Archive | Self-development

Why Acting Classes Are So Hard for Grownups

acting class

acting classI’ve often wondered how many of us out there have fantasized that in another life, we’d all be professional actors.

I know I have. My mother was an actress when she was young, and I was one of those classic theatre geeks in high school, playing everything from Helen Keller to Elizabeth Bennett.

For whatever reason, once I went to college I became far too serious for acting (or so I thought), and abandoned it in favor of my studies.

For a long time, I was plagued by that dreadful “What if?’ that we all apply with increasing frequency to the roads not taken once we hit middle age. Now that I’ve returned to taking acting classes in mid-life, however, I’ve come to realize that I was never good enough to be an actress. And the reason I’m not good enough is that I’m way too protected emotionally to take the kinds of risks required to be a truly good actor.

I know this with 100% certainty because I spend three hours every Friday evening taking an improvisation class with a bunch of other adults. Our teacher is steeped in the Meisner tradition, which means that we begin every class doing Meisner’s classic warm-up, the Repetition Game.

For the uninitiated, the Repetition Game amounts to standing opposite someone else for what feels like an excruciating period of time (but is probably only five minutes) and “calling” the other person’s emotional state, in the moment. The other person repeats exactly what you said until something shifts emotionally in one of the two players and then that gets called out, repeated, and so on.

So it might start like this:

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

Until eventually that gives way to something like:

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

And so on…

Sound easy? It ain’t. Meisner apparently wanted “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

Wow. I don’t even know if “intellectuality” is a word, but Dear God, I cling to it for all it’s worth. It is SO hard to be truly “in the moment.” And that’s coming from someone who is an evangelist for mindfulness.

I know I’m not the only person who runs like hell from the nakedness of their emotions as a grown-up. I was comforted to read an account of the Meisner technique by a young, University of Chicago adjunct business school professor named Jean Paul Rollert. Rollert sat in on four acting classes in an effort to unpack the concept of “empathy.”

In addition to noting (correctly) that “acting classes tend to attract the same assortment of individuals who often congregate in adult education programs: the curious, the bored, the lonely, and the strange…,” he also goes on to observe that “Meisnering” is the equivalent of being “whipsawed, smacked, dunked, tripped, and kicked down a flight of stairs—all in the course of a scene.”

It is, in a word, brutal.

I’ve been doing this technique for close to a year now. And while I’ve had glimmers of success with the technique (though my teacher would shoot me for applying such normative judgments to the process), I find it incredibly hard to access my emotions on demand. My teacher tells me that even my body language betrays this truth about myself. Apparently, I tilt my chest backwards from my hips and push my head forward during the exercise, as if I am literally trying to run away from all feeling and lead with my brain.

I did have one breakthrough moment a month or so ago. I was doing the Repetition Game with a guy in my class who normally laughs a lot as a defense mechanism. All of a sudden, his own underlying sadness came through. And then mine did. And for just that one moment, the whole world seemed utterly and unbearably painful. Because it was.

It was – in equal measure – both an exhilarating and a terrifying sensation.

But after a minute or two, it was gone. We both retreated to safer pastures – he to his laughter and me to my brain.

I really want to challenge myself to feel more during these classes. It feels like the right way to live my life, in my ongoing quest for authenticity and all that good stuff.

But Damn, is it hard.

I wonder what Helen Keller would do.

Image: Miki_peleg_rothstein_in_Our_Class_2 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Please note: If you are interested in receiving my monthly newsletter, Good Reads for Grown Ups, with recommended reading on how to live a meaningful and productive second half of life, do subscribe under the “Newsletter Tab” on the home page.

Are Goals Good for You?

empty swingset

empty swingsetLate one night after a recent college reunion, I got to talking with a group of close friends. We’d had a few drinks. And having split our sides laughing over the course of two days about our shared pasts, we began to muse about our individual futures.

One of my friends suggested that we each set a goal we’d like to accomplish by the time we hit our next five-year reunion. He created a make-shift whiteboard out of our cardboard beer carton so we could write our goals down and hold each other accountable.

