Making the Transition to a Not-For-Profit

I have a clear memory of the moment at which I decided to make an adjustment in my career trajectory. I’d spent the day in a truly awful corporate retreat and felt dejected in its aftermath. A couple of my colleagues and I decided to drown our sorrows in a nearby pub and wound up in a rather far-ranging discussion about work and life once. Then one of my colleagues referred to our industry (tech) as the digital holocaust. He acknowledged that it helped corporations run more efficiently and economically; however, automation was responsible for job loss among persons who could least afford to sacrifice their incomes.

Suffice it to say, that characterization hit me like a ton of bricks. On the one hand, I had the training, insight, and experience to recognize the inevitability of cost saving measures to sustain competitive survival in the relentlessly Darwinian corporate environment. On the other hand, I lost my will to play an active part in that milieu. I wanted my efforts to be in service of more lofty ambitions.

I’ve met folks who’ve had a similar conversion experience. Others arrived there as a result of downsizing or early retirement. Some wanted to gain new skills or seek a better work-life balance (though the latter were surprised at the demands placed on resource-strapped social sector workers!) Whatever the motivation, we all face the challenge of finding a new home in a vast sector.

If you’re considering this path, here are a few steps you might take to figure out where you might fit.

ONE: Think about the issues or causes that might ignite your passion. The non-profit sector encompasses Health Services, Education & Research, Social Services, International Aid, Charitable Foundations, Arts & Culture, Religious Organizations, and Fraternal Organizations, to name a few. Most of their employees, funders, members, and interest groups will be deeply committed to the work they do. If you expect to be welcomed warmly, you’ll need to share their enthusiasm.

TWO: Think about which approach to the issue area best suits your skills and interests. Do you see yourself as an advocate or policymaker who wields influence with lawmakers, governmental agencies, foundations, and/or public opinion? Are you interested in working with organizations that provide direct service? Would you like to serve as a consultant and provide capacity building services? Do you enjoy being affiliated with a membership organization? What atmosphere and activities fill you up?

THREE: Identify skills, expertise, experience, and connections that could benefit non-profits. Consider how these assets might be leveraged to address a non-profits top capacity building needs:

  • Funding, funding, funding: Executive Directors (EDs) face significant (and growing) competition for scarce dollars – especially unrestricted funds.
  • Human capital: Every organization faces the challenge of getting the right people in the right roles with systems to manage them successfully. Non-profits face the added hindrance of sub-par market compensation.
  • Technology: Non-profits need to build a robust communications and information technology infrastructure on a shoestring budget.
  • Impact evaluation: Quantitative and qualitative measurements must be prepared to demonstrate short- and long-term program impact and inform continuous improvement. It’s not just “good for business”; it’s a requirement for sustained funding.
  • Fiscal management: Regulatory authorities, funders, strategic partners, and others have placed increased demands on non-profits to shore up their fiscal policies & procedures, budgeting, forecasting, cash flow analysis, risk assessments, financial statement preparation, and audit practices. It’s a daunting task if these disciplines are not established.
  • Marketing: Non-profits need a compelling brand identity and messaging to garner public support and position them favorably among their constituents. Otherwise, they risk having their issue area fly below the radar and their stellar performance become a well-kept secret.

FOUR: Figure out what kind of non-profit is right for you. Do you want to work for a start-up? A founder-driven operation? A grass-roots organization? A large institution? Would you prefer a long-established, stable organization? Do you thrive in a growth-oriented operation? Or are you best suited to throw in with an organization in transition that’s seeking a fresh infusion of ideas and energy?

You might be one of those rare individuals who can quickly rip through this list and figure everything out on your own. But, for most of us, it takes a bit of thinking, a bit of dialog with trusted associates, a bit of outside help, and a bit of dipping toes in the water to figure it out. That’s OK! Just start the journey and be open to where it leads.

The Encore Years: Passion and Purpose

Every day for the next 10 years, ten thousand Americans will reach the traditional retirement age. Like their parents before them, some will leave demanding careers to pursue leisure activities and long-standing interests. Some will continue working in their chosen fields, perhaps addressing shortfalls in retirement resources. Others may look for paid or unpaid positions that leverage a lifetime of skills, wisdom, and experience in service of others.

