which he calls “redirecting your attention”) to the same purpose.
How does this fit with managing change? Here are three simple examples from my own life.
Example 1: Maybe I can stay on a diet easier if I just let myself stray from the daily grind once a week by eating a piece of pie. Going one step further, if I was being truly compassionate with myself, I could celebrate the body I have that is built to resist famine by being 10 pounds overweight (reframing). Further still would be to stop thinking about being overweight (disconnecting) and focus on the things I do like (my green eyes). This could in turn open a thought up about the role of jealousy and inspire a poem.
Example 2: Maybe it’s easier to do my day-to-day work if I let myself relax with a novel in the evening or on weekends. Going one step further, accept that allowing my brain some time off actually helps it work better when I need it to be strategic (reframing). Further still is to stop justifying (disconnecting), and open up space to see how a story might mirror a client’s situation and give them a new way to see it.
Example 3: Maybe I will finally write that book if I just sit down to write for 20-30 minutes a day instead of looking for 3-4 days to write at a stretch (reframing). Going one step further, say, “I will know when I am ready to write that book because I simply can’t keep it inside me any longer” (disconnecting). Taking it further with self-kindness would be “It’s OK if I never write that book” and just by giving myself that safety valve, find a new way to open up the story, perhaps by telling it from a friend’s point of view.
Here’s the take away: Compassion for self is another way to keep your confidence high.
Shame Versus Confidence, or, From Darkness to Light
I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately, in part because I have been reading Brené Brown’s latest book, and in part because I have begun to realize how shame sometimes holds me back from putting my best self forward. Shame is all about feeling unworthy, perceiving the whole self as somehow inadequate, defective, or fundamentally flawed.
Brown’s title, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (2012), is drawn from a Theodore Roosevelt speech delivered on April 13, 1910, “Citizenship in a Republic.” You may already know the famous bit, which I shorten here:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short time and time again…who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
For those of you who don’t know her, Brené Brown has made a career of studying shame as a research professor at the university of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her TED talk from June 2010 has generated 6,736,536 hits to date on YouTube alone, a number that could easily be twice that once all possible platforms have been considered, and led to what she called her own “vulnerability hangover”(translation: shame). With that, she began to look at her research from a more personal perspective, flipping the question, “What leads to shame?” to “What leads to self-respect?”
In short, studying shame led her to look at vulnerability, and examining vulnerability led her to ask (I paraphrase here),”What do the people have in common who are willing to reveal their own imperfect selves, risking rejection, mockery, humiliation, embarrassment, disappointment, regret, or disgrace, yet persevere in ‘daring greatly?’ ”
The answer is clear from the title of her earlier work, The Gifts of Imperfection: Living with Courage, Compassion and Connection (2010). Shame, she discovered, was actually about the fear of being disconnected from other people, and the ultimate rejection: being shunned. Like fear and anxiety, there may be an evolutionary component, keeping members of a social group in line, to ensure the survival of the whole group. Part of combating the shame voices is to recognize the need to calm down the limbic system.
So many people, my clients included, suffer from the fear of not being “enough”: smart enough, funny enough, rich enough, athletic enough, productive enough, in short, good enough. I work with them to hear the source of the bad tapes, and find productive responses to the old canards. Brené Brown calls this “shame resilience.” Psychotherapist Gershen Kaufman calls it “returning shame to its origins” by “refocusing attention.” Dr. Kristin Neff, another psychologist following Buddhist philosophy, sees it as building self-compassion, so that you can “stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind.” Some coaches call it “reframing.”
I call all of this “building confidence.”
Confidence is the ability to see yourself clearly, to know that like every other human on the planet you have your own flaws, and still be able to connect truly by daring to open yourself up to the critics in the world, whether you are leading, parenting, loving, inventing or writing. Confidence grows by doing, by trying things you didn’t initially think were possible, pushing yourself along your own growing edge, and not letting the shame thoughts get in the way of unleashing your best self into the world.
The flip side of shame is learning to feel worthy, defined as “having merit.”
Let me be clear: it is not about “dumping” all your insecurities and emotions on to someone or something else. It is about balancing strength and vulnerability. Every time I write a newsletter, I hear my own gremlin worrying away in the background, and every time I write something personal about my life, I wonder how it will land with others. My authentic voice is sometimes pretty timid, but I still dare to send it out into the world electronically.
As the darkness descends during this winter season in the northern hemisphere, let us remember to shine our own light. To illuminate the dark recesses of our self-doubt, shame, and cowardice in favor of living a whole life, one constructed from the confidence to be vulnerable. We are each of us imperfectly good enough, just the way we are.
How to get more time
Do you want to get more time? What I am about to say may sound counterintuitive, but I promise you it works (and I’ll tell you why, too). Take time off!
