Some Helpful (& free) Resources

I haven’t had a chance to write much lately, but I do want to share some great online resources I’ve found useful in recent months.

When the madness of the world, the onslaught of bad news, or just the cold and dark of winter get you down, consider these two “positive psychology” podcasts as an antidote:

The Uplift podcast features interviews with a range of scientists, authors, activists and teachers who offer insight and tips on positive living and thinking. Although they seem to have stopped creating new episodes, the ones from 2017-2018 are still online and worth checking out.

The One You Feed is another podcast I really like, and it’s still producing new material. Host Eric Zimmer interviews researchers, writers and thinkers who’ve found ways to feed the so-called “good wolf” inside of us — the one that’s characterized by kindness, bravery and love, as opposed to the “bad wolf” characterized by greed, hatred and fear. According to the old parable this podcast is based on, we all have both those wolves inside us constantly battling it out. The one that wins, the story goes, is the one you feed. The podcast is free; a monthly subscription fee gets you commercial-free episodes and other bonus content.

For those interested in meditation and/or Buddhist philosophy, Dharma Seed offers thousands of free talks online on a range of topics, most from meditation teachers connected to the secular Insight Meditation Society.  Many of these are not only about personal practices that can help bring calm and wisdom, but also about key principles that can help guide our engagement with the world. Some of my favorites are from teachers like Donald Rothberg and Zohar Lavie, , who focus on service to others and the world — what’s often called “engaged Buddhism.” But there are so many great ones, it’s worth scrolling through recent titles and just seeing what interests you.

Checking In

I direct a program for a human rights organization, and while there are plenty of good and worthwhile things about the work, there’s also a lot of bureaucracy.

I don’t just have to do my job, but I have to report what I’m doing and what I’ve got to show for it. There are the weekly check-ins, the quarterly board reports, the accounting for my budget, etc.

I understand that an organization needs to keep track of what its employees are doing and their results, but it takes time, effort, and thought. It’s a commitment.

The problem may not be so much that I’ve had to keep checking in to others, but that I haven’t made an equal commitment to checking in with myself. I’ve gotten so focused on meeting other peoples’ expectations that I’ve forgotten to regularly consider and pursue some of my interests, goals and intentions. I’ve let things that are important to me – both people and activities – fall away. Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, I’ve come to see many things I enjoy as what I’ll do when I retire and have more time.

Well, for better or worse, I’m not retiring anytime soon. But human rights advocacy  isn’t the only thing I care about, and it’s not something I can do all the time.

Recently, I was speaking to a group of interns seeking career advice on working in human rights and social justice. One of them asked how I keep doing this without getting so discouraged or depressed by it that I give up. She described how even over the course of her summer internship, she was finding it difficult to read all the e-mails that fill her office inbox daily with stories of human rights abuses around the world. And she wondered if she’d have the stamina to work for years being bombarded by all that bad news.

“How do you do it?” she asked.

“I don’t read those e-mails,” I answered.

I don’t have to. I’m not responsible for knowing every bad thing going on everywhere all the time. And if I did read them all, I’d be too depressed, outraged or traumatized to actually do my job. Even keeping up with the catalog of horrors I’m responsible for responding to can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I have to put limits on it. All advocates do.

That’s why check-ins with yourself are so important. Are you nurturing the different facets of your life – physical, intellectual, creative, emotional, and inter-personal? Are you engaging in activities and interacting with people that bring you joy?

Reflecting on the past year, I’ve let a lot of those things slip in my own life. I’m not doing many of the things I used to enjoy or spending enough time with people who are important to me.

So I need to recalibrate, to recommit to those areas of my life and make time for them, even if it means I spend a few hours less working each week. I know that if I do nurture other aspects of my life, the time I spend at work will also be more productive. (Tony Schwartz, founder  and CEO of The Energy Project, has written a lot about this.)

As summer comes to a close, this a good time to consider, where is your life out of balance? And what new commitments do you want to make?

