Category Archives: Personal Development

Can Dreaming Make It So?

fantasyA cult of optimism has taken root in America. It puts forth the notion that you can get everything you want or need if only you believe in an outcome, think about it repetitively, and adopt an attitude that attracts it. Politicians, self-help gurus, entrepreneurs, pundits, and advertisers routinely traffic in this ideology to garner attention and support. Some Christian preachers exhort their congregations to leverage faith, positive speech, and tithing as a means of manifesting God’s will for health and material wealth. It’s a compelling message. But does it work?

Dr. Gabriele Oettingen spent over 20 years researching the efficacy of dreaming and came to a startling conclusion. Positive fantasies, wishes, and dreams in and of themselves did not instigate the requisite action to realize them; they did the opposite. They exert a dampening effect on motivation. For example:

  • The more folks merely fantasized about pursuing a romantic relationship, the less likely they were to attempt connection.
  • The more often morbidly obese subjects simply dreamt of having a svelte body, the less weight they lost.
  • The more students indulged in images of stellar performance on an upcoming, the poorer their actual performance.
  • The more frequently students fantasized about the career they’d have after graduation, the less success they enjoyed.
  • The higher the expectations for a quick and easy recovery from surgery, the poorer the results realized during rehabilitation.

Dr. Oettingen observed people of different ages, in different contexts, in Germany and the United States. The consistent finding: positive fantasies didn’t help (and often hindered) realization of goals. She cataloged her findings in Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

So, what’s up with that?

It turns out that we have a physiological response to fantasy. Our blood pressure drops, and we move into a state of relaxation. We lose the vital energy to think critically, weigh our prospects for success, identify obstacles in our path, and put forth concerted effort to overcome them. In fact, we may revel in the theater of the mind so thoroughly that we avoid input that might disrupt our vision and prompt us to take a different path. We cling to the pleasant state that our imagination offers. We may also fool ourselves into believing that we’ve achieved our goal, a phenomenon known as mental attainment. In short, we substitute dreaming for doing!

Nonetheless, Dr. Oettingen believes dreams serve us if placed within an appropriate context. She refers to her motivational model as WOOP:

  • Wish: Imagine something you’d like to achieve in your personal or professional life. It should be challenging, attainable, and deeply felt.
  • Outcome: Paint a detailed picture in your mind’s eye of what it looks like after you’ve gotten your wish (or resolved your concern). Think about the events and experiences that will have transpired in getting there. Imagine how you’ll feel. Test the validity of your dream by asking: Does this outcome really resonate for me? If not, find another dream!
  • Obstacle: Take a careful look at where you are today and contrast that with your desired outcome. What is holding you back from realizing your dream? Are you plagued by thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors that get in the way of success? Are there external obstacles that need to be overcome?
  • Plan: Create a detailed action that carries you from point A to point B. Anticipate obstacles and have a ready strategy in place to overcome them.

Having placed a dream on the radar and made plans to realize it, you’ll pay closer attention to it as well as things that cross your path that might lead to its realization.

Of course, fantasy can play a useful role outside the realm of achievement. Should we find ourselves in places where action is not possible, we can use dreams as healing balms while imagining better days ahead. They can help us persevere during a rough patch in our lives – e.g., forced confinement while healing. They can relieve boredom when stuck in a holding pattern. And they can help strengthen our brain circuitry for skills we’re developing when we’re unable to exercise them directly – e.g., playing an instrument, flexing muscles, solving problems. Mental practice is effective when done systematically.

Adopting a Fact-Based Worldview

get the factsI just finished reading a book by Dr. Hans Rosling entitled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He was a Swedish physician and researcher whose life’s work focused on the links between economic development, agriculture, poverty, and health. He was also the co-founder and chair of Gapminder Foundation which promotes global development through effective use of data to understand social, economic, and environmental factors.

The book begins with a simple 13-question test to assess the reader’s knowledge about the world. It covers:

  • Primary school education for girls in low-income countries
  • Population distribution across low-, medium-, and high-income countries
  • Percentage of world population living in extreme poverty
  • Global life expectancy
  • Population forecast for children in 2100
  • Primary cause of population growth
  • Deaths due to natural disasters
  • Population distribution across the continents
  • Childhood vaccination rates
  • Differences in education between men and women
  • Endangered species
  • Global access to electricity
  • Climate change

Without fail, his audiences score poorly; they’re overly pessimistic about the state of the world. These findings remain consistent across varying levels of education, profession, and socioeconomic standing. Chimpanzees – with their random selection of answers – outperformed humans.