If you are a “knowledge worker” this becomes even more important. Walking in the regenerative arms of nature is especially useful. Epiphanies of all sorts and bursts of inspiration come to us in moments of relaxation. This does not let you off the hook in terms of making the actual effort to see exactly how to let your insight take shape in the world, be it through writing, experimenting or engineering a model. What is at work here is the cognitive benefit of focused attention on a problem, interspersed with an entirely different activity that lets the subconscious mind gnaw away on its own for a while.
Myself, I like to take dawn walks in the Audubon Swamp. Friends that come to visit me are often dragged out there to see the light come up over the cypress and tupelo trees growing directly from the water. I have to say their initial reaction to the idea of “walking in the swamp” is usually dismay or horror. They envision trekking through thigh high muck swarming with alligators and water moccasins. I explain that actually it is a beautiful place with a boardwalk not even requiring special shoes, and yes, there are indeed alligators and water moccasins, but you are highly unlikely to encounter them directly, though you may see them sunning on a ramp.
This time of year, the swamp is alive with migrating birds and ducks. Hundreds of yellow-rump (or my daughters’ preferred term “butter-butts”) warblers, blue and green winged teal, pie-billed grebe, and assorted other migratory fowl find haven there on the way south for the winter. Although there are 80-100 alligators living under the water, you are likely to only see 1-2 small ones during this season trying to get warm.
The swamp is a place where no one demands anything of me: no phones, no email, no need for conversation. My mind wanders freely over any number of issues. How to help a client that feels trapped; what to write in this month’s newsletter; whether I should be financially helping my recently unemployed daughter; or even what I have at home to eat for dinner. Some of my most inspired ideas have come during this free time.
William Wordsworth expert Simon Bainbridge, professor of Romantic studies at Lancaster University, believes the poet can be viewed as a “management guru for the 21st century.” So, since 2007, the professor has been taking anyone willing to pay a small fee on walks through the Lake District in England for reflective time. Says Christopher May, associate dean for enterprise in Lancaster’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, “Although some people laugh at the idea of learning from poetry, the courses can be useful to anyone who needs to think about the future rather than just the day to day.”
College professors know that sabbaticals provide valuable time to focus on their research, but often by the time they are able to obtain a sabbatical, they are burnt out from the stress of meeting everyday demands. The most often complaint heard about sabbaticals from both the professors taking them, and the schools granting them, is that, “So-and-so was supposed to write a book during that time, but there is nothing to show for it.” Instead of waiting for a big break, take time now even with the hectic demands of everyday life. Rejuvenate regularly to help clear your mind for strategic and innovative thinking.
One professor I know who practices what I preach cleverly named his boat so that he could put the following message on his answering machine: “Thank you for contacting me. I am currently out on Sabbatical.” Love it! I am also in favor of “technology holidays.” I take Sundays off from the computer. A “socially acceptable convention for absence” says Cathy Davidson, co-director of the PhD lab in Digital Knowledge, is to set up an away message. Check out the Sabbath Manifesto for more on unplugging.
The amazing thing about taking this kind of restorative time (after beating yourself up for not getting enough done) is just how much time will slow done for you. Not in actuality, of course, since there are never more than 24 hours in a day, but your sense of it. Focusing more on the present moment expands your sense of the time available. As you slow down, so does your perception. Time seems to expand. Take a look at Steve Taylor’s blog, The Speed of Life: Why Time Seems to Speed Up and How to Slow it Down (2007):
A … way in which we can slow down time is by making a conscious effort to be ‘mindful’ of our experience. There are some people who seem to be as affected by familiarity than others, and see the world with something of the fresh, first-time vision of children all through their lives. These are the kind of people – sometimes seen as eccentrics by those around them – who often begin sentences with phrases like ‘Isn’t it strange that…?’ or ‘Have you ever wondered…?’
In this season of quietude approaching the winter holidays, it makes a great deal of sense to quit rushing around and give ourselves permission to wander, watch and wonder. You just might end up with an incredible insight that changes the world.
Do “women’s issues” still matter in higher education?
Sadly, I think the answer to this question is still, “yes,” especially in higher education. Most of my clients are women, and I am surprised at how often issues specific to women emerge in conversations with them about tenure and promotion, how to juggle work and family obligations, and finding time to take care of themselves enough to replenish the excitement they initially had for their own research. Mind you, I am not saying that the life of a male professor is easy, just that some issues remain specific to women in academia. For those brave men that choose to read on, I encourage you to think about some of the institutional barriers your female colleagues might be experiencing.
A major issue remains: childbearing and childrearing. Because academia like many other sectors of our economy first evolved during the post-agricultural industrial revolution with the expectation that men would work in the public sector, while women tended to the home sector [aside, to my anthropologist and sociologist friends: I am painting this with the broadest possible brush and not the nuanced way in which you folks would understand this]. The academic pathway to promotion, modeled on the German apprenticeship ideal for training to teach in higher education, assumes the academic has a spouse at home caring for children. Women who attended graduate school in their twenties, then entered teaching in their late twenties or early thirties, are often ready to start a family just as the tenure clock starts ticking in time with their biological clocks.