Marc Freedman book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life provides an extended argument in favor of pursuing meaningful work in one’s “golden years.” He notes:

  • older adult at workLives are getting longer; careers are getting shorter. As such, it pays to cultivate a second (or third or fourth)
  • An active lifestyle is twice as important as one’s genetic inheritance in helping individuals thrive in later life.
  • Extended work improves psychological and physical health.
  • Social connections cultivated in work and volunteer settings support successful aging.
  • Interacting with youth – e.g., tutoring or mentoring – helps people stay young.
  • Older Americans need to stay engaged in the workforce to forestall an anticipated labor shortage.

These “encore years” can be all about choice. They open up the possibility of passionate involvement in something about which individuals cares deeply. They may offer flexibility in the times of years, times of day, and hours one works. And they can bring just the right amount of income to bridge the gap between income/resources and monthly expenses. Freedman refers to this period as a chance to “blend the spirit of social impact with the pragmatic need for real pay and benefits.”

To be clear, the “encore years” are not just a transitional phase between one’s primary career and retirement. It’s a new body of work that marries clear-eyed pragmatism with the determination to make the world better.

I had the opportunity to participate in Freedman’s Encore Fellows program through a placement with the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF). My fellowship focused on promoting volunteerism in Early Childhood Education (ECE). The project had the following goals:

  • man reading with childBring adults into children’s lives in ways that improve the children’s readiness to learn
  • Increase the capacity of ECE organizations to serve young children
  • Raise awareness of early childhood as a volunteer arena for older adults
  • Educate the early childhood field about how to use volunteers effectively

OCF engaged a wide array of organizations in the project through pilot programs, volunteer management audits, and funded implementations. Working individually and collectively, they explored requirements for recruiting, training, and supporting older adults in working with young children and their families. They also address orientation and training needs for program staff to incorporate Boomers into their working environments. My principal task was to capture “best practices” and create a repository of materials that could be customized readily by ECE organizations around the State.

Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about early childhood through my year with OCF. My position included participation in Social Venture Partners Portland’s (SVPP’s) Ready for Kindergarten initiative. I spent two years on SVPP’s Grant Evaluation Committee – once as a member, and once as its Chair. I was also part of a cohort of Fellows who met monthly to explore all aspects of non-profit management and share experiences from our varied assignments. It was a great experience through which I made a number of strong connections.

Now several years into my “encore years,” I’m still engaged part-time in my long-time career while continuing to pursue projects that deliver favorable results for my community. I really don’t think about “retiring,” per se. I expect that I’ll always seek some form of purposeful work that stimulates my brain, stretches my capabilities, ignites my passion, builds connections, and contributes to my community. And having built up my “nest egg,” I’ve earned the privilege of choosing how I’ll invest my time and talents. And that feels mighty “golden” to me!

The Happiness Curve

the happiness curveHave you ever heard about the U-shaped curve that predicts your life satisfaction based on your age? If you’re old enough, you’ve likely experienced it. If not, researchers tell us that it exists across all cultures the world over. And apparently, it even affects other primates (though I can’t begin to know how they measure chimpanzee happiness!)

According to Jonathan Rauch in The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, our twenties start out full of promise, opportunity, and optimism. We’re overly rosy about our prospects for good health, professional success, marital bliss, and longevity. We think bad things happen to “the other guy.” We view our lives as fun, exciting, adventuresome, and full of possibilities.

Optimism wanes as we reach our forties and fifties. We take stock of our circumstances and become resigned to what we will (and will not) achieve and who we will (and will not) become. We may feel that we have peaked professionally and personally. We dwell on the past and feel regret for the mistakes we’ve made and the chances that we’ve missed. Our disappointment may be inflamed by comparisons with peers who seem to have made so much more of their lives. And we may be sandwiched between responsibilities to our children and our aging parents.

Our youth-oriented society may have predisposed us to thinking that our elder years would be less joyful. Paradoxically, they’re not. We get happier as we get older!

Stress declines after age 50 just as our capacity to regulate our emotions improves. We feel far less regret, accepting what we can’t control and being grateful for the lessons that life has taught us. We focus on the here and now and direct our attention toward the positive aspects of life. We take criticism to heart intellectually but not emotionally. We know who we are and what we are capable of doing. A bump in the road is not a referendum of our worth.