As the extended book title suggests, Rosling explored 10 reasons why we tend toward a dim view of global development and offered suggestions for how we might self-correct.

Challenges Remedies
The Gap Instinct suggests that we characterize the world in binary terms with gaps between opposing sides. Reality generally shows no such polarization. Many (or most) data points could be in the middle and/or spread across a continuum. Be wary when comparing averages across two groups; look at the distribution of data and the overlaps between them. Don’t get mesmerized by stories about the extremes. Learn about real lives on the ground by getting close to them.
The Negativity Instinct says that bad news is more likely to get publicized and discussed. Good news and gradual-improvement news does not garner headlines. Get the facts from reliable sources. Let yourself hold in tension the notion that things may be bad/unpleasant but getting better. Don’t glorify history; things were rougher than we remember.
The Straight-Line Instinct leads us to assume that trends will proceed linearly. Remember that trend data may have S-bends, slides, bumps, doubling, or flattening.
The Fear Instinct suggests that frightening things – e.g., violence, captivity, contamination – get our attention and distort our view of the world and its risks. Recognize that one’s actual risk is a function of the real danger and the probability that one might be exposed to it. Get the facts and clear your mind before rendering any judgments.
The Size Instinct tells us that any number may seem impressive when it stands alone. It may distort our perspective. Look for relevant comparisons. Remember the 80/20 rule. Consider rates (e.g., per capita) when evaluating different sized groups.
The Generalization Instinct explores our tendency to view members of a group as homogenous and then using that categorization as explanatory. Look for differences and similarities within and across groups. When discussing “the majority,” ask whether it’s 51%, 90+%, or somewhere in between. Don’t get swayed by vivid examples.
The Destiny Instinct presumes that innate characteristics explain development differences across people, countries, religions, or cultures. Become attuned to the constant change in technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions… especially slow and steady progress.
The Single Perspective Instinct cautions us to beware of instances where we are so convinced that we understand a problem and its solution that we fail to grasp its complexity or be open to alternate approaches to dealing with it. Be humble. Test your ideas, especially among folks who think differently. Look at solutions that may be outside your wheelhouse. Combine numbers with real lives. Beware of simple answers and simple solutions.
The Blame Instinct stems from our desire to find a clear, simple reason for why something has happened. It’s the counterpoint to the Hero Instinct which wants to assign credit for good. Resist the impulse to find a scapegoat or a cast of villains. Bad things happen. Look for multiple interacting causes and the systems that provide remediation.
The Urgency Instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived threat. It may foster impulsivity rather than critical thinking and considered action. Things are rarely as urgent as we make them out to be. Pause. Gather and review good data. Consider multiple future scenarios. Remember that drastic action may do more harm than good.

Rosling admonishes us to practice humility and curiosity. Humility breeds awareness of the limitations in our own knowledge and the difficulty in getting the facts right. Curiosity motivates us to seek out new information and be open to what it tells us… even if it does not accord with our prior sensibilities.

Rosling leaves us with two solid reasons for adopting a fact-based perspective:

“First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying. When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”

A Toolbox for Balance and Confidence

Life can be challenging. Things don’t always go the way we planned. We may find ourselves on the outside of groups toward which we’d hoped to be an insider. And then big disruptions – like job loss, relationship upheavals, and global pandemics – can upend our lives completely and leave us feeling completely out of sorts.

the light we carryFormer First Lady Michelle Obama understands the roller coaster ride of life – from personal experience and through contact with thousands of people over the years. In The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, she shares the tools she uses to maintain balance and confidence, to move forward even during life’s rough patches.

While I’ll summarize the main lessons that I gleaned, I recommend direct engagement with the material. She’s a thoughtful writer and wonderful storyteller.

Finding Strength Within Yourself

The Power of Small: Major disruptions can be overwhelming. Huge projects looming on the horizon can be intimidating. Big, seemingly intractable issues can be daunting (and downright discouraging). Instead of standing by and feeling the weight of it, try introducing yourself to something good, simple, and easily accomplished. For Michelle, it was knitting. As her hands worked the yarn, the enforced stillness and steadiness of the task provided a welcome respite from angst and worry. And much like the stitch-by-stitch process of knitting a sweater or hat, she found ways to break the big things in life down to manageable pieces. She could quietly “click” her way out of a hard place. As she said, “I’d had to go small in order to think big again.”

