Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Low-Stress High Schools?

The NY Times ran an article on Oct. 29 entitled "Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress" about overachieving high school students and new programs to counteract stress in schools like Needham H.S.

I have mixed feelings about it; I would generally agree that it's a good idea to give students tools and tips on how to manage stress, but I don't know how effective it can be when overachieving students see it as just another mandatory thing they need to squeeze in with the rest of their activities.

Most of us can remember being in that situation - working hard in school, applying to college, taking AP classes, being on school newspaper, captaining a sports team, taking instrument lessons, trying to cram everything in, and make time to hang out with friends. An additional yoga class would definitely be compounding the problem.

However, it sounds like administrators might actually cut some of the standard coursework to make way for "de-stress" sessions, which sounds like a ludicrous idea.

“You run out of time,” said Max Hekler, an English teacher. “You can’t teach ‘The Odyssey.’ Something has to go."

I think students should spend their time learning things they might not be exposed to or learn later in life (ie, The Odyssey). It's a lot easier to learn how to deal with stress later in life than to take the time to understand the allegory in a major piece of literature.

I also tend to think that maybe "ignorance is bliss" when it comes to stress. Students might not feel stressed, but well-intentioned administrators may be labeling it as such and manufacturing it. It's like when a baby falls - it takes cues from the reactions of others to react and show signs of pain. If the adults are smiling and supportive, the baby is fine, but if the parents gasp and rush to their side to mollycoddle them, the baby senses something is wrong and starts to cry. Similarly, I didn't think high school was stressful because everyone around me (other overachievers) were also busy and on a path of achievement. I'm not sure if we knew it was stressful, or if that knowledge would have changed how we acted.

I don't know enough about these de-stress programs, but I hope they aren't inadvertently promoting a "wimpy" attitude. The article mentions classes that have no grades and not publishing the list of seniors and where they're going to college, both as a response to the stress that it causes among students (some of whom have lied about where they're going to college!?!).

But what about the kids that can handle the stress? Are they forced to take yoga instead of reading The Odyssey? Isn't high school a good predictor of how people will handle stress in the future? I feel like they might self-select out of situations if they don't enjoy it or can't handle it. What's next, athletic competitions where no-one keeps score?

My primary concern is that stress becomes an excuse for students and fosters the dangerous attitude of learned helplessness. I think healthy competition and busy schedules push students to learn valuable lessons like hard work pays off, discipline builds character, how bounce-back after failure, managing time and priorities, goal-setting, etc. I wouldn't want stress to become another "crutch" for students like some of the learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD have become in many cases.

Maybe I'm just being skeptical... After all, I think yoga is a great thing to teach young adults, and am a big fan of keeping things in perspective and taking a step back to reflect. Hopefully these programs become wildly successful at balancing achievement and stress, without softening these overachievers too much.

  • What do you think? Please comment...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Leadership Develops Daily

As some of you know, I’m an avid reader. I'm constantly reading books about leadership, business, personal development, and then a lot of other random stuff that somehow becomes relevant.

The book I’ve been flipping through is John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (actually, I was looking through the accompanying Workbook to see what exercises I might be able to incorporate into my coaching practice). One of the 21 Laws is the “Law of Process” which says "Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day". Here’s a quote from that chapter that really resonated with me:

“Champions don’t become champions in the ring – they are merely recognized there. That’s true. If you want to see where someone develops into a champion, look at his daily routine.”

As an athlete, I entirely agree with this idea. All of the practice and sacrifice that are put in every day allows that person to finally become the champion and fulfill his or her potential. It perfectly captures the idea that leadership (and success!) develops daily, not in just one day.

Another passage I appreciated from chapter was a quote President Theodore Roosevelt, who used a boxing analogy to describe the struggle and rigors endured in becoming a leader and rising to success:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

I was trying to find a specific part of that quote to highlight for easier reading, but the whole thing is inspiring. I especially like that it puts the critics in their place and acknowledges that although the people "in the arena" might triumph or fail, there is a certain gallant pride in "striving valiantly" and "daring greatly", and "spending ourselves in a worthy cause".

I know I don't want to be with those "cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat". Whether you win or lose isn't important...it's that you're in the ring.