Very few universities have actually come to terms with women on the tenure track having children: they are generally expected to manage teaching, research and service work without a break or acknowledgment of the biological cost of childbirth itself. Only a few institutions even offer the possibility of stopping the tenure clock for a least a year after childbirth. The result can be an even-more-than-usually- stressed-out professor, with competing multiple responsibilities vying for attention.
Clients in this situation may need to reconfigure their schedules, learn how to approach their department chairs or deans for some kind of time release, and allow themselves to ask their spouses, if they have them, for help with caring for their children. Culturally, many women find this extremely difficult, anticipating that they can do it all, only to collapse after a few years of living like this. (For a recent blog post in Inside Higher Education about this very issue, see: Should you expand your family on the tenure track? )
In addition, women still have to deal with unspoken sexism, including the assumption that women should be better caretakers of their students and their colleagues than male academics are. This is most endemic in the hard sciences. Questions from clients emerge around whether a woman should strive to be a better team player, or sometimes to work more competitively than feels natural to her. Moses Chao, current President of Society for Neuroscience (SfN), wrote in the Neuroscience Quarterly (Summer 2012) that:
US surveys show a dramatic drop-off in the number of women in neuroscience training after graduate and post-doctoral training—from 54-46% of trainees to 29% of faculty who achieve tenure-track positions.
Chao postulates a combination of factors contribute to these statistics, including “unconscious bias [against women] as demonstrated in the types of recommendation letters they received compared to male counterparts.” According to University of Washington doctoral student Laura Meyers, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar appointments in higher education, based on 2004 data. Meyers also found a “significant and negative connection” between a field becoming more female and the salaries its members earn.
Meanwhile, many more women continue to enroll and graduate from institutions of higher learning with bachelor, master and doctoral degrees, increasing their [theoretical] earning potential. According to the US Census 2010, between 2006 and 2008, 32.7% of women between 25 and 34 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 25.8% of men. In the US media, we hear rumblings that women are actually earning more than men now overall. However, if the facts are carefully examined, this has more to do with women forced to become primary breadwinners in their families when the men get laid off.
Evidence from the public sector in Europe indicates that the magic number to address women’s issues in a proactive way, including salary parity and policies around childbearing, is 30% or more females in positions of governance, says Linda Tarr-Whelan. This is the tipping point for critical mass in considering issues that specifically relate to women from a female perspective, everything from childcare policies to where a well should be located when women are the primary carriers of water for domestic use. At present, the current worldwide rate for female participation in countrywide parliaments is 15% (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or IDEA).
Interestingly, in the political arena, a second concept of equality is gaining relevance and support, sometimes called the “equality of result”:
The argument is that real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women from being selected as candidates and getting their share of political influence. http://www.quotaproject.org/aboutQuotas.cfm#pros
This idea bears further scrutiny for the improvement in the lives of women in the hallowed halls of academe.
What is it time to let go of?
Last month, I wrote about gearing up for the new semester in order to do your best work. Now I want to discuss the flip side: What is it time to let go of?
Do you garden? I love to garden, though I concentrate on flowers and herbs, not household food production. What started as one simple peppermint sprig is now taking over everything in its path, less than a year later. For those of you who do not garden, mint is one of those plants that propagate by sending forth runners under the ground. Every sprig that emerges is connected to that mother plant. It also means it is incredibly satisfying to rip it up and out, pulling great swaths of the stuff forth from the dirt and seeing the connected roots of additional plants with clumps of dirt to shake off even as it fills the air with a delicious smell. In a mere fifteen minutes you can clear large patches of the garden for something you do want to grow there.
See a metaphor blooming here? As you embark on your own fall adventures, what is it time to rip out of the way so that something you really want to grow can emerge?
How about all those files that you’ve been meaning to get around to cleaning out, but never quite have the energy to open. Professional organizer statistics tell us that 80% of all the materials we file, we never, ever look at again. What can you delete? Throwing things out is guaranteed to make you feel lighter. Not to mention that you are letting the light in for some new growth. What are the old projects that no longer excite you? What would you really like to do instead? (If you need help figuring out how to clean out your paper and keep it from taking over your life, join me on the teleseminar Organize to Prioritize)
What else can you let go of? Maybe it’s letting go of being the perfect teacher. Robert Boyce’s wonderful book, Advice to New Faculty Members (2000) is subtitled Nihil Nimus. What does that mean? Roughly translated, it means “Good enough.” He also advises to start doing before you are ready, and to stop before diminishing returns set in. So, let go of over preparation, and know that you are the expert in the classroom.