Decoding Fear: We all face loss, harm, and failure. Fear may cause you to avoid situations in which pain might arise. But you’d miss opportunities, and your world may shrink as a result. An alternate strategy calls for understanding the mechanics of fear to discern when it rightfully serves your best interests and when it holds you back. When we befriend fear, tame our inner doubt, and go forth, we increase the likelihood that we’ll come out the other side with new skills and confidence. For Michelle, a critical tool in this regard is preparation. It settles her nerves and gives her the assuredness that she can tackle whatever comes at her.

Starting Kind: Michelle shares an endearing story about a friend’s husband who greets himself in the mirror daily with: “Hey buddy!” In that simple act, he tells himself that he’s glad to see him. It starts the day with a vote of confidence and approval. It acknowledges his light and tells him that he’s enough. That practice may not float your boat, but find ways to silence your inner critic and tell yourself that you’re loved and worthy just as you are.

Am I Seen? Human nature craves belonging, but we may experience moments where we feel different and set apart. That sensibility can make us doubt our fundamental goodness and what we know to be true about ourselves. Michelle encourages us to accept who and what we are and carry our difference with pride. We needn’t live with a burden of judgment from others. We can choose which signals we let in and which we ignore. As her father often reminded her: “No one can make you feel bad if you feel good about yourself.”

Navigating Relationship with Others

Kitchen Table: Good friends provide emotional shelter and a safe haven for your truest self. They travel life’s journey with you and can always be counted upon to show up. Admittedly, no one person satisfies every need, and the “kitchen table” changes with time. But there is joy in investing in one another and reveling in conversations that never finish. It takes time and effort to create and sustain community. We must practice and commit to the art of opening up to others and allowing their stories to intermingle with ours.

Partnering Well: A life shared with a committed partner adds another layer of richness to the journey. That choice finds best expression from a place of knowing who you are and what you need. She says: “When you know your own light, you are then better prepared to share it with another.” As with cultivating friendships, it’s a journey that takes time, effort, and a fair chunk of trial and error. The right partner is someone who will do the work with you, not for you. Openness, vulnerability, and compromise are hallmarks of success.

The Whole of Us: In the age of social media, we are prone to put forth our rosiest life narratives and hide the stories about which we are embarrassed or ashamed. That which we hold back becomes a cloud over our heads and dampens our light. When we embrace all of our stories, we release ourselves from fear and find more of our light. Our courage can have a ripple effect. She says: “The strength of one resolute soul can become the strength of many.” As others drop their guards – perhaps with a “me, too” – we increase connection. We become more human together.

Owning, Protecting, and Strengthening Our Light

The Armor We Wear: Life does not reward openness and vulnerability in all circumstances. There are occasions when we need to armor up. We need to be attuned to those arenas, choose our battles carefully, and manage our resources to address them effectively. Michelle’s armor includes preparedness, adaptability, and excellence. She also makes judicious use of boundaries to separate other people’s issues and worries from her own.

Going High: Amidst a particularly nasty presidential campaign, Michelle delivered a keynote speech in which she said: “When they go low, we go high.” So, what does that mean? Try harder. Be thoughtful. Tell the truth. Do your best by others. Keep perspective. Stay tough. Fight for decency, fairness, and justice. Have a clear message and a call to action that makes it difficult for anyone to write you off. Do what it takes to make your work count.

Break Up With Your Phone

In last week’s post, I talked about how and why our brains are wired for distraction and interruption. That facility keeps us alert to threats when our attention is focused on other matters. It works wonders in primitive environments that are rife with peril but doesn’t serve us terribly well in our twenty-first century technology-laden lives.

break up with your phoneAccording to, 85% of American adults owned Smartphones as of February 2021. Half claim to use them 5-6 hours per day; another 22% copped to 3-4 hours of daily usage. It’s hardly surprising. They’re key communications devices (calls, email, text) with integrated cameras, Internet access, and a mind-boggling warehouse of downloadable apps. Author Catherine Price acknowledges their utility but explores their deleterious effects in her 2018 book How to Break Up with Your Phone. In particular:

  1. They feed our thirst for novelty with an everchanging media stream (and get us addicted to it).
  2. With an array of configurable alerts and easy access to the associated apps, they’re designed to get us to use them. Every time we hear a “ding,” our distractible brains note the intrusion; curiosity (and Fear of Missing Out) compels our attention. We lose our train of thought on the task at hand and become far less efficient completing it.
  3. A sustained pattern of distraction overloads working memory. We don’t process incoming data and register it effectively across multiple schema in long term memory. This deficiency inhibits our capacity for creativity and complex thought.
  4. They stimulate the pleasure sensors in our brains. We tune in to see if there something good to consume or to relieve boredom or anxiety. Once they’ve captured our attention, they provide no cues to get us to stop. We just numb out.
  5. They provide the illusion of human connection through social media and give us the means to be “liked.” Yet studies have shown that the more we use social media, the less happy we are. We get caught up comparing ourselves to others and fixated on who is (or is not) paying attention to us. We’re also subject to context-specific gleaned from our browser history.
  6. The blue light radiating from Smartphones inhibits sleep by delaying the proper release of melatonin. And to the extent that we encounter something unpleasant during these late-night episodes, we may ruminate on it long past lights out.

In short, despite all their utility, Smartphones can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health. A bit of restraint may improve our lives without impinging on all the great things these devices can do. Here are some suggestions:

  • Pay attention to the habit loops that feed phone addiction. Do your reach for it as soon as you get out of bed? Do you take action whenever you hear an alert? Do you mindless surf the phone while watching TV? Then ask yourself: What’s driving the behavior? Habit? Anxiety? Boredom? Is there a healthier response?
  • Turn off alerts on all but essential applications. Customize the latter to minimize unwanted disruptions.
  • Schedule times for uninterrupted work; turn off the phone and leave it in another room. Enroll family, friends, and colleagues in respecting your privacy during this time.
  • Make it more difficult to check social media by getting rid of the custom apps on the phone. Use the Internet browser for access with the associated inconvenience of logging in. If that seems too extreme, set an alarm on the phone when connecting to apps to limit time spent there.
  • Resist the temptation to look at the phone first thing in the morning or within an hour of bedtime. There are plenty of other hours in the day to plug in!

Feeling the need for a more structured intervention? Grab a copy of Catherine’s book and follow her “30-day plan to take back your life.”

Pep Talk for the Fall Season

While it has been many years since I looked to September as the start of a new school year, I still gear myself up for new activities and initiatives as summer winds down. This year’s “coach” is Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her book – Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From The Science of Motivation – served up four guideposts.

4 steps to get it doneChoose Your Goal. The goal should point you in a specific direction and then pull you toward the end game. The most powerfully motivating goals share four characteristics: (i) They are ends in and of themselves, not a means to other ends – e.g., “I want to be financially independent,” and not “I want to make money.” (ii) They are specific and have some uncertainty regarding their success (ergo, you’ll work harder at attaining them!) (iii) They carry a powerful incentive for achievement. (iv) They satisfy meaningful wants or needs that may relate to self-acceptance, personal growth, relationships, contribution, and health. Such goals are inspiring; they don’t feel like chores.

Ideal goal statements emphasize meaning behind the associated actions. They focus on what folks WILL DO instead of what they will refrain from doing. (“Avoidance goals” are harder to implement!) They also provide challenging, measurable, actionable targets (how much, how soon) and suggest the path from point A to point B. A well-conceived path is enjoyable, if not exciting.

What litmus tests might be used to judge the quality of a goal? It serves a noble purpose that aligns with your values. It encourages personal excellence. It compels you to stay on task even when the going gets rough. It stimulates curiosity and creativity; you are eager to solve problems and make progress. It feels like play.

Keep Pulling. Once an initiative gets out of the gate, it takes effort and intention to sustain momentum. Progress monitoring looms large in motivation. As a rule, the more progress made, the greater the commitment to keep going. To that end, breaking large goals into smaller chunks creates an opportunity to attain milestones, take stock of all that has been accomplished, and celebrate. It minimizes “long middles” where motivation tends to sag and cutting corners becomes tempting. It also serves as a check point for actions yet to be taken and a sense for time frames to completion. That assessment may light a fire if things appear to be falling behind. Finally, breaking big goals into smaller units provides “fresh starts” and the boost in energy and enthusiasm they instill.

Failures and negative feedback may accompany the journey from point A to point B. Both can derail momentum when the ego gets bruised. Use the opportunity for learning and growing as the antidote for flagging motivation. Figure out what went wrong and do things differently going forward. As playwright Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail better.”

Navigate Competing Goals. With multiple goals on the horizon, it pays to understand the “goal system” – i.e., the relationship between the focal goal, other goals, each goal’s means of attainment, and how each contributes to the realization of others. Maximum attainment calls for making as much positive progress on multiple fronts while minimizing negative impacts among them. Activities that serve multiple goals rock!

