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.

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.

The Power of Positive Psychology

istock_000005349409xsmall-300x299I’m taking a certification course in “positive psychology,” and I’ve realized lately that I feel a little sheepish telling people about it. There’s something about the idea of studying something so unabashedly “positive” that sounds a little silly, fake, Pollyannaish.

It also sounds very corporate, like the kind of thing they’d teach in business school so owners can convince employees that they’re really happy toiling away at meaningless jobs while they’re actually being exploited to make the owner huge profits.

Of course that’s not what “positive psychology” is really about, although it has become popular in the business world. It’s actually a growing branch of the field of psychology taught at such eminent universities as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.  Still, I’m realizing that I’ve so bought into the popular culture of cynicism that it feels like it takes an act of courage to admit I’m interested in what makes people happy. After all, given what’s going on in the world these days, (and especially what we see in the news), what right does anyone have to be happy?

As a therapeutic tool, the term “positive psychology” doesn’t inspire much confidence, either: it sounds like learning to sweep all the painful stuff under the rug and to just look at the bright side, which doesn’t seem like a very honest or effective strategy.

That’s not how the lead course instructor, psychologist and Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, describes it. In his talks and books – some of which I’ve read and think are very good and not at all simplistic – he describes positive psychology as a sort of antidote to the field of psychology’s traditional focus on the negative – the pathologies and illness that make people suffer. He wants to focus on what works: what makes people happy, successful, and fulfilled.

But isn’t that just looking at the other side of the same coin? I wondered initially. People who aren’t happy, successful or fulfilled tend to be depressed, anxious and neurotic, right? So what difference does it make if we ask them why they’re depressed and anxious, as opposed to what makes them happy?

From what I can tell so far, the difference appears to be the focus. Let’s say I’m depressed and anxious because I hate my job, for example. I can focus on why I hate my job – because my boss is an idiot, or the work seems meaningless, or the hours are too long – and those would all be legitimate reasons to be miserable and want to quit. After all, it’s normal and even healthy to want our work to be fulfilling and in balance with the rest of our lives.

But I think a positive psychologist would first ask a few key questions. What do I like about my job? When do I enjoy it, or find my work interesting or fulfilling? The idea wouldn’t be to ignore my negative feelings, but if I can find and focus on the positive ones, that may lead me to a broader understanding of what’s going on, and to a wider range of options. Once I’ve identified what I like, I can consider how I might be able to increase those parts of my work. In the process, I can consider how I might decrease the parts I don’t like. For example, if a toxic boss is the problem, maybe I can limit contact with her, do the things that I know will satisfy her and get her off my back, or explore whether it might be possible to report to someone else. Now I have more options than just quitting, which may or may not solve my problem, since I don’t know what my next boss or colleagues or workplace situation will be like.

One advantage of positive psychology seems to be that it puts us in a position of power rather than leaving us stuck, feeling helpless. (Interestingly, the man considered the founder of the modern “positive psychology” movement, former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, is the same psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness,” in which an animal or human being has learned she has no control over a bad or painful situation and therefore stops trying to change it.)

Positive psychology also reveals how much power we have to affect other people in a positive way. Rather than criticizing or focusing on what’s wrong with others, we can be the voice of encouragement, the one who finds the jewel in those around us and helps them polish it.

I was driving as I was thinking about this, returning home after a particularly grueling period of work, for which I was feeling generally unappreciated.  I turned on public radio. Terri Gross, host of the show “Fresh Air,” was interviewing country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent about her new album.

DeMent, who writes and sings soulful, plaintive songs in an oddly appealing high-pitched twang, was describing growing up as the youngest of 14 children in a religious Pentecostal Christian family. While music and singing were a big part of her upbringing, mostly connected to the church, school wasn’t, and she dropped out of high school by the 10th grade.

At 23, she decided to go back. DeMent had always loved writing stories, she said, and though she had little confidence in her writing ability, she enrolled in an English class at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. What she remembers about it was her teacher who, instead of commenting on the misspellings and bad grammar that littered her papers, would praise her imagination and creativity.

“She was so kind to me and so – just little, simple teacher notes, you know?” DeMent told Gross, her voice trembling as she recounted it. “But her red pen, you know, she’d say these really kind things and – you know, you have an imagination. You got the – and it encouraged me. She didn’t criticize what I didn’t know how to do.”

DeMent “sunk herself into that class,” she said, and then took another. She soon wrote her first song. From then on, she knew that was what she had to do.