The reaction around the room was a tell-tale study in contrasts. The guy who proposed the idea said that he’d like to undertake at least one major creative project by the proposed deadline. Someone else – who’d endured a particularly grueling year – said that she couldn’t set long-term goals right now: she was just trying to live day to day. A third friend confessed that he knew exactly what his goal was, but that it was so deeply fraught and personal that he didn’t want to articulate it just then.

A fourth friend looked at us all blankly. “Honestly?” she said. “I can’t think of anything major.” She paused to give it a bit more thought. “Maybe to keep on improving in Crossfit?”

As for me, I piped up with one goal. And then a another. And then a third. I quickly realized that if I didn’t shut up, my personal goal list would completely dominate our whiteboard.

What are goals doing for you?

At first, I felt really smug after this discussion. “Yay, me!” I thought to myself. “I’m so focused and determined! I’m awesome!

I was particularly pleased that my goals extended into all aspects of my life. Not only that, I could name them and own them. I was proud of myself.

But after a couple of weeks passed, I began to question my complacency. Why was it, I asked myself, that I *needed* so many goals? Why couldn’t I be more like my Crossfit friend – who was apparently so satisfied with what she’s achieved thus far in life – that she could afford to focus on something as seemingly trivial as an exercise regime? (No disrespect to all Crossfitters out there. I know it’s grueling…)

And the answer is that goals provide me with an excuse for movement. My worst fear in life is slowing down. When I move forward – even in a frenzied state (which, if I’m honest, often characterizes my movement forward) – I feel alive. I don’t have to succumb – or even catch a glimpse of – that awful feeling I associate with stillness. Which is one of fear and sadness that the game is up and I am only me, warts and all. There is no more chance for self-improvement.

How dreams help

Not long after my reunion, I had a dream that I was back in college with that same group of friends. In the dream, I discovered that I had failed to write a term paper that was due in two weeks’ time. I’d had an entire semester to prepare for this paper, and yet somehow, I’d let it slide.

Panicking, I rushed to the library to do all the necessary research. But as I ran towards the card catalogue (yes, I went to college back in the day when we still had card catalogues…along with the horse and buggy), I noticed a bunch of people off to one side of the room. They were swinging on a swing set…in the library.

I’ve written before about the window my dreams afford into my psyche. On one level, of course, this dream is merely an apt representation of the person I was in college: someone who, as the phrase has it, worked hard and partied hard. (Hence, the dueling images of the library and the swingset.)

But I don’t think that’s really what this dream was about. I think it was about my current mid-life quest to integrate two halves of myself: to allow the manager and the maker to co-exist together, rather than one half dominating the other. That’s why the swing set is inside the library. The dream isn’t offering these images as stark alternatives. It is encouraging me to bring those two selves together.

In search of peace

Which brings us back to goals. What that dream told me is that I need to stop continually setting new goals for myself. Instead, I need to replace all of my micro-goals with one, over-arching macro-goal: that of achieving peace within.

If I can do that, then I won’t need the constant churn of goal-setting and goal-replacement. I will just be.

And maybe that can be my own form of Crossfit.

Image: Empty swingset by wsilver via Flickr

Important announcement! If you like my Friday Pix feature, I will shortly be launching a newsletter which offers a round-up of these “good reads” on a monthly basis, in place of this occasional column. The newsletter will also include lots of other juicy bits for those of us interested in the eternal journey of adulthood, including an update on books and films I’ve liked, the latest research on aging, and a few guaranteed giggles. If you’d like to get these “Good reads for grown-ups” delivered directly to your inbox, please subscribe to my monthly newsletter by clicking on the “Subscribe to my Newsletter” button on the homepage of this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

My Midlife Search for Authenticity and Integrity

integrity

integrityI had coffee with a friend of mine in London recently. We talked about our joint desire to make our second half of life both meaningful and productive.