Do It Anyway


I finally quit my job. I’d been thinking about it for years, and I always thought that when I finally did it, I’d be relishing the act:  telling my boss and coworkers with a big toothy smile, posting it on Facebook with lots of happy exclamation points.

Instead, when it came time to actually make a move, I felt sick to my stomach.  I don’t mean just butterflies, I mean it felt like big fat rodents were wrestling in there. Which made me wonder: Was I doing the right thing?  People often say “trust your gut,” but what if your gut feels like it’s gnawing at itself?

In my case, I had a good job offer, so it wasn’t like I was being rash and taking some huge financial risk. I was actually going to be earning more money.  But I still felt sick over the change.

Feeling anxious in itself is no reason not to do something.  Your gut isn’t always going to feel good, and any big move can provoke anxiety.  There’s nothing wrong with that. When I finally realized that, I actually just let myself feel sick. I even shared that fact with my boss when I told him I was leaving.  He was perfectly understanding.  It’s a difficult decision.

When I finally got all the awkward conversations with colleagues over with, I felt much better.  I now feel completely confident that I did the right thing, and I’m excited to be moving on to something new.  But it didn’t feel that way until after I’d done it.

Modern culture offers us so many ways to manage our anxiety that it’s easy to feel like there’s something wrong if despite all of that, we still feel anxious.  Do I just need to take another yoga class, or meditate, or go for a run? Do I need medication? Or am I just doing the wrong thing?

Anxiety is actually a perfectly normal response to uncertainty.  All those stress-management techniques aren’t actually designed to get rid of anxiety, but to help us manage it wisely.  Meditation or yoga won’t magically tell me what’s the best move to secure my unknown future, but it can help me slow down enough to become aware of what exactly I’m afraid of, what my options are, and what’s important for me to consider in order to make a wise decision. It still may feel really hard to act, because the outcome will always be, to some extent, uncertain.

Buddhists sometimes talk about the heart-mind as being the center of our being, rather than the mind alone. Ancient Egyptians also believed the heart was the source of the soul and of memory, emotions and personality.  The heart is something we still associate with our deepest emotions and values, like love, affection and friendship. To me, the heart-mind idea helps gets me out of my purely rational thinking, since my logical mind can sometimes rationalize all my options, and then I feel stuck. Connecting to what I deeply value seems to me an important way of guiding and grounding major decisions. All those stress management techniques are ways of slowing down our ping-ponging thoughts enough to allow us to make that connection.

That’s different than just “going with your gut,” because our stomach is a place where we tend to feel much of our anxiety. If you avoid anything that seems to disturb your gut, you could end up in a very tiny and constricted place.

Social science research conducted by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt backs up the idea that we probably ought to be taking more risks that we tend to, and that people who say “yes” to new opportunities rather than “no” tend to be happier. “As a basic rule of thumb, I believe that people are too cautious when it comes to making a change,” Levitt says. As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks put it in a recent New York Times column: “Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness.”

Of course, some people’s sin is rashness (witness our president threatening nuclear war on Twitter), and I’m certainly not advocating that. Weigh your options, consider the risks, and connect to what’s most important to you. You may still feel fear about your decision, and that’s okay. If your heart-mind is good with it, don’t let the churning in your gut keep you from taking the plunge.

A Key to Change

120526826_617x416 One of the hardest things about change can be acknowledging the need to make it. And that’s often because we blame ourselves for the predicament we’re in, and for not having changed already.  The pain of that self-judgment can make it nearly impossible to look honestly at our behavior and how we might do things differently.

That’s why I really appreciated Richard Friedman’s article, What Cookies and Meth Have in Common. It’s all about how the combination of our environment and our brains set the perfect stage for addiction — and all sorts of other self-destructive behaviors. That we eat too many cookies or drink too much wine or lash out in anger under stress isn’t our fault, in a sense.  These sorts of habits are what our brains naturally do:  seek comfort or “reward” of some sort when under stress.  And since our society sanctions and even encourages all sorts of destructive habits, whether by companies selling “comfort food” or cocktails, or by leaders modeling rage-filled behavior, it’s not surprising our brains give in to those.  Once we start down that path, though, it can be harder and harder to stop.