In our senior years, we don’t narrate accomplishment in the language of achievement, competition, and keeping score. We’re far more oriented toward connection and community, investing our time and energy on issues and relationships that really matter to us. As Andrew Sullivan states: “The worldly ambition that I might have had I increasingly see as distractions from the life I really want to live.”

So, what do you do if you are in those dreaded middle years? Here’s Jonathan Rauch’s advice:

Recognize that you are not alone. We all experience a dip in life satisfaction during our middle years. It’s a natural and healthy transition from our youth to our elder years. Expect a measure of regret and disappointment. Feel what you feel without beating yourself over the head about it.

Interrupt the inner critics whether they’re taking you to task for your thoughts/behaviors or making you feel “less than” someone else. They’ll only drag you down at a time when you need to be lifted up.

Train yourself to live in the moment without judgment. Try meditation, tai chi, yoga, qigong, or the like to help quiet the mind and focus on the here and now.

Find a support group with whom you can enjoy fellowship and share your experience. Folks generally feel better when they have nonjudgmental, fact-based conversations about their midlife malaise. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge with friends, consider a trusted advisor or counsellor. Avoid isolation!

Consider small steps to relieve your pressure points and let a little sunshine in. It turns out that we’re generally not good at understanding what makes us happy, and we’re rather bad at determining what’s making us unhappy. Move incrementally, logically, constructively to reduce the odds of impulsive mistakes. Change should be integrative, respecting your values, accumulated life experiences, and opportunities.

Be patient. Let time be on your side. Know that it will get better.

Finally, remember that the truest form of wealth is social, not material. Invest in life-affirming, support relationships and communities.

Career Path… or Career Adventure?

As I prepared to leave graduate school years ago, I put a lot of time and energy into mapping out my career. I identified the industry in which I wanted to work (telecommunications) – an area characterized by tumultuous change and growth, both of which spelled o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y for me. I decided to look for positions in sales and marketing, first with a larger company, and then at a start-up. And I envisioned movement up the ladder as my career progressed.

Not surprisingly, career planning factored into every job interview. Prospective employers asked about where I’d see myself in 5-10 years. They expected me to have a destination in mind when embarking on my professional journey. They wanted to know how the current position fit into that plan and assess the likelihood that the company and I shared long-term interests.

In the ensuing years, I remained conscious of how each position helped me progress toward my long-term goal. I occasionally took assignments for which I was ill-suited in order to gain valuable experience that would confer “street creds” and serve me in the future. I changed companies when I felt that I’d stalled out so I could keep moving forward. And I worried about how my resume was shaping up and whether or not I was keeping pace with my peers.

Then life got in the way. Doors that I expected to open remained resolutely closed. My two-career household made shifts in geography that took me away from my professional “sweet spot.” Family responsibilities impinged on my capacity to be a hard-charging workaholic. I adjusted time and again. And then the big jolt hit. I realized that the destination toward which I’d been moving all these years wasn’t a place that I wanted to go. I couldn’t see myself living there, and I didn’t want to make the personal sacrifices necessary to ensure my arrival.

I remember feeling as though I was the only person in the world to find myself in this predicament. I didn’t like the idea of getting off the path, but I didn’t want to stay on it, either. I decided to take some time off to think about what I really wanted to do and consider my options. I treated myself like a project and gave myself a series of tasks to help me course-correct and set off toward a new destination. Simple, right?

Not so much…

After years of focused energy on my chosen path, I’d done a fine job of shutting down the part of me that could tap into my inner source of joy and gratification. I didn’t know what it was or even where to look for it. And, as a lifelong overachiever, I was decidedly uncomfortable foregoing the steady diet of personal accomplishments.

Venturing forth into my social circles, I was asked regularly, “What are you doing these days?” I felt as though I should have something impressive to say in response. If I wasn’t charging up the corporate ladder, I should at least be making some substantive contribution to my community or the world at large. It seemed indulgent to take time out to invest in myself.

Long story short, I didn’t “find myself” by sitting on a lily pad and contemplating my future. I found it by doing. By experimenting. I took on a variety of consulting assignments in the for-profit and non-profit communities. I got a second Master’s degree and pursued ministry in the church and hospital settings. I served as an Encore Fellow with the Oregon Community Foundation. I participated actively in two social venture partnerships. I volunteered. I got back into the performing arts. I paid attention to what “worked” (and what didn’t) and kept that in mind when seeking new opportunities.