He’s in his early 60’s, and he told me that he had decided to organize the rest of his life around the principle of “integrity.” By integrity, he did not mean moral probity. He was referring instead to the less frequently used definition of integrity – unity, wholeness, coherence and cohesion.

I knew exactly what he meant. I, too, had recently come to the same conclusion.

Indulging One Side of One’s Self

For the last several years, my own personal “watchword” has been authenticity. Particularly in the professional realm, I felt that I had drifted too far in the direction of being a “manager” in recent years, and had lost touch with my “maker” self.

And so, when I found myself lucky enough to get laid off from my job last summer – with a generous severance package,I went 180 degrees in the opposite direction: I wrote a book, I took acting classes, I started swimming every day. I immersed myself in a creative life.

It was a corrective of sorts, and I reveled in the rush that came from focusing on the side of me that had been starved for so long. Ideas flowed. Writing Flowed. I felt like I was re-introducing myself – to myself  – and that was exhilarating.

Bringing the Manager Back In

Over time, however, that corrective began to need a corrective. As refreshing as it was to call myself a writer again – and to feel the truth of that identity wash over me every morning as I sat down at my desk – in the back of my mind, I knew that my manager self could not be entirely eliminated from the picture.

At first, I brought her in to accomplish small things, like cooking. Then I realized that I needed a safe way to incorporate my manager self into my journey of career change – not to dominate my maker self – but to co-exist with her on equal footing. And that meant fashioning a professional identity that would not miraculously render me the Director of a Musical Theatre revue (though a non-trivial part of me does pine for that identity.) Nor would it mean making a living simply by leveraging my most marketable skills. Rather, I would need to find a way to enable the writer, blogger and aspiring actress to co-exist with the social scientist, editor and project manager.

That sounds simple and obvious. But it isn’t. For me, anyway. For deeply psychological reasons that are far too complicated to go into here, I’ve always been more comfortable bifurcating myself into two halves. Being a fully integrated manager/maker -right brain/left brain sorta gal has been an incredibly hard thing to realize. My body, soul and mind want me to choose one side or the other, and I am using every fiber of my being right now not to do that.

I am resolved to achieve this however. I know, at the end of the day, that I will only ever feel myself when I enable all of the different voices inside me to surface and co-mingle, messy as that might be. I wasn’t born an engineer. Nor was I born an artist. I’m a bit of both.

In Search of Balance

Accepting that has been one of midlife’s biggest challenges.

But I’m getting there. As a big fan of mindfulness, I was delighted to discover a new series on my Headspace App called “Balance.” It is all about trying to identify those things in your life – not just your job, but what you eat, how you spend your time – that make you feel imbalanced. And once you notice them, you are then empowered to decide whether or not you wish to remedy them.

I no longer do any work on the weekends, for example. (Granted, I have the luxury of being unemployed right now, so it’s quite easy to fob things off until Monday.) But the change I see in myself over the past eight months is that I no longer *want* to work on the weekends anymore. Because that feels imbalanced. Whereas it used to just feel normal.

I don’t think this is the kind of thing that one can appreciate, let alone rectify, until we hit mid-life. When you’re young, you simply act on your impulses. You don’t examine them and try to do better.

How about you? Do you struggle to achieve balance in life and how does that manifest itself? What would an “integral” life look like?

Image: Integrity by Nick Youngson via The Blue Diamond Gallery

 

 

Why Bad Dreams Are Good For You

dreaming

dreamingI’ve long been an active dreamer. My dreams are lengthy, plot-driven and very detailed. I nearly always remember them when I wake up.

Nor are they particularly pleasant. From the proverbial math test that you haven’t studied for –  to the play you’re in where you don’t know your lines – I regularly experience some of the most common dreams in adulthood.

I’ve always accepted my troubling dreams as a sign that I am…troubled. Not massively so. But for those of us who lack the benefit of a “quiet mind,” I think it’s inevitable that the thoughts and feelings swirling around inside of us during the day are going to need some sort of outlet at night.

