Narrative

On Transition: How To Take The Stress Out Of Change And Uncertainty

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I just moved across the country from Massachusetts to Utah.

Do not worry, it was planned. For a very good reason. But despite how planned it was, moving is still ranked as one of the top stress-inducing activities for human beings. I have moved numerous times in my young adult life and, even though I am really really ridiculously good at it, it is still a daunting and difficult process. 

The part that I am best at is getting in to my fully packed car, starting the engine, and driving to wherever my new home will be. I do not feel any stress during that piece of the process. Once I arrive in the new location, a little stress comes in the form of the to-do list at the new living situation (i.e. utilities, internet, unpacking, organizing my belongings, etc.), all of which is dependent on the extent of preparation prior to the journey.

Speaking of preparation, that is where all of my stress lives. I am quite good at planning the preparation and checking off all of the things that lead up to leaving my apartment spotless and concealing the keys in the freezer for my landlord, but still the process of doing all of those things is so burdensome.

I felt a constant simmer of cortisol flow inside me for about a month and a half, my sleep was affected because my brain exploded with "WHAT ARE WE GOING TO ACCOMPLISH TOMORROW???" brainstorms the second I turned out the light, and my body felt like it was riding around on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at the carnival (google it) swirling from work to packing stuff up to "sleep" and back to work. 

Before you determine that this is just my diary entry about how successful my trip along the Oregon Trail went and a discussion of my personal stress triggers, let me clarify that this post is about transition. 

People hate change. People fear change. It is uncertain, unpredictable, uber terrifying. Change is literally the total opposite of familiarity, and human beings are wired to seek out and settle into any sense of familiarity available. Our brains crave it so that it can log the most efficient ways to survive. 

Of course we also need novelty and uncertainty for our brains to grow at all, but human beings enjoy trying to control that uncertainty by planning way ahead for something or overanalyzing every single possible scenario even though they have zero knowledge about it. 

As a result, transitions can be challenging for people in so many different ways. 

I, for example, get stressed in the daunting preparation of moving. Others may not pack much so the preparation is super easy but they get stressed by the drive itself. 

As I mentioned above, the overall process of moving is split up into:

  1. Preparation and planning
  2. The action of the change
  3. Settling in to the new state

Moving is an easy example to use for a stressful change, but I want to think beyond that now and ask you how you react to change. 

Let us think of some examples of change, large or small, that you may experience throughout a given day:

  • a rainstorm
  • a surprise meeting
  • a car accident
  • a surprise party
  • someone buys you a drink
  • your computer crashes
  • you sleep through your alarm
  • you wake up before your alarm

See, change can be all kinds of things but those things do not have to always be a surprise. Like moving across the country or knowing you have to lead a meeting today that you usually do not have to, change causes some level of stress. 

Reflection Homework:

  1. What changes or transitions have you experienced recently that you expected / could plan for?
  2. How did you react to them?
  3. What changes or transitions have you experienced recently that you did NOT expect / could NOT plan for?
  4. How did you react to them?
  5. Did you react differently depending on whether or not the change was known ahead of time? Why or why not?
  6. Go back to the three categories above and zoom in on your reaction. Which of the three steps of the change process caused the highest reaction?

A lot of people are so distracted by the stress of their change that they are unable to perceive what specifically about that change is causing the stress. If you are able to answer the above questions, you will be able to focus in on what stresses you out the most. 

If you always stress about the same segment of a change, how might you prepare differently for that segment in the future?

If you make a list of recent changes and notice that your stress is divided up through the different segments of each change, what do those changes have in common?

This awareness will lead you to preemptively quell the stress before it even begins in the future. 

Jefferson Dinner, Part Two: How To Earn Respect In Any Conversation

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A while back, I wrote a post about finding your true voice and how I finally heard mine for the first time a few years ago at the Book Swarm event in Oakland, California. As I have moved around the country since then and worked on my business in different places, my true voice has come and gone, hidden from me here and there, gone on vacation a few times without telling me. It is only natural because it is connected to my self-confidence and my meta-awareness about my skills and acquired knowledge. 

Sometimes it hits me hard in conversation and I say to myself "Oh damn, I know stuff..." and drop knowledge bombs on whoever with whom I am interacting. It is so cool when you realize that you know things. You suddenly feel so powerful and even unstoppable. But it is hard to ground it and hold on to it in your awareness because there are so many moments of the day that distract you and that do not give you the chance to exclusively have the floor and fully live in that knowledge power.

The Jefferson Dinner last week, however, was just that opportunity. For those of you who did not read my post last week, shame on you. Also, to recap, a Jefferson Dinner is when a small group of people get together, eat dinner, and discuss their thoughts on a certain pre-determined topic one at a time such that everyone is heard and everyone gets to speak. 

My true voice came back from vacation just in time for my turn to speak in each of the discussions we had. 

No, I'm not telling you that Jefferson Dinners are the only times when you can feel heard and powerful. They help and they are a lot of fun, but let us dissect what about the Dinner specifically created the opportunity: 

1. Structure

The overall subject of the discussions was determined and advertised ahead of time, which told participants what to expect and also what was not going to be addressed (makes sense, right?). Furthermore, the location was predetermined and private, which provided the comfort of containment for the participants to express their opinions about the topic in a safe space. No matter the topic, the fact that the setting is preset and someone else is in charge of deciding the conversation topic, its direction, and its movement relieves the participants of a lot of pressure and energy to maintain a conversation on their own.

2. Forming an opinion

The structure of the setting and the structure of the discussion itself provides a comfortable scenario in which you may formulate and express your opinion. When the question is asked, participants naturally dive into their own brains and feverishly thrash around searching for a comprehensible personal response like a kid in Jaws swimming away from the shark. The cool thing, though, is as soon as the first person volunteers to speak, the mental ferocity subsides and you attend to the speaker. Every so often, a new little phrase will connect itself onto your response in your mind, but it does not take any extra energy or distract you from listening. 

The structure of the setting also provides the space in which you do not have to stressfully choose when to interrupt someone, raise your voice to share your opinion, or get angry when your opinion is not heard and the conversation moves on. This one is HUGE because it means that you do not have to expend any extra energy AND everyone remains civilized and amenable by the end of it. The Book Swarm discussions? Not so much... But that is for another time.

3. Respect

Here is the whopper. The crown jewel. What it is all about. You got external structure, you add personal comfort, and now all that is left is how the crowd welcomes your offering and respects your input. In the Jefferson Dinner, if the rules are followed, everyone shows you the respect your opinion deserves because you showed them the respect that they deserved. 

This is what is missing in so many conversations these days. Work, relationships, phone calls with family, you name it. Think about yourself at work interacting with a manager or colleagues. The structure of the setting is all set, you know what you would like to talk about, but BAM, you are met with disregard, inattention, and discourtesy. Maybe the listener is distracted, maybe for some reason they do not care, or maybe they are so arrogant that they cannot wait to hear themselves talk again. 

Often, this dynamic leads you, the speaker, to unsheath a nice defense mechanism and try to meet the listener where they are at on a higher level of snobby-ness than is natural and comfortable for you. Then it is a battle of defense mechanisms and you never actually express anything that you wanted to express nor advocate for yourself in an authentic and respectful way. 

Unfortunately the presence or absence of respect in an interaction determines the outcome of that interaction. 

