Archive | Self-development

Why Running Your Own Business is Empowering

strong woman

strong womanI had lunch with a friend the other day. Like me, she launched a new business in her 50’s. Now, she’s launching another one (after taking a year out to recover from cancer.) When I asked her how she was feeling about all of this change in her life, she smiled.

“I feel great,” she answered. “I feel empowered.”

Her comment got me thinking about the word “empowerment.” Much like “leaning in,” empowerment is one of those buzzwords we all throw around  without really defining what we mean by it.

Saying No…and Saying Yes

One of the most important lessons you learn as you age is how – and when – to say “No.” Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like when you need the money, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time.

Lately, however, I’ve also been enjoying the freedom of saying “Yes.” It’s not that I’m taking on work that I don’t really need or want. It’s that when a random opportunity crops up that’s slightly outside my comfort zone, I’m not instinctively saying “No” before I fully consider it.

I was offered two potential pieces of work this week that are both slight reaches for me. One is fairly far outside of my knowledge base and the other is for an audience I’m not familiar with.

I’m not sure I’m going to end up doing either of them. But the simple act of being open to an unexpected opportunity felt empowering because I was expanding my set of choices.

Setting Boundaries

My old boss once told me that I was exceptionally good at “ordering chaos.”

He was right. And while he meant it as a compliment, it can also be a curse. Whether it’s a paper, a project, or a meeting, if I encounter something that isn’t well-organized, I can’t help myself:  I fix it.

The problem is, sometimes that’s not my job. I was in a meeting the other day where the potential client was very much in brainstorming mode. I love that sort of thing. But at a certain point I could barely suppress the urge to leap up out of my seat, grab a marker and commandeer the white board to help structure the thinking.

That was problematic on two fronts. First, no one asked me to stand up; I simply felt compelled. Second, I sensed that if I did take ownership of that white board, I might very quickly end up running that project for them. And I knew I didn’t want that.

So instead of trying to order that particular piece of chaos, I walked away from it. I told those assembled exactly where I thought I could make a contribution, asked them to reach out to me when they were ready, and then exited the room.

My old work self would *never* have done that. She’d have taken notes and started project managing. But newly empowered Delia simply said, “Call me when you need me.”

Asserting Your Worth

Taking a page from Kayleigh and Paul on the Creative Class podcast, I raised my freelance rates this year. I didn’t do anything drastic, and I stayed within my market. I also waited until I had a solid track record of success – with the testimonials to prove it – so that I could justify the increase, should anyone challenge me. (They didn’t.)

With one of my clients, I also went back and asked for more money when the scope of the initial work expanded – in time and volume – beyond what we’d originally agreed.

A year ago – and certainly 5 years ago  – I never would have done either of those things. My M.O. would simply have been to keep absorbing more work, even if it felt unfair or over-burdening. Indeed, I would have felt guilty had I asked for more pay.

This time, in contrast, I felt like I was simply asking for my payment to reflect my true value and effort.

Empowerment as Liberation

Most people think of self-employed people as liberating themselves from offices. But I never had a problem with offices.

What I needed liberation from was myself:  my inability to say no to things I didn’t want to do, my reluctance to embrace things I might want to do, and my tendency to wildly over-compensate for other people’s shortcomings.

So I do feel empowered. But not in the sense of finally being CEO in my company of one. Rather, what running my own business has taught me is that I am free to make choices that make me happier. And Lordy, does that feel good.

Image: Strong Woman (Unsplash) via Wikimedia Commons

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Tips For Adulthood: How to Lower Your Expectations

Danish pastry

Danish pastryOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I was talking to my son on the phone yesterday. He’s at college in the U.S. – ( we live in the UK) – and he was telling me about a recent mid-term he’d taken in Economics.

“Yeah, I don’t think I did very well on it,” he said. “I’m hoping I got a B.”

Hmmmm. As someone who regularly sets the bar too high in just about everything I do, I had trouble swallowing this at first. When I was in college, getting a “B” in anything felt like a massive failure. But I suppressed that thought and instead asked him how he felt about the experience.