From her telling of it, that one teacher, who saw and focused on the best in her, made all the difference. And that, from what I can tell, is the power of positive psychology.

Balancing the Terrible and the Beautiful

The_ScreamAnyone involved in social justice work of one sort or another, whether providing direct services or advocating for better laws and policies, will find themselves spending an awful lot of their consciousness wallowing in the world’s muck. It can be exhausting. It also sometimes leads to the obvious question: why am I doing this?

Of course, we get involved in social justice work not because it’s fun, exactly, but because it seems meaningful. Living a happy and fulfilling life is ultimately as much about finding meaning as it is about pleasure, as thinkers from Aristotle to “positive psychologists” like Martin Seligman and increasingly, even neuroscientists have recognized.

Still, throwing yourself into a cause to the detriment of other parts of your life doesn’t turn out to be so fulfilling. Early in my career, for example, first as a lawyer and then as a journalist, I tended to throw myself headlong into a new project, abandoning other interests and neglecting my own mental and physical health – and often, the people around me. Whatever it took to succeed, I thought, I would do. Each time, though, after a few years, the “success” wasn’t what I had hoped – the injustice I was fighting was still there, and my personal success didn’t feel as good as I’d expected. I ultimately felt frustrated, exhausted and defeated. Plus I wasn’t very pleasant to be around. Eventually I would quit and move on to something else.

The psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar writes about the perfectionist tendency many of us have that leads us to believe something is only worth doing if we do it perfectly or 100%. This necessarily means neglecting other things in our lives, as well as ourselves. That tends to be self-defeating. In part, that’s because we keep moving the goal post further away as we approach it, so we never feel we’ve really succeeded. At the same time, the things we’ve neglected are often important, and in fact, nurture the other goals. “To ignore one’s feelings and needs,” writes Shahar, “is a prescription for unhappiness and, ultimately, failure.” Instead of perfectionism, he recommends “optimalism” – doing the best you can balancing all the things that are important to you, but accepting reality (including your limitations) as it is – not insisting it’s what you think it should be.

Social justice advocacy represents a twist on the perfectionist problem, because at first, it feels virtuous to focus 100% on the work. But that means not only neglecting other things (and people) in your life, but also immersing yourself in events or other people’s lives that may be traumatic, not just for clients but for service providers and advocates as well. It can also lead to “compassion fatigue,” making us ultimately less effective.

So advocates face a dilemma: how much can we focus our work on awful things while still living a good life? And can we enjoy our lives and our own good fortune, without feeling guilty about it?

Ultimately, we all have to engage in a constant balancing act, juggling passionate advocacy with soothing self-care — and a keen awareness of our immediate interactions with the world around us. It also requires keeping in mind that happiness is not a finite resource: you don’t owe it to your clients or to any larger cause to be miserable.

Here are some guidelines for doing that:

First, you don’t have to spend ALL your waking hours immersed in awful and depressing subjects. Continue to pursue other, more uplifting interests (for me, it’s coaching and writing), which offer different perspectives on the world and remind you it isn’t all horrible.

Second, take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. For me, that means regular exercise, yoga, and meditation.

Third, be patient and careful about how you define “success.” I know, for example, that my efforts aren’t going to eliminate human rights abuses, no matter how hard I try. My role will be merely one small piece of a larger effort made by many dedicated people, that’s frustrating for all of them, but still worth doing. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to be among them. I can do my best at the work, but my sense of personal fulfillment can’t hinge on its outcome.

And finally, it’s just as important to treat the people and the world in my immediate surroundings with as much care and patience as I treat any cause. Because no matter how hard we work, our impact on them will be much more direct.

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.

Finding Joy at Work

imagesI joined a meditation group in my neighborhood recently, and the other night the teacher’s talk was about Joy.

Joy. It’s not something many of us tend to think about much. We focus on getting work done, on what’s annoying us, on the onslaught of problems we need to solve or that we’re hearing about in the world, but joy is something that many of us – maybe especially New Yorkers – tend to overlook.

When do you experience joy?

Of course, there’s joy to be experienced in everyday life: in the enthusiastic face-lickings I get from my dog when I arrive home, in the savoring of a good meal or a good conversation or the company of good friends. But one thing I realized listening to this talk, which came after a particularly intense day at the office, was that I rarely experience joy at work.