There are plenty of social circles in which “experimenting” is a euphemism for “floundering.” A career shift is OK so long as you pick a road and take off on the next journey. Moreover, gender stereotypes conjure up the image of a woman who can’t make up her own mind. For quite some time, that kind of feedback felt shaming. It had the effect of shutting down the voice of the inner self who longed for joy and gratification. It was something I needed to overcome.

Have I found my ultimate destination? Not really. But I’m not looking for it either. In fact, I no longer embrace the notion of a “career path.” It’s too restrictive and prone to headlong pursuits of goals that may or may not make sense downstream. I prefer to think of my journey as a “career adventure.” I seek work that I find interesting, enlightening, meaningful, and energizing. I want to collaborate with folks whose contributions and companionship put a spring in my step. And I want my professional endeavors to play nicely with my personal and lifestyle goals.

I don’t regret any of the experiences that brought me to this point. I learned a lot from them and found most of my professional gigs rewarding. Through careful financial planning, I’ve given myself the flexibility to pursue things that “light me up.” I don’t worry a whole lot about whether any of my choices will move me toward the illusive “next step.” And I’m not afraid to make mistakes. After all, it’s an adventure!

If only I could come up with a great “sound bite” to describe it…

What I’d Tell My Younger Self

career advice

As I gradually transition to a new phase in my life, I’ve thought a great deal about what I might say to that fresh-faced Stanford MBA who launched her career several decades ago. Here are a few things that come to mind…

Choose an industry and a role within it that inherently interest you. You’ll get a lot of “good advice” about what’s hot and what’s not, what pays well and what doesn’t, and where opportunity knocks. But remember: You’re going to spend a really big chunk of your life immersed in that environment. If you don’t find it captivating, or the demands of your job are a mismatch with your personality, you won’t do your best work or feel energized about it. And that’s a tough row to hoe week-after-week, year-after-year.

Take advantage of information interviews to gain a sense of career options that you think you’d find attractive. Folks who’ve been around the track a few times are generally delighted to lend a helping hand to someone who is interested in joining the ranks. Don’t be afraid to ask! But do your homework before the meeting. Read about issues facing the industry. Take a look at sample job descriptions to understand a bit about the scope of responsibilities. Come prepared with conversation starters to help you explore a day-in-the-life as well as the key ingredients to success. See where and how it might light you up; surface frustrations and challenges.

Put your best foot forward when seeking employment. Make sure your job application, resume, and other materials are well-written and build a compelling case for why you’d make a great addition to the organization. (Have someone proof your work to surface typos and grammatical mistakes!) As with your information interviews, do your homework on the industry, the company, and the position for which you are applying. In short, be prepared to make a great impression… every time.

Don’t sweat it if you don’t hit pay dirt during your first few years on the job. You may have thought deeply about what floats your boat yet still come up short on enthusiasm once you got into the position. That’s OK! There are things you simply won’t know about yourself until you’re actually doing the work. And there are things about the company that you won’t know until you’re actually in it. Take time to think through the factors that make your situation unappealing. Be specific! Then ask yourself:

  • Are there things about yourself that you simply need to work on? (Better to stay on the job and work out your own junk rather than play out that same old act on a new stage!)
  • Are there things you can learn and skills you can develop before moving on?
  • Is your employer amenable to working with you to make adjustments?
  • Do you need to log a respectable amount of time here before vying for a new position?

Learn to be your own advocate. It’d be lovely if there was a fairy godmother who played a starring role in your advancement. But most of us aren’t blessed with that kind of mentor. It’s up to you to discern which projects, experiences, responsibilities, job titles, et al will advance your journey. And it’s up to you to keep an eye out for opportunities as they arise. That being said, make sure you’ve mastered the work to which you’ve been assigned before clamoring after the next one.

Beware of being perceived as indispensable to the job you’re currently doing. There will be a high degree of resistance to letting you move on. (In fact, it could very well be the reason that you don’t even hear about new opportunities!) Cultivate skills that will make you eligible for the next logical step in your career. Work with your boss to groom your replacement and develop the transition plan that will help things run smoothly once you’ve left. If you’re a great employee, they’ll want to keep you interested and engaged rather than lose you.

