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Why Coaching Is So Meaningful As We Age

writing coach

writing coachI ran into a student just before lockdown whom I’d worked with a year ago. She was in the office of a local university where I coach PhD students on how to write their dissertations. She was there to pick up her diploma.

When I first met this woman, she’d been trying to write her thesis on and off for a decade. Her original academic advisors had long ago left the building. She was on her own now, with a newly assigned advisor who wasn’t even in her field, and struggling with debt, deadlines and concomitant mental health issues.

“Working with you was transformative,” she told me when we met. “You were the first person to talk to me about my work for more than 15 minutes  in ten years.” She was beaming. The slouching person near tears I’d worked with a year earlier had morphed into a confident and accomplished vision of health.

Coaching as Empowerment
I’ve written before about why I enjoy being a writing coach. Unlike editing, where you basically fix a person’s writing, coaching is about cultivating that ability in the writers themselves.

This support can take all different forms. One client I worked with was an undiagnosed dyslexic. We spent six weeks going over the basic rules of grammer, devoting one entire session to the comma. Another client wanted help crafting essays for his business school applications. The schools wanted him to tell stories about himself, but he’d never written in the first person before and felt uncomfortable.

Most of the people I coach are at some stage of writing their doctoral dissertations. With them, it might be about helping them re-think their introductions so that these provide a roadmap for the entire paper. Or showing them how construct a literature review that won’t bore the reader. Most of the time, it’s simply about asking them a series of questions to help them articulate their core argument in one sentence and why it matters.

As you work together over time, you don’t just help clients with their writing, of course. You help them to feel confident about doing all these things on their own.

Coaching During Lockdown: The Power of Connection

Lockdown has intensified my relationship with the people I coach, especially the students.
Writing a PhD can be a very lonely process. Most of the time, you’re holed up in a library, poring over a bunch of obscure texts and trying to make sense of them. Occasionally, you go visit your advisor for feedback. Their job is to make you feel even worse about your writing. (Here, I paraphrase any number of famous people who’ve been credited for observing that “the politics at universities are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”)

But during lockdown, students are stuck in their bedrooms. They can’t derive comfort from an impending coffee break with their friends or from the shared struggle of looking up and seeing a hundred other people tapping on their keyboards in a library. Worse, most of the feedback from their advisors now arrives via email.

So when I talk to them, it often feels like I’m the first human being they’ve spoken to in ages. This connection is good for them. But it’s also good for me. I’m finding that one of the silver linings of lockdown is how much I’m enjoying my daily, face-to-face connection with students. It’s become a high point in my day.

Giving Back as We Age: Wisdom and Crystallized Intelligence

I wonder  sometimes if I would enjoy my coaching work as much if I were younger. I doubt it. A recent episode of Adam Grant’s fantastic Work Life podcast probed the difference between “fluid intelligence” and “crystallized intelligence.” The former refers to the ability to solve problems in novel situations and tends to peak when you’re young. The latter is the ability to use knowledge acquired through experience, which emerges when you’re older.

I think the reason I’m enjoying coaching so much right now is that it affords me this ability to transfer the knowledge I’ve acquired about writing through 30 plus years of experience. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of her life in a classroom, the rush is no longer so much about how I come across to the students or how I perform. It’s increasingly about what they take away from our interactions.

Research suggests that the difference between older and younger managers is that whereas younger managers are all about self-advancement, older workers are much more other-directed. They are more collaborative, more empathetic and more inclusive. They listen better and delegate more.

I think this is what Jonathan Rauch calls wisdom in his book The Happiness Curve:  Why Life Gets Better After Midlife. Wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s about cultivating a greater ability to focus away from ourselves and towards our community.

Image: Writing by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

Note: This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

Mourning the Death of a Parent: A Poem

woods

woodsNothing drives home the reality of adulthood quite so clearly as the death of a parent.

My mother passed away last Wednesday. It was her 89th birthday.

Shortly after my father died 11 years ago, a friend sent me the following poem to comfort me during this loss.