As I reflected on my work (I’m talking about my office job, not my coaching work), I realized that so much of it is spent focusing on awful things going on in the world that it’s hard to even think of joy in that context. I imagine that’s true for lots of people working as advocates, whose job it is to focus on some problem in the world and try to fix it. But that itself creates a problem.

Joy is essential. It’s what motivates us, and allows us to appreciate our lives and the world around us. Without joy, can we really bring our full selves to anything we do, and can we really do a good job? I don’t think so. But most importantly, without joy, work will leave us feeling pretty miserable.

How do you cultivate joy at work when your job involves things that are inherently a bummer? That may be some big social justice issue or a problem in your neighborhood or your company or with a product. Whatever it is, the potential for joy may not be apparent.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When I work with coaching clients, there may be parts that are difficult, but I find joy in the interaction itself, and in the feeling that I’m helping somebody, even if just by listening and helping them reflect on what’s on their mind and what might be getting in their way. When I work as a legal advocate, though, there isn’t that immediate connection with another person, or that satisfaction at the end of a session. Instead, it’s a long, endless slog toward improving a long-term situation that really sucks. You may never see the outcome, and anyway, the outcome probably won’t be what you’re hoping for. Where’s the joy in that?

Still, I see a lot of value in people advocating collectively for justice or other kinds of social and political change. It’s important work that in the long run, can make a difference. But can it be joyful?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your work meaningful, setting your own goals and acknowledging your successes. But I’m talking here about the daily experience of a job, which is a little different. As an advocate, you may know you’re part of an important effort to, say, stop global warming, but that may not make lobbying a Republican Congress led by climate change-deniers to pass laws reducing carbon emissions any more joyful.

So I’ve decided to embark on an experiment. I’m going to dedicate myself to bringing joy into my work every day. It may be in making a point to have one really good conversation with a colleague in the office, or in writing an advocacy piece that I really put my heart into. It could just involve going out of my way to acknowledge the great work done by one of my colleagues – a kind of “sympathetic joy” as Buddhists would call it . (“Sympathetic joy” is taking pleasure in other people’s happiness or success.) If none of those are possibilities, maybe it’s just taking time out of the day to quietly savor a good lunch or cup of coffee or listen to some really good music. Whatever it is, it has to be something that I actually stop and notice as joyful in some way, whether the process itself or the outcome.

Consider trying this with me. Because no matter what our work may be, if we can’t find one thing a day in it to truly enjoy in it, then in the long run, we’re not going to be doing anyone very much good.

Tweaked Out On Twitter

social-media-addiction

After a couple of days of Twitter frenzy last week, I came down from my high and felt a bit sick – not unlike the aftermath of a sugar binge or a hangover. What had I just done with my time? And now where was all the virtual “love” I had been feeling? If I hadn’t tweeted – and been re-tweeted – in the last 24 hours, I wondered, did I even exist anymore?

This all happened just as I was winding down my last week of work before taking time off for the holidays. At first, I panicked. What would I do? Who would I be if I stopped checking my office e-mail, stopped Tweeting, and just started living my own life?

There’s been a lot written about internet and social media addiction, but usually it’s about how people use it to communicate with (or show off to) friends or share trivial details about their lives. But social media is also a venue for expression of political views, a tool for social justice advocacy campaigns, and way of disseminating hard news and other information we think of as “important.” But even that kind of use can become obsessive and ultimately deflating. Twenty-four hours of tweeting the details of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on CIA torture last week, for example, didn’t leave me feeling like I’d accomplished a whole lot more than if I’d been posting cute pictures of my dog. Sure, I got a bunch of re-tweets while the torture story was hot in the news, but honestly, does that kind of 140-character engagement make any difference?

At the time, it seemed crucial – fueled by the possibility of retweets and “favorites” and ever more followers. But for what purpose? When I finally was too disgusted and exhausted by details of the torture report to continue my tweeting binge, all the attention I’d received – the internet “love” as they call it – stopped just as quickly. Not that I stopped obsessively checking, at least for a while. Because subconsciously there was this burning question: who am I – and what am I worth – if thousands of “followers” out there in the Twitterverse have no idea at this moment what I’m thinking?

Neuroscientists have tracked how the brain is affected by social media, and found that getting positive feedback – “likes” on Facebook, retweets or “favorites” on Twitter, for example, — appears to stimulate the same sort of reward centers we get from sex, food or receiving money. The more people use social media, the stronger that reaction. And therein lies the potential for addiction.

