Time Out

imagesI’ve written almost nothing on this blog since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Partly I think it’s because I’ve been so outwardly focused – fixated on the daily, minute-by-minute news of the disturbing, twisted, often absurd machinations of this new administration that I haven’t taken the time to stop and think much. When I have, usually because all my anger and frustration has exhausted me, what surfaces is primarily a sense of defeat, resignation, and depression.

The other reason I’m not writing is because I’ve been seeing the world around me as rapidly deteriorating, so everything else seems trivial. I just haven’t been able to muster the energy to think of something positive or hopeful or encouraging to write about. And nobody needs more bad news to read. There’s plenty of that available already.

Of course, when I do stop to think about it, I’m not actually seeing the world deteriorate.  I’m reading, watching and hearing about it. It’s the focus of the news, of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, of ordinary conversation with friends, neighbors and colleagues.

What I’m actually seeing on a day-to-day basis hasn’t changed that much — except maybe the buds bursting up in February or the snowstorms in mid-March, which were definitely disturbing.  Still, most of what I’m seeing is exactly the same as what I saw when Barack Obama was president:  the same buildings and trees outside my window, the same people and dogs on the street, save for a new baby or puppy that’s recently arrived. My physical and visual world, my own life circumstances, haven’t really changed much.

Of course, lots of other peoples lives have changed, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants or Muslim, and I recognize that I’ve been shielded from the immediate effects of Trump’s policy changes by my relative social privilege.

Still, it’s amazing how much our consciousness and sense of the world and of ourselves in it can change based on what we’re reading, watching or listening to: the material our minds consume.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can access news from all over the world in such an up-to-the-minute way and know what our government, for example, is doing. On the other hand, having that option can really take us away from ourselves, what we want and care about, and from doing the things and living our lives in ways consistent with that.

In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.”

As the Buddha taught, what we frequently dwell upon determines the shape of our mind.

Many of us can’t just turn off the news, of course, and I don’t think we should.  We need to know what’s happening in our political system, and the real consequences it has for millions of people, and for the entire planet, to even begin to try to change it. But taking time to reconnect with ourselves is also key to staying in touch with what’s important to us and to recognizing our own inner strength and resources, despite the mayhem in the political world.  It’s also key to refueling — we need to re-connect with a sense of peace, with joy, with beauty, in order to replenish the energy it takes to continue fighting against these larger forces that threaten to overtake our better natures.

In Harper’s this month, Walter Kirn writes of driving from Western Montana to Las Vegas, without looking at or listening to the news the entire time. He finds it eye-opening, revitalizing, and oddly political: “In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”

I learned recently of the death of an acquaintance, someone I knew slightly but not well, and it struck me that even in our occasional encounters, he had touched me deeply.  I remember him as open, kind, gentle and wise — all qualities I admire, and would like to have more of.

We don’t tend to think about it, but we influence other people all the time, through even our most ordinary interactions. Taking time away from the public drama to reconnect with ourselves seems key to understanding that, and to reminding us that we can choose how we relate to the world. And that’s really the only way we can even attempt to leave our best impression on it.

On “The Habits of Highly Cynical People”

1342548285858004Rebecca Solnit has a powerful essay in the May issue of Harper’s that gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism” — a pervasive cultural tendency to predict the worst, as if somehow that will protect us or make us seem smarter.

“We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past,” writes Solnit, and “use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures.” The problem with this mindset isn’t just that it’s not accurate, but that it “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.”

I’ve noticed this attitude pervade so many conversations these days, as people assume political movements or other signs of collective interest and action will ultimately go nowhere, so that even if they believe in the goal, they feel no need to actually participate. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote. “They’re all the same, what’s the difference?” is a common refrain about political candidates. As if Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton were actually interchangeable.

This “naive cynicism,” Solnit notes, is “first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” But refusing to look at the details of one policy or another, or to acknowledge nuances in different positions or values, is really just refusing to engage with reality. Not because the details and differences don’t matter, but rather, because they’re complicated. And to acknowledge those complications and uncertainties makes people feel uncomfortable.

“Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” writes Solnit. “But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.”