Prioritize goals (and back burner others) when actions express commitment, when they’re integral to who you are, or when you’re getting increasing marginal utility out of them. Consider compromise when you’ve made sufficient progress, you want variety, or you seek a balanced “middle road” for all of your efforts.

Secure Social Support: We are social animals. We pay attention to what our peers say/do/think and find ways to coexist harmoniously with them. We’re also wired for collaborative effort in service of shared goals. Moreover, we tend to work harder when others are watching. Therefore, the best social support consists of those whose values, goals, and actions are compatible with ours and who thrive in a context of mutual support. Step it up further by finding role models whose life choices and comportment help you set your sights high.

Finding Greatness

chess boardI don’t recall how Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance wound up on my reading list. I didn’t recognize his name from the days when he was America’s chess phenom on whom the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was based. I didn’t know that he’d gone on to win 21 national martial arts championships and several world titles. And, truth be told, I’m not at a stage in my life where I’m seeking peak performance in a competitive arena. However, the book provides an interesting window into the worlds of competitive chess and Push Hands tai chi while sharing good advice for high achievement in any discipline. Bottom line: A good read.

Here are my take-aways:

Mastery relies upon a solid foundation in the fundamentals and keen insights into the dynamics of play. Those who get to the top have a well-conceived approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and a genuine enjoyment of daily practice. They have a passion for learning and the heart for continuous improvement.

In accordance with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research, a growth mindset yields substantive benefits over a fixed mindset. The latter views intelligence and competencies as innate endowments that are set at birth. It places limits on one’s potential and may lead to overly conservative behavior. A growth mindset views intelligence and competencies as qualities to be developed with passion, toil, and training. It believes in possibilities, instills an appreciation for the value of learning, and encourages relationship with those who have far better skills and knowledge. “We learn by pushing ourselves and finding out what lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” Painful losses can provide a jumping off point for the next leap forward.

We should expect setbacks, distractions, and disappointments. Progress comes in ebbs and flows. Our environments won’t always be conducive to undisturbed thinking. We’ll make mistakes or get bad breaks that adversely impact outcomes. We can bolster our performance by working in less than ideal conditions (e.g., noise, interruptions) and getting acclimated to them. It helps us learn to flow with whatever comes and use it to our advantage. And when results fall short of expectations, we learn the lesson(s) and move on.

Errors and mental lapses happen. We must regain composure quickly and be present to what is going in the moment. When carrying unrealistic expectations of perfection or getting frozen in the past, we open ourselves up to making more mistakes and moving in a downward spiral.

In any long-standing discipline, it often pays to reinstate “beginner’s mind.” We go back to the basics and take things apart for the sake of identifying and correcting bad habits and creating a platform for long-term improvement. Waitzkin refers to it as a “plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.” It may be challenging when internal and external expectations run high for performance. But it’s often what’s needed to break through.

While a certain intensity may be necessary for peak performance, it is not forwarding to sustain that attitude feverishly. Much like interval training, mind and body profit from stress and recovery. Concentration improves when paired with little breathers.

When called upon to perform, it’s really helpful to have a routine that reliably evokes “the zone.” Time permitting, it might contain a light snack, meditation, stretching, and listening to music. A shortened version may suffice when the clock’s ticking. Why does it matter? There are physiological and mental connections that come into play between a performance and the activity that immediately precedes it. And these connections can be invoked by simply visualizing the routine!

Finally, there is much to be said for developing one’s own distinctive expression of a discipline. Successful competitors play the game differently. Successful artists leverage their natural gifts, creative sensibilities, and life experiences to good effect. Great thinkers tackle problems differently. The right combination of passion, individuation, and dedicated effort can produce wonders.

Turning the Tide Toward Empathy

In 1994, a brewing civil war between rival factions in Rwanda erupted into a bloody massacre. Over the course of 100 days, upwards of one million Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were exterminated via carefully orchestrated attacks by the interim government. As with other modern-day genocides, the perpetrators made effective use of media to demonize and dehumanize their adversaries while whipping up their followers into a hate-filled and fear-laden frenzy. Folks who might otherwise have simply gone about the business of living took up arms and committed acts of unspeakable horror.

welcome to rwandaIn 2007, I traveled to Rwanda with a collective of professors, students, and alumni from the Duke Divinity School. We entered deeply into the history of the country, visited genocide memorial sites, and listened to eye witness accounts of those earth-shattering days. It was hard to fathom the violence that had erupted years earlier given the astonishing beauty, tranquility, and orderliness of the place. But it did happen, and Rwandans have had to find a way forward to pursue justice and community building in its aftermath.