I got out of journalism five years ago in part for this very reason. I was writing for an online magazine that demanded not only in-depth articles but constant blogging and tweeting. The more clicks you could show for it, the better. The pace was so relentless, though, and the attention to the content so short-lived, that I felt like I was riding a roller-coaster. On a good day, I got lots of clicks and re-tweets and even got invited on the Rachel Maddow show — the highlight of my online journalism career. But on a bad day, no one seemed to care about the thing I was furiously reporting and writing about – and I undoubtedly thought was terribly important. I would end up frustrated, spent and demoralized. As with any roller-coaster, I came to realize, there was no final destination, just this endless ride of highs and lows, leading, it seemed, absolutely nowhere.

So I got out, determined to do something more meaningful. Although at times I’ve had the opportunity to do more sustained work on particular subjects of human rights advocacy, much of the work I do now feels eerily familiar: as advocates we basically repeat ourselves over and over, on social media, blogs and elsewhere, trying to spread our message as widely as possible, obsessing over the exact tone and wording of the message, and sometimes about who should best deliver it. But in this polarized political atmosphere where people’s opinions seem so entrenched, do we really change anyone’s mind? Does all that effort amount to anything?

I don’t mean to denigrate the advocates who do this work, many of whom I admire for their dedication to this Sisyphean task. And in the end, I believe it is important for all sorts of social justice advocates to be out there pushing their cause, even if immediate results are hard to see. There’s a strong argument to be made that over time, we see slow but real progress.

But my recent experience tweeting the torture report reminded me why it’s so important to also do things that involve more meaningful and sustained connections and relationships. It’s why I love coaching.

There’s a big difference in the kind of connections we make with people when we speak honestly, one-on-one, and truly listen. There’s a level of attention we can pay to one another when we really focus on doing that, that’s rare not only in social media, but in much of our daily lives. (How often are you talking to someone while they’re checking their e-mail, text or Twitter feed?) Coaching – or any real communication — is not about reaching the widest audience or winning the most accolades, but about really connecting with another human being. The value of that can’t be quantified.

Social scientists studying happiness have repeatedly shown that true personal connection is critical to our mental and physical health. Research shows people who have strong relationships with other people are happier, healthier and live longer.  These are the kinds of relationships in which people feel able to talk openly and be understood, give and receive support, share activities, experiences and positive emotions. And those are things that are found mostly in direct personal communication, not in an online public forum.

That doesn’t mean we should give up using social media. But we do need to be aware of when it becomes a substitute for real communication and connection – for spending time with, and talking to, actual living people.

I’m sure I’ll keep tweeting and writing about the things I want to change in the world (and post the occasional picture of my dog) with some small hope that I’m participating in a larger movement that will eventually do some good. I’m actually happy and proud to be a part of that larger effort. But I need to be careful to keep it in perspective, too. The roller coaster may be fun for a short ride, but what goes up will always come back down again. And always grasping for the next quick high is no way to live a meaningful life.

The Snark Defense

snark-warningSunday was graduation day for my coaching class. As I boarded the Q train to Manhattan, I was half dreading it. We’d all been asked to make a short presentation about what the program and our colleagues had meant to us. My immediate response was an eye-roll. I hate this kind of thing, I thought – the sappy language, the forced emotions. I managed to fulfill the obligation by finding a kind of clever, snarky poem I could read, and I did get a laugh. Job done.

But as I watched my classmates make their presentations, some of which involved heartfelt displays of acting, singing, dancing, personal poetry and videos, I realized once again that I’d taken the easy way out. And, I realized, I’d lost out in the process.

Hiding behind a wall of cynicism is not just something I do in coaching class. My response to frustrations at work, for example, has often been to withdraw, make snarky comments or otherwise join in a generally negative office atmosphere. While that’s protected me in some ways from taking disappointments personally, it’s also kept me from really engaging in a positive way with some of the really wonderful people who work there.

I don’t know if it’s because I was trained as a lawyer and a journalist, both professions where emotional distance and a critical eye are considered essential to doing a good job. (In the age of online journalism and social media, it’s even worse – the snarkiest posts get the most eyeballs.) Or maybe it’s the way I grew up – my parents were both doctors, another profession where emotional involvement is forbidden, and critical judgment prized.