I agree with Solnit’s message wholeheartedly, but I’m troubled by her tone. Solnit’s essay suggests a certain contempt for these “naive cynics” who declare activists’ efforts a failure long before their outcome is clear, or assume victory must be immediately visible to be worth acknowledging. But while their view may be simplistic, it’s also understandable.

I have a certain sympathy with cynicism, not of the kind Solnit’s talking about, but the historical kind, the cynicism that’s skeptical of powerful institutions and entrenched traditions, not of individuals’ ability to act virtuously and to effect change. To me, that’s “mindful cynicism.” But I can see how, particularly if you’ve tried participating in collective actions that don’t yield the outcome you’re after, one can unwittingly slide into a more profound cynicism about the possibility of change at all.

It’s a form of hopelessness, really, and it’s not just self-aggrandizement, but also fear that underlies that mindset. It’s a fear of hoping for something better that may not change within the foreseeable future; it’s the fear of looking foolish for trying to change something that often looks like it’s not going to budge. It’s a very natural inclination to look for solid ground to stand on, in a world that’s ever-changing, never standing still. It feels safer to predict the worst for the world, and to focus instead on self-improvement, or at least on making our own lives more comfortable. That may seem, at least, like something over which we’d have more control.

That kind of mindset is ultimately a recipe for misery. Our self-improvement is never good enough, and neither are our material comforts. Philosophers and then psychologists have long understood that human beings need to believe in and strive for something more meaningful — something that transcends ourselves. Naive cynicism – or hopelessness, which might be a more accurate word – discards the possibility of all that. It is profoundly depressing.

At the same time, to proclaim our dominant culture naively cynical, as Solnit does, is to buy into a similar mindset that assumes a static entity. Yes, we’re surrounded by forces that encourage a cynical mindset: simplistic and extremist punditry that boosts individuals’ careers, the pronouncement of disasters and exaggeration of fears that boosts audiences and ultimately ad revenue. But to some extent, even those institutions are on the decline: the proliferation of news sources saps the influence of television stations like CNN or Fox News that peddle cynical sensationalism; and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign suggests a groundswell of support for renewed engagement in civic life, especially by a new generation of voters.

I agree with Solnit that “what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” That applies to the phenomenon of naive cynicism as well. It means not writing off those who feel hopeless, but engaging with them. Which requires first understanding their fear and discomfort, and then, rather than dismissing it, helping them see that a mindlessly defensive response does not serve them — or anyone else.

Some Simple Career Advice

images-4I sometimes hear from recent college graduates struggling to start their careers. They want to know how they can get into human rights work, or journalism, or some combination of the two, and they think that because I’ve done both I’ll have the answer.

I don’t, of course. Career paths are rarely linear, and both public interest law and journalism have changed so much over the years that my own circuitous career path hardly seems relevant. Inevitably, I’m afraid, I end up dampening their enthusiasm with my cynicism about most jobs these days, particularly in law or journalism. Not that some aren’t great, but many people in their 20s have a lot of illusions about what they imagine to be their ideal careers, based on very little actual knowledge. The sooner they rid themselves of those the better.

There are really only two pieces of advice I end up giving: the first is to let yourself be drawn toward what you really enjoy. Try to shield yourself, at least somewhat, from other people’s expectations and your own insecurities, and think about what you really love to spend your time doing. Then go learn about what kind of work would allow you to do mostly that.

Once you’ve figured that out, try things out. You may really care about the environment, for example, but find that working at an environmental agency or advocacy organization is a total bore. You might really care about justice, but find that working at a law firm or even the social justice organization you admire most just keeps you stuck in front of a computer all day and feeling isolated. Don’t decide how you want to spend your life based on an abstract topic or issue: find out what the work entails doing all day. If that doesn’t inspire you, don’t do it.

These sounds like really obvious points. But it’s taken me many years to learn this myself; and I have to keep re-learning it.

I went to law school wanting to fight poverty and inequality; I ended up, seduced by the prestige of judicial clerkships and “impact litigation,” in a public interest job that sounded great on paper, but which I couldn’t stand.