What do we do about it? Kind of like last week, let us use these three themes as a sort of scorecard. Next time you are in the position to have a convo with someone in which you have something important to express, first ask:

  • Is there external structure around you? Is the setting familiar? What are the wild cards?  (i.e. will someone interrupt? will it be noisy? Have I been in that office before?)
  • Have you thought about what you are going to say IN A RESPECTFUL AND APPROPRIATE WAY? (i.e. what is the purest form of what you want to say, and how do you say that with etiquette?)  I capitalized those for a reason because some people take my advice to plan what they want to say but do not think about how to say it respectfully. It does not end well...
  • How can you set up the conversation such that you garner respect from the second it begins?  What can you say or how can you approach the conversation in such a way that makes it clear to the listener why you are in the conversation and what you want to accomplish in it? 

This can look like a lot of things, but often what I help clients to do in this situation is to be vulnerable and honest up front about their own reason for being in the conversation and then send the ball over the net to the listener who can now speak to their own experience. Because the word "vulnerable" is a terror trigger for many people, let me show you an example. Imagine you are the speaker:

"Hi ____________, I reacted quite strongly to some of the things that were shared in the meeting earlier. I would like to tell you about the reactions and ask you what it was like for you so I know how to go about starting my tasks." 

Though oversimplified and unspecific, this example still includes several important features to practice:

  1. you are being open and honest about your emotional reaction to something
  2. you are not downplaying or discrediting your experience
  3. you are not accusing the listener of anything, thus eliminating their need for defensiveness
  4. you are asking their opinion on a situation as well, thus opening up a respectful dialogue between you two
  5. if the listener does not respond respectfully, then that shows much more about him/her and is evidence feedback for how to interact with that person in the future 

What can you do either in preparation of a conversation or right at the beginning of that conversation that will quell power trips, offer respect, earn respect, avoid defense mechanisms, and help you feel empowered by expressing your opinion in an authentic and comfortable way?

Think of some interactions in the past and brainstorm how they might have been started differently.

Jefferson Dinner, Part One: How To Assess Fulfillment In Your Work

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Last night I participated in a "Jefferson Dinner" that a friend hosted in which ten people were brought together to eat and hold an orderly, respectful, and deep conversation. The host pitched a thought-provoking question and we participants could only speak one at a time, in order around the circle, so that we were forced to actively listen to the responses of everyone else. 

The subject of the event was The Future of Work and The Paradigm of Full Time. Our conceptions of "work", where the job economy is headed, statistics about freelancing and entrepreneurship, and how to continue focusing on personal fulfillment and career satisfaction were discussed.

The three total questions that we covered throughout the evening reflected on our past, present, and future ideas of work in our society. Even though our answers were all so unique and they started very differently about our pasts and how we entered the workforce, common themes emerged by the end when we discussed the future of work that we hope will be possible. 

To optimize survival, human beings seek both certainty and uncertainty.

The certainty we crave is familiarity. Reliable patterns of things that we can respond to with efficiency and fluidity because it becomes practiced. The uncertainty we crave is novelty. We all still want something new. Our brains need novel stimulation. Even though I resist the routined life of a 9-5 job and so lack a lot of the certainty that is common in the working world, I still have a lot of certainty on which I can rely, examples of which include shelter, electricity, and a support system. With regard to work, certainty is often interpreted as the security of a paycheck or the environmental security of an office in which work is undertaken. These certainties provide a foundation on top of which you can navigate your enjoyment of the work.

If things became too certain and predictable and efficient, though, humans would become bored. If machines automated my life and I rarely had to put effort in, I would not know what to do with myself because I would crave some kind of novelty to evolve. Novelty for a lot of people means materialistic possession, like buying the newest phone that comes out or the newest car. Novelty in work, however, can be found on a wide wide spectrum and is different for everyone.

Novelty is newness that implies opportunity. Opportunity implies choice. Choice implies freedom and agency. And finally, agency offers empowerment.

Once you are able to recognize choices within your work and the personal agency you have to make work what you want it to be, you have the opportunity for your work to be fulfilling. Even though I just described this so eloquently and simply, it is not often that simple in practice. Many variables affect your choices as well as your emotions around those choices. This is why walking the uphill path to fulfillment consists of stubbing your toe, someone tripping you, getting one foot stuck in quicksand, someone pulling your arm one way, and a strong wind gusting against you in some form every day. 

So what do we do about it? How do we even think about fulfillment in our work when there are so many variables involved?

Let us start by taking stock of your unique work situation right now. 

Security, Agency, and Fulfillment were the three themes that arose from the discussion last night, so let us use these as the frames through which we reflect on our work:

  1. Security:  what in your work provides you with a sense of security, reliability, and certainty right now? 
  2. Agency:   what about your work affects your independent agency? Do you have the freedom of choice in your role? Are you micromanaged? Are you asked for your input? What role does choice have in your job?
  3. Fulfillment:  what do you hope for, deep down? What do you wish was different in your current work? What do you fantasize about related to work?

Please answer these honestly as they pertain to you. Do not say that money provides you with security just because you think that should be the answer. Use the above questionnaire as a scorecard to shed light on your current mindset about work. After you answer those three, look at your answers and ask:

  • What sticks out to you?
  • Which question was hardest to answer?
  • Which answer feels heaviest to you?

You may find that one theme feels more stressful than the others. Highlight that one and reflect on why. That will be the starting point from which you begin working towards fulfillment. If you are fulfilled in your work, great! I want to know how you got there. What was the process for you?

If anything arose as the most important concept at dinner last night, it was that we humans are still seeking fulfillment, so why not work on it together

The 4 Step, 3 Minute Way To Slow Down Your Life And Reflect On What Matters

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Last night I got dinner with a dear friend who straight up devours any food set before him - not because he has poor eating hygiene, but because he enjoys the food. We got burgers and we shared fries. I started on some fries to warm up my stomach as we were talking. Thirty seconds pass and I look at his tray to see a street food graveyard. The wrapping that held the burger as one unit was crinkled and discarded and there was a contemporary pallet of ketchup / mustard / hot sauce across the plate, swirling together into nice sunset tones.

I had not even looked at my cheeseburger. 

He and I often laugh about how slow and methodical an eater I am (I am not slow, but I sure am methodical) compared to his vacuum cleaning system that disappears whatever lands on the table. 

I have observed and journaled a lot over the years about the Life Pace of different cultures. We all know that America runs on Dunkin and it is overcaffeinated and that society here puts value on moving fast. In Up In The Air, George Clooney's character says "We are like sharks. If we stop moving, we die." A little dramatic, George, don't you think? Can we find a middle ground where we stay alive but slow down a wee bit? 

American business is cutthroat. Corporations are ruthless. Sales quotas still exist. Greed is still one of the seven deadly sins. When we are so afraid of keeping our job, it is no wonder that people sacrifice slowing down and reflecting on themselves and what matters. 

I am sensitive to the world's pace around me. I have become more and more introverted over the years because being so extroverted in college wore me out and I could not keep pace with the extroversion of society. And that is not a bad thing.

In my next life, I want to be the geography professor I had in college. He told me of a time when he was GIVEN FUNDING to travel to multiple countries around the world, sit down at a coffee shop, and actually time how long it takes - with a damn stopwatch - for strangers on the street to walk from one point to another in his visual plane in order to study how people move through their cultural surroundings. That is it. He studied the pace at which people moved around in different cultures. WHAT? That is epic. Think about it. He got paid to slow himself down, sip coffee, and peoplewatch for science. If that is not escaping the Matrix, I do not know what is. 