Today, in my mother’s honor, I again share that poem with you:

In Blackwater Woods

–          Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blur shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what it its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Image: Woods-Trees-Forest-the edge of by Guangyanggluo via Pixabay

Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Listen to Billy Joel

Billy Joel

Billy JoelI’ve been listening to Billy Joel again. Yes, I say that loudly, proudly and unabashedly. If you grew up in the 1970s, it’s pretty impossible *not* to be in love with Billy Joel. When “The Stranger” was released in 1977, it was all anyone listened to for several years.

My husband gets this. He’s the one who got me started on my new Billy Joel kick. He recently came across a series of videos of Billy performing his songs before a live audience. As Billy performs each song, he explains its origin and meaning. (Side note to Billy Joel fans – in case anyone who is *not* a Billy Joel fan has gotten this far into this blog post – he doesn’t like Piano Man all that much. Sniff.)

Particularly as I get older, I find that Billy Joel’s music speaks to me even more than it did back in junior high. To wit, five Billy Joel songs with particular resonance for middle age:

1. James – This song comes from one of Billy’s earlier albums, Turnstiles. It’s mostly a song about those early, intense friendships we have in childhood and adolescence that often dissipate as we grow up and choose different paths in life: “I went on the road. And you pursued an education…” I always feel incredibly sad when I hear the lyrics to this song, because it reminds me of the bittersweet, awkward feelings such relationships inspire, especially if you ever find yourself reunited with said friend and realize that you have very little in common anymore. But it’s also a song about regret, which is, for me anyway, one of the central emotions that we navigate in midlife. As Billy asks his erstwhile friend: “Do you like your life? Can you find release? Did you ever write your masterpiece?” Ouch. Most of us didn’t end up writing our masterpieces. But the song ends with some sage adulthood advice, encouraging James – and all of us – to follow our own dreams, not those set by others: “Do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.”

2. New York State of Mind – Closely linked to regret is nostalgia, another inescapable feature of adulthood. I grew up in the tri-state New York area and while I’ve subsequently lived in many cities across many continents, there are a handful of Billy Joel songs that bring me right back to the place which, for me, will always be home: “I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside…” For me, this song readily calls up a sea of memories:  the summer in college I spent living on Riverside Drive in an impossibly posh apartment I got through a family friend and trying out every bar in town…the numerous times my mother hauled me and my siblings into the city to see previews of the original cast performances of shows like Evita, Annie and Sweeney Todd…the smell of pretzels mixed in with the city’s gritty streets. (Note to the Super Fans: if you want to see a truly miraculous Billy Joel moment, watch this video where he allows a very talented piano player from Vanderbilt University to spontaneously accompany him while he sings New York State of Mind.)

3. ViennaSlow Down, you crazy child…you’re so ambitious for a juvenile...” Dear Lord, do I feel that this song was written for me. As someone who has lived much of her life at a gallop, I’ve had a very hard time learning that life is not a crew race, it’s more of a marathon. As Billy enjoins us: “Take the phone off the hook, and disappear for a while.” When I hear Billy sing this song, it feels like a sort of musical version of mindfulness.

4. I’ve Loved These Days Another gem. This is ostensibly a song about people who’ve been overdoing it – living it to the hilt with drugs, sex and God knows what else. They know that very soon, they’re going to need to put an end to their outrageous lifestyles and get real. But for me, it’s always been a song about break ups. About those terribly clear moments when you suddenly know that a relationship is over, but you still want to squeeze whatever joy that you can out of the final hours/days/weeks together: “So, before we end, and then begin, we’ll drink a toast to how it’s been. A few more hours to be complete, a few more nights on satin sheets…” It’s a song about the inevitability of loss and recognizing that all good things must come to an end – another bittersweet reality of growing up. (n.b.: This was my high school’s senior prom theme. Ahem.)

5. Allentown – An ode to all those middle-aged folks who once had a job and a company and a place in society where it all made sense. Now, their entire lives have been upended (by globalization/modernity/the internet/time/fill in the blank…). They don’t know how to be anymore: “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown for the Pennsylvania we never found. For the promise our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved…” This song could be ripped straight outta 2020.

How about you? Do you dare to own your secret passion for Billy Joel? If so, which are your favourite tunes?