Lately, however, I’ve been re-assessing whether the fact that I have disturbing dreams might actually be a sign that I’m on a journey towards happiness.

What Are Dreams?

There are different theories on what dreams mean and how to interpret them. For Freud and others in the psychoanalytic tradition, dreams were a form of wish fulfillment. Even some scholars who don’t fully buy into Freud believe that dreams serve as a way of processing repressed thoughts and feelings (sexual and otherwise) that live in our unconscious.

Other researchers interpret dreams as a form of problem-solving. From this perspective, the brain responds to potential future danger by running – and responding to – a bunch of different scenarios while we sleep, just to keep us alert.

Still others believe that dreams help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the stories we construct in our help us to emotions attached to these experiences certainly are.

Being Lost in Your Dreams

In my case, the dreams I’ve had over the past few years very closely track some of my major anxieties – and personal evolution – during that time.

For a long time, I had dreams about trying to get somewhere. This sometimes took the form of an elevator, where I’d push a button to go to a certain floor and then the elevator would fly off in many directions, never landing at my destination. That dream has also, at times, taken the form of me driving or walking somewhere without a map. I try desperately to figure out where I need to get to but am increasingly worried about being late.

I feel like this is a fairly straightforward metaphor for the journey of professional reinvention I’ve been on, one that has intensified in the last year or so. It’s a dream about uncertainty…and movement.

Dreams About Parties

In the last few months, however, the “being lost” dreams have really faded. In their place have come a series of dreams about attending parties with other people: family, friends, strangers. In these parties, I can always see the fun going on in another room, but something blocks me from taking part.

If you google “dreams about parties” you’ll find interpretations range from social anxiety to needing to let your hair down to partying too much.

For me, it’s simpler than that: I’m on a path towards personal and professional fulfillment, but I’m still not entirely sure that I’m permitted to enjoy it. So the dream is very clearly reminding me that despite all the work I’ve done to construct a new narrative for myself, there’s still a bit of fear and possibly even ambivalence about seizing a life that is better suited to who I am.

Why Struggle is Good For You

I’m OK with that idea – that even as I feel ever closer to being at peace with myself – that I may continue to struggle for a good while longer in life. In this, I’m 100% with self-help guru Mark Manson, who argues in his new book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck ,that a certain amount of pain and darkness is the necessary and inevitable price of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

So I embrace my dreams. They tire me out. But they also remind me that I’m alive.

Image: Dreaming by Eflon via Flickr

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Things You Learn From Losing Your Voice

larynx

larynxI was invited to a brunch recently with a woman who happens to be a yoga teacher. In describing her practice, she noted that when she conducts retreats for families at her home in Notting Hill, she requires that everyone do a “silent breakfast” – one where you cannot speak. (Note to self: Family yoga retreat? Count me in!)

The silent breakfast is a real struggle, she said, for English people in particular, as the culture is so verbal and witty. But there is no talking whatsoever allowed during breakfast and ultimately, she says, everyone comes to appreciate it.

I’ve had my own version of the silent breakfast lately. I have nodules on my vocal cords – which means that I’ve basically had laryngitis since early November. It’s not a dangerous condition, but it does hamper one’s speech considerably. There was a point in mid-December when my doctor advised me not to speak. At all.

I’ll be having surgery later this month to correct this problem, which may come as more of a relief to some quarters than others (cough). In the meantime, I thought I would share five things I learned from losing my voice:

a. You listen more. Cultivating the art of good listening is thought to have all sorts of benefits for business, for teaching and for parenting. When you’re forced to stop talking for a couple of days, you also realize how much you interrupt, depriving others – especially children – of the ability to formulate their own thoughts. It also forces you to intervene less in family conflicts, which can only be a good thing. 

b. You invest in other forms of self-expression. As fate had it, the final performance for my improv acting class took place during one of the days when my voice was completely shot. So I had to go through an hour and a half of group exercises without saying a word. Boy, was that instructive! When you can’t speak, you have to rely much more strongly on gestures (including rude ones!) and to devise other techniques – like miming – for getting your point across. It’s a good reminder that speaking is only one of several ways to communicate. Indeed, deprived of the ability to speak, I am also pouring a lot more energy into writing my book.