But like me and my food consumption rate, it is about what you value.

I value conversation. Others do not. 

The past month of my blog posts has taught you how to be a more aware and effective communicator. It is important to teach because these days two kinds of communicators are dominating the market:

  1. the kind who talks just to hear themselves talk and you are a worthless piece of human material to them.
  2. the kind who talk just to receive affirmation that what they say is valid - and I do not mean that they listen to your response, I mean that they see you start to respond, count that as affirmation because they are so insecure, and then do not listen to a word you say. 

Neither of these are conversations. In the fast paced culture we live in, people want to be heard. Plain and simple. The problem is that everyone wants to be heard so it is a power-struggle-shouting-match to only talk about themselves. I know so many people who get lost in the fray. They know they want to learn more about themselves and differently express themselves to the world.  They do not know how, though, because they are focused on getting ahead in their work, so the arrogantly insecure coworkers and bosses overtake them. 

Everyone in this societal stranglehold desperately seeks to yell out how they feel but they do not because they do not know who can support them and what to do after they yell it out. They simply want to yell. 

People want to express themselves. 

The past four posts was the first step to becoming more aware of what you want to yell out and, more importantly, what is getting in the way of that. For most people I know, it is the pace of the world around them. Maybe they are lucky enough to know how to self-reflect and journal, but have trouble slowing down to focus on it. A lot of those people do not know how to reflect. 

You cannot learn to express yourself more authentically without slowing down and stepping back from the crazy train of your daily life in America. You have to hop off at the next station and stare at the forest, even if you are the only one there. 

Start here:

  1. What part of your life is moving too fast for you to keep up?
    • work?
    • relationship?
    • money?
    • sports / exercise?
    • sex?
    • nutrition?
    • pets?
    • friendships?
    • other: _________?
  2. Why is that part of your life of value to you?
  3. How long have you been unable to "keep up" with it?
  4. What feeling states have you experienced about it?

This simple set of four questions should take THREE MINUTES for you to complete. That is all. What it does is helps you label your feelings (likely angst) and the cause. Once you have these answers, you have a perfect prompt to:

  • journal about!
  • or tell someone about, and then ask for their advice.

Tell them the answers to your questions. It is easy. Watch: "Hey, man, for the past three months or so, I have been feeling stressed about work. It is like its demands and my coworkers are moving too fast for me to keep up. I like what I do but it is anxiety-provoking because I am exhausted and I feel like I am barely on top of things. Do you have any advice?"

BOOM. All four answers in a pretty little paragraph. That felt good. 

You slow down to answer those questions. You slow down to express the answers to your friend. Your friend slows down - hopefully - to give you some advice. You slow down to think how to change that advice into a plan. You slow down to put that plan into action at work the next day. 

Feel relieved yet?

Finding Authentic Voice, Part 4: The 6 Pieces Of A Successful Conversation

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Anger does not get us anywhere. It feels good to let out because anger carries so much energy with it, but it is not a long term solution for either he who lets out the anger or its intended victim. This is why conversations that are fueled only by emotion - any emotion - end up with the participants too distracted by the emotion that mature self-expression goes out the window. Examples include: any argument between drunk people at a bar or a kid crying to its parents about wanting a toy.

The needs of those involved are rarely met because it is an unattractive and ineffective display of self-advocacy. 

On the flip side, relying too much on intellect while suppressing emotion can be detrimental. Several times in the past I suppressed emotion in difficult conversations with significant others so that I could focus on what was being said in the conversation and offer a level, honest response. No matter how honest my response was, I came across as detached and unempathetic. Even though we both were feeling feels, the fact that I suppressed mine in the convo made her feel more alone and dejected. Suppressing mine only made the conversation feel worse in the end.

Luckily for everyone, there is a middle ground where the magic happens. The problem for everyone is that it is a difficult space to navigate. People get anxious about letting themselves feel strong emotions when trying to communicate in a respectful way. It takes practice.

I am here to tell you it is manageable and possible. I had to learn how to do it myself many times.

Whatever it is you have been ruminating on and workshopping with me over the past three weeks, it is time to let it out in a healthy and effective way. 

Last week you defined WHY you want to express the thing you want to express. If you have not, go back now and do it now. Knowing the Why gives you the objective of your conversation. The goal you would like to achieve. 

Example 1: in the scenario where you hate your boss, sure, you likely feel anger, but the reason why you will talk with HR will not be because you hate him. They will not care to hear that. Instead, your goal is to enjoy your workday more without the stress of wondering what your boss will do or say next. That is why you care to hate your boss.

Do you see the difference? 

The past client I described knew that telling HR his boss was a douche would not help his situation. Instead, our work together made him realize that he was going to speak to HR because he cared about his job and the cool ideas he had for it. 

The goal of the conversation is bigger than the person to whom you are speaking.

As a result, tell it as a story. Easy as that. When you sit down with the person to whom you want to express yourself, follow these steps:

  1. PREPARE THE AUDIENCE. Say: I have been having a lot of trouble with something and I want to have a conversation with you about it.
  2. TELL THE STORY. Describe ALL of the relevant data points to set the scene for the person and lay the framework for why you are having this conversation.
  3. LET A LITTLE EMOTION IN. Explain what is affecting you, how it is affecting you, and why. Be specific and honest.
  4. RESPECT THY ENEMY. Even if it is a boss you hate, explain their position, the things they say/want, and why they seem to do that, if you know. Do not whine, though
  5. ASK FOR HELP. Now that you have the context (2), your side (3), and the other party's side (4) presented, inquire as to how to proceed. Ask for advice on how to accommodate all parties involved so that you can move forward. 
  6. REPEAT WHY YOU CARE. Reiterate why you care at all. In our example, it is why you care about your job and what you are motivated to achieve within it.

Follow this outline for any conversation. Practice it. You will still feel quite vulnerable as you are describing the situation. Instead of anger or sadness taking over, though, you will feel the emotion behind your description and it will remind you why you care. 

This form of conversation honors your emotion while respectfully communicating your feelings and needs. 

As I said, I have had to practice this many times. Last year, I had this exact form of conversation with a boss in a side job because the culture amongst coworkers had become sadistic and toxic. I knew complaining and venting would not achieve any change, so I followed the above format in order to present every layer of the situation, of which my boss was not aware. I was able to explain how burnt out I felt and how it affected our work with clients. Because of the fact that I referred to how it was affecting other specific people as well and how we were all at a loss, my boss sought those people out and asked for their perspective the very next morning. 

Remember: if you are polite, honest, and authentic when you express yourself, you will succeed in conversation. If the recipient cannot handle it, then that is their problem. Speak your truth.

Try it out. You will do great.

How To Find Your Authentic Voice, Part 2: Start With The Raw Truth

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What are you keeping inside you right this second? What are you wishing you could tell someone? What do you wish that you had told someone and missed the opportunity?

Oh no, is this where Taylor lectures about regret and how to carpe our diems? Not really, but kinda sorta. Here is the deal: we all go through that pain of wishing we had said something different or just something at all in that moment that passed and will never come back around. Holy cannoli, I can think of numerous girls on whom I had a wild crush to whom I never took the opportunity to say anything because I was too scared and worse, I did not know how to say it. 

