I sent my sister an article from the New York Times (yes, my NYT tag keeps getting bigger!) by Ruth Starkman about her experience reading college applications at U.C. Berkeley.  I sent it partly because our children will soon be applying for college.  I also sent it because I feel like it exposes the gross side of the college admissions process, or really any application process.  In other words:  playing the game.  I find both comfort and discomfort in what Starkman writes, although the first feeling was definitely discomfort.

First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine.

Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants. Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery. The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!

In my note to my sister, I wrote that the article stressed me out.  She wisely wrote back that it shows that you might as well just be yourself.  Oh yeah…that’s what I keep telling my clients.

Then she sent me another NYT article…a transcript of a commencement speech by the writer, George Saunders, to Syracuse University students.  It was the perfect antidote.  Real.  Hopeful.  Putting kindness at the top of the list of goals.  A good perspective for everyone…graduating from college or at any stage of life.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

It may be facile, but that’s what I like.  It boils it down to something easy to grasp.  Be kinder.  To others, and I would argue, to yourself.

I have the pleasure of working with several 20-something-year-olds right now and one thing I see again and again is how hard they are on themselves.  There are so many internal and external voices telling them they should be further, better, happier.  They say how old they’re getting.  I have to laugh because I know I felt the same way but from where I’m sitting they are so young!  Again, Saunders has a lovely way of expressing this pressure to succeed.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable.  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

That’s where balance comes in.  Succeeding is great and we all want to feel productive, but that success will feel so much better if the big questions are not ignored.  And, that’s exactly what I see processes like college applications and complete focus on career potentially doing…crushing the big questions.  There’s not much room for kindness in those processes.  What are the big questions?  They present themselves on their own time…it’s a matter of being willing to see them.  In the meantime,

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now.



For the past six weeks, I have been taking a course called “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrationality.”  There is something about the title that immediately captured my attention.  I am so often baffled by the things human beings do.  Things that are seemingly irrational and counter-intuitive.  The course put a lot of that into context and explained some interesting things.  I kept meaning to write about different topics the course covered: lying, choices, motivation, and on and on, but here I am after finishing the last week of video lectures and writing about Emotion.

coursera course participants(As an aside, I took the course through Coursera, an online education site that allows you to sign up for courses taught by professors at major universities for free!  My course was taught by a Duke University professor of Behavioral Economics and Psychology, Dan Ariely, and I have to say I was impressed by the content and enjoyed it a lot.  In addition to the material, it was a fascinating process noticing my I-Need-to-Do-Well self coming forward, feeling great joy (well, maybe not great joy, but definitely some level of joy or validation) from getting 100% on the first quiz, and then deciding not to take any more quizzes, not do the reading and not to write the paper.  I was determined to go into a learning environment that could be purely about enjoyment/learning and not about performance.  I was shocked, but not surprised how hard it was.  The thing that helped me let go and try it this way was this graphic on the course webpage showing where the more than 30K participants are from…yes, 30 thousand people!  10K in the U.S., 51 in Nigeria, 51 in Kazakhstan, 287 in Czech Republic and on and on.  I am but a drop in the bucket and no one cares how much I do or do not participate.  Freedom from everyone but myself!)

So, back to emotions.  The professor starts his first lecture of the unit on emotions explaining that emotions are really our core, our most ancient self.  Yes, we know that, even if we often forget it.  His two following points about emotions are not surprising either:

  • When they arise, they take over
  • They are more short-lived than we think

That brought up a few thoughts for me.

When they arise, they take over:  Yes, makes sense.  Crimes of passion, unsafe sex, freaking out in a disaster.  Logic out.  It also makes sense that they are more short-lived than we think they will be.  Apparently, studies show that people always assume that emotional states will last longer than they end up lasting.  Like in a divorce…people predict they will be miserable for a long time, but turns out that feeling goes away faster than they thought.  Or, in a new love.  People predict the great feelings will last for a long time, but they also fade out fairly quickly.  It’s kind of like we go back to our set-point.  That place where we usually hover.  (This New York Times article about happiness looks at that idea of a set point.  If you read it, ignore the researcher’s comment about life coaches being light weight!  We’re not trying to be academic and precise.  We’re trying to support individuals in an authentic and yes, imperfect way.)

That all makes sense to me up to a point.  I think while the actual emotions probably do fade more quickly than we think, I feel like many of us are left with something else: a shadow emotion or something like that.  An emotion that may not be active, but that is there influencing how we live our lives.  And that shadow emotion can stay with us for a long long time and dictate how we live our lives.  What I’m curious about is whether it is an emotion that didn’t get fully expressed and that’s why it stays or is it that the memory of the intensity of the emotion is so strong that on some deep level we will do anything not to experience it again.  Maybe it depends.  Maybe it’s something else.