Don’t expect the workplace to be a meritocracy. The best and brightest don’t always find their way to the top of the heap. A number of other factors play a role: connections, tenure, “fit,” luck, etc. It may not seem fair, but that the way it works. Get over it. Focus on putting forth your best possible work while advancing your skills and knowledge.

Surround yourself with great people. Few things are as rewarding as working with a collective of folks who share your passion, stimulate your mind, challenge you to be your best self, and serve as traveling companions on your professional journey. They’ll make work much more interesting and enjoyable. They’ll share in your triumphs and lift you up in your disappointments. And quite a few of them will wind up becoming life-long friends.

Woman’s Best Friend

Brodie as a puppyHappy birthday, Brodie! Our Scottish terrier turns 7 years old today. Hard to believe that a few short years ago he was an adorable little 8-pound pup. That cuteness still tugs at my heart strings.

My husband and I grew up with dogs as family members, but we didn’t add a furry member to our household until Fall 2011. At the time, my parents had a Scottish terrier named Angus whose care had exceeded their capabilities. So, Angus came to live with us. He was a really mellow dog who enjoyed hanging out with me in my home office and using my husband’s foot as a pillow when we gathered in the den to watch TV. We lost him 6 months later to lymphoma. I was heartbroken and really missed his companionship. We remedied the situation later that year with Brodie.

The Cascade Scottish Terrier Club posted a meme today on Facebook that declares: “All dogs are therapy dogs. The majority of them are just freelancing.” Those statements ring so true for me. We’ve had a difficult few years taking care of my elderly parents – watching their physical and cognitive capacities slip away as they’ve transitioned from independent living to various levels of assisted care. It has been challenging for all concerned. I’ve truly valued having a happy little guy who brings dozens of smiles to my face daily. He also models behaviors that I’d like to incorporate into my life.

He is intensely loyal to his tribe and relishes being with them. He greets us at the door with great enthusiasm whenever we’ve been separated. He wants to be where we are and keeps tabs on us as we move about the house. He loves to sit in my lap or lay down next to the sofa with his head on Spike’s foot. He monitors “intruders” (e.g., squirrels, cats, rodents) and lets us know that they’re on our property.

He’s a low maintenance fella yet knows how to get what he needs. His internal clock senses when it’s meal time; he turns on the charm to make sure that we know it, too! He has a clear and unobtrusive way of letting us know when he wants to respond to the call of nature. And when he needs cuddle time, he gives a look that melts the heart and opens the arms.

He welcomes guests as if they’re family. He LOVES people. Few things get him as excited as a new face at the door. He prances around to get their attention, graciously accepts scratches behind his ears, and runs around the lower level to disperse all that excess energy. He’s not great about detecting when visitors are lukewarm about canine companionship; he assumes that everyone will love him.

BrodieHe loves to play. He stands at the ready to play “chase,” to run around the back yard, or to take on the dreaded “blanket worm” (a.k.a. a moving hand beneath a padded blanket.) He can get so excited that you’d think he’d wag his tail off!

He works for pay. He knows quite a few tricks, but he won’t readily perform them unless treats are involved!

He gets plenty of rest and enjoys “alone time” in his crate. He takes comfort in having the protection of his crate when taking naps or nodding off for the night. He hangs out there when we’re gone unless a comfy spot under the dining room table beckons. He gets a good night’s sleep every night… well, unless there’s thunder or fireworks.

There are times when it’s a hassle having a dog. We’re restricted when going out, being mindful of attending to his basic needs. And we’ve got to arrange caregiving if we leave town for the weekend. But those are minor inconveniences in proportion to the joy he brings to our lives.

Yep. I love my dog.

Becoming Locavores

LOCAVORE: a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food

I feel really, really blessed to live in the Willamette Valley. Our summer weather is spectacular: not too hot, not too cold. We’ve got the Pacific Ocean out West and the Cascade Mountains to the East with lush farmland in between… and some calming forests for good measure. It’s a little slice of paradise.

We’re blessed with a wealth of famer’s markets throughout the Greater Portland Metro Area. We try to get to the Beaverton Farmer’s Market every Saturday during the Summer Market (May through October) and at least monthly during the Winter Market. I love being around all the organically grown fruits and vegetables, and I honor the hard work that goes into producing them. And though we’re mostly vegan, we do partake of the grass-fed beef and pork as well as free range poultry from time to time. Fresh food really does taste better. And it’s all available right on our doorstep.