But that is not all true. I did not know how to say it effectively. We all know what we want to say - we rehearse it endlessly in our heads day in and day out - but never get around to saying it because we let fear set in of taking the risk and panic about the person's reaction, then we overthink the heck out of it to the point where every letter in every word sounds wrong because you cannot decide how you will possibly survive saying the words out loud in real life. I was the Lord Commander of Overanalyzing situations and conversations when I was in high school, I might as well have been paid for it. But when I think back, there is no question that I knew what I wanted to say. The overanalysis was my brain's attempt at controlling the situation that was causing me so much torturous anxiety before I even put myself into the situation. A constant preemptive fight or flight response.

Expressing your undying love for your crush in grade school is such a perfect example of this because 

  • A) hormones are RAGING
  • B) ALL the feels are happening
  • C) humans fear rejection
  • D) even good parents had not yet taught you how to handle risk and rejection
  • E) I had not yet started my company to help you develop authentic self-expression

Honorable mention: 

  • F) the terror of his/her friends being nearby, 
  • G) the subsequent gossip about the words you chose, and 
  • H) how little you focus on class work because you are thinking too much about seeing him/her by their locker between third and fourth period. 

Are you remembering how that feels? I sure remember it, and I am willingly subjecting myself to it as I write this. 

Fast forward to now. You are finally through puberty but instead of bearing your soul to a crush, the person to whom you want to express yourself is your boss and the acceptance you seek is from your coworkers. Similarly, you may be an entrepreneur who wants to pitch to investors or share your idea with potential teammates. Or maybe you have a job interview or a networking event in which you want to articulate your skills and value. 

It does not matter what the scenario is now because the fear and anxiety can be exactly the same as in high school. You are clear that you want to ask your boss for a raise or to fire Jack in cubicle 3 but you do not know how to articulate it appropriately in order to avoid sounding arrogant or whiney. You know what you want to pitch to investors but you do not know how to make the presentation structured and compelling. 

Overthinking is what we do. Our brains want to control situations, especially situations about which we are anxious we are anxious because it is perceived as a threat to our survival. 

NEWS FLASH: that is actually a good thing. The fact that you panic is a sign that you care! Otherwise, you would not spend so much time thinking about whatever it is! Boom, knowledge bomb. It is a genuine desire in which you place a lot of value. The only way that it becomes a bad thing is when you give into the fear, overthink the hypothetical conversation, and then never follow through with it. That is when I start my lecture about regret. 

So here is what you do: whatever your specific thing is that you want to say right, I want you to write it down in its rawest form. Even if it includes profanity, even if the words feel messy or silly, write it down. Do not manicure it or edit it in any way. Write down your first draft. That way, even if only a single sentence, it is out of your head and you bypassed the stress response. 

There is no pressure involved with the first draft. 

Maybe you hate your boss. Write down why or what you wish to ask for, anger and all.

Maybe you have a wedding toast to give. Write down your ideas in some order, no matter how cliche they sound.

Maybe you have a networking event. Write down the talking points you want to cover in conversation, no matter how boring.

Just get words out of your head and we will polish them later.

I had a client last year who was on the road to being fired, was angry about it, and wanted to go to HR to explain his side of the story. The problem was that he did not think he would be able to politely articulate his side without coming off as angry and whiny. 

The first thing I did with him? We wrote down what his anger would want to say about his manager - basically that he was an incompetent waste of space at the company. It felt goofy for my client to write it out as though he were venting in a diary, but it diffused his stress just enough to rationally take the next step, which was to discuss the true objective of talking to HR (to keep his job or only report his manager's behavior? Those are different things) and then strategically craft the wording in the most level and effective way for everyone involved. 

Overthinking is just that: thinking. So get the rough draft of whatever it is you want to express on to paper so that you get yourself ahead of your own brain and the fear. 

Your five-minute homework assignment: 

  1. Who do you want to speak to / what expressive task are you thinking a lot about right now?
  2. What do you want to say (uncensored and unpolished)?
  3. Write it down.
  4. Breathe a big sigh of relief.
  5. Kiss puberty panic goodbye. 

Why We Do Not Actually Know Anything...And Why That Is Okay

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In high school, I participated in the French exchange program in which a student from our sister school in France came to Vermont for a couple of weeks and then we went to France for a couple of weeks. In a nutshell, my exchange student could not have cared less about the program or me, so I spent a lot of time eating Nutella on bread and getting to know his family.

Two thirds of the way through the trip there, I officially became fluent in French. Not only was I able to speak it so much more smoothly, I began to DREAM in French. That is right, my unconscious thoughts had been completely transcribed into another language. That was so cool but also so bonkers crazy to me as the young strapping lad that I was seeing the big world. The switch flipped in my brain. It had beat all the levels of learning syntax and grammar and now advanced to a totally new land of levels. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed bewildered after awakening from having dreamt in French the first time as though I had awoken on another planet with no recollection of how I had gotten there. Or maybe like Neo in The Matrix when skills were  downloaded into him as computer software and he suddenly knew kung fu. But where he could defy gravity, manipulate the fabric of existence, and fight a ton of bad guys at once, I could dream in French. Definitely the same level of cool. 

Prior to my trip, my favorite english teacher back home heard I was going to France and she dropped the bomb question on me of "who is the authority on translation between languages?" As in, "how do we know and who definitively says whether or not a word in one language actually means this other thing in another language?" Maybe there is a scientific answer to her questions but that rocked my world at the time. 

Within my studies of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy in college, I became more and more fascinated with the concept of communication and what constituted "language" across species over the course of evolution (SPOILER ALERT: probably has something to do with how I went on to become a Narrative Coach years later...). In a neurobiology seminar, I led a lecture on how crickets communicate and a subsequent discussion on nonverbal language of other kinds of animals. These discussions taught just how wide the breadth of nonverbal language is and how "verbal language" is just plain sound that air makes moving across parts of our throat. No different than a swan singing or a wolf howling or a cricket rubbing its wings together to chirp. All language is simply an ordering and contextualizing of sound. So when someone does not know how to speak English, it means they have not learned how to form the air with their mouth, breath, and throat in the same patterns to which we grew accustomed.

History tells us how the spread of languages occurred in human evolution as the early homo sapiens began to travel up and out of Africa. The middle eastern languages (Ancient Egyptian, anyone?) and then the romance languages and boom, we have language all over the world. Despite understanding the sprawl and movement of language, I have never heard anyone answer my English teacher's question. I invite any language experts reading this who do know the answer to please help a brother out.

A major topic in philosophy of mind that was presented by Descartes in the 1600s is the concept of "privileged access" that describes how we conscious beings have our own unique self-knowledge. In other words, the way that I observe and interact with stimuli in my surroundings and perceive colors and shapes is theoretically unique to me because no one else can possibly view the world in the exact way that my eyes and brain do. Furthermore, I cannot know how someone else sees a situation even if I am standing right next to them. They may see things and observe them totally differently.

If you are ever bored, think about the question: Does that person see the color Red the same way that I do? and then clean up your brain off the ground. 

I believe the theory of privileged access extends to language. When was the last time that you said "You know what I mean?" after trying to explain something? NEWS FLASH: NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN. If you are lucky, they will recognize what you are talking about and identify that you use the same descriptive words as they might to describe an experience. Even people with complex vocabularies cannot 100% perfectly describe their perceptual experiences because it is possibly always going to be different than the way their audience may see it, regardless of how detailed an explanation they provide. 