  • How do you feel about President Roosevelt's quote and the general idea that leadership develops daily, not in a day? Please comment...

Friday, October 26, 2007

Seize the Day (Scare Tactics)

I've always found myself drawn to movies and books that offer a "seize the day" message, although in a somewhat depressing way. Some of the movies and books portray pictures of missed opportunities and lost potential and "scare" us into remembering that life can, and should be, inspiring. If it's what we make of it, then we better make it enjoyable, right?

Here are some of the things that sometimes scare me into remembering to seize the day:
I don't know what it is, but something about tragedy and seeing lost dreams reminds us that life is precious and we should do everything we can with the moments we have.
  • Any other movies, books, music that paint a somewhat depressing picture but remind you to get the most out of life?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Celebrate Accomplishments

One of my "good people, good energy" friends (and fellow coach) Sara B. Frederick, had a post on her blog that made me stop and think. It's entitled "Celebrate" and I liked the comparison she makes below -

Imagine the following scenarios:

You get a phenomenal promotion at work. You give your boss a cool thanks. You go home and during the course of regular conversation with your parents/significant other/friend, you just casually mention it, to keep them updated. You go to sleep and get up for work the next day.


you get a phenomenal promotion at work. You give your boss a huge smile and a strong handshake. You go home and as soon as you walk in the door you make a HUGE fist pump, shout “yeah!!” and call your parents/significant other/friend to share your excitement. You make time for a little celebration, go to sleep, and get up for work the next day.

Which way do you feel that you’ve achieved more?

I think that overachievers, especially, tend to go through life in the first mode. We are used to achievement and expect it from ourselves that it becomes "no big deal" and we treat it that way. I know I've frequently acted that way... partly because it doesn't seem like a big deal, partly because I don't want to seem like I'm gloating about it, and partly because I've truly moved past it quickly onto the next thing. For most overachievers, we see things like promotions just as the next logical step in our progression and not necessarily something that is all that impressive.

Celebration, whether big or small, is important because it allows us to appreciate our efforts, but more importantly, it allows others to share in our lives. The people who care about us want us to succeed and want to connect with what we've been up to. Parents, friends, and significant others want to congratulate you and acknowledge you as a person and all the work you've been doing. Give them the chance to be happy for you!

Celebrations also help to differentiate one day from another, making today a little more special than yesterday or the day before. Our weekly schedules can get a bit repetitive and it's nice to feel that there was something exciting about today. Why not make it a big deal?

  • What events have you celebrated recently? Were you glad you did?
  • Just for fun, try having a mini-celebration for your next accomplishment, regardless of how insignificant you might think it is.

Check out Sara's blog at http://blog.azrelationships.com/ and her coaching website at www.azrelationships.com

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Confucius Says...Choose a Job You Love

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." - Confucius

I disagree.

In concept and philosophically, I get what the old guy is saying, but I think regardless of what you do, hard work is important and sometimes it will feel like "work" even if you absolutely love what you do.

Certainly there are times that even with an ideal job, you have to push yourself to take care of what needs to be taken care of. It might be a task that you don't like to do, or a difficult situation or person that you have to deal with, but it definitely feels like "work" at that point.

A successful entrepreneur recently told me that there are a lot of days when he'd prefer to sleep in, but his success is based on hard work and dedication. I'm sure at 5:15am, it definitely feels like work to him, especially when compared with sleeping in. Although he loves what he does, there are definitely times that it is "work".

Personally, I would interpret Confucius' statement above to be more along the lines of "if you have a job that you love, you're less likely to get that helpless, boxed in, or desperate feeling".

To modernize his statement a bit, I would say something like -

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to:
  • Sit in your car before work dreading the day until the last possible minute before going in
  • Call your mom on your lunch break to complain about how much you hate your job
  • Ask yourself why you spend so much time commuting in traffic
  • Write "it's not that bad" over and over to convince yourself to stick it out
  • Pretend that you're working even though you're g-chatting your friends, playing Scrabulous, and surfing the web all day
  • Sit in the bathroom with your head in your hands just to get away from it all
  • Stare at your cubicle walls wondering what happened to your hopes and dreams"
Have you found yourself feeling this way recently? Maybe it's time to find a job you love; just be aware that it won't always be a walk in the park. Everything worthwhile requires some degree of work. But at least the payout won't leave you feeling frustrated or ready to go postal.
  • What do you think?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Happiness is...Relevance?