While one hopes that conditions in this country are a far cry from all that, one cannot help but notice the same undercurrents on our political landscape. Our beloved e pluribus unum (out of many, one) has become a frayed tapestry at threat of losing its shape and substance. Where once civil discourse prevailed over national, state, and local policy, we now have threats, insults, and suspicions. We seem to have forgotten our shared humanity, our common goals, and the wealth of benefits we accrue when working together collaboratively and harmoniously.

For those who share my discomfort with the current state of affairs, I commend you to Dr. Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. He provides a crash course in the neurological basis of empathy, the challenges we face in the modern world, and strategies to reclaim this essential building block of civilized society.

Empathy provides the opportunity to “walk a mile in other people’s shoes” and make guesses about what it feels like to be them. Cognitive empathy gives us different perspectives on the world. Emotional empathy engenders feelings that others might be experiencing. Empathetic concern provides a modicum of emotional distance while motivating us to act in another person’s behalf. All such expressions have as their goal an increase in kindness and compassion.

Two schools of thought once pervaded discourse on empathy. One school deemed empathy a relatively immutable trait. One was or was not an empathetic person. A second school deemed it a spontaneous, reflexive, unthinking response to external stimuli. Both schools have been proven wrong. While acknowledging some genetic influence, Zaki provides solid evidence that empathy is a skill that may be cultivated. And while empathy may spring forth naturally for some and less so for others, everyone can learn to moderate its expression. Experience, environments, and habits also play a role.

A consistent practice of metta meditation has beneficial effects on the capacity for empathy. In it, we direct loving kindness toward ourselves, someone we love, someone toward whom we are neutral, someone with whom we have difficulty, and toward all beings in a sequence of expansion. For example, one may cycle through these thoughts for each object of our attention:

May [name] be safe.
May [name] be healthy and free from pain.
May [name] be happy.
May [name] be at ease.
May [name] be filled with loving kindness.
[May [name] be at peace.

When university students engaged in this practice, they reported elevated focus, more nuanced emotional experiences, an improved capacity to sense others’ feelings, greater generosity, and a clear recognition of our common humanity.

For communities embroiled in conflict, hatred often buries empathy… but does not kill it. In the 1950s, psychologist Gordon Allport asserted that “bigotry often boils down to a lack of acquaintance.” When people live, work, or play together, divisions between them can melt away given the right kind of contact. Such efforts work best when reversing existing power constructs – notably, giving voice to those who are typically silenced and encouraging those in power to listen attentively. I experienced the healing power of intentional community building in a Rwandan church comprised of perpetrators and victims of the genocide. The local gacaca worked to mete out justice to those who had committed wrong; the church served to heal wounds through the time-honored act of worship and sharing meals.

rwandan worship service

Listening also proves a critical skill for establishing relationship with members of hate groups. These folks expect outsiders to judge them and promote change; they’re very well-defended in rebuffing such attempts. One must listen nonjudgmentally and show a genuine interest in their perspectives. It confers respect and gives them the opportunity to experience compassion. It also opens the door to envision a future in which they see themselves as both caring and cared for. Those who’ve left such groups have referred to themselves as “formers”: former members of a group, and forming themselves into something new.

Arts and literature provide endless opportunities to walk in other shoes. When lost in a good book, I experience the characters’ perspectives and emotions while sharing a slice of their lives from the comfort and safety of my sofa. Theater arts grow its practitioners’ cognitive empathy as they prepare to embody their roles and make them come alive on the stage or screen. Both avid readers and actors have demonstrated above average skill in empathy.

Of course, an excess of empathy can lead to compassion fatigue and its attendant impact on the body – e.g., low-grade inflammation, disrupted sleep, cellular aging, depression, substance abuse. Health care professionals who ignore their feelings increase the risk of making inaccurate diagnoses and taking out their frustrations on patients. When able to draw awareness to their feelings, they are much more likely to express empathetic concern rather than empathetic distress. It allows them to care about others without internalizing their pain. Mindfulness training has proven effective in cultivating this skill.

Finally, Zaki tells us that empathy is personal, but it is also collective. We tend to copy what other people do and think – or, at least, what we think they think. Unfortunately, the loudest voices at the extremes often mute our sense for the abiding kindness of the majority. When tempted to get drawn into the we-they trap, choose to believe in everyone’s highest selves and act in a way that lets their better natures surface.