Beaverton Farmer's Market

A friend joined us for our weekly Farmer’s Market visit. She noticed how much more we pay for all that food relative to the average grocer. Here’s why we do it:

  • The average meal in the United States travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the plate. That effort consumes a lot of fossil fuel (of which there is a diminishing supply) and pumps a great deal of carbon dioxide into the air (which is bad for breathing and has been linked to global warming). The growers who support the Beaverton Market live and work within 100 miles of their fruit and vegetables stands.
  • Because grocery store fruit and vegetables travel a substantial distance, they must be picked while unripe and then gassed to ripen during transport. It just doesn’t taste as good and may not be as nutritious. (To their credit, many of our local grocers are doing a better job sourcing produce from local growers.)
  • Factory farms that generate ultra-cheap produce may engage in practices that result in resource depletion, soil erosion, water and air degradation, and food contaminants (e.g., pesticide residue). By shopping at the Farmer’s Market, we get to know the farmers and the methods they use to grow their crops. It’s better for our bodies and better for the planet.
  • Farming is hard work; the advent of industrial farming has been economically brutal for the “little guy.” In 1900, 40% of the population lived on farms; today no more than 2% do. Just since 1960, the number of farms has declined from 3.2 million to ~2 million. We want to support the folks who are still committed to this work. We’re voting with our wallet!
  • I like having a weekly reminder of our need for exercising stewardship of the good earth that we’ve been given. As Wendell Berry says: “Agrarian farmers know that their very existence depends on their willingness to receive gratefully, use responsibility, and hand down intact an inheritance, both natural and cultural, from the past… The land is a gift of immeasurable value… It is a gift to all the living in all time.”

Won’t you join me at the farmer’s market?

Healthy Differentiation Promotes Closer Ties

I happened upon notes today from Ronald W. Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. While I’m no longer involved in church leadership, the book provided some reflections on differentiation that merit discussion.

Each one of us experiences two primal forces: the need for togetherness and the need for individuality. We’re biologically wired to live in community. We need one another for fellowship, to survive physically and emotionally, and to ensure the perpetuation of our species. But we also relish our ability to act and think for ourselves. (Many view “rugged individualism” as a defining American trait!) So how do we balance these forces in our own thoughts and actions? And how do we navigate difference within community while still maintaining harmonious coexistence?

Individuals promote the balance of forces by striving for a state of healthy differentiation. Internally, they have the capacity to distinguish objective facts from subjective interpretations and emotions. This clarity gives them the ability to:

  • Perceive accurately what’s happening in any given situation; they don’t make mountains out of mole hills or create threats that aren’t there
  • Think clearly and wisely about available courses of action and the consequences of each
  • Identify and express their opinions and beliefs without the need for acceptance, understanding, affirmation, praise, or agreement to feel OK
  • Act flexibility in evolving situations, taking into account their own reactivity and the actions of others
  • Live their values and commitments in integrity

Differentiation empowers them to be in charge of themselves in the moment even when their history, emotions, and/or compatriots might otherwise motivate behaviors that are misaligned with who they really are. They know what they stand for and how they want to act in the world. They have clarity around their emotional junk and take responsibility for it. And they’re clear on the emotional baggage that lands outside their purview.

Why is differentiation so important? Because sometimes the togetherness force can be expressed as a call for everyone in a group to think, feel, and behave in the same way. The community may have difficulty tolerating and working through difference. It may view dissention as disloyal. It may put pressure on everyone to fill expected roles. In unhealthy systems, closeness gets conflated with sameness.

differentiationBy contrast, healthy communities tolerate difference and conflict, treating them as normal and expected parts of being human. High differentiation in a group setting inhibits behavior acted out of the anxiety or tension of the moment. It slows things down. It allows time for reflection and dialog. It enables people to be more available and attuned to one another.

Differentiation helps people develop a sense of connection, intimacy, and mutual understanding without loss of self. Togetherness becomes a state of attraction and genuine interest rather than an attempt to satiate neediness. They can enjoy forthright communication, openness to ideas when facing challenges, and a higher level of cooperation in effecting resolution. And each takes responsibility for his or her own participation in the process.