“I was bummed for a few minutes,” he said. “Because I did study for the test. But then I just went back to reading Antigone for my literature class and realized that mattered so much more to me.”

In other words, rather than castigate himself for not performing to his highest standard, he moved on.

Wow.  Not for the first time, I realized I was taking life lessons from my 18 year-old.

In that spirit –  and because I’m all about adopting a growth mindset – here are five tips for lowering your expectations.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Cherry Chocolate Danish Pastry via Pixabay

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In Search of Optimism

optimism

optimismI was working with a client recently on his public speaking. As part of an exercise, I asked him to recount a sad memory.

He paused. And then he paused again. And then he paused some more.

“Wow, that’s really tough,” he said, visibly struggling to call up a sad memory. “Something sad…hmmm. Give me a sec.”

After a minute or two like this, I finally interrupted him. “Can I lend you one of mine?”

The Importance of Reframing

This guy is lucky. Clearly, he hasn’t experienced as much sadness in his life as I have.

At least, that was my first thought. But the more I worked with him, the more I realized that it wasn’t just that he’d somehow managed to escape tragedy, even well into his 60’s.

It was that he’d made a conscious choice to be optimistic.

I’ve noticed a similar quality in one of my colleagues. We will deliver a workshop together and afterwards, he will immediately declare, “Well, that should translate into a business opportunity.”

Regardless of how well the workshop actually went, I’ll find myself responding, “Yeah, maybe. But what if…the CEO is felled by a tree/I contract a life-threatening case of meningitis overnight/Brexit wipes out all communications consultants now and forever more/Fill in the blank…” You get the idea.

We’ve experienced the exact same workshop. And yet one of us walks out and shouts “Hooray!” while the other one worries, “What if it all goes to sh#$?”

Choosing optimism

This same colleague has taught me a lot about the power of positive thinking.

I had already discovered the power of affirmations in my writing life — courtesy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way — long before I met him. But I’m now regularly applying affirmations to work life as well.

On a daily basis, I’ll find myself uttering things like:  “I’m a great salesperson” or “I enjoy client relationship management” and “I’m highly skilled at empowering people to achieve their full communications potential.”

Even when I only half-heartedly believe them, I find that these affirmations help.

As does meditation. One of the great virtues of the mindfulness app I listen to every morning is that it encourages me to discover the “blue sky” inside  – a happy place where the clouds part and the birds chirp and the rays of sunshine fill my world.

A lot of the focus in mindfulness is on accessing that blue sky feeling. Over time, you come to realize that it’s not something you need to reach for outside yourself; it’s something that’s already there.

The Power of Hope

The research bears this out. I was struck by a couple of recent experimental studies which show that if you induce people to be optimistic, they can actually change their behavior. In one such study, providing simple assets — such as a cow or other livestock — to poor people in developing countries led to increased labor and other investments on their part.

In another, respondents in U.S. soup kitchens were asked to recall a time they felt positive about themselves. This in turn resulted in more effort in playing simple games compared to those who did not receive the “optimism prompt.”

Hope, it turns out, is a powerful motivator.

Dreams of Hope

Perhaps this message is beginning to sink in.

As someone who is haunted by recurring dreams about test anxiety and getting lost, I recently had one of those classic dreams where I was in a play and didn’t know the lines.

But in this dream, the ending was different. Instead of freaking out and succombing to the performance anxiety, I chose instead to improvise the scene at hand. And, lo and behold, it worked out.

Just as with affirmations and blue sky thinking, maybe my bad dreams are trying to tell me something:  I’m actually OK. All will be fine.

Perish the thought!

Image: Sunbeam Sun Shadow Light Mood Sky by meineresterampe via Pixabay

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Recurrent Dreams

dreams

dreamsWell, as long as sleep is now the new sex, I thought I’d tap into what actually happens when most of us sleep: we dream.