That’s because, as Friedman explains, our brains produce dopamine, which conveys a sense of pleasure in response to immediate “rewards” like sex, food, money and drugs. But the more we have those rewards, the more the brain needs them to experience even a normal, healthy dose of pleasure.  Ordinary pleasures that don’t include the addictive substance become harder to appreciate.  Our brains literally lose their pleasure receptors.

Although we don’t normally think of anger as addictive in this way, it can be, because it can feel good in the moment and give us a fleeting illusion of power and control.

Whatever the behavior, it can become automatic, not because we’re morally flawed, but because our brains are operating according to an ingrained pattern. The key to breaking that pattern is first to become aware of it, and then to consciously create new, healthier alternative patterns of behavior that serve us better.

None of this is particularly new or surprising.  But I’m repeatedly struck by how difficult people find it even to acknowledge their own unhealthy patterns of behavior.  And I think it’s because we blame ourselves for them, and that’s extremely painful. Continuing the behavior allows us to avoid that pain.

What Friedman’s and other research shows is that none of this is our “fault” in any moral sense. A combination of stressful conditions in our environment and easy access to an immediate unhealthy “reward” can lead us quickly down the road to addiction.

Although some people are more genetically predisposed to certain kinds of addictions than others, and at this point there’s little we can do to change that, we can change our environments in critical ways that encourage us to make healthier choices.

Obvious stress reducers include exercise, meditation and yoga, for example. And we can consciously limit our access to addictive and unhealthy substances.

But one often-overlooked way of reducing the stress that sustains our unwanted behaviors is simply to recognize that the behavior itself is not a moral flaw or defect. We are not to blame. It’s simply a brain pattern. By recognizing and acknowledging it, and then paying careful attention to how we react to our environment and doing our best to create a healthier one, even our brain patterns become something we can change.

Pay Attention


There are many things we cannot control. We can, however, exercise much more control over one thing: where we place our attention. Do we allow it to be seized by someone else’s agenda, or do we set our own? Are we distracted by every bit of bad news that flashes across our screens, or do we concentrate on doing and creating something good?

We all want to do something something important, to make a contribution. As the Dalai Lama and the head of the American Enterprise Institute put it recently, we all want to feel useful. It’s a basic human need. But one of the challenges of modern life is we’re constantly distracted from even considering what we can usefully do by the endless barrage of news, ads, and other shiny objects that seem to demand our attention.

Some of these things can seem very important. For example, lately I’ve been avidly following the new president-elect’s picks for his future cabinet — the people (mostly older white men) he’s chosen to control the various agencies that run the functions of our government. (I do believe it’s ours, even though we often feel helpless to have any influence over it.)  And I’ve spent a lot of time angry and upset.

How can he pick the head of a global oil company with huge business interests in Russia to be the next Secretary of State?  How can he pick a climate change denier to run the Environmental Protection Agency?  The list goes on and on.

In fact, I have no ability to control who Donald Trump picks to fill his cabinet or to advise him or even to sit on the Supreme Court (God forbid). I can participate in the political process once he makes those appointments, urging members of Congress to reject his choices, for example, if that seems possible or appropriate. But the vast amount of time I spend following the news sites reporting on his latest picks — or statements, or tweets, or lies — is really a waste of my time. I don’t really believe that knowing Trump’s latest moves within hours or even moments of his publicizing them will give me any more ability to respond effectively. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that the more I allow my mind to be consumed by this whirlwind of toxins, and my rage and fear to be stoked by it, the less effective I’m likely to be — at anything.

Rage and fear are what got us into this mess: it’s what led a surprisingly large number of people to vote for a candidate that encouraged and played upon those emotions. I don’t really want to follow in their footsteps.