I quit and went to journalism school. After that I did some interesting work that I’m proud of, and I took a lot of risks. But after ten years, the field had changed far more quickly than I’d expected and I was no longer excited about pitching stories to elite newspaper or magazine editors so they could pay me a pittance to do a lot of really hard work. My interests, my admiration for the field, and my tolerance for that level of insecurity, had all changed.

I’ve tried to combine the two fields of journalism and public interest law in my human rights work, and I’ve had some success doing that. But all work has its limitations, and I am still learning to appreciate what really interests me and the types of work I need to do to feel fulfilled. Coaching has been an important part of that.

All of which comes down to this really obvious but frequently-ignored advice: find a way to do the things you most enjoy and care about.

The psychologist Kenneth Sheldon and his co-authors Richard Ryan, Edward Deci and Tim Kasser flesh that out a bit, based on a wealth of psychological studies, including their own, about what makes people happy. They conclude:

“People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of: a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity; and b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue.”

My own 20 + years in the workforce certainly bears that out.

Mindful Management: A No-Brainer  

UnknownThere are all sorts of books out there telling people how to be better managers – do these 5 things (e.g., “expect excellence”), etc. But having both been a manager and been managed for many years in lots of different organizations, I think it really boils down to one key thing: being mindful.

In other words, pay attention – to the people and situations around you, and to your own words and actions. Are they serving you and others well? Not surprisingly, serving others reverberates; studies show that employees who are happy are also more productive.

So, for example, as a manager, when someone has done a good job or gone out of their way to help you, do you take the time to notice, acknowledge, and thank them? Do you take the time to review their work and offer feedback? Do you show interest in what they care about?

Or, when you’re feeling stressed or irritable, do you snap at the people who work for you, or suggest the problem you’re having is their fault? The instinct to blame is common, and perhaps natural, given that it’s painful to acknowledge our responsibility for a bad situation and difficult to accept that sometimes things just go awry. But if the blame is unwarranted, as it often is, it generates the kind of resentment that’s toxic to any workplace. I’ve seen this in clients, where managers can’t understand why they have such high employee turnover, yet don’t stop to think about what their own behavior is contributing. The result is often chronic problems caused by inexperienced and poorly trained employees, because no one sticks around long enough either to do the job or to show new people the ropes. Those who do stick around are often so scared that they’re competing with new employees rather than helping to train them.

Of course, treating people mindfully sounds like a no-brainer.  And studies have even shown that “the more mindful the leader, the lower the employee’s emotional exhaustion,” leading to “better overall job performance ratings of the employee,” according to the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. But I’m repeatedly amazed at how often such a simple practice is just not done. Although the concept of mindfulness has become popular in recent years, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the rungs of upper management in many organizations. And to be fair, it’s not easy; it’s not what most of us were trained to do.  So, many managers, facing their own pressures, often disregard their impact on other people, or don’t even bother to consider that the people who work for them are other people. And it brings the whole organization down.

In a recent radio interview, the makers of the new documentary The Hand That Feeds, which follows an organizing effort by workers at an Upper East Side Manhattan store of the Hot and Crusty restaurant chain, said the real reason the workers formed a union and went on strike was largely because managers never said “please” and “thank you.” It wasn’t just the poor wages and conditions; it was that they felt disrespected.

While we don’t all run offices or restaurants or other organizations, to some degree, we’re all managers, at least of our own lives, and can be more mindful of our impact on others. Each day involves interaction with other people — from the person next to you on the train to the worker behind the take-out counter where you get your lunch to the receptionist who minds the company’s front desk. To that extent, we all have an opportunity to be more mindful – and to appreciate its impact.

It reminds me of a line in a poem by Jack Kerouac I came across the other day on the site Brainpickings: “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you are already in heaven now.”

If Dogs Run Free . . .

7aceb4bd3e15499190a8b4762050e1b8If there isn’t a name for it, there should be:  that feeling when you come back from vacation in a beautiful place and wonder why you don’t just live there.

I know, this is a privileged person’s problem. Still, travel often leads people to question their daily lives and purpose, and I was having a severe case of that as I packed to return to Brooklyn after 5 days in the Dominican Republic in early March.

Of course, I was very lucky to be able to go there at all, and to stumble upon the terrific Hotel Todo Blanco:  a picture-perfect colonial style building perched on a hill above the ocean.