Not all of us, I suppose. An old boyfriend of mine used to maintain that he dreamt mostly in images:  he’d be standing out in the middle of a field or perched atop a mountain.

Huh?” I thought. “You mean you don’t dream that someone’s chasing you around your kitchen table with a knife?”

Not only are my dreams hopelessly plot-driven and transparent, they are also recurrent. There are four or five dreams that I must have at least once a month. Every time, I wake up bathed in sweat. But once I began to reflect upon these dreams and analyze them more closely, I realized that they are all – in one way or another – telltale dreams of adulthood.

On the off-chance that you’ve had them – or similar recurrent dreams – I present them here so that we can all get a better handle on our collective demons:

Read the rest of this post over at Better After 50

Image: Realm of Dreams via PublicDomainPictures.net

 

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Why Anger is Useful

anger

angerI once took a course in college called Anger. Because I went to Brown University –  which has a reputation for being a bit groovier than the rest of the Ivies – it’s easy to mock a course called “Anger.” As one of my fellow Brunonians once quipped – “What did you do in that class? Hold hands, sing Kumbaya and pass around a ‘talking stick‘?

Sort of. There was a final project where you were encouraged to develop your own personal reflection on anger. One person did an indigenous dance. Someone else sang a song. I read aloud from a short story I’d written about discovering that my college boyfriend was cheating on me.

But most of the course was about reading. Each week, the professor would focus on one text –  the Old Testament, Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The students would write a one-page paper on the text and discuss it.  The punch line of the course  – but one you only came to once you’d digested all of these treatises – was that anger, in the end, was really about sadness. When we feel angry about something, it’s because we are actually hurt by someone or something. And anger is the emotion we often use to express that sadness.

That insight rung true to me then and it rings true to me now. I’ve been really angry lately. In one instance, it’s with a relative of mine who has proved to be a real disappointment. She’s done some horrible things, including to me and other members of my family, and some of those things are not fixable. In another case, I’m angry with a friend who didn’t show up for me when I asked him.

But when I sat down and thought  – and, more importantly, wrote about these experiences in my journal – I realized that I wasn’t really angry with either of these people.

I was sad. I was sad because in both instances, the people in question revealed a side of themselves that I either hadn’t seen before or didn’t want to see. And in revealing these less appealing sides of themselves,  I experienced a sense of loss. Loss for the person I thought they were – or perhaps more truthfully – loss of the person I wanted them to be.

Letting go of anything that matters to you is profoundly sad. It could be selling your childhood home or being laid off from the company you love or breaking up with your therapist. And, let’s face it:  feeling angry is a heckuva lot more comfortable for most of us than feeling sad.

But one of the realizations I’ve come to as I age is that I’m actually better off confronting sadness than avoiding it. So in embracing my own anger of late, I have tried to observe that feeling, peel it back and allow myself to feel the enormous grief of accepting what is, what is not, and what cannot be.

I won’t lie to you:  it ain’t fun. But it does feel more honest.

Image: Anger, Angry Bad, Isolated Dangerous by Geralt via Pixabay

 

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Lifelong Learning: Cultivating Curiosity as we Age

Continuing Education

Continuing EducationNot long ago, I attended an all-day workshop on PowerPoint. It was designed for people who felt comfortable using the program, but who wanted to take it to the  next level. As I use slides all the time in my new consulting business, I thought it might be a useful skill to hone.

It was.

I’m a big fan of taking classes in adulthood. Since moving to London twelve years ago, I’ve taken classes in everything from public speaking to improvisation to  how to write a business plan. In past lives, I’ve taken classes in freelance writing, beginning Hebrew as well as the  Continuing Ed class to end all Continuing Ed classes: I’m Jewish, You’re Not.)

People go back to school as adults for many different reasons. Often, it’s to pursue a hobby. You try something new (or return to something old.) You meet new people. You collaborate. Above all, you have fun. (I’m currently eyeing a course entitled Actors Singing From West End to Broadway. Bring it on!)