The Stoic Way

stoicI’m a long-time Star Trek fan. I find encouragement in creator Gene Roddenberry’s future (especially these days) and revel in the close connections forged among the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I get a kick out of the tension between the highly sensitive Doctor McCoy and the unflappable Mr. Spock. The latter serves as the model for my sense of a “stoic” – one who endures pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. Such persons are seemingly indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy.

To my surprise, this sensibility doesn’t apply to the ancient Stoics (e.g., Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius). They did not seek to banish emotion but rather maximize pleasant sensations (e.g., delight, joy, awe) and minimize negative emotion (e.g., frustration, anger, grief, envy). While the latter may serve a useful purpose momentarily, a needless cycle of misery should be avoided. Professor William B. Irvine lays it all out in The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.

Like it or not, life presents challenges and setbacks. Thoughtful folks may make plans and take precautions to minimize their occurrence, but there remains much outside our control. A traffic jam precipitated by a roadway accident. Unanticipated expenses. The unnerving medical diagnosis. The unusually long line at the grocery check-out. Stalled deliverables on an important project. Depending on our response, some challenges can prove beneficial. They help us grow and/or heighten appreciation for things that we previously took for granted. (Indeed, life might be less interesting should we experience smooth sailing all the time!) But we must learn to rise quickly and bravely to address whatever shows up… or, even better, create an alternate narrative from which we don’t need to bounce back.

An effective strategy for “rising up” treats the challenge as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness. In a “Stoic Test”, we take up the mantle to exercise creativity in conjuring up options, thoughtfulness in evaluating them, and decisiveness in choosing the best one. We treat it as a puzzle for which the universe has faith in your ability to solve it. To behave otherwise is a waste of time and energy.

Stoics also experimenting with “framing” when facing setbacks. They’d consider all of the things that were going well in their lives and treat the setback as a minor inconvenience. They’d imagine how much worse things could be and took comfort that their circumstances weren’t all that bad. They’d frame news with a positive spin – e.g., a 60% survival rate for a disease versus 40% mortality. They’d consider how they’d feel in an hour, a day, a week, or a month and ask themselves: Will this setback really matter to me then? They’d try to find the humor in their situations and let a smile or giggle come through.

Bottom line, each setback has the potential for a two-fold effect: the challenge itself, and the negative emotions experienced in its wake. Anger and frustration shatter tranquility and cloud thinking. It can spiral into a “blame game” that amplifies negativity, thwarts effective action, and delays resolution. Rather than wallow in them, turn setbacks into vehicles for transformation. Recognize that we can grow stronger through adversity and become all the more adept at dealing with it. Learn to savor every moment of life and extract every drop of joy to be found even in the occasional stormy sea.

10 Tools for Embracing Finitude

In my last post, I summarized key recommendations from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks that carry the intent of helping us make the best use of our limited time on earth. He reinforces these principles in the closing section of the book with ten tools for embracing our finite existence.

  1. what matters mostSet boundaries. We can’t do everything, and a life spent cramming productive activities into every moment isn’t all that fulfilling. No one really cares if we’re a paragon of productivity and achievement or an ordinary bloke leading and ordinary life. Make tough choices. Don’t add a project to the “to do list” until another one comes off. Confine work to a set schedule and stick to it.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one big project at a time. Our brains are not wired for multitasking and work far less efficiently in the attempt. Moreover, a multi-project horizon suggests a lack of focus on what’s truly essential. Focus on what matters most and let the non-essential fall away.
  3. Make choices about where to pursue excellence and where to accept mediocrity. Put energy into that which truly matters and get comfortable with showing up and participating in areas of lesser significance. Check in on this distinction from time to time as priorities shift.
  4. Pay closer attention to what has been completed than what has yet to be done. The “to do list” will never empty out. Why feel weighed down by future responsibilities when it’s possible to revel in accomplishment?
  5. Consolidate your caring. Choose which causes, issues, charities, and/or political interests are most meaningful and direct time and resources to them. Dial down the calls for action and funding from all others.
  6. Embrace boring, single purpose technology. A digital “to do list” may promise to make life simpler, but it carries the risk of distraction with other apps when managing it. Manual “to do” and grocery lists work just fine. For that matter, consider getting rid of all those distracting apps from the mobile phone. Make it a tool, not an entertainment device.
  7. Find ways to enjoy the mundane. The endless search for novelty and excitement makes us anxious, unsettled, and unhappy. Joy and satisfaction await those who learn to plunge more deeply into the life they already have.
  8. Be curious. When beset by boredom, anxiety, fear, etc., don’t run away from it by seeking distractions. Explore how the feeling manifests in the body and mind, how it morphs into other sensations, and what happens next. We may realize just how fleeting these sensations really are. We may also learn a bit more about ourselves.
  9. Cultivate spontaneity. Don’t wait until work is out of the way to say YES to an interesting experience. Don’t wait until there’s enough money in the bank to be generous. Acting on impulse can be a good thing from time to time.
  10. Practice doing nothing. Stillness may bring forth poor choices to relieve boredom and anxiety. Go ahead and be a little bored and anxious. It’ll pass. Settle down and reflect before taking action… or just get comfortable with sitting there. It’s OK. Need a little help? Check out Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto for an amusing take on the subject.