Waking up there, I felt like a different person:  fully relaxed, in both body and mind. In New York, I face winter mornings in the fog of a sinus headache and have to drag myself to the gym just to attain a modicum of sanity. In the D.R., I felt great from the moment I woke up and felt the cool ocean breeze wafting through our open patio door.  Though I took long walks on the beach, swam in the ocean and hiked up to a terrific restaurant, El Cabito, perched on the edge of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the sunset, I never once “worked out” – there was nothing like work involved.

It helped, of course, that I never turned on my cell phone or checked my e-mail. Nor did I read or hear any news for the 5 days I was there. (Turns out it doesn’t really change that much when you’re gone.) So why, I wondered, as I reluctantly packed my suitcase, do I choose to live in the harsh climate and dirty, noisy, costly city of New York, and keep a job that requires me to follow the news obsessively? Is this really a good idea?

It’s not just the people in the D.R. who are relaxed: dogs roam freely, on the beaches, in town, even in restaurants. No leashes (or neutering) required. And I never saw even one act aggressively.  The D.R. seemed like heaven for all of us; I envied the European expats that live in the fishing village-turned-tourist town we stayed in. I even fantasized about buying the Hotel Todo Blanco and offering beach yoga and life coaching to my guests.

Then we got in the taxi to the airport.

As usual, upon arrival in New York, we had to go through customs. I always kind of like this ritual, because the customs officials always offer a warm “welcome home.” This time, though, the man asked me what I do for a living. I don’t know why that’s relevant – maybe it’s how they guess whether you’re sneaking things into the country. In any event, I said I’m a lawyer for a human rights organization. The customs official stamped my documents, looked me in the eye and responded: “Keep making a difference.”

I was surprised and a little flustered. “Thank you!” I said with a smile. As I headed for the taxi stand, though, I wondered: “making a difference? Do I really make any difference?” I’m not sure. In fact, I thought, if I owned a hotel in the D.R. and provided decent jobs and a living wage to people there, wouldn’t that be making more of a difference? Maybe I would even do volunteer work there, teaching English to children or something. Wouldn’t that help people more than I do now?

I don’t really know the answer to those questions. But what I do know, and I felt as I headed to my office the next morning, is that, like many of us who put up with the discomforts and stresses of big cities, I have an opportunity now to do work that’s useful. Now that I’m back home, it’s where I need to focus. Advocating for better human rights policies may not provide anyone a living, but as I’ve written before, I do think advocates, working together, ultimately do an important service – even if it’s only to keep things from getting worse.

Christof Heyns, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions (a cheery title), made a similar point recently at a lecture at Columbia University law school that really struck me. He said that while the world seems pretty brutal today, it’s a whole lot better than before the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of international human rights law. In World Wars I and II, for example, the brutality of organized governments and their armies was unimaginable: some 60 million people were killed in the Second World War alone. Today, bombing the civilian centers of major cities would be unthinkable. Yes, there are brutal dictators who sometimes slaughter their own people, but it’s not on the same scale. Major world powers do not commit the level of atrocities seen in the past. New weapons have actually improved governments’ abilities to fight wars while killing fewer people. And the establishment of human rights laws and norms has made it impossible for those trends to reverse, even if we know that a superpower like the United States will never be held accountable for its own wrongdoings. The development of the law, pushed along slowly by its advocates, is gradual and often painfully slow, Heyns acknowledged, but it does shift norms and public understandings that eventually lead to lasting change.

Of course, today’s challenges are still huge. As Rebecca Solnit recently wrote in a powerful essay in Harper’s, nation-states are less vicious today in attacks the built environment, but we’re steadily destroying what’s left of the natural one. That’s perhaps the fight where tangible gains seem most elusive: defending the planet’s climate and air and water requires long-term commitment to concerted and coordinated action despite huge political hurdles; it’s undoubtedly incredibly frustrating to everyone involved.

So what does this have to do with why we don’t all just move to the D.R.? Maybe just that part of how many of us feel in any place will be directly connected to what we think we can contribute there.  Maybe one day I’ll find a way to make what feels like a real contribution while living along a tropical beach lined with palm trees and cooled by ocean breezes. But for now, I live in Brooklyn, which has a lot of very different things to offer. And I think there’s plenty for me to at least try to contribute right here.