Two bonus gems for the Super Fans:

  1. Billy’s hour-long interview with Alec Baldwin on the podcast Here’s the Thing
  2. Billy’s *own* five favourite Billy Joel songs, with Stephen Colbert

Image: Billy Joel by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Editing Your Writing

editing

editingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the main strands in my portfolio career is my work as writing coach. Which means that in addition to thinking a lot about the craft of writing, I’m also constantly proffering advice on how to edit.

Most people hate editing. Unlike writing, where you can and should let your ideas flow without judgment, editing is all about discipline. I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases of the writing process best when he counselled: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travelers who have something you need to edit – a poem…a short story…heck, even an office memo – and need to find your mojo.

Here are five tips for editing your writing:

1.  Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take four to six weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that, if you can manage it, you should take even longer. The reason for waiting is that you want to be able to open your manuscript up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. That’s the only way to figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin. You may even surprise yourself. As a screenwriter friend once told me, “There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.”

2.  Find ways to make the material new. When you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. I particularly liked this piece of advice from American novelist Christina Baker Kline. Kline recommends that if you wish to jumpstart a revision for fiction, you write three new openings. In each opening, you start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. What a great idea!

3.  Trim excess words. We all know that editing requires cutting excess verbiage. But how to wield that axe is another story entirely. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. Boy, does that exercise help you to discover what you love most about your writing. Another good tip if you’re looking to be more concise comes from the Write to Done blog: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went through the intro of this blog and cut out loads of words that didn’t need to be there.

4.  Read your writing out loud. On the topic of reading your work aloud, David Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition, you can also hear whether you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. I’m sure it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5.  Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” What he means is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, and give short shrift to the “open door” phase. Here’s Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon:

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

Yikes. What works for you when you’re editing?

Image: Mistakes editing school via Needpix

Tips for Adulthood: How to Generate Ideas

creativity ideas

creativity ideasOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood. But as Friday is the new Wednesday under lockdown, I’m posting some tips today.

It’s been awhile since I posted on creativity. But it’s one of those things that I think about all the time. I’m fascinated by how creative people relate to their work, how they structure their days, and how they access their creative “space.”

Because I offer workshops on creativity and writing, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to how and when I come up with ideas, whether for blog posts, short stories, or reported pieces. Like many people, a lot of my best ideas emerge when I’m doing something *other than* sitting at the computer typing.

So today, I’m sharing some techniques for coming up with ideas, with the hope that these may prove useful to others. While I focus on writing ideas, I’m sure these strategies are pertinent to other fields:

a. Exercise.  When I’m confused about an idea, not sure how to spin it or just wondering if there’s even a “there there,” it’s amazing how often exercise solves that problem. In the old days, I’d go for a run. Now (at least once quarantine lifts!), I go for a swim. I may not set off on my workout intending to think about a certain issue. But if there’s something kicking around the back of my mind, I often find that the combination of forward motion, exertion and fresh air allow everything to fall in place. A friend of mine who’s a novelist does the same thing with bike rides. He writes in the morning and takes long bike rides in the afternoon. By the next morning, he tells me, he’s got loads of fresh material. The trick is to rush inside right after the workout and jot down your ideas.

b. Take a Thinking Shower.  During my first few years in graduate school, we were required to take a series of exams in order to qualify in our chosen field of study. These were called “field exams” and in my department, at least, they consisted of a series of essays which you researched and wrote over the course of a weekend. Needless to say, none of us got much sleep during those weekends. But I did have one friend who always seemed to be in the shower when I’d phone up to see how she was getting on. “The shower?” I’d ask, wondering who could possibly bathe regularly when they had so little time to complete an exam. “It’s a thinking shower,” she’d explain. She found that burst of hot water on her face  enabled her to outline her essays. So I tried it. So should you. Scientists even have a name for the link between water and creativity: blue mind.

c. Figure out what’s distinctive about your perspective. This is a technique I’ve used quite a bit since moving overseas. I find that so much of what I think about various issues – whether it’s health care reform, therapy, or getting a driver’s license – has changed dramatically simply by virtue of living somewhere else. But you don’t need to change place to draw on this different viewpoint. Just this morning I was thinking about the current turmoil engulfing the United States over race relations. I realised that I was thinking about the emerging divides in and around the Republican party over using the military to quell protests through what I know as a political scientist, rather than as a citizen. And having that different perspective was informative and useful.