Richardson asserts that differentiation is THE basic requirement for effective leadership. It calls leaders to define an emotionally separate self within relationship while still being deeply connected to others. It proceeds in love with full respect for the others’ individuality and desire to live in communion.

We’re accustomed to leaders being “take charge” individuals. But Richardson argues that one of their main jobs is to be a less anxious presence in emotionally charged circumstances. To do so, they must be:

  • Aware of their own levels of reactivity
  • Able to contain their own emotional reactions
  • Separate feelings and interpretations from facts
  • Act on the basis of their principled beliefs for the benefit of all
  • Stay calm and focused without getting caught up in others’ reactivity

An effective leader helps the group become more objective and rational. He or she creates the space for the group’s accumulated wisdom and experience to rise to the challenge and discern a way forward.

Effective leadership tactics: Be calm and soft-spoken. Ask questions and show interest to foster curiously. Listen attentively, restating others’ perspectives to ensure you’ve understood them. Be open to (and respectful of) differences of opinion. Look for common ground on which to build. Don’t let discomfort force a rush to judgment or quick solution.

What Neuroscience Tells Us About Emotional Styles

I’m a regular patron of the Beaverton library. I usually work from a specific reading list based on recommendations from friends and colleagues. But I happen to browse the neuroscience section and came upon a title that caught my eye – The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live… and How You Can Change Them. Mmmm… a self-improvement guide for nerds!

It turns out that the author – Dr. Richard Davidson, PhD – was intrigued by the varying emotional responses that people manifest when dealing with all the things that life throws at them. As he entered graduate studies at Harvard in the 1970s, he wanted to establish a scientific basis for describing these variances while developing concrete methodologies that help people lead healthier, happier lives. His efforts help birth affective neuroscience, the study of brain mechanisms that underlie our emotions.

The book introduces readers to his six dimensions of “emotional style” along with a summary of the research that led to their development. You learn a bit about how the brain works and the differences that show up in varying manifestations of the six dimensions. He talks about the mind-body connection (a topic on which I’ve written previously). And he also talks about the ways in which our brains adapt and change based on the experiences we have and the thoughts that we think. I commend interested parties to read the book and dive into the details. It’s fascinating!

The six dimensions of “emotional style” for which Dr. Davidson found a clear neurological correlate are:

  1. Resilience measures the speed with which one shakes off the anger, sadness, or other negative emotion after a loss, setback, hassle, or other bothersome event. He labels the extremes Fast-to-Recover (insufficient reflection on, and learning from, an experience) and Slow-to-Recover (trapped in a cycle of excess rumination).
  2. Outlook reflects one’s attitude toward lived experience. One with a positive outlook sustains joyful, interconnected, outgoing, upbeat sensibilities. One with a negative outlook can experience positive sensations intermittently but is unable to keep them going.
  3. Socially intuitive people are adept at discerning and interpreting non-verbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions, vocal intonation, etc. They tend to exhibit high activation in the fusiform face area (which deciphers faces), and relatively low activation in the amygdala (which triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response).
  4. Self-Awareness provides consciousness of one’s thoughts and feelings; they’re mindful of the messages that their bodies are sending them. This capacity plays a crucial role in empathy for others. Those low in this capability may manifest emotions in their bodies (e.g., anger, stress) yet be completely unaware of them.
  5. People who exhibit Sensitivity-to-Context are attuned to their social environment and possess a keen awareness of the prevailing rules and expectations. Those who lack this ability are prone to inappropriate speech and behavior.
  6. People who rate high on the Attention scale can sustain focus even in the midst of a gaggle of distractions. They can zero in on a single conversation in a noisy party; they can forge ahead on projects and tasks in the midst of emotional turmoil. They’re also less susceptible to “attention blink,” a heightened response to a stimulus that causes “blindness” to a secondary one in close succession.

Prevailing wisdom suggested that “emotional styles” form early and stay with us throughout our lives. Dr. Davidson and his colleagues disproved this assertion. Sensory experience can rewire the brain. Thoughts and intentions increase or decrease the amount of cortical real estate dedicated to specific functions. And cognitive-behavioral therapy can alter brain activity in fundamental ways.