How To Be Of Service

imagesI belong to a local food co-op, and for the privilege of buying really good food at reasonable prices, all members have to work there once a month. Although I usually whine about it before I actually head over there to do my evening shift, once I’m working, I often find it feels like the most useful thing I’ve done all day. Given that I have a “serious” day job as a lawyer for a human rights organization, that might sound odd. But honestly, stocking fresh apples or bunches of kale can feel a lot more real and productive than responding to e-mails, drafting press statements or monitoring Congressional or judicial hearings.

“As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell,” was Senator Tom Cotton’s memorable remark at the last Congressional hearing I watched, which focused on the fate of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, half of whom are already cleared for release. Sadly, no amount of outrage I or anyone else expressed was going to change that he and many people in this country feel that way.

Maybe it’s the cold (or the new Republican Congress) that’s gotten me feeling defeatist about my advocacy work lately – it’s dipped below zero lately with the windchill factor here in Brooklyn – but I’ve been wondering a lot about what it means to be useful. I remember a yoga teacher once telling a class I was in that her purpose in life was “to be of service.” That’s stuck with me.

Of course, many people share that goal, and there’s lots of social science supporting the idea that helping others supports our own happiness. But that still leaves the huge challenge of figuring out how each of us can best do that. Where does our unique combination of talents, skills, interests and circumstances lead? Where and how can each of us be most useful?

The answers are different for everyone, and may keep changing over the course of our lives, but here are five things to consider as guidelines.

  1. Helping shouldn’t make you miserable.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to go down a path you thought would provide a real service that you then find you can’t stand. When I started out as a lawyer, for example, I was thrilled to get a job with a child welfare advocacy organization. We brought huge class-action cases representing hundreds of thousands of kids at risk of abuse and neglect around the country. What could be more noble? In reality, I spent most of my time in an office sifting through documents and regurgitating the same legal arguments over and over. I was miserable. It took me time, though, to realize that it’s okay to leave a “good” job that does “good” work if it makes you feel lousy.

  1. Your calling doesn’t land you in the poorhouse.

Some people can afford to do low-paying work that provides a service; others can’t. Taking a job that doesn’t pay you enough to support yourself and your family, if you need to do that, isn’t going to help anyone in the long run. Do work that not only provides a service to others but will sustain you as well.

  1. Your work allows you to take care of yourself.

In addition to providing others a service and you an income, your work needs to allow you the time and flexibility to take care of yourself. I see some people work so hard that between their job and their family responsibilities they end up neglecting their own physical and mental health. When you neglect yourself, you end up neglecting those around you. You can’t offer the best of yourself if you haven’t nurtured yourself in the process. In the long run, this is critical to providing a true service to anyone.

  1. You encounter a sense of flow, effortlessness or timelessness in your work.

The state of “flow” is achieved when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The point is that you’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you’ve stopped thinking about yourself, and stopped worrying about the past or the future. You’re just in the moment, doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like “work” anymore, it’s just being. These are precious moments. I get them sometimes when I’m writing, or really connecting with a coaching client. Providing a service to others should provide you at least some moments when you’re totally engaged in that way – whether with another person, an action or a creation. Without that, it will be hard to sustain your commitment.

  1. You feel good about yourself at the end of the day.

This is key. A job may sound important when you describe it at a cocktail party, but when you look back at what you’ve done after a day’s work, how do you feel? Do you feel like you accomplished something, helped someone, participated in an important effort, or otherwise added something to the world around you? Or do you feel like you’ve just wasted your time? Pay attention to that. Providing a real service should feel like you’re providing a service. It may not (and probably won’t be) fun or fulfilling every minute, but after you’ve spent a chunk of time on it, you should feel like you’ve done and contributed something of value. If you don’t, think about that – and consider when you do.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, just a few things to pay attention to. And it doesn’t mean you have to immediately quit your job if your work doesn’t meet these standards. But it does suggest you may want to ask yourself what’s really important to you, and how does your life now support those things? How can it better support them?

And if you have any other guidelines you’d like to add to this list, please do! That’s what comments are for.