d. Reflect on the most striking thing someone has said to you in the last week.  When I’m trying to come up with ideas for blog posts, I sometimes think about the most unusual thing someone’s said to me in the past week. Often, that person is one of my children. “Why is God so famous?” my daughter once asked me when she was six. A friend of mine recently observed that people have begun engaging in “opposite behaviour” during lockdown – i.e., those who normally hate cooking have taken to Instagram to share their culinary triumphs, while avowed introverts are flocking to Zoom for virtual drinks. A stranger confessed that he selects which films to watch based solely on the appeal of the poster. (Whaaaa???) Whenever this happens, I grab my pen and scribble these comments down.

5. Go outside for a walk.  Here, the focus is less on exercise – though there is research supporting a link between walking and creativity – than it is about being an observant student of other people. Writer and long-time public radio host Garrison Keillor once wrote that “A long walk also brings you into contact with the world, which is basic journalism, which most writing is. It isn’t about you and your feelings, so much as about what people wear and how they talk. The superficial is never to be overlooked.” Simply put, when you go outside you notice things. I’ve been taking long walks around parts of my neighborhood I’ve never visited before. The other day, I discovered a street called “Harriet Tubman Way.” It happened to be one of the first days of the racial equality protests in America. I paused to stare at the sign for a moment. It resonated differently than it might have a month earlier. And that’s what it’s all about.

How do you generate new ideas? Share in the comments section.

Image: Idea Creativity Innovation via Pixabay

A Room of My Own During Lockdown

Parcheesi

ParcheesiAs we enter a third month of global lockdown, I’ve noticed that people handle this new normal of forced solitude differently. Some get emotional. Some withdraw into themselves. Others seem busier than ever.

We all have our own escape valves when we’re feeling tired or stressed or over-extended. On her terrific blog, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin talks about creating “an area of refuge,” by which she means a peaceful refuge for her thoughts. For her, it’s usually a library.

But you don’t actually need to go somewhere to find solace. My sister, an avid reader, once revealed that she when she gets stressed, she tends to re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. She does this every two years or so. Apparently, she finds it soothing. Upon learning this, my first thought was: “That’s weird.” I’ve never been all that into fantasy literature, despite a son who once declared The Silmarillion to be his favorite book.  (Not familiar with that one? Think of it as a sort of Middle Earth version of The Book of Matthew, Chapter One. You know, the one that reads “And Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob, etc. etc.” Except that in this case, it reads more like “Rian, daughter of Belegund, was the wife of Huor, son of Galdor…,” on and on for like 300 pages. The fun never stops…)

My husband’s area of refuge is to listen to music on his headphones or to watch incredibly lengthy documentaries about the New York Public Library or the moon landing. Others bake. I have several friends in London who are serious gardeners. To me, gardening looks exhausting, dirty and nerve-wracking. But they all seem to reach a flow state.

My area of refuge during lockdown has become this over-crowded storage closet in our basement. It’s stuffed to the gills with miscellaneous Hannukah and Christmas decorations (a blue Santa and a lamb wearing a menorah dress come to mind)…old board games like Battleship and Parcheesi that we’ve long since ceased playing…mismatched dishes that are occasionally called upon for service…and the odd shower curtain (just cuz’). The room feels like what might feature in a 60-second out-take reel on our family life since moving overseas 14 years ago.

In short, this room is a mess. And yet, when I need to get away from other people (err…that would be my family), that’s where I go. I meditate there.I do online aerobics classes there. Sometimes, I even deliver webinars there (as long as I can use the Microsoft Teams background images and look as though I live in a sleek, minimalist flat in Berlin).

The strangest thing about this room is that before Lockdown, I never spent any time there. It was literally just a dumping ground for all the crap we really should take time to sort through and toss out, but can’t be bothered. (I showed a photo of said space to a zealous decluttering friend, who confessed that she wanted to “dive right through the phone and ‘go medieval’ on it.”) But now, clutter and all, it’s become mine.