I went to a family event this weekend and found myself in a philosophical discussion about happiness. It started when someone asked me why I decided to go into helping overachievers and I said that at the bottom of it all, I wanted to help people be happier with their lives.

The conversation quickly turned to the question of “What makes people happy?” It's something very important for me to consider when I look to create broader products and services ("solutions" if you're in the business world) to help overachievers be happier. So here's what we came up with during the conversation, but I'd love to hear what you have to say...

I started off by breaking down happiness into 2 categories: Short-Term (day-to-day happiness) and Long-Term (future potential happiness).
  • Short-Term Happiness is being content with the moments that make up your day and having a positive outlook on what's going on around you. If you can surrounded yourself with positive interactions, experiences, and thoughts you'll be much happier.
  • I think there's a different type of happiness that I call Long-Term Happiness, where you have peace of mind from knowing where you're going in life, being confident in your ability to choose your future and make decisions that will continue to keep you happy throughout your life.
Thinking about it a bit more holistically, I refined the idea to be about "choice", where happiness comes from being able to choose our day-to-day environment while also feeling we can continue to choose the "big picture" things in your future.

The conversation then steered to the idea of "relevance" as the key to happiness. We're happier when we feel important, appreciated, and have a sense of purpose in our daily environment and life (co-workers, friends, family, office and home settings, work/home tasks). We're also happier when we feel that we're "relevant" to the bigger picture of life, family, community, society, mankind, etc. We know how we can fit in, contribute, and understand the relationship between what we do everyday and our general existence.

I like the idea of relevance because it covers the idea of Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness.

  • What do you think?
  • If you had to distill happiness into a few words, what would it be?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Mystery of Relationships

Someone close to me recently went through a break-up. These are always rough, but as with everything in life there are some interesting life lessons to be had.

During the "unraveling", he was confused and frustrated at first because he thought it came out of left field. It took him some time to figure out exactly what was going on (was this a break or a break-up?), but after that phase he was a bit angry and indignant that there was no "warning" or opportunity for strikes 2 or 3. He and I were able to talk just as he was emerging from that stage and asked him what he wanted to do next. From a play-by-play standpoint, X happened and the ball was in his court.

There was a lot of theorizing and hypothesizing about why it happened, what she might want at this point, and why men have such a hard time understanding women. (For some good insight into how men and women think, do a quick skim of "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus". You can read just the intro at a bookstore and get most of it.)

Eventually it came down to a question of action - should he do something or do nothing? It was my opinion that if he wasn't ready to let it go that easily, he should make some overture but it was up to him to figure out what.

To help him get started, I offered him the idea that women have internal "relationship" bank accounts. Rules of the bank:
  • Every time a man does something good, he gets points. The more effort or creative, the more points.
  • If he does what is "standard" or "expected" he gets no points, but no points are subtracted.
  • If he fails to do something standard or expected, he loses points.
  • If he screws up, he loses even more points.
But the most important rule of the bank is that all points are based on HER CURRENCY.
For something to be "good" in her currency means that you have to figure out what her definition of good is (i.e. an outdoor adventure weekend may or may not be good depending on what she likes). This is where she sees how creative you are or how much you really know her. Btw, flowers are almost always a safe bet.

When a guy goes negative or starts borrowing against the bank, he's in trouble. If he hasn't put money in recently or has been using his debit card a lot, the next "conversation" won't just be about the fact that you forgot to take out the trash (although that might set it off). Women check the balance in bank during any discussion and that determines how difficult the conversation will be or how upset she'll get. It makes sense to contribute regularly to make sure you have enough to make it through the tougher times.

  • Do you agree? How would you refine the "bank" model?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Does Harsh Punishment Lead to a Cover-Up?

I was driving around DC a few days ago, in a bit of a hurry but still enjoying the drive. I'm singing with the windows down, to my favorite song of the week, and in that split second where everything feels perfect, I make a wrong turn.