For me to be effective — politically, and also personally, in all the other areas of my life that are important to me — I need to stay informed, but also to keep some distance. I need to refrain from following it all so closely that my entire focus becomes on things I don’t need to know, about which I have no control, and which only feed my anger and sense of despair. I need to maintain enough space between myself and “the news” — which is largely defined by others — so that I can develop and maintain my own sense of what’s important, what I want to know about, and what I can do and can contribute. How can I be useful, what do I have to offer, in the midst of all the anger and fear and craziness — and in the midst of all the well-meaning, hard-working, good people I see around me? How can I keep at least some of my focus on all the possibilities to do good that still exist, even as I feel sad and frustrated at the direction I see my federal government taking?

I think this is a central question for many of us right now. It’s a hard question, and one that’s easy to avoid by staying focused on the daily alarm bells. But it’s important to answer, so we don’t look back later and see we were squandering our opportunities by reacting impulsively instead of responding deliberately. And answering it begins, I believe, with being more conscious and careful about where we place our attention.

No Expectations

There’s a classic zen story that goes like this:

A young man approached a great master and asked to become his student. The student asked the master: “How long will it take me to become a master?”

“15 years,” replied the master.

“So long?” asked the young man, looking disappointed.

The master reconsidered. “Well, in your case, 20 years.”

The young man was alarmed. He persisted. “What if I devote every waking hour to learning this art?” he demanded.

“25 years,” replied the master.

“You’re talking nonsense,” the student said, angry now. “How can it be that if I work harder, it will take longer to achieve my goal?”

The master replied: “If you have one eye fixed on your destination, then you have only one eye left with which to find your way.”

I love this story, which I heard here from the Insight Meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer, because I think it encapsulates a dilemma many of us face. On the one hand, we want to achieve great things, and set high expectations for ourselves; on the other, all those expectations can become exhausting and ultimately, demoralizing.

There’s a whole success industrial complex of coaches and self-help gurus that tells us high expectations are important to increasing our chances of success. Studies show that children expected to do poorly at school generally do, for example, while those expected to excel are more likely to get A’s and please their teachers and parents. And some psychologists claim high expectations make us more likely to pursue challenges, which raises our sense of effectiveness and ultimately, our levels of happiness.

I understand that logic, but it also makes me uncomfortable. I can feel my heart start to race and my stomach tie into knots as I scramble to think of what more I should be trying to accomplish, what I haven’t done already, and whether I really can or even want to achieve these new heights I ought to be reaching for.

I think part of the problem is that many of these studies conflate self-confidence with high expectations. The two concepts are actually very different.

It’s one thing to feel confident that you can take on a challenge. It’s quite another to expect yourself to succeed at something particular before you’ve even tried it. That assumes an entire path to getting there, which may or may not turn out to be realistic, or the path you even want to take.

Expectations are a fixed destination determined at the beginning, on which we keep one eye at all times. This can distract us from the learning and flexibility we need to adapt to conditions, which will inevitably change along the way. Expectations are, by their very nature, set points identified early on based on external benchmarks held up as representations of “success.”

The word “expectation” itself derives from the Latin for “to look out for,” which suggests a looking outward for something that will happen to us, rather than inward for something we can do. In Italian, the verb “aspettare” can mean to expect, but it primarily means “to wait.” It’s a reminder that expectations are something we watch and wait for – not something we ourselves can make happen. So rather than motivating, expectations can be, by their very nature, dis-empowering. And if we keep striving to attain something that’s out of our control, we’re likely to end up feeling defeated.

Still, we need to have goals and a direction if we want to accomplish anything, including continuing to grow and learn and feel competent — all basic human needs. I prefer to think of these as aspirations rather than expectations. To aspire is to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving.” It’s more about setting a direction than about reaching a particular endpoint.

Interestingly, “aspire” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Setting a direction allows us to let go of worrying about the outcome, and leaves us room to breathe, and fully experience the journey, along the way. Aspirations acknowledge the unpredictability of the journey, and the larger context we’re operating within. They don’t make demands that things go a particular way, they simply point us onward in a particular direction we’ve chosen. The final destination, or achievement, which will depend on circumstances as they arise.