So why do we teach? Why do we explain things at all if no one fully understands what is being said? I believe it is to connect. We want to relate. We want to understand each other. We want to know that we are not alone in the world and that our experiences are not somehow incorrect. History itself is storytelling in order to provide another generation context for why they live where they do and how they might want to live in that culture. Tales told around the campfire throughout the millennia are the experiences of the teller to which the listeners try to relate or which they try to remember in the course of their own lives. At least teaching can be effective when it is taught in an appropriate way for students to comprehend the information. 

At the end of the day, even if students comprehend something that is being taught and a friend's story at a bar makes somewhat sense to me, we may still not actually know what the person means. But that has to be okay because chances are we never will. We cannot know what the story they are describing actually looked like to them when they witnessed it. All of the colors and objects and perspective and emotions. 

Perhaps we do not know anything about what is said to us. Perhaps all we need is to be able to feel what we think we understand of the story. What rings true to us and what relates to our life and values. 

Perhaps there is no correct translation between languages at all. Maybe there never has been or will be. But also maybe they are translated just enough for us to be able to connect to each other. Better yet, maybe just enough to help us accept that we all have our very own experience of life in the movie theater of our minds and that that is okay because we are experiencing life differently together. 

My vacation a couple weeks ago took place in multiple French-speaking countries. My French came back quite strongly by the end of the trip and, even though I would not say I was necessarily fluent again as I was in high school, the locals seemed to understand what I was saying. I received the correct orders at restaurants and directions in the mountains, and I even held a whole conversation about a certain kind of popcorn with a local woman in a supermarket.

Maybe we are not as far off as we think. 

How Working With Me Is Like The Best Cave Diving Trip You Will Ever Take

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When I tell people that my career has been in mental health and that my business helps individuals with self awareness around their self-talk, ambition, and authentic expression through writing, speaking, and communication, I am often asked if meditation is involved. If you read my post last week about how active an activity (redundant again. You are welcome) meditation is, I find it interesting that meditation is so front of mind when topics of mental health and introspection are discussed. Those same interactions proceed into a discussion of how the persons are "not good at meditation" or "cannot meditate" or are "scared of introspection." I get that. Let us be honest, meditation takes time, introspection is scary, and deep internal personal change is like pushing a boulder up a hill forever (google search: Sysiphus).

But I am going to zoom out a bit. People get nervous about mindfulness as a discipline because they think there is a right or wrong way to "do it", when really the only wrong way to do it is to not practice mindfulness at all. But yes, that is when it gets super scary because it is like "Umm, where do I start and how do I stop?" People may start with meditating, then devote a couple hours a week to journaling, then over time become comfortable turning inwards at will. The problem is: the moment when you open the hatch too far and tumble down into your self and cannot find the way out of the caverns of your inner world, you straight up panic and thrash around in the previously tranquil pools of your consciousness. People freak out, climb out of the hatch, and lock it up tightly because it was too scary. No more introspection. No more journaling. No more deep breathing. Just shallow breathing and surface level thoughts from now on.

That is where people get stuck and they settle for handling life on their own without mindfulness. That only lets new panic take the place of the other panic. You will become unhappy at work, irritable at home, and antisocial with friends because you feel all the tension build up inside of you while the hatch behind your heart remains triple locked. And THAT is where I come in.

Mindfulness is scary because it requires vulnerability and no one else can be mindful for you, but that does not mean you have to do it alone. Why do we get the most out of yoga at a yoga class? How do we come to write our thesis papers in college? How do we learn to chill out the hormones and comfortably speak to a crush in middle school? We benefit from the support of a teacher, advisor, or caregiver. Yes, it provides accountability and accountability is a good motivator, but more importantly having someone there to support your introspection reassures you that you will be safe and cared for no matter how scary it gets. As soon as I begin working with a client, it is deeply collaborative. I meet them on their level and we journey into the abyss together. Sounds daunting? Duh, but that is the point of every exploration. Exploration inherently involves the unknown and tackling the unknown is so much more fun when you have a teammate committed to the exact same journey with you.

Here is what happens:

  1. We open up the hatch together.
  2. I help you dive into the pool of your inner consciousness (I do not push you off the diving board, I promise)
  3. I will hold your cell phone so it does not get wet
  4. I will hand you a big inflatable donut so that you do not drown
  5. We bob there, letting the current of the water gently bounce us along the path of your narrative goals
  6. You feel more comfortable in the water as your awareness becomes more grounded
  7. You hand me the donut floatie while you dip your head into your new empowering self-beliefs
  8. You start swimming freestyle further and further toward new communication styles and authentic expression. 
  9. You exit the hatch, rejuvenated like after a long swim in a calm lake instead of a frantic flail in the shark tank at Seaworld.
  10. Repeat.

You want to get to know yourself better? Want to improve your communication with friends or coworkers? Want to stop beating yourself up about your ideas and ambitions? All you have to do is take the plunge.

How A Snow Storm Shows You Who You Really Are, part 1: NEED

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Today, the eastern united states is witness to a large snow and ice storm. We up here call it a nor'easter and know that all it really means is to lace up our L.L.Bean duck boots a little tighter and make sure to keep the hood of our North Face parka in place over our heads when we inevitably leave the house. It is supposed to accumulate up to a foot of fresh snow. 

Even though there are a lot Boston-area residents who have lived here for a long time and are no stranger to winter conditions, this funny thing happens when the forecast calls for a dumping like today: people think that it is the end of the world. It is as though meteorologists reported that the zombie apocalypse will, in fact, begin at the stroke of midnight on Thursday morning and that we all better be indoors and out of sight forever. I drove past Whole Foods and Trader Joe's yesterday at 2:00pm(!) and both parking lots resembled a Los Angeles interstate. Random horns were honking somewhere, pedestrians looked both ways twenty times in the ten foot walk to their cars, and a hundred other cars piled into the through spaces to get a spot that can no longer be vacated because too many cars are piled into the through space. Smack my head.

Admittedly, I recognize the value of stocking up for a snow day and I wanted to get provisions myself, so I waited until 8:30 to go. Traffic had died down and there were parking spaces, but checkout lines still extended down the hallway to the bakery at Whole Foods. Judging how slow the line was moving as I meandered through the threadbare aisles, I was prepared to take a loaf of bread and ration it out to people in line to fortify them on their journey. 

Produce baskets were just baskets at that point, the pasta section was destroyed, and all of the pre-made food shelves were completely empty. Does anyone else remember the Millennium Bug scare and how we all prepared for a new Dark Age? That was right around New Year's Eve, too... What a coincidence. Anyhow, I miraculously found everything I wanted (cheese pizza, macro bars, and a deformed yellow bell pepper that was not damaged, just misunderstood) and asked the cashier how he was holding up. He told me he would be off today and could not believe the day they had had. That is reasonable. He went on, though, to tell me that he saw people earlier in the day fighting over food on the shelves. I did not ask him to elaborate on what he meant by the word fighting (but I absolutely pictured Catness Everdeen and all three of the Hunger Games movies), but let us stop for a second and consider the typical shopper of a place like Whole Foods: GROWN UPS. ADULTS. FIGHTING for non-perishable food that they want for a single day of bad weather. Even millennials and hipsters I know who shop at Whole Foods would not actually argue or lunge for that last box of almonds and cashews. It was like a scene from every virus outbreak movie ever after a pharmacy or food shop had been looted. 