c. You develop empathy. There’s a well-known journalist who anchors the BBC’s flagship morning radio show, The Today Programme, named Nick Robinson. Robinson is a veteran reporter, but a couple of years ago his vocal cords were severely damaged during surgery to remove a tumor from his lungs. When I first heard Robinson speak on the programme after he returned to work – still husky from months of voice therapy – I was a bit taken aback. However good a reporter he might have been, I was puzzled that the BBC would be willing to put someone with a voice impairment on the radio every day in such a prime slot. Fast forward two years and now I feel like a heartless fool. Not only is that *exactly* what the BBC should have done – in the spirit of fair and equal treatment of its employees – but Robinson is an inspiration. Whenever I hear him, I find myself thinking: “Well done, Nick! I’m so glad that you have a voice and are using it to make yourself heard!”

d. You take advantage of alone time. When you have a busy life – and especially if you have children – it can be really hard to carve out any time for yourself. And even when I do find that time, I always feel compelled to invite someone else along. But when you can’t talk to anyone, you figure, “What the heck?” I might as well go do something I enjoy by myself. When I was at the height of my self-imposed alone time, I saw two films and one play. All by myself. It was fantastic. Rather than feeling like I needed to “discuss them” afterwards, I just relished the feeling of assessing them on my own. Highly recommend.

d. You are reminded not to ignore physical pain. I have a tendency to avoid pain. That’s not always a good idea. In the case of my vocal nodules, the stress in my neck was such that it quickly spread to my upper back and before long, I could barely sit up. I’m now in physical therapy and things are improving rapidly, but this entire episode has reminded me why – when something goes wrong in your body – it’s important to deal with it quickly and thoroughly.

Homework: Pretend you can’t talk at your next family meal and let me know how you get on!

Image: File:Larynx normal2a via Wikimedia Commons

How I Came To Love Airplane Rides

airplane ride

airplane rideI get very anxious when I fly.

Before take off, I find a quiet area in the airport and spend 10 minutes meditating to the Fear of Flying segment on the Headspace mindfulness app.

Then, as soon as we are “wheels up,” I genuflect. Mind you, I’ve not gone to Church regularly since I left home to go to college more than 30 years ago. And yet, as soon as the plane begins take off, I instinctively find myself doing the signs of the cross.

Lately, however, in the wake of my mother’s recent move and the several transatlantic flights I’ve done in recent months, I find myself actually looking forward to airplane rides. 

Why, with a lifetime fear of flying behind me, am I now enjoying airplane rides?

Because it is one of the few times in my life when I let go of the idea that I ought to be doing anything other than relaxing. Simply put, I let go of my “shoulds.”

Much like a sick day, when I get onto an airplane, I take myself “off of the clock.” I stop thinking that it’s a great opportunity to catch up on email (now that it’s available in flight) or to work on my book or to hunt for jobs. Instead, I do my favorite things.

Not raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens. But my version of that, which entails skimming lots of New Yorkers, reading a novel by my new favorite Nordic Noir author, Karl Ove Knaussgaard, and watching the occasional film (but only if I can find one that suits my decidedly dark tastes.) The last two eight hour journeys I took, I didn’t even bother with the films. I watched a bunch of different American television dramas I’d always been curious about but had never sampled.

And that is deeply therapeutic.

Happiness blogger Gretchen Rubin recommends that if you want to declutter your house, pretend that you’re moving. Only with that mindset will you feel the urgency of actually getting rid of things you don’t need.

In a similar vein, perhaps the takeaway lesson from all of this flying of late is that I need to make the rest of my life more like an airplane ride. Whenever I find myself starting to get stressed, my mantra should be: “Pretend that You’re Flying.” No one is watching. My Panel of Elders is sleeping. And maybe then I’ll chill out.