This way of setting goals also turns out to be more consistent with scientific evidence about the kinds of goals that lead to true happiness. According to Self-Determination Theory, we’re intrinsically motivated to pursue goals that satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence. That is, we’re more likely to persist with our goals if we’ve chosen them ourselves, they connect us to others, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate our competence or skill in some way.

Those who choose goals set by someone else and motivated by external rewards, on the other hand, such as wealth, image and status, are less likely to stick with them. They’re also likely to suffer a lot more striving to achieve them, since, as psychologists Kenneth Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found, motivation by external factors tends to distract people from their underlying psychological needs and encourage people to engage in pursuits they don’t inherently enjoy.

Achieving goals set by external expectations is also often self-defeating, because we’re less likely to be happy even if we achieve those goals. And repeatedly striving for something that we believe will make us happy but doesn’t can lead to what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” – the belief that there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. That can lead to depression.

Of course, knowing what we value, making our own choices and being comfortable with them isn’t easy, especially when we’re bombarded with other people’s ideas of success and expectations for us. And that inevitably influences – especially when we’re younger – the expectations we set for ourselves.

It influences our expectations of others, and of the world around us, too. Yet we can’t control what other people – or governments, or companies, or institutions – do. We can only do our part, as best we know how: with positive intentions, awareness of our immediate impact and careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences of our actions. If we expect things to happen according to our desires and our timetable, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up. I see this in clients – and have felt it myself – over and over again. Instead, we need to set our course based on our current values, and pause to fully appreciate any progress we make along the way.

To condense this all into a handy reminder, I’ve broken it down this way:

To aspire is to:

Accept where/how/who you are
Set self-concordant goals
Practice being present
Intend your best self
Re-calibrate your goals along the way
Enjoy the ride.

Rebecca Solnit captures beautifully the spirit of this idea in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

What Would You Do If Nobody Knew?

UnknownWhen thinking about what to do with our lives, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the idea of doing something, rather than how we’d enjoy the experience of doing the thing itself. I loved the idea of being a public interest litigator when I got out of law school, for example, but it turned out I really didn’t enjoy the process of writing briefs arguing over endless procedural details and reviewing thousands of pages of documents to build my case. I was bored.

The esteemed management professor and consultant Warren Bennis was once asked how he liked being a university president after he’d left teaching at MIT to run the University of Cincinnati for seven years. He was stumped. He couldn’t say. Later, after some reflection, writes psychologist Tal Ben Shahar in his book, Choose the Life You Want, Bennis acknowledged that he liked the idea of being a university president, but not actually the job of doing it. At the end of that academic year, he quit and returned to teaching and writing.

In thinking about what sort of work we want to do, it’s easy to get caught up in how it sounds, what we’d tell people at cocktail parties, how our profiles might look on LinkedIn. Of course, at some level we know that doesn’t really matter, but it’s still easy, when we’re feeling insecure, to get hooked by it.

As Paul Graham writes in “How to Do What You Love,” that’s a big mistake:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. . .

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. . .

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself. . .

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

The philosopher Alain de Botton similarly cautions that rather than get caught up in ideas of “success” that we’ve sucked up from other people: “We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Of course, this is easier said than done.  It can be difficult at times to separate out what you think you want from what others have told you that you should want. To separate out our often subconscious worries about what our parents would say or what our ex-boyfriend might think of us, I think the following exercise, proposed by Tal Ben Shahar, can be very useful.

Consider:  What would you do if you had complete anonymity? In other words, if no one else would know your actions and their consequences, what would you choose to do? It may be hard to imagine, since we live in a world where it’s so easy to be constantly publicizing our actions, and there’s so much pressure to do that. But what if you were somehow invisible to the world, there were no Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, no parties to boast at or family visits or reunions where you had to account for yourself?  What if only you knew how you were spending your time? Now what would you do?

Give yourself time to sit with that and see where it takes you. If you’re like one of the many people struggling with this question, it could help clear the messy mental landscape a bit. Kind of like pulling weeds.