Four Thousand Weeks

Oliver Burkeman serves up a great big dish of finitude in his New York Times bestseller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. He argues that time management should be everyone’s concern and offers some practical advice for making the most of it.

Make hard choices. There’s not enough time to do everything that feels worthwhile or interesting. There’s no peace and contentment trying to cram ever more things into each day. The more we fall into the trap of believing we can do it all, the more likely we’ll invest precious time in activities that aren’t truly meaningful for us. When we discipline ourselves to make hard choices, we make better ones.

Face finitude. We are each granted a limited time on this earth with no guarantees on how long that might be. Confronting that reality can make us truly present for the moments we’ve been given. As he says: “Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any later left?”

Get comfortable with procrastination. Do the right things and let the other stuff slide. Burkeman’s principles include: (i) focusing on personal priorities first to make sure they get done; (ii) setting limits on how many projects you’ll tackle at a time (i.e., top 5, not a top 25!); and, (iii) resisting the allure of middling priorities even if they’ll take consume very little time and resources. That approach may leave some items on the “someday list” for quite a while. If they prove compelling, they’ll work their way up. If not, they’ll fall off.

Avoid external distraction. Digital media excels at hijacking attention. Our devices provide alerts to new content and provide effortless ways to tap them. We lose momentum on the tasks at hand and often get drawn in to browsing their curated content. Beyond their disruptive influence, they exert a substantive impact on our attitudes and thoughts. It’s time to reset notification parameters and limit the parties who are granted instant access.

Avoid internal distraction. When facing difficult or uncomfortable tasks – even things we want to do – our minds can start scanning for ways to pull us off course. Turn on the TV. Check social media. Do busy work. Go to the refrigerator. Boredom accounts for a number of these interrupts. (Daily workouts, meditation, and music practice fall into this category for me… until I get going on them.) Fear accounts for others. (“What if I’m not good enough to get this job done well?”) Internally-motivated distraction chews up a lot of brain cycles while stalling forward progress. Rather than getting caught up in this spin cycle, acknowledge (name) the discomfort, deal with it, and then move on.

Rediscover rest. We needn’t justify our lives in terms of productivity or treat leisure time as recovery for work or yet another opportunity to achieve mastery. It’s OK to pursue hobbies at which we’re mediocre. It’s OK to go on hikes, runs, or bike rides without challenging ourselves to better our prior efforts. In fact, it’s OK to flat out “waste time” and do nothing at all. We’re allowed to just be and put the kibosh on the constant striving.

Practice patience. We’ve become speed addicts, always in a hurry. If traffic jams up, we get frustrated and start honking our horns. When in slow moving lines at the grocers, we get annoyed with the chatty check-out clerks or the folks who take too long with payment. When projects take longer to complete than we anticipated (as they usually do!), we stop enjoying the process and grumble about the unanticipated drag on our schedules. Why opt for anxiety-laden frustration when it won’t change the outcome? Breathe and opt for peace and calm instead.

Cultivate staying power. Life doesn’t always come with easy answers to the problems it presents. Stay in the mix long enough to discern the way forward. If challenged by a gnarly task, chip away at it a little at a time without succumbing to the pressure to race to the finish line. Embrace trial and error; fumble along while learning new skills or accumulating experience. It creates a more satisfying experience while delivering better outcomes.

Connect with people who matter. The cosmos will take little note of our lives on earth. All but a very few of us will make our marks in history. But our lives will be enriched immeasurably by aligning our temporal grooves with the family, friends, and communities about which we most care.