What I do know is that is that feels like many of us are ruled by our deepest most primal emotions to one degree or another.  Not the ones that are flaring up now, but these shadow emotions that stand in the way.  They’re so deep and core that often we don’t even really know what they are, which makes them harder to deal with.

The thing that really strikes me here, and I think bares repeating is how powerful emotions are.  How in a non-emotional state we can and would make a whole series of decisions about certain things, while in an emotional state that all goes out the window and we make completely different decisions.  But are we ever is a completely non-emotional state?  I suppose that is the deeper question.

I am finally stepping into the world of categories and tags!  I realized at some point that I have written a lot on this blog, but there is no way for people to find things of interest without scrolling through and looking.  There is too much on here now to make that a good option, so I have taken on the task of categorizing and tagging each post.  Here are some things I have learned along the way:

  • I have written a lot over the past few years (I’m a little over half way in this project…it takes time!)
  • There are endless things to think about and ponder
  • I know I don’t have the “right” categories, but it’s a good start
  • I think I might have put down too many random tags
  • I feel good about starting to do this, but have decided it’s time to stop using this project as an excuse not to write a new blog post
  • I get a lot of information/inspiration from the New York Times

I hope you’ll find the categories and tags as useful tools for finding old posts that may interest you.  If you have any category ideas that you think I have missed, please let me know.  I plan to refine things over time.

Why is it so easy to find reasons we can’t do things or know that certain things won’t happen in our lives?  Often when I’m working with someone, the thing they want to achieve is barely out of their mouth before the reasons why this desire is unreasonable, impossible, unrealistic, unachievable is in the room with us.  How can the dream survive if it’s surrounded and drowned by all the doubt?

It’s a normal protective thing to do.  We all do it to some degree.  We want to temper our desires so the (what feels like inevitable) fall won’t hurt so much.  But this protection can take over and literally snuff the life out of possibility.  I’m not saying to be unrealistic.  It is good to be honest about what stands in your way and admit where things might get challenging.  That is healthy.  But when there is no room to dream and believe not much can or will happen.

I have several clients who have have seen their circumstances change significantly over the past year.  Not things that fell out of the sky suddenly.  Not purely lucky events.  Things happened because they believed enough and moved forward.  When I ask each of them now:  “Would you have believed me if I had told you when we first met that this is where you would be today? That this would be your new reality?, they each admit that no, they would not have believed me.  Never.  No way.

And that shows that believing the unbelievable is not a crazy thing to do.  That’s the little bit of oxygen that is necessary to make things happen and get your fire burning.  People are always so certain they know why things won’t work out.  That’s what I ask my clients to let go of: that undermining certainty.  I can’t predict the future, but I do know when people get out of their own way amazing and unexpected things happen.

I have had a recurring theme lately with several clients.  It’s about what it takes to get where they want to go…the path to reaching their goal/s.  As the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, says (among other interesting things about being a leader, sticking to your plan, trusting your instincts, etc) in a New York Times interview sent to me by a client, “You can’t realize your goal if it’s not defined.”  So basic, but so true.  For many people defining a goal is the first part of the process of working with me, but others come to work with me with a very clear goal in mind.

The thing is, as clear as that goal may be, many of them also assume there is one specific path that will get them to that goal.  They hold on to what they assume/know is the path, but that assumption or knowledge actually keeps them from making progress and moving forward.  I ask them what makes them so certain there are certain specific steps on the way to their goal.   They strain against the steps they have laid out for themselves, and are unable to let themselves take a different approach because changing the path feels like giving up on the goal.  So I ask:  what if another action, however counterintuitive, is actually a required step to attaining your goal?  For example, if someone’s goal is to have financial and personal stability, it might seem counterintuitive that they take a trip around the world for a year, spending savings and moving from place to place.  But maybe that is the very thing that will let them get what they so badly want.

Often the most important thing is action and movement.  Without it there is no change.  No achieving your goal.  If you’re stuck, step back and ask yourself what you’re holding on to that is blocking you.  A literal example:  if the goal (a swimming pool, lake, mountain, house) you want to reach is just over a brick wall in your path, you might slam your body into it a few times, you might try pushing the wall over a few times, or pulling out bricks.  But after a while, bashed and bruised, you’d probably try to climb over it, find the end and go around it, dig under it…anything except walk into it again!

Remember your goal…hold on to it tightly, but open your mind to the fact that the path there may not be what you expect.