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Continuing Education Adult Education Expo via Wikimedia Commons

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Tips for Adulthood: How to Cope with Sadness

sadness

sadnessOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve been feeling sad lately. For many years of my life, I pushed sad feelings away whenever they arose. I felt that if I just kept moving fast enough, I could out-run them. Often times, I did.

But one of the things that happens as you age is that you begin to confront your fears. And, hopefully, you develop new coping strategies to deal with your demons.

So this week, here are some strategies for how to deal with sadness when it comes:

a.  Meditation. I’ve written before about the power of mindfulness. One of the things mindfulness encourages you to do is to treat your thoughts and emotions as fleeting. The idea is that just as the breath comes and goes, so, too, do thoughts and emotions. So when anger, or sadness, or regret pop up, you don’t push them away. You see them, acknowledge them, and move on. “Oh, that’s anger,” you say to yourself. Or: “Oh, I’m feeling sad now.” Over time,  instead of  saying, “I’m an angry person,” or “I’m depressed,” you begin to say: “I’m sad right now.” But tomorrow my happiness will return. Because it’s in there too.

b.  Reframing. Over on Maria Popova’s brilliant website, Brain Pickings, she writes about the famous Austrian poet and novelist, Maria Rainer Rilke, and how he conceptualised sadness. While we may feel paralyzed by it in the moment, the ability to sit silently with one’s sadness is also central to personal growth. As he so eloquently puts it, “…this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside.” Sadness is painful; yes. But it is also transformative. And it reminds us that we are alive.

c.  Poetry. I don’t read a lot of poetry. But when I’m sad, I find that poetry is the very best way to commune with my sadness and embrace it, as Rilke advocates. My mother, who does read a lot of poetry, has shared a lot of powerful poems with me over the years. Lately, I’ve been reading the Irish poet, James Claren Mangen, because, let’s face it, no one quite does sadness like the Irish. I’m quite taken with his poem, The Nameless One.

d.  Music.  As with poetry, I don’t actually listen to music all that much. My love for show tunes notwithstanding, I don’t tend to have a CD playing or Spotify playing in the background as I go about my life. When I’m sad, however, my go-to music is the music of my young adulthood, when I lived in Central America for a year. During that year, I spent an enormous amount of time listening to the likes of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, two giants of the Nueva Trova movement. So lately, instead of podcasts, I’ve been listening to that music as I walk around my neighbourhood or do the laundry. Much like watching a sad film, or reading a sad novel, this music speaks on some deeper level to my feelings right now. If you speak Spanish – and even if you don’t – go have a listen to Mi Unicornio Azúl.

e.  Writing.  And, of course, I write. For me, nothing helps quite so much in confronting sadness as putting thoughts like these down on paper.

How do you cope when you feel sad?

Image: Sadness by Serge Mercier via Flickr

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Happiness in Later Life

happiness

happinessLong ago and far away – back when I was still an academic – I once took a long drive home from a conference with a colleague. It was a two or three hour drive, the kind where you start off talking about work and end up talking about your childhood. About an hour and a half into the drive, I turned to him and asked: “Are you happy?”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t really do happy,” he confessed.

I knew exactly what he meant.

I don’t really do “happy” either. Content…animated…joyous…silly. I do all of those at different times. But “happy” feels more permanent. Like something you need to commit to. And I’ve never been good at commitment.

That Happy Feeling

Lately, however, having finally – 30 years in – fashioned a career for myself that feels right, I’ve started having this weird sensation in my body. I say weird, because it’s so unusual, I don’t recognise it immediately. I think it’s called happiness.

It’s like a friend of mine who – beginning therapy late in life after a divorce – confessed to me that one day in a conversation with her therapist, she felt this strange thing well up inside her. “And I was like ‘What is that?'” she recounted to me afterwards. “And then I realized: Oh, that’s an emotion!”

Damned straight, sister. I think a lot of us walk around for half of our lives carrying feelings inside of us that we don’t even recognize, possibly because we’ve forgotten they are there.