In most circumstances, it would be no problem and I'd just turn around. But if you've ever driven in DC (or Boston), you understand the panic that hits when you make a wrong turn. The DC traffic patterns are very unforgiving in their punishment. One wrong turn and there's no telling where you'll end up - maybe in traffic, maybe on a bridge to MD/DC/VA, or taking a 30 minute detour to backtrack. Poor signage, convoluted patterns, and roundabouts with 9 or 10 spokes definitely compound the problem (check out Dupont Circle).

AFTER I made my wrong turn, I found myself near the Kennedy Center with 2 lanes of traffic in each direction, quickly approaching an on-ramp. I start to get nervous because I have no idea where this on-ramp would lead me, but I knew that it would be trouble because nothing is easy when driving in DC.

I started thinking about the similarities between the DC traffic system and a harsh disciplinarian. You know you'll get punished and you know it won't be fun, so you do everything you can to avoid making a mistake or getting caught.

To avoid being subjected to the strict punishment of "the system", I blatantly disregard the NO U-TURN signs plastered around the area (maybe this is a common problem?!?) and dangerously screech across traffic with my Rav-4 and head back in the opposite direction.

There was no easy way to get back to where I had been (again, poor design), so I quickly determine that I have to pull off another (somewhat dangerous) illegal U-turn. There were more NO U-TURN signs here (go figure!), but I couldn't bear the potential for unreasonable and unknown punishment of being lost, late, stuck in traffic, and even more frustrated.

In retrospect, I don't think I would have done it if I didn't feel that the system was unreasonably harsh in its punishment. Is this similar to the white lie "cover-ups" I did in high school to avoid the wrath of my mother? Is this the same feeling CEOs have when they inflate earnings or when politicians get involved in some scandal?

It seems like when a mistake is made, we're so afraid of the punishment that we find another alternative that's crazier or riskier in hopes that we'll be able to avert the retribution. That usually leads to bigger problems but when we get away with it, it only encourages us to subvert the system again (i.e. continue to to U-turns).

In terms of DC traffic, I think there would be fewer accidents if L'Enfant had made a more straightforward layout (and hadn't tried to copy Paris), because certainly fewer people would have that panic U-turn as they approach the "on-ramp to nowhere".

I wonder if there were an "easier out" in the corporate/political world, or if the stakes weren't so high, would more wrongdoing be addressed before it escalated to be such a huge issue? I also wonder whether kids with less-strict parents are less likely to do crazy things to cover up their wrongdoing. I'm sure many parents have had to figure out the balance of being strict enough to be respected, but approachable enough when things go wrong.

I think maybe the DC streets are too far gone, but it's an interesting idea to keep in mind when designing new systems or entering parenthood!
  • Does the thought of harsh punishment lead us to avoid it at any cost?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Finding Ourselves: The Odyssey Years

I was excited to see the NY Times op-ed piece on Oct. 9 entitled “The Odyssey Years”, by David Brooks, which discusses the growing trend of people in their post-college years taking time to find/create themselves.

“There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there’s bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.

They see that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They’re delaying having children. They’re delaying permanent employment. People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.”

The rest of the article goes on to validate that this “searching” is a common and shared trend seen in people of our generation. We prefer to invest in finding our own path and setting our own timeline, much to the dismay of our parents (especially when we give up a "perfectly good career, relationship, education, etc.")

I think the term “Odyssey Years” is useful to identify this phase because, just like the term “adolescence” did a century ago, it validates that what we're feeling is a common struggle and not be embarrassed feeling we're the only ones who are "lost". In helping overachievers as a profession, you can’t imagine how many people have said to me “it’s nice knowing that other people feel this way and it’s not just me!

I think it’s GREAT that we have the opportunity to do our own searching. It definitely makes life a bit more difficult during these “Odyssey Years” (fighting the cyclops, being tempted by sirens, etc.) but this journey definitely gives us a better sense of self and confidence in being able to choose what’s right for us.
  • Are your “Odyssey Years” driving your parents crazy?
  • Is your “searching” any easier knowing others are going through the same thing?
Please comment!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

NYRC and Kids from the South Bronx

Even though I’m no longer living in NY, I will always consider myself part of the community called the New York Rugby Club (NYRC). It’s the oldest rugby club in the country (founded in 1929) and includes a men’s team, a women’s team, an old boy’s team, social sides, and a lot of history.