So what the heck happened? Did a looming snow cloud make us resort to baser instincts? Maybe. But does a snow storm make us need to fight over food? No. What it boils down to is our perceived sense of need. Sure, hunger is one of Maslow's Foundational Needs we have to satisfy to survive, but what food does Maslow say is necessary and how much should be bought when there is a snow storm? 

I choose to write about this after last week's post about New Year's Resolutions and making realistic personal change because a lot of people's "commitment" to make change starts with a perceived need, and I think that is wrong. 

"I need to lose weight"

"I need to make more money"

"I need to get my life in order"

Are these not desires? See, stating a need assumes some external pressure. A reasonable need is to complete a certain work assignment by noon so that your boss can use the information for a board meeting. The need comes from a pressure outside of you that bears down on you in order to instigate action. An external pressure that invites action like that is also known as a stressor. In that sense, acting to satisfy that need requires acting through a level of anxiety. Exhibit A: yesterday at Whole Foods. There was a whole lot of anxiety-fueled need swirling around based on the external pressure of a snow storm. 

Now think about your Resolutions that you may or may not have set last weekend. How many were born from some external pressure (i.e. a fitness freak coworker who has passive-aggressively made comments for the past six months about how little cardio you do) and how many were out of a genuine desire born within you?  

Turning Needs into Wants eliminates the external pressure and the subsequent anxiety. There is more comfort in pursuing a change that you genuinely want and it is typically much more interesting and healthy. Not to brag or anything, but I went to Whole Foods last night with the desire for some food to have available today instead of the pressing need for a certain kind or amount of food to ensure my survival. That way, if there was no Annie's White Cheddar Mac & Cheese left on the shelf, it would have been okay with me and I would have found something else. After all, I chose to wait until just a few hours before the snow was supposed to begin, so you were not going to see me pointing to the far wall and stealing a ton of stuff from people's carts as they dumbly look toward the far wall. The fact that I was not in any state of anxiety allowed me to laugh about the sad state of the shelves with other shoppers and have a calmly supportive conversation with the cashier about the Civil War he had just endured. 

Make realistic goals, people! You need food for the snow day? How much do you actually want to have available for your family? You need to lose weight? What do you actually want to do to start (Hint: start by reading last week's post)?

We do not need to be savages in an upscale grocery store. We simply want to survive. Google Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. What is the minimum amount of quinoa necessary for you to survive a snow storm? 

INNOCENT LITTLE DATA POINT: A new definition of Story in your daily life.

In a class I recently taught on storytelling and personal branding, I asked the group "What is a story?" I only heard crickets at first as everybody totally overthought the question. I did not want to assuage their anxiety so I let the silence continue. Eventually three answers were called out:

"Something that happens to a character."

"Has a beginning, middle, and end."

"A glimpse into somebody's life."

All of those are correct. But the definition could be distilled even further. I intentionally oversimplify the definition of a story to "a data point". That is all it is. Plain and simple. A data point. Sit with that for a second. Does it make sense to you? Does it confuse you? Or does its simplicity anger you?

It should not. Here is why.

The three answers that the students shared were correct because a story is in fact an event that occurs with which someone interacts, it has a sequential structure to it, and the way in which someone reacts to the event says something about who they are. But these events can be huge (like a bomb going off) or teeny tiny, like me turning my head to look out the window a second ago. Interestingly, a lot of people I have taught and spoken to confuse story and narrative. I have found that they often think of story as a large grandiose recount of a period of time but, even though stories do involve an amount of time passing, they are not necessarily large.

What adds magnitude to them, however, is how events affect our lives. Very small things can dramatically affect people. A smile from a stranger on the street, hitting all green lights on the way home from work, catching that perfect sunrise at that perfect moment.

Now think even smaller than that. Me typing this post, me moving my fingers, my thoughts changing from one sentence to the next, what other thoughts come to mind and distract me. Even the act of telling you what a story is is a story. It gets super layered from there but every little thing that occurs, every way we look, every tiny action we make, is a story that contributes to our day and subsequently how we feel about that day and then how that day affects tomorrow, and so on and so on. This is why I call them data points. These miniscule-all-the-way-up-to-enormous events in a given day are bits of information that collect and impact a future.

Think about a classic scatter plot you learned how to make in grade school math class. You plot little dots on the graph and see what sort of trend it makes overall. This is a perfect example:

Each dot = a story

Ultimate trend and overall layout of the data = the narrative

On its own, a data point does not inform anything. It is simply a piece of innocent information. An event that occurs. It contributes to a narrative, though, because we react to it and apply our own meaning to the event based on emotional biases. That is how an event lingers with us longer than the event itself lasts. That is why someone's death affects one person so much more deeply than someone else (sorry for going dark). I alluded to this last week about how meaning that we assign to actions and events make them live on endlessly in the future. Our subjective assignment of meaning is just that, subjective. We have debates and arguments about events and stories that we experience, but our arguments are only ours. We each experience events in our own very unique ways only because we attach our own unique meanings to them. But without the meaning we attach, an event is just an event. 

Just a data point. 

Think about this for yourself. Think about every little teeny tiny thing that has happened for you and to you today and to which you have reacted. Really think about it. If you are doing it correctly, you ought to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly by how many things actually occur in a given day. 

Here is an example. A few minutes ago, I watched a gentleman on the sidewalk get out of a cab with six different pieces of luggage. One normal sized suitcase, a carry on rolling suitcase, a tiny rolling suitcase, and three messenger bag-like briefcases. The briefcases he piled on the large suitcase, looping their handles on the suitcase handle. Then he proceeded to stack the tiny suitcase on the small suitcase and methodically try to match up the handles so that one finger could hold the tiny suitcase in place while the majority of his hand could guide the small suitcase. The whole event lasted thirty seconds and was rather humorous at first (clown-car status) but two things made it less like a circus act and more of a seriously impressive endeavor: the man was impeccably dressed in suit, tie, and trench coat and the man's face conveyed nothing more than straight determination. No distress, no visible embarrassment.

Okay, scene set. Now story time. In that thirty seconds:

  • I stopped typing because I saw that this was no ordinary taxi exit,
  • I observed his dress and mannerisms,
  • I reacted with laughter first and then intrigue,
  • my eyes narrowed watching his hands dance around the suitcase handles,
  • I felt self-conscious that I was staring for too long,
  • I realized he could so easily look up and see me at the window eavesdropping on his adventure,
  • I consciously decided to keep watching,
  • I picked at a fingernail in anxiety for the man's struggle,
  • I felt surprise by his stalwart focus and composure,
  • I felt joy when he figured it out and started moving,
  • and I was left with immense curiosity for where he was heading...and why he owned so many small pieces of luggage...

See? A lot of stuff happened in a tiny amount of time. I have no idea where that man is but I am still curious about his journey and where he was going with so many bags. I want to know his story. And that event was significant enough for me to spontaneously decide to include it in this post, which took more time, which may have eliminated the possibility to do something else with that time, and the ripple effect continues from there for my day and week. 

It was just an innocent event that has now affected my day. And every bit of that story and my interaction with that event is its own story as well. Its own data point. Just like my students said, the Event of the Gentleman and the Suitcases had a beginning, middle, and end, it is something that happened to a character, and, most importantly, it presented the tiniest glimpse into his life. At the same time, my interaction with that event had a beginning, middle, and end, it happened to me - I experienced it - and it gives a little glimpse into my life by how I react to random moments.