How about you? Where do you go, literally or metaphorically, to unwind? And has that changed during Lockdown?

Eln Sila lumenn omentielvo. That’s Middle Earth-speak for “a star shines upon the hour of our meeting…” It feels like an apt send-off for this moment in time.

Image: Parcheesi by ChristinaEatsBrains via Flickr

Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Watch Normal People

first love

first loveOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

It’s rarely the case that I prefer a film adaptation to the actual book.  But when I recently watched the BBC/Hulu mini-series, Normal People, I found myself revising that opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. I really liked Sally Rooney’s book on which the series is based. It’s about two Irish teenagers, Connell and Marianne, who meet in High School and carry on an on-again, off-again romance throughout university. Rooney’s a young, super-talented author who is only heading upwards. But I don’t remember loving the book.

I did love the mini-series. I’m not alone. Since first airing on the BBC iplayer, the series has shattered BBC 3’s record for downloads, more than doubling its previous record (which was for the not-too-shabby Killing Eve).

I *do* recommend that you read the book first. It’s actually fairly different in tone to the series. (New York Times book critic Dwight Garner aptly likened the book’s feel to Rachel Cusk’s sparse style, whereas the TV show has a dreamier quality). But as soon as you’ve finished reading, I suggest that you drop everything else you’re doing and get thee to this TV series.

Here’s why:

a.  First love.  I can’t remember the last time I saw something that so perfectly captured the feel of first love. The tentativeness. The desire. The shifting power imbalances. The uncertainty. The delight. We never really recover from the scars of falling in love the first time, or from its exploratory feel. The first few episodes of this show will bring you straight back to that moment in your life and cause you to re-live it all over again.

b.  Melancholy.  When I was growing up, we had a pillow on our sofa with a quote from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It read “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through occasional periods of joy.” This series is so terribly Irish. Even the happier moments are laced with an undercurrent of melancholy. And some of the plot is downright dark. I think the only time the sun shines throughout the entire 12 episodes is during a brief scene in Italy one summer.  That worked for me; I like that feel-bad feeling. It’s more realistic.

c.  Sex.  Much has been of the explicit nature of this series. And there is a lot of sex. But it is beautifully rendered and an integral part of what draws the two central characters – both misfits, in their own ways – towards one another. One critic wrote that “the series is very conscious of sex as an expression of character, so it never felt like sex for sex’ sake.” That’s exactly right. The sex scenes don’t feel exploitative. You almost feel protective of the space, because you know that it’s one of the few places these two lonely young people get to be 100% themselves.

d.  Family.  A friend once observed that when you enter into a serious relationship, “You’re basically just waiting to find out what’s hanging on a hook in a refrigerator in the other person’s basement.” That may be a tad extreme, but my friend was onto something. Connell has a loving and devoted single mother. But you can’t help but wonder about the absent father and how far that goes towards explaining Connor’s underlying insecurity and depression. And although the darkness surrounding Marianne is never fully explained, a lot of it stems from a family marked by rage, fear and unspeakable sadness. While I couldn’t relate to Marianne’s desire to experience physical pain, I could relate to the ways in which family culture shapes our approach to everything we do. In some ways, the book is about how falling in love can help heal the wounds of childhood, and that really resonated for me.

e.  Acting.  The two young lovers are played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. And they are absolutely fantastic. I recently learned that a chain Connell wears around his neck in the show has its own Instagram account, replete with its own “Hashflag” on (Google it!) on Twitter. Personally, I think Marianne’s ring deserves equal love, but that hasn’t gotten much play so far.

Did you ever find yourself enjoying a film adaptation more than the book? Share in the comments.

Image: First love via torange.biz

Tips for Adulthood: Five Insights from Brene Brown

vulnerability

vulnerabilityOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

It took me a while to get around to reading Brené Brown’s best-seller, Daring Greatly. It wasn’t because I doubted the book’s key claim (captured in its subtitle): “How the courage to be vulnerable can transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.” I’ve drawn on Brown’s work in storytelling workshops I run with Executive MBAs. Vulnerability is vital to engaging and inspiring others.