Is there a dissertation, article or book that needs to be put aside? Be clear about what is most important to you, and say “yes” only to the things that will help you accomplish what you want. Ask yourself, “Is this (invitation, committee, project) going to help me meet my own goals, or is it going to create a longer ‘to do’ list where the important pieces fall to the bottom of the pile and never get done?” Be clear about your responsibilities and set your priorities accordingly. Remember to tell other people what you are not getting done, or choosing not to get done, though, so your reputation doesn’t suffer.
Maybe it’s even bigger for you. Perhaps you have been thinking that you need a different career. How will you decide? Get clear about what you love, and what you don’t want to ever do again, then look at the skills you already have as well as what you are willing to learn. Include the financial cost and time for this transition, too. Then ask yourself, “Am I really ready to let this go?” Answer honestly. No one needs to know the answer but you.
Fear is the driving force that causes most people to push ahead and attempt to literally overpower their feelings of impending doom. Fear has a few recognizable kindred, too, like worry, shame, stress, anxiety, but they are all, like that mint sprig, propagated from the same source. You may not be able to rip out all fear, and in fact that might be counterproductive, since a little bit of fear akin to stage fright can help you perform better rather than worse. But you can let go of the need to overcompensate for your fear.
Start by imagining the best possible outcome instead of the worst. Then focus on the process instead of the outcome. Stop caring about it, whether you are imagining disaster or triumph. Just focus on the work. Now, let go of whatever is no longer serving you, from paper to people, and watch your life take off.
Training for mental gymnastics: 5 back-to-school tips
With the Olympics well under way, it’s time to get in shape for the mental gymnastics of the year ahead. Whether you are a professor or a student returning to school this August, here are a few basic tips to help you go for the gold! You will do better work, write better papers, and possibly even get better teaching assessments. As a side benefit, you may discover you are living a more balanced life.
Yes, these tips are basic. But do you know why they are so important? Read on.
- Exercise: “Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being,” says John J. Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of A User’s Guide to the Brain. Aerobic exercise decreases the hunger hormone, lowers stress, and reduces anxiety and depression by setting off pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. Who wouldn’t want to feel calmer and happier?
Take exercise seriously. Make an appointment with yourself, schedule it like a meeting, and do it.
- Meditate: Anyone in school can tell you that they often feel like there is just not enough time to get everything done that needs to be done. Engaging in slow, deep breathing produces a calming effect on your nervous system. Your stress hormones dissipate and your energy is restored. Practicing mindfulness is a way to expand time, because you literally slow down your thought processes. Notice what you are saying and feeling, without any need to take action. Let go of negative self-talk and judgment.
Pay attention to just one thing at a time, and you will get far more done.
- Eat right: You’ll be sitting most of your school life, whether student or professor. It’s entirely too easy to get fast foods, that are not going to help your brain or your physique, from the vending machines when you are in a hurry. In general, you want a high dose of protein in the morning to get your brain working. Protein rich food also suppresses ghrelin production, an appetite-boosting hormone that encourages the brain to eat. Ghreline is produced in response to anxiety, and makes you crave those high fat, high carbohydrate foods. Adding some good fats to your diet also suppresses the appetite (salmon, avocado, nuts).
There are plenty of good diets out there, but find the one that is right for you and stick to it.
- Sleep: Not sleeping enough can quite literally make you psychotic. It’s one reason that sleep deprivation is often used in those old war films to break a prisoner. Most people need eight hours of sleep for 16 hours of awake time. Give your body as much sleep as it needs. It’s counterproductive to sleep too little and spin your wheels at night working. Decide when are you at your peak creatively: Morning, afternoon or evening? Your brain needs sleep to rebuild its chemistry, and you will not think clearly about anything without it. You learn better when you sleep, too. One laboratory study showed that while a rat was sleeping, its brain was learning about the maze it was running earlier, writes Dr. John Medina in Brain Rules (2006).
Create a sleep pattern that works with your particular chronotype.
- Socialize: Humans are social beings. It is one of the basic things we know about the way we have evolved, and the need for real connection is incredibly important. Edward Hallowell, a well-known psychiatrist, notes that isolated people are three times more likely to die in the face of known health hazards like smoking, drinking, obesity, poverty or generally poor health. Connectedness literally has an immunizing effect. It reduces the stress of feeling alone against the world. Hallowell does not mean contacts or networking, either: he means actually feeling connected to another human being. Heartfelt connections can literally save your life.
Take time to connect with friends, family and significant others in your life.
You might have noticed that all of these five tips have one thing in common: they reduce stress. No matter your position in the system, reducing stress is a very real concern. Release stress and tension to invite creativity and fun in. Then enjoy the new school year.
If you need more help staying on track and reducing stress in your life let us know.