How about you? Do you have a place you go – literally or metaphorically – that absolves you of the feeling that you have to do anything? (Yes, I know. Some people call them weekends, but for reasons that will have to wait until another post, I have a tortured relationship to weekends.)

Do share.

Image via Pixabay.com

A Butterfly Theory of Personal Development

chrysalis

chrysalisI got an email not long ago from a reader of this blog. She shared a poem that she’d seen posted elsewhere on the internet which used the metaphor of the butterfly’s chrysalis to understand those periods when we need to go inside ourselves in order to grow.

The word chrysalis has two meanings in British English: “the hard-shelled pupa of a moth or butterfly” – the one it adopts just before morphing into the adult phase of its life cycle – and “anything in the process of developing.”

I knew precisely why she’d sent it to me. I’ve been in a crysalis-like state since late July when I was laid off from my previous job.

What do I mean by this?

Checking Out with Others To Check In With Yourself

First, that I’ve been avoiding people, for the most part. That’s the pupa part of what I’m doing – I’ve formed a hardened shell around my exterior in order to protect myself from outside forces until I’m ready to emerge, fully formed. (And yes, you may thank me for this brisk walk through your sixth grade biology class.)

And that’s because I’ve been trying to decide what my next professional move is, and that requires a great deal of reflection.

While it is both helpful and essential to talk to other people when you’re trying to make a major career shift, one thing I’ve learned over the years is not to talk to them too early on, before your own vision has taken shape.

Otherwise, you’ll find that they get you thinking about how and where, rather than why. And the why is terribly important.

In short, you may find that in order to properly check in with yourself  – whether that means taking an inventory of your interests, figuring out how your assorted, transferrable skills can serve your ambitions, and/or what your “elevator pitch” is going to be – you need to check out with others.

Constructing a New Narrative

But I am also in a stage of growth, which is the second definition of chrysalis. I’ve been keeping a journal and writing a book. I’ve been experimenting with my own creativity.  I’ve (very quietly) taken up a post as a visiting research fellow at a local university. I’m even taking an improvisation class!

I’ve also been spending a lot more time at home doing things I like, such as cooking, watching the 1981 television mini-series of Brideshead Revisited (for the 3rd time) and reading assorted books by John Le Carré, all while nursing the occasional low-alcohol pale ale.

All of these disparate activities are about helping me to construct a new narrative for myself, one that feels more authentic and true to who I am for whatever comes next.

Busy: Back Soon

Someday soon, I am hoping that – like the butterfly – I will shed my protective layer and fly. But that process is never overnight.

It reminds me of the time in one of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories when Christopher Robin hangs a note on his door that reads “Gone Out. Backson. Bizy.”

Yes, I have been busy, but I will be back soon.

Image: Nymphalidae -Danaus Plexippus Chrysalis via Wikipedia Commons

 

Why Personality Tests Are Useful

Lord Voldemort

Lord VoldemortI took a personality test recently. It was one of those memes circulating on Facebook in which you are told which Harry Potter character you most resemble based on your Myers Briggs personality type.

Mine was Lord Voldemort. According to this quiz, Voldy (a classic ENTJ) is all about “ambition, leadership, and borderline-ruthless rationality.” I was momentarily disheartened. I mean, seriously, who wants to model themselves on Lord Voldemort? (My 24 year-old niece, a huge Harry Potter fan in her day, quickly rushed to assure me that Voldemort’s not all bad).

At first –as I am wont to do when confronted with a personality profile I don’t like – I decided that the test was wrong. Until not one, but both, of my children (who seem to be agreeing more and more about me of late) nodded their heads emphatically and said “Oh, You’re totally Lord Voldemort.”

This most recent brush with my inner Voldemort gets at a deeper truth. One of the reasons I like doing personality quizzes is that they don’t just reveal things you are good at, but also force you to confront things that you might not like about yourself.