ALL WE HAVE ARE STORIES: how our life paths have a lot to do with the stories we tell

I first connected with a friend in California who travels to new parts of the world apparently every week (FOMO much?) when I stumbled upon her beautiful Instagram account a couple years ago. Above her contact info, the only words were "We are just visitors, all we have are stories" - words that I totally fell in love with and about which I had to cold-message her.

Every day when I am not immersed in a client session or in restful solitude at home, I am constantly thinking about the overwhelming chaos of human movement. Strangers walking, driving, bussing, stuffing themselves into trains, they all have their own reason for being right there in that exact moment. People driving in traffic are distracted by their unique thoughts and emotions at that time when they nearly hit the car in front of them at a light or they are frustrated enough by their own unique triggers that they express themselves by honking at a pedestrian. 

You know what I see? I see stories. I see thousands of storybooks walking, driving, passing by every day. It overwhelms me because I am equally entranced by my ability to help people tell their stories and daunted by the sheer number of stories out there. So I take a deep breath and remember the quote: All we have are stories, and that is okay.  

It is so true. That is all it is. We are filled with stories and experiences and events and images that have affected the evolution of our personalities. That is great that we acknowledge what makes us unique, but then we have to share those stories in order to learn what to do with it. We build communities through stories, we make friends through them, find love through them. We start religions and businesses because of stories. 

In college, I took a 99% worthless anthropology class that consisted of three months of my professor bragging about her own research, but the 1% value I pulled from the semester was learning for the first time about Ethnography, which is defined as the scientific discipline that "describes the customs of individual peoples and cultures."  A powerfully broad concept I pulled from this section of the class was the way that ethnography studies how history is simply a process of storytelling. In the beginning of civilization in the middle east, tribal elders would gather round a campfire and tell their life stories and the stories of their tribe to the youth in order for the youth to know the significance of their own lives. Even the point of school is to catch us up on what has already happened or that others have learned. 

Stories are all that we have to offer one another. Explaining something at work, telling your spouse about your day, teaching your child how to wipe for the first time are all stories based on stories we have heard and expressed in ways that we have learned to express them. 

This is also true of stories we tell ourselves. You say you rock at cooking, you hate your job, you love your family first above all else, but what do these stories say about your personality? Why are these stories that you tell yourself? And how do they affect your daily life?

If we are only made up of stories, then we are extremely sensitive to them. Emotions underly the stories we tell ourselves. As soon as the stories become verbalized, they are then made real-er and presented to the world for feedback. The way that others react to those stories then close the feedback loop and affect the way we feel about ourselves in the world, new emotions are created, and the cycle starts again. 

Pick a story for yourself that you notice keeps replaying in your head and in conversations. For a lot of people, it is that they hate their job. Whatever that story is that you come up with, how do people react to it? If you keep telling the story and do nothing about it, what does that mean about your life right now? How can you adjust the wording of that story? Or do you not want to change the story?

Every story that comprises us has served a purpose and precedes the many more stories that have come and are still to come. Perhaps you are content with the stories you are telling, good or bad, but all I am saying is think not what your stories can do for you but instead what you can do for them. 

SILENCE IS GOLDEN: How saying less actually says more.

I recently attended a workshop on effective communication. It was three hours long on a Thursday morning. The content focused on mental frames we use that bias our interactions and affect the ways we engage in conversations with others. For instance, how formulating the belief that someone won't listen to you before you have even tried speaking to them inspires us to avoid any conversation altogether. The content subsequently covered a step-by-step method for conducting a productive conversation with respect, integrity, and confidence. 

I was content to learn that a lot of my conversations with people already follow that general method, but what was most interesting about the workshop was how direct and concise the content was. The prowess of the facilitator and the idea of "leaving your audience wanting more" not withstanding, it was a strong emblem for how communication should be. 

See, we humans think that we need to beleaguer subject matter to get our point across. That is often why it is easier to tend to be more wordy in writing than is necessary. Think of someone you know who - to put it diplomatically - is proud of something they know and loves to tell people about it ad nauseam. Do you often think that you would still get their point if they had concisely expressed their message once and left it at that? Aside from any arrogance behind talking about something longer and more frequently than is necessary, think about how much more time we would have in life if everyone got to the point and moved on.

Yeah, kinda depressing. But here is the thing. It is very difficult to be concise. It has been something I have been working on for years in interpersonal conversation. In text messages and college papers and cover letters I have improved over the years, but I know I can do better in person. 

Because my human experience on this earth is made up of my unique interpretations of events and stories based on what intellectual / emotional capacities my brain developed, how I understand a message or story from someone is guaranteed to be at least slightly different than the way they imagine and understand it themselves. Even when I feel like I totally get what they are saying, it could very well still be because I am thinking of something different. I will go over this more in depth later when we cover "conflicting narratives", but it suffices to say that we can all work on getting to the point.

"Why do we need to do that?" you might ask. Because wordiness comes from insecurity. We fill in our sentences with useless fillers like "just" and "like" and even a lot of adverbs to curb the edge of what we are sharing, whether out of fear of how the other person will take it or out of insecurity about what you are saying. If you read my post from a few weeks ago (see Friend-request your stress), I am willing to bet that you can identify interactions or individuals that cause you stress or insecurity. Those are perfect examples of moments to expect that stress, blurt out what you need to, and breathe into the silence that follows. Isn't it ironic that our stress response of adding more words to our conversations is our way of trying to shy away from a situation?

Next time you feel yourself start to blabber on and on, ask yourself: how much more do I need to share? Have I yet conveyed the point I wanted to make? If so, stop there and accept the fact that your message has been shared. If you have ever heard the old proverb Silence is golden, then let it be so and see what your audience does next. 

FRIEND-REQUEST YOUR STRESS: How to optimize your learning in an overstimulating world

I saw a meme once that alluded to the fact that the purpose of school is to fill us in on what has been going on in the world before now. Simply to catch us up on why are learning in the first place. Yeah, I see your wheels turning. You are thinking back to that social studies class where you learned about the Ice Man in the Himalayas or Alps and are curious how that applies to your accounting job now. It is kinda disheartening to think about all the classes we have sat through and wonder what you learned and why.

Pause for a deep breath.

We have learned a lot in our lives. Everything in life is learning even if not in a classroom. What is taught in school is constantly evolving. Evolution is change. Change causes stress. When I am learning something new - like when I had to teach myself my own bookkeeping a few years ago - I have a miniature panic attack at the beginning. Just a little one. It has to happen because it is human. Getting unexpected instructions at work right now is like getting homework at the end of a class period. It suddenly stresses you out a bit because you did not know of it before.

And what is worse, WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES. Not only do our bosses and teachers all have different personalities that lead to different teaching styles, every student and employee has a totally different learning style. No wonder communication breakdown is the primary cause of job dissatisfaction. But I digress. More on that later...

Learning something new causes stress. Straight up. And that stress is tied to a unique learning style.

Perfect example: Someone very dear to me learned how to administer stress tests while studying Exercise Physiology back in college. She was verbally taught all the step-by-step procedures to administer the test, what each apparatus and programmatic feature was, and how to explain the process to the subject. All good and interesting, except she had no clue how it all fit together. Cue the minor panic attack (Stressing about a stress test: priceless). Luckily she had initiative and has the same blended learning style as I do so, come time to demonstrate the stress test in the lab portion, she did not hesitate to volunteer. Even though she did not fully understand what was about to happen from a practical perspective, her engagement in the demonstration made her consolidate all of the information and understand the process to every detail.