I just didn’t think I had all that much more to learn on this score.

I was wrong.

So when a friend gave me Daring Greatly as a Christmas present, I thought why not? Everyone else seems to have devoured this woman’s oeuvre. Why not me?

I’m so glad that I did. Here are five new ideas I picked up from this book:

a. Shame. One of Brown’s core concepts is shame:  we all carry it around, we avoid it like hell, and the only way to address shame in our lives is to speak about it. True dat’. I carry a lot of shame around, and often for things I have no control over. I’ve done enough therapy over the years to be able to identify that shame and know where it comes from. But I don’t talk about it all that much. Reading Brown’s book inspired me to anchor my next writing project around the place of shame in my own life, and to explore how it has shaped who I am.

b. Feedback. For Brown, vulnerability lies at the heart of how you give feedback, whether as a boss, teacher, mentor or friend. In my previous job, I quickly discovered that when offering constructive criticism to someone you manage, it really helps if you can identify with their professional challenges. It’s far more effective to say “I understand how frustrating it is when other people don’t share your deadlines” than to say, “You need to stop pressuring people to complete projects before the deadline.” Brown also advises that you sit on the same side of the table when delivering that feedback. Literally. The implicit message when you sit next to someone is that you’re not there to critique them, so much as to jointly improve the situation. In my line of work, I think of this is the difference between editing someone’s work and coaching them. Even in the current age of social distancing, it’s a useful metaphor to bear in mind.

c. Teaching. Brown –  a Professor of Social Work – writes “I realised that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable.” I loved this. I think one of my greatest anxieties during my early career as an academic was the erroneous belief that I needed to know all the answers. But Brown’s approach to teaching is liberating. In my work as a communications consultant, I’ve learned that it’s so much more fun for me – and worthwhile for the participants – when I approach my workshops as a process of knowledge transformation, rather than knowledge transmission. Crucial to that shift is embracing the idea that the best part of life are the suprises. You learn so much more from them, than from all your careful planning.

d. Parenting.  Brown poses the simple – but potentially lethal – question: “Are you the adult you want your child to grow up  to be?” Ouch. In my own case, the answer to that question is a mixed bag. In a lot of ways, I think I’ve modelled a strong set of values and behaviours in the way I’ve raised my kids. In other ways, I’m a terrible role model. My son, who’s just completed his freshman year of college under lockdown at home, barely came out of his room for six weeks because he was studying so hard. We were proud of him, but also a bit concerned.  I kept telling him to take a break and relax. But I often said this to him after working straight through a three-day weekend or having risen at 5 am to cram in an extra hour of work myself. Who was I kidding? As Brown says, what you do as a parent is much more important than what you say. So if you want your kids to change their behaviour, you first have to own up to your own weaknesses.

e. Family Culture.  Brown also introduces the concept of “family culture.” It’s the idea that every family, just like every organization, has a recognizable corporate culture. A divorced friend of mine has been dating a man for the past several years. They both have kids and they bring their respective families together for meals a couple of times a week. But she’s struggling with the relationship. At the end of the day, she’s concerned that she and her boyfriend don’t share the same “culture”:  the same values, traditions, and mores. And she wonders if, deep down, this means they aren’t meant to be together. Brown’s notion of “family culture” instantly resonated. It helped me to understand the myriad times I’ve felt like the odd (wo)man out when spending time with someone else’s family. I now see that I simply didn’t “get” their culture.

All of these concepts are intuitive, but I found it really helpful to name them. What place does vulnerability play in your life?

 

Image: Fear, Emotion, Anxiety, Vulnerability by John Hain via Pixabay

Three Steps to Becoming Your Future Self

future self

future selfAs the reality of an extended quarantine sets in across many corners of the world, we’re all discovering new ways to spend the extra time on our hands. Some of us have begun virtual volunteering. Others, like my neighbor, are tackling a spate of long-overdue DIY projects. For many, it’s a great time to catch up on books, TV shows and podcasts.

I believe it’s also a great time to check in your long-term, big picture goals. There’s nothing quite like a life-threatening global pandemic to remind yourself that only go round’ once. Or, as the title character in one of my all-time favorite musicals, The Music Man, puts it: “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you’re left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.”