While Dr. Davidson does not place value judgments on one’s positioning on the six dimensions of emotional styles, he makes the case that certain patterns seem to be associated with better life outcomes and greater happiness. To that end, he practices meditation and encourages others to do so.

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) enhances left prefrontal cortex activation which has been associated with Fast-to-Recover resilience.
  • An intensive period of mindfulness improves selective attention and reduces attentional blink.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to encourage a Positive Outlook.

Also included in his prescription for happier lives: Pay attention to positive characteristics in yourself and others. Express gratitude. Compliment others regularly.

Long Term Care Insurance

Several years ago, I attended a lecture by world-renowned financial management guru Suze Orman. At one point in her talk, she asked for a show of hands of folks who had homeowners or renter’s insurance. While most hands went up in response, she assured us that few were likely to issue claims against those policies. She then asked for a show of hands of folks who had automobile insurance. Nearly all hands raised. Again, the chances that we’d need to use those policies were relatively slim. Finally, she asked for a show of hands for long term care insurance policy holders. Very few hands went up. She asked: Why are we spending money for policies that we’re unlikely to use while ignoring a major financial risk factor in old age?

According to Morningstar, here are a few statistics regarding long term care:

  • long term care52% of people reaching the age of 65 will need some form of long term care service in their lifetimes
  • Women will need an average of 2.5 years of service; men will need an average of 1.5 years of service
  • 14% of people who use long term care services will need them for 5 or more years
  • One-third of the population over 85 will need support services for Alzheimer’s disease
  • The median annual cost for services in a skilled nursing facility is $85,815 for a semi-private room and $97,455 for a private room.

As shocking as those figures may seem, they accord with my experience of parent care. My father shared a room with 3 other gentlemen in a skilled nursing facility during the last 17 months. My mother resided in an assisted living facility for 3 years and has now moved into the Alzheimer’s unit. Their care costs are eye-popping!

Mercifully, my parents took out long term care insurance 20+ years ago, and both policies have rendered benefits to defray the out-of-pocket cost of care. Yet it is no small matter to file a claim and gain approval. Here were the requirements for Mom’s recent claim:

  • 10-page claim form with associated 2-page narrative describing my mother’s condition
  • Signed authorization form to enable the insurance company to engage directly with my mother’s care providers
  • Copy of the care facility’s State-issued licensure
  • Affidavit by the care provider indicating my mother’s need for assistance in performing Activities of Daily Living (e.g., bathing, dressing, eating, transferring, toileting, care for incontinence)
  • Copy of my mother’s formal Plan of Care
  • Results from a Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) performed by a registered nurse or physician
  • Results from a comprehensive cognitive examination signed by my mother’s primary care provider

Given the number of “moving parts” in the application process, it is no small feat to complete the package within the time frame specified by the carrier. It then takes a couple of weeks to go through the underwriting process and gain approval. Once approved, a form must be signed and submitted by the care coordinators at the end of every month to verify that services were rendered along with a copy of the associated invoice.

Even with long term care insurance, it has taken a fair amount of cash to support my parents’ care. Their policies called for self-financing of the first 90 days of care. Moreover, the care facilities want their money up-front – before they’ve provided any services. The insurance companies pay monthly claims after services have been rendered. It takes 10-15 business days to receive payment upon proper submission of the monthly form and invoice.

For example… Dad went into long term care on September 10th. His 90-day self-funded services were up in early December. But since the monthly submission could not be processed until January 1st, we did not receive any payments from his long term care claim until mid-January. Meanwhile, we were responsible for full payment of his September, October, November, December, and January fees!

Here’s the rub: You can’t wait until you are old to purchased long term care insurance. Most pundits recommended that it be secured in one’s 50s. To that end, my husband and I purchased policies years ago. They’re rather spendy, and the rates keep escalating every year. But we’re committed to maintaining the policies (or at least some fraction of our current coverage) so long as we can find the funds to support them.

One may think that the alternative of home care is far more appealing than the expense of institutional care. However, my husband and I were physically incapable of maneuvering my father to attend to his daily care needs. And my mother’s dementia is so severe that she requires round-the-clock monitoring. At a bare minimum, we’d have to have nightly staff on hand to allow us a decent night’s sleep… and that’s not cheap either! Mercifully, their astute financial management has accorded the freedom to give them the best institutional care available while keeping us healthy enough to attend to their other needs.