Whatever the reason, the result is I’m not someone who displays deep emotions very easily. I always though that was helpful, at least professionally – no one wants to be caught crying in the office, for example. But increasingly, I’ve come to realize it’s also an impediment. Sure, I can come up with a snarky response on Twitter pretty quickly (though not nearly so quickly as some), but when it comes to face-to-face communication and connection, with co-workers, classmates or anyone else, it’s a barrier. I’ve also come to realize, mostly through coaching, that genuine connection with other people is something I really deeply value. My snarkiness has been getting in the way.

Not that criticism or sarcasm doesn’t have its place. As Alan Henry puts it in this post I came across: “There’s a difference between being occasionally sarcastic and a little derisive in your head, but when negativity becomes your default reaction, you have a problem.” Henry cites the “wake-up moment” of Anna Holmes, founding editor of Jezebel, who once tweeted:

https://twitter.com/AnnaHolmes/status/208306732949176321

Henry goes on to list all the bad things snarkiness and cynicism can do, including:

On Sunday, it mostly just made me sad.

As I watched my classmates belt out a song, recite their own poetry, or dance gracefully to music that brought tears even to my eyes, I realized that I’m the one missing out. 

Learning to become a coach has begun to crack me open. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had those tears in my eyes and I probably wouldn’t have realized what I’d missed. I would have just been relieved when it was over, and my unexamined tension relieved.

This time, as I sat through our graduation ceremony – a candle-lit, spiritual music-filled affair – I felt both grateful and a bit disappointed. Yes, I had completed the program and learned valuable skills as a coach and am now certified and eager to help others. That’s what I came here for. But by holding part of myself back, by maintaining some of my critical distance, I had in some ways kept myself from fully participating in the experience. As I looked around the room, I saw 34 amazing people who I’d come to know some really meaningful things about, but whom I hadn’t really come to know.

Maybe we never fully know other people, but I’m increasingly realizing that the more we open ourselves up to them, the more they open to us, and the more we share the world together. And that makes it a much less lonely – and far more fun – place to be.

I’m not going to be really hard on myself about this: we all protect ourselves in various ways, and I’ve always been on the shy side. Dramatic performance about my innermost feelings was not going to come easily for me. That’s okay.

And I’m slowly getting better. All weekend I was dreading that time at the end of the final class when everyone has to hug and kiss goodbye, worried no one would really care to say goodbye to me or that it would all feel fake and I would want to run and hide in the bathroom. Instead, I just took a breath and slowed down. I decided I would just be real. No one was watching me or expecting me to perform. So I could decide, who did I want to say goodbye to, and what did I want to say? I found that when I let myself actually face those feelings, I had a lot to say, to a lot of people: about how much I appreciated what they’d brought to the class, to me, and to the whole 9-month training experience. And it turned out, I genuinely felt, and wanted to express, that each one really brought a lot. And that I truly appreciated it all.

When I could let go of my shyness and fear and the snarky shell I wear over it, I could genuinely share what I was feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to connect with everyone I wanted to. But I did manage to hug a whole lot of them. And that felt great.

Let It Split

sculptures-in-the-sand-2“I feel like my head’s split in two,” I complained to my partner one morning as I struggled to get out of bed after a long weekend.

“Then let it split,” he said.

I’d just spent the Columbus Day weekend working through my coaching program’s final exam — 26 pages’ worth of explaining how I’d help clients explore their values, fears and dreams so they could make the changes they wanted and lead more fulfilling lives. Then that morning, as I prepared to return to my job, I was scrolling through an e-mail inbox full of dense legal arguments over whether the president could lawfully bomb ISIS in Syria or whether Congress needs to pass a new law. I felt like two very different people.

I guess we all feel that way sometimes, trying to reconcile parts of ourselves that seem strikingly different or even diametrically opposed. “Let it split” was the best advice I’d heard in a long time.

Those words actually echo one of the coaching “pathways” I’ve been learning, which involves helping clients fully experience a significant moment in their lives that raises an issue they’re struggling with. If that moment happens to be filled with pain or confusion, that’s okay. You just let it be that. The idea, which I’ve described here before, is that if you sit with it, and really feel it rather than judge or analyze it, the feeling inevitably transforms into something else, which often contains new insights that help resolve the initial angst. Instead of running away or distracting yourself from your emotions, then, you let yourself have them. Don’t wallow in them, but observe them, let whatever’s beneath them bubble up. You’ll learn something.