The latest typology out there that drove this point home for me is Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies. Her typology is quite different to Myers Briggs –  it’s all about how you respond to expectations, both external ones set by others and internal ones you place on yourself.  This yields four types (someone really needs to study why personality tests always cluster into fours…)

There are the upholders – those who respond readily to both outer and inner expectations, questioners who question all expectations and will meet an expectation only if they believe it is justified, obligers, who respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to met inner ones and rebels, who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. (Take the Four Tendencies quiz here.)

Once you look more carefully at the characteristics associated with each type, it’s not difficult to attach them to people you know.

I was having lunch the other day with a friend, for example, and when I asked how her husband was doing she responded: “Oh, you know, he wakes up every day and no one tells him what he has to do. He has complete freedom. So he’s really happy.” (He’s a rebel, I thought to myself.)

My daughter falls into the obliger camp. She’s superb at following instructions if given an assignment by one of her teachers or told by one of her coaches to start running twice a week to keep in shape. But she can sometimes struggle to hit targets she sets for herself, like reading a certain amount each day or practicing her instruments regularly.

My son is totally different. He is great at doing anything he decides is a priority. I can’t remember the last time I had to remind him to do his homework or to practice his violin. But if the school decides that the boys need to wear a certain tie or tap in with their student ID card when they arrive each day? Then, not so much – unless that external rule conforms to his internal view of what is appropriate. He’s a questioner.

I am definitely an upholder – someone who, as Gretchen puts it – wakes up and asks “What’s on the Schedule and the to-do list for today?” On the upside, upholders tend to be punctual, reliable and self-directed. They are excellent at meeting deadlines. (Rubin is one herself.) But they also struggle in situations where expectations aren’t clear or the rules aren’t established. Because they feel compelled to meet expectations, they tend to feel uneasy when they know they’re breaking the rules, even unnecessary rules, unless they work out a powerful justification for doing so.

In my own case I take this tendency one step further. I tend to walk around with what I call a panel of elders – a semi-circle of aging wise men whom I imagine to be collectively monitor my every move. And so when I confront a setting – as I did quite recently – where what’s expected of me isn’t entirely clear, I super-impose my panel of elders onto the situation at hand, imputing a set of rules that I decide need to be followed, but which may not even exist. Worse, I chastise myself relentlessly if I can’t follow them. (Yes, I’m insane. But it’s all a response to fuzzy rules.)

I often think that growing up isn’t so much about adopting a wholesale change in who you are as it is about learning how to champion your strengths and recognize and combat your weaknesses. Stated somewhat differently, personality tests help me to improve myself, over time.

Oh God! Is that an upholder trait?! Help!!

Image: Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) by Hersson Piratoba via Flickr

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways to Cope With Being Laid Off

jumping off a cliffOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I was laid off recently. It was something that I both wanted – and welcomed. But now that it’s here, I’m struggling a bit.

When you know that a major change is on the horizon that’s going to upend your daily routines – a move, a break-up, an illness, leaving your job – it’s tempting to treat that event like the proverbial jumping off a precipice: there is a before and an after. And it’s knife-edged. So you throw all of your energy into the *before* – in my case, finishing all those last minute tasks at work…saving your files….going out for (lots of!) drinks with colleagues – and consciously put aside thinking about what comes next.

That’s all normal. After all, change is scary. It’s much easier to make yourself insanely busy with the build-up to the change than to contemplate the abyss of the after. But when the other side of that precipice finally arrives – when “later” becomes “now” – you suddenly discover that you have all this time on your hands and no earthly idea what to do with it. (And yes, for the record, I did take a three-week vacation!)

It isn’t easy to make that adjustment. Here are five strategies that can help you ease into being laid off and make that time both fun and productive:

1. Tackle a big project on your To Do list. It doesn’t have to be something onerous or unpleasant. Pick something that you’ve been wanting to do fora while, but simply haven’t had time for. And then take control of that one thing. I’m finally working my way through Julia Cameron’s brilliant book The Artist’s Way – a 12 week course (I’m doing the book version) that helps you unlock your creativity. I’ve been wanting to tackle this project for at least two years. And guess what? It not only provides a structure for my mornings, I’m also having a fantastic time unleashing my creative self.