But how do we begin to chip away at our big-ticket dreams? Let’s take it in stages.

Step One: Write Your Own Obituary

One technique I’ve found particularly effective  is to write my own obituary. That might sound scary and perhaps even off-putting. But hear me out.

You don’t actually write your obituary. You 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.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll discover at least two versions of yourself lying in wait. The first is a perfectly acceptable continuation of your current trajectory. Still married…or finally divorced. Living in the same house…or with a remodelled kitchen. Running the company…or  living it up as a snowbird in a condo in Arizona. LINK

That’s all fine and dandy. But it’s the second obituary you really want to pay attention to. Because she’s the future self you’ve only dared to dream of. Which brings us to the step two.

Step Two: Envision Your Future Self

The second step is to go and visit that alternative, future self. I had occasion to do this recently with an old friend who’s also a life coach. He’d read a blog of mine where I talked about the importance of  “practicing my future self,” which for me meant spending more time writing every day. But he took it one step further. He invited me to do a short visualization exercise with him over Zoom in which I would actually meet her.

I thought, “Why not?”

Once we’d done some relaxation and time-travel together, my friend asked me to describe that future self:  what she looked like, where she lived, etc.

The interesting thing about this part of this exercise was that my future self didn’t look all that much like me. She was dressed in a long, flowing skirt and had her hair drawn up in a bun. “Elegant” was a phrase I used to describe her. (“Schlumpy” might be the word of choice on any given day right now.) Rather than living in a city, as I have since the age of 18, she lived in a village on the edge of the sea in rural Italy.

Most interesting of all, the walls of her house were painted yellow. I don’t own a single item of yellow clothing and I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a home with yellow walls. But the morning that I spoke with my friend, I’d seen a an image of Daffodils in my Twitter feed. The author described “yellow” as a happy color, which was news to me. Clearly, that post had resonated.

Above all, my future self radiated calm. She wasn’t galloping through life. She was trotting along at a productive but relaxed pace, with plenty of time each day to accomplish everything she wanted.

Part 3: Talk to Your Future Self

Towards the end of the exercise, your future self presents you with a gift. She also tells you something.

My gift was a fancy pen, very similar to the one my old boss gave me and which I used to write my morning pages. That pen disappeared when my bag was stolen a couple of years back. I replaced it, and then subsequently lost the new one. At that point, as I explained to my friend, I decided that I didn’t deserve a fancy pen. So I started using a regular one.

Needless to say, my friend picked up on the term “deserving.” Clearly, my future self was telling me that I was worthy of a fancy pen. Translated: I was worthy of believing in myself as a writer.

Not only that. When he asked me to recount my future self’s message, I told him that she’d given me permission to put down the manuscript I’ve been trying to publish for the past two years and pursue an entirely new writing project. It’s one I’ve been taking notes on for ages, but have feared writing because it’s so personal.

“It’s OK to move on,” she was telling me. “Write the book you’re afraid to write.”

Write the book you’re afraid to write.

Boy, did I need to hear that.

Try visiting your future self and see what she’s telling you to do with your life. You might just be amazed.

Image: Future Self by Eddi van W. via Flickr

Using a ‘Nanny Cam’ to Safeguard My Mother’s Health

CCTV cameras

CCTV camerasA couple of years ago, I attended a talk at The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing on “Speculative Design.” A colleague who worked in the area of digital health walked us through the sorts of products the pharmaceutical sector was developing to help older people manage their medical needs without having to visit a doctor.

As I sat through my colleague’s presentation, I kept envisioning my own mother – then 86 – trying to grapple with the remotely activated medicine dispenser he was describing. It lit up in different hues to cue the patient when it was time for new meds.

My own mother grew up during the Depression. Electricity remains a rather novel concept for her, let alone anything digitised. “No way,” I thought to myself at the time. “Not my mother.”

Little did I know then that two years later, the very sort of “aging in place” technology my colleague was describing would enable my family  to guarantee the safety of my mother in her home.

Read the rest of this blog over on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing…

Image: CCTV Cameras by Gary Pierce via Pixabay