This has been a very hard thing for me to learn. My general approach to life has always been as a problem-solver. I see a problem and I immediately want to fix it. I not only do that in my own life, but I was recently called out by my coaching mentor for doing this with a client. Turns out that’s a big coaching no-no.

My mentor had listened to a session I’d recorded – with the client’s permission, of course, as part of my training – and noted that I’d failed to acknowledge and explore the obvious frustrations the client was having trying to balance the demands of the paying work he found empty with doing the more creative work that he loved, but which didn’t pay the bills. Instead of encouraging him to further explore those feelings, or his true desires, she observed, I’d repeatedly tried to coax him into what I thought was a good solution: better time management. By the end of the session, he still sounded frustrated. “Just dance with him, be curious, trust the process,” my mentor counseled. “He’ll come up with the solution himself.”

I felt chastened, skeptical, and annoyed.  After all, I was just trying to help.

With a little distance, though, I can see that sometimes, merely helping people sit with and accept what they’re feeling is the best help I can provide. With support and encouragement, they’ll eventually discover for themselves whether, when and how they want to act.

That’s basically what “let it split” did for me. Instead of torturing myself over whether I want to be a human rights lawyer or a coach, I’m just letting myself be both — and I’m feeling much better. Sure, sometimes I’m thrown off by how different these two kinds of work actually are. But they’re just different sides of myself. And in some ways, each nurtures the other. My coach training has helped me respond in much healthier and more productive ways to the frustrations I encounter in my job; meanwhile, running into brick walls in the workplace and as an advocate has helped me relate to what many of my clients experience. Ultimately, exploring and developing the various facets of our personalities and interests helps us make greater contributions and lead richer and more fulfilling lives.

After the critique from my mentor, I had another session with that same client. This time, I let him run the show. Rather than try to solve his problem for him, I encouraged him to fully experience how it felt, and to explore, from that place, what he truly valued, wanted and needed. He really responded to that. By the end of our session, he said he felt much better:  instead of trying to choose between one or another role to play or label to apply to what he does with his life, he could see that what he really wants – at least for now – is to do both.

It’s Okay To Be Blue

screamblueNow that we’ve passed Labor Day, there’s all sorts of advice out there about how to beat the post-vacation blues. Tips range from immediately unpacking your suitcases to going for a run to taking stock of your life and your work.  All good ideas.

But in a culture obsessed with the quick fix — things you can do, buy, eat or drink to make you happy — there’s one bit of advice you rarely hear:  let yourself feel lousy.

You’ve left your idyllic vacation spot, returned to a noisy city, a boring or stressful job, and re-immersed yourself in all the day’s bad news. It’s not surprising you don’t feel great.

After a recent week of traveling and being completely checked out, I made a huge effort to appreciate my return to home and work, ease back into my life, etc..  And I still felt crappy for a while. That’s okay. In fact, it can be a good thing to let yourself actually experience your emotions rather than pushing them away.  One surprising thing I’ve learned through coaching is that really sitting with my emotions for a while allows them to slowly transform — and can lead to some pretty amazing insights.

Left alone, emotions themselves last only about 90 seconds to 2 minutes.   It’s the story we tell ourselves about them – that my life sucks, my job sucks, I’m stuck in this place I hate, etc. – that tends to drag out that emotion, and cause us to have it over and over again and feel stuck.  Pema Chodron talks about this beautifully in her books, and suggests people “lean in” to the emotion rather than run from it. (This is a very different concept of leaning in from Sheryl Sandberg‘s.)

When I was feeling particularly lousy one evening, I called up my copy of Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, Coming to Our Senses. A professor of Medicine at University of Massachuseetts medical school and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Zinn talks about the healing power of just focusing on the present and experiencing your emotions, without the overlay of thoughts.

As Zinn explains:

Enthralled once again, even when in great pain, with the story of me that I am busy creating, unwittingly, merely out of habit, I have an opportunity, countless opportunities, to see its unfolding and to cease and desist from feeding it, to issue a restraining order if necessary, to turn the key which has been sitting in the lock all along, to step out of jail, and therefore meet the world in new and more expansive and appropriate ways by embracing it fully rather than contracting, recoiling, or turning away.

So when you’re hit with that defeated or sad feeling, try just letting it be. Notice it, check in with yourself, with your body, and really feel it. Where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Drop the story line that’s feeding it, and see what else comes up. Does it begin to shift? What I’ve found particularly amazing about doing this is that by sitting with it, the pain not only goes away, but turns into something else — something new — that moves me forward.