2. Exercise. A lot. We all know that exercise is great for all sorts of things including helping us to sleep better, cope with chronic disease and fend off depression. And that’s especially true for older adults. But it’s not just about exercising more regularly. This is can also be a time to experiment. I’ve been swimming for a couple of years now and I’m still doing regularly during this transition. But I’m also taking advantage of my membership at my local gym to try out all manner of new classes: Restorative Fitness…Box Fit…Ballet! Trying something new can be exhilarating as well as a great learning experience.

3. Read. A lot. I’ve long been a fan of reading long books in the summer when you have a bit more daylight and (hopefully!) a bit more time. This summer’s list has included the entire set of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels as well as anything and everything by Donna Tartt. For me, reading fiction expands my feel for voice and style and lets me bring that to my own writing. But it can do more than that. Reading can unlock the wisdom of others and help you to pursue your dreams.

4. Relax. Obvs, right? Even if you’re using some of these techniques to try and structure your down time, the void in your normal routine can be stressful. I’ve long extolled the virtues of mindfulness in the morning. But lately I’ve been experimenting with muscle relaxation exercises at night, to try and relax myself before I go to sleep so that I clench my teeth less and treat sleep less as a new playground for my anxiety and more as a respite from it.

5. Have one guilty pleasure. Mine’s watching Season 4 of Homeland. OK, OK. So it’s not exactly kinky adult programming. But I’m really enjoying it.

How about you? Have you ever had a block of “down time” – whether due to getting laid off or something else that changed in your life – and how did you cope?

Image: Girl leaping off a cliff via Public Domain Pictures.net

Listen To This Surprising Advice From Your Future 90-Year-Old Self

old man

old manI was having lunch with a friend the other day and we got to talking about my next career move. I’m at that stage – once again – where I’m thinking about what’s next for me professionally – so I laid out the three options I’m currently mulling over.

“What do you want me to say?” she asked, when I finished my short speech.

“I want you to tell me which one of those I should pursue!”

She paused and considered my directive for a moment. “What would your 90 year old self advise you to do?”

It was a great question.

Regret exerts a powerful pull on us in adulthood. And she was basically counselling me not to reach the ripe old age of 90 and ask myself, “What might have been?”

But I felt that she was also exhorting me to get in touch with my authentic self. I have a very well developed analytic side to my brain.  If it goes unchecked, I can easily spend my life thinking my way through dilemmas. She was basically saying to me: Don’t think, Feel. Ask yourself what you really want right now, not what you ought to want. In other words, no more shoulds.

Which in turn reminded me of one of my favorite self-help books, about which I’ve evangelized before: Elle Luna’s amazing, The Crossroads of Should and Must. In this book – which is all about uncovering your authentic self – giving up the “shoulds” (what we think we ought to do) for the “musts” (our true passions) – the author has you do a series of exercises designed to elicit your “must.”

One of them which I found particularly effective was to write my own obituary – actually to write two of them. The first is how you *think* your obituary will read when you die and the second is how you’d like it to read. This doesn’t necessarily need to be an exercise about career change, but it’s perfectly designed to explore that realm of life.

Try it. It’s excruciatingly painful and yet incredibly elucidating.

If you’re like me, what you’ll discover is that you could end your professional days with a perfectly respectable career doing X, Y, or Z. Perhaps you’re on a few boards and maybe you’ve even won some accolades.

But while your “likely” obituary might recount a professional journey you won’t be ashamed of, that doesn’t mean that it’s really “you.” And if that’s the case, you might end up closing out your days feeling cheated.

I, for one, don’t want that to happen to me.

Which is why that lunch was a great wake up call to check back in with myself about what I really want to get out of the second half of life. I went back to those dueling obituaries, re-read them, and realized that I was still in danger of having the “wrong obituary” if I wasn’t incredibly mindful about how I approach this whole process of career change.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Image: Jack Shaller by Chris Bentley via Flickr