Rugby in general is a tight-knit community where players graciously open their homes to each other, go out of their way to help each other out, and establish strong bonds with others off the field. What I think is most amazing is how much of an impact a community like this, and a club like NYRC, can have.

About a year ago, a few members of the club took it upon themselves to start the NYRC Under-19 Team. They recruited a bunch of boys and girls who have never played before from a school in the South Bronx (and not the nice part). Most of these kids have already had a tough life and you can imagine their days in high school are no walk in the park. The goal was to get them interested in rugby and linked into something that could offer a positive impact in their lives. It’s been amazing to see how quickly they picked up the sport and then began assimilating into the NYRC community.

Many of the club members have put in numerous hours helping out in different capacities: chaperoning away games, running fitness sessions, organizing their matches, coaching them twice a week, teaching them how to line the fields, finding them gear through donations, providing technique clinics, etc. With every interaction, these high schoolers are getting exposed to a community that’s different from the streets of the South Bronx.

I was impressed when the captain of the U-19 Team sent an email to the Women's Team wishing us good luck in an upcoming match. It was exciting to see such a mature gesture come from a high school student and know that just in 1 year, so many of the U-19's had already learned a lot about leadership, team, respect, and community.

It's reassuring to know that all the hard work has already been, and will continue to be, a valuable contribution to the lives of these young players. For the Club!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Personality Tests

After an awesomely grueling workout yesterday at Train Like a Pro, I was chatting with my workout partner about personality tests, specifically our 4-letter character type in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). What I found interesting was that just by exchanging the results of this test that we had taken at some point in our lives, we learned a lot more about each other - what we like, how we see the world, how we react to challenges, and even how neat we keep our workspaces.

What are you??? Find out with the free version of the MBTI (the official version costs money and requires a facilitator, but the free one produces about the same results).

Many companies encourage managers to use the the MBTI or other personality tests in their teams to help the group recognize differences in perspective, characteristics, and work styles and builds the awareness that we must take these into consideration when we're working together. My workout partner also mentioned that sports coaches can use it to learn how to more effectively interact with their athletes.

It’s also important to remember that the value is NOT in the test itself, but in the awareness it creates and the discussion it can generate (especially within a work-group, sports team, or even relationship). Most importantly, it’s WHAT WE DO with the information. If we know that our manager is an ISTJ or our teammate is an ENFJ, we can use this knowledge to tailor our interactions with him/her and work with them more effectively (hopefully they're doing the same with you!).

There’s also a lot of value in using these results to helps us identify areas of strength and potential challenges we may face. I've used the MBTI types with some of my clients to also help them think about what careers might match their personality, how to better avoid or overcome daily challenges, and also to pinpoint areas for ongoing personal development.

I’m an ENTP and much of the description makes sense for what I’ve learned about myself so far. I’m good at seeing the big picture and easily get excited by new ideas, but also have some trouble with follow-through on those ideas. Knowing this helps me structure my work tasks to emphasize implementation and also helps me know what to look for in building a team of employees.

Of course, with any of these tests it’s important to remember that the general statements describe a large category of people and aren’t always dead-on in all areas. But for the most part, and judging from others who have also taken the MBTI test, it’s a fairly good assessment.

  • What are you? Does it match your perception of who you are?
  • Take the test and comment!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Test-drive a Career: Vocation Vacations

A company called Vocation Vacations lets you shadow a professional in a field of your choice, see what goes on behind the scenes, and even get your hands dirty for about a week (or more). Their programs include brewmaster, actor, dude rancher, chef, meteorologist, record producer, veterinarian, wine sommelier, and many others! See all their available programs here.

This seems like an awesome idea that lets you sample a career for a week or two. It sounds like a good option for overachievers who are either curious about a new profession or just want to take an interesting vacation and learn something at the same time.

As a sidenote, if you’re thinking about changing jobs or careers, I would recommend the book “What Color is Your Parachute?,” by Nelson Bolles. It’s the most popular career-change book that’s been published and a great starting point with exercises to help you through the process. Or you could also hire me to help you! We all know you can do it on your own, but there’s nothing like a “personal trainer” to give you guidance, keep you on task, and make sure it’s a priority.
  • Anyone out there thinking about a change in job or career?