Lessons from Mindfulness

Which is why, among other reasons, practicing mindfulness is so useful.

If you’ve ever practiced any mindfulness, you’ll know that one of the key ideas it drives home is that we all have a “blue sky” inside us – a happy place where the clouds part and the birds chirp and the rays of sunshine fill our world. A lot of the focus is on accessing that blue sky feeling and realizing that it’s not something we need to reach for outside ourselves; it’s something that’s already there.

In my own case, I think I’d gone so long thinking about work as this stressful, difficult externalized thing that I’d forgotten that work could also be an extension of “happy me”… and fun. So when I’d deliver a workshop on public speaking, for example, and feel really great afterwards, I’d be like: “That’s odd; Why do I feel not just OK, but good?”

Escaping the Scarcity Mentality

It’s also the case that some of us just aren’t wired to be happy.

I grew up in a large-ish family where a scarcity mentality prevailed. If you got up from the dinner table to go to the bathroom, you risked having someone still the last potato off of your plate. So I think I have always approached life as if everything were a finite resource that was at risk of running out:  money, love, food, happiness.

Undoing that scarcity mentality has taken  a lot of work. One of the things that helped me most was reading Julia Cameron’s brilliant manifesto on creativity, The Artist’s Way. Cameron views creativity (which for her, comes from God) as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one. The idea is that whatever the origin of your creative process, it is an unending well of ideas and inspiration that never dries up. She encourages everyone embarking on a creative path to adopt this expansive view of how it works.

That has been s a struggle for me. Given my own hard-wired scarcity mentality, I come to the world with more of a zero-sum framework: if I get something, someone else loses something. There’s only so much to go around. But embracing Cameron’s “abundance” mentality with respect to creativity has enabled me to extend that idea to other areas of life.

As a result, I’m able to feel happier now without fearing that at any given moment, happiness might run out.

It’s still a work in process. Many days, I still feel off-kilter when I experience “that happy feeling.” But I’m learning how to live with it.

Image: Woman Happiness Sunrise Silhouette by Jill111 via Pixabay

Creativity, Random Words and Self-Definition

random words

random wordsI’ve started reading Tim Harford’s book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Its basic thrust is that creativity is fostered not by carefully organizing our time and ideas, but by allowing disorder to interrupt our routines. One way to induce this creative messiness, Harford argues, is by introducing random stimuli to trigger new ways of thinking.

So, for example, when I taught a workshop on creativity recently for a group of researchers out at Oxford, we did a “random word” exercise. I had them open to a random page of whatever they happened to be carrying  – a book, a magazine, instructions for a writing exercise – and select the eighth word on that page. I then asked them to use that word – whatever it happened to be – to help them generate new ways of thinking about a challenge they were facing in their lives:  personal…professional…in their research.

I myself did something similar yesterday. I was on a day out with a group of coaches and clients at The Writing Coach, where I work as a consultant. These periodic gatherings are a way to foster real life interaction among a community of writers that is otherwise largely virtual.

As the gathering was held at The National Portrait Gallery in London, our fearless leader suggested that we might also use this as an opportunity to do some writing. So she handed out a list of random words and invited us to use them as a prompt for some aspect of our writing – e.g., a character, a scene, a setting – as we gazed upon the pictures. It was your proverbial “artist’s date,” in Julia Cameron parlance.

My word was “resurfacing.” Here’s how the Cambridge dictionary defines it:

a.  Covering or adding layers (as in to put a new surface on a road)

b.  To rise to the surface of the water again

c.  To appear again after being lost, stolen or absent

As I strode through the early 20th century wing of the museum, I reflected upon this word and its myriad meanings. And I realized that “resurfacing” was a wonderful prism through which to think about the current stage of my professional life.

As I embrace a portfolio career,  I am in many ways “resurfacing” the different aspects of my professional self: the writer, the editor, the coach, the teacher…even the project manager. Just as I could readily detect where some of the modernist artists had applied new layers of paint to their renderings of, say, James Joyce, the original image was still visible underneath. Together, they yielded one person, rendered simultaneously through multiple angles.

At the same time, however, I also feel that I am reappearing to myself  – as my whole self – after being absent for a long period of time. And in so doing, I am rising to the surface of the water in a new, more integrated form.

I’ve long been an advocate of choosing concepts, not lists, to frame my New Year’s resolutions. As of yesterday, however, I think I’m also going to embrace the idea of choosing words as a metaphor for self.

Is there a word that’s helped you to redefine yourself? Have you ever used a randomness strategy to stimulate your thinking?

Image:  Random Words Make a Sentence by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr 

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New Year’s Resolutions: Choose Concepts, Not Lists

new year's resolutions list

new year's resolutions listWhile home visiting my family over the holidays, my sister mentioned a few of the resolutions she’d set for herself this year. They included doing more fiction writing (and, specifically, being willing to endure 100 rejections ), upgrading to varifocals so that she doesn’t need to hold a book within an inch of her eye to read, and a handful of other standard-issue resolutions.

“What are your goals?” she asked.

I paused to think it over.

“Thanks for reminding me,” I answered. “I need to set my concept for this year.”

Goal-setting: In Defense of Vagueness

As someone with a fairly strong Type A personality, it’s tempting to use the beginning of the year as an excuse to set even more goals for myself than I normally would.

But a few years back, I resolved that I wouldn’t do that anymore. Instead, I decided to embrace the idea of setting broad, overarching “concepts” to frame the coming year.

I’m aware of all the advice out there claiming that you need to set specific, actionable objectives if you want to get anything done. I’m also aware of all the research suggesting why if you go too far down the measurable outcomes path, you might end up abandoning your goals altogether.

To that end – and, let’s be honest, what good is research if you can’t cherry-pick the stuff that suits your needs? – I have anchored my defense of conceptual resolutions in a Stanford University study entitled In Praise of Vagueness.  Because of the way the brain processes negative information, this article suggests that we are actually better off motivating ourselves through a general principle (e.g., “I’d like to be more fit”) – or through an acceptable range of desired outcomes (e.g., I’d like to lose between 5-15 pounds) – than tying ourselves to one specific number ( e.g., “I need to lose 10 pounds by June 1st.”)

The basic idea is that presenting information in a vague way allows you to sample from the information that’s in your favor and choose the part that seems  achievable or encourages you to keep your expectations upbeat. That way, you are motivated to stay on track.

Goal-setting: Choosing a Concept

But I didn’t really start embracing conceptual New Year’s resolutions because of what the research said. I did it because I thought it would help me to bring greater coherence to the many different hats I wear, both personally and professionally.

I felt that having an integrated, “catch-all” concept would make me feel more comfortable being pulled in so many different directions. I also thought having a concept would encourage me to think more creatively about the different aspects of my life and how they fit together, rather than thinking in siloes.

So, for example, one year my watch word was “authenticity.”  That was all about bringing my personality out more in social media (principally blogging and Facebook), but also about choosing to read books that illustrated other people’s journeys towards self-discovery.

Another year, my watch word was “change.” That year, I knew in advance that I’d be laid off for my job and that I needed to be open to trying out different career options while I took time off.

Yet another year, I embraced slow living.

This Year’s Resolution

This year’s resolution, you ask?

It’s about balance. Not just the professional balance yielded by a portfolio career mentioned above.  And not just work-life balance if all that means is not being a workaholic.

But work-life balance in the sense articulated by author and entrepreneur Robert Glazer, which he defines as follows: …”an understanding that each day or week might bring different combination of things to attend to at work or in your personal life, but they total a portfolio of quality experiences. It’s not about the time itself, it’s about being fully present and engaged in each of the pieces…”

I like that idea. Balance as being fully present in each of the pieces of my life, whether that’s teaching or coaching or writing or swimming.

How about you? If you could pick a concept for 2019, what would it be?

Image: New Year’s Resolutions list via Wikimedia Commons