Not all of us have the initiative that she did to take the risk and volunteer to be a test dummy, but we all feel those sudden rushes of momentary panic when we are taught something and do not understand it. All you have to do is recognize it and move on.  Even if you do not ask for help at that point, you must keep going. Reread the textbook seventeen times, stare at the math problem, google how to do what your boss just asked you to do.

We live in a world that is completely flooded with information. Words, images, data everywhere. I thought there was a lot of information to learn back in middle school when we did not yet have cell phones or AOL. Now look where we are. Something new is thrown at us in alarming fashion a zillion times a day. A lot of it we do not consciously notice but our brains and bodies register. It is a lot. Some would say too much. If the overload of information does not match your learning style, anxiety is bound to arise. We are learning new information both consciously and unconsciously from so many new sources all of the time that overwhelm will happen. It is guaranteed and it will not stop.

But here is all you have to do:  Accept that. Yeah, that is all. You are going to get anxious. Every day you are going to get presented with something new to absorb into your limited capacity brain tissue, and it will cause stress. Do not shy away from it, though. It is just your brain wiggling and adjusting itself to store more information. Own it. Expect it.

Why? So you are not surprised when the stress pops up. That way, you will recognize the stress simply as your response to the change and then you will be more open and comfortable to learn the new thing or take on the new task even though it is unfamiliar and unexpected. 

So say hi to your stress, do not push it away. You might learn something from it.

Mother knows best! What childhood taught me about narrative coaching

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Several summers ago I visited my alma mater, Middlebury College, to catch up with my former commons dean. When I left the commons office, which is still down the hall from the luxurious laminate floor and plush Twin XL mattress of my freshman year dorm room (GAHHHH all the memories! Make them stop!), I happened to glance across the way at the Studio Arts building. A dreary, dark colored building snuggled into the dreary weather of the day whose rooms sat chock full of charcoal, rulers, reams of paper, and left over stress hormone from the previous semester.

In the upper right corner window was an abundance of Post-It Notes stuck to the glass that formed the huge words "BE NICE". It made me stop walking. Not only because someone had taken a break from their other art to stick probably a hundred Post-It Notes onto a window - backwards, mind you - but because it was such a simple and powerful reminder. Just be nice.

In high school, a young soccer teammate had been bullied and subsequently had trouble fitting in. I told him that "being mean is easy because it is about domination. It's one-sided. Being nice is hard because you must give something of yourself, open yourself up to someone's experience" (I have since trademarked that. No one can steal it).

People aren't automatically comfortable being open. They're afraid that their kindness won't be "taken well" or "accepted". But that doesn't matter. Kindness is kindness, and it doesn't care if it is "taken well" or not, and neither should you. 

Kindness is the other side of asking for help (see the previous post). Asking for help is difficult because it requires vulnerability, which a lot of humans don't grow to very naturally enjoy. It is like asking for help is the super heavy lever that opens the drawbridge into the castle of someone else's kindness.

But you won't know how awesome and supportive the castle is until you start pulling on the lever. On the flip side, the castle needs to be open to receiving that person in order for both parties to thrive, so just be nice. It is as simple as that. 

Take my mother, for instance. She doesn't know you and you did not ask her for any kind of help, but she will talk to you and within thirty seconds flat she will know where you work, where you went to college, how your parents met, and how you happen to know her childhood friend's niece. She just does that. That is her kindness. That is how she was brought up to be. 

In my own childhood, my siblings and I would roll our eyes when we stood in line at Disney World or tried to leave a restaurant, turn around, and see mom deep in conversation with a totally different family.

One time when I was little and whiney (THE ONE SINGLE TIME, I assure you) I complained loudly to my mom to stop talking to someone so we could go home, and HER mother, who was in the car with me, snapped "Hush!" at me so quickly that a) I have never forgotten that moment and b) I realized, instead of a propensity for discipline, where my mom established her beautiful priority for selflessness.

After all, what kind of battle was I really going to pick with my grandmother, the Kindness Queen from whom my mom had received formal training all her life?

What I've come to realize is that the key to kindness is not only being open to someone else's experience. Even though my mom would respond back and forth and always had another question loaded up, the key is her ability to listen. How do you know what questions to ask if you aren't listening?

One evening in college, I picked up a billiards game with a young man who wasn't a student and asked "Do you play a lot of pool?" And that was it. Drawbridge lowered. He told me how it was what he did to relax and about how drugs had recently ruined his life, how rehab had affected him, what his current goals were without a job, and how his loved ones felt about his choices.

That was a big moment for me because I thought he was oversharing but I did not feel the urge to flee. I just stayed and listened and we played pool.

I am not surprised that moments like that led me to the work I have done. As soon as people in crisis have noticed that I was actually listening to what they were saying, they told me everything. They told me all the stories and all the pains and, because I was listening, I knew what questions to ask next.

That's how I developed my counseling approach. The more I listened and asked, the more stories they shared, and the more personal connections I could help them make. Sure, I have lots of activities and advice and anecdotes that I could share with clients, but often they do not need that at all. Instead they need me to simply listen and ask questions. Little did I know that my whole childhood was training me for narrative coaching all along. 

You see, my mother's kind of kindness lowers the drawbridge for people's stories, and watching her talk to other families in a ski lodge instead of her own is where I first learned how to do what I do now.

When I talk to a total stranger in the street or an elevator or a coffee shop now as a "mature" "grown up" and I learn a lot about them in a mere sixty seconds, or start with a new client and know what ten questions to ask next within thirty seconds, I stop and think about how that is what I whined about my mom doing way back when and I say to myself:

"Damnit. She wins."

Then I hear her kind voice in my head saying, "Watch your language, mister", and I think:

"Darn it. She wins again." 

You'll never read this, will you?

Blog - one of the goofiest but most recognizable words in the world. Like a lovechild of "blah" and "fog". Both super exciting. The first recorded mention of the word was in 1997 as part of the word "Weblog" before its separation into the phrase "we blog" allowed it to become a verb in addition to a noun. The term "Weblog" makes a whole lot more sense, let's be real. Now blogs are as ubiquitous as thermostats: random instruments that are secretly necessary in daily life. Blogs often take the form of a lack of form, leaving it up to the writer to craft it the way they want and about whatever they want (SPOILER ALERT: we'll cover this a lot more in a later post).  

Whether you're a quintessential millennial (like me) or a well-informed baby boomer, you very well know how blogs are the rebellious middle child between a tweet and a novel. It has stuff to say and it's ready to argue, but it's going to argue it in 600-1200 words and then turn stubborn, holding fast behind the words once it's published. The younger sibling will comment on it, the older sibling will discuss it on their book tour, but the middle sibling will remain stoic. 

Like the events that punctuate a culture's history, blog posts are the stories that compose the blog's overall narrative. The first time I wrote a blog was in the summer of 2011 when my sister and I took an epic road trip around the west coast for two weeks, documenting how many pastries we ate and how many times her iPod Classic (yup, remember those? The iPods that could store a hundred thousand songs or something?) thought it was a good idea to play Christmas songs on shuffle. We published the blog because we knew the trip would be an adventure and our closest friends and family wanted to be included in that adventure (it was amazing. If you happen to find it in the internet-land, please enjoy).

That's what blogs do: they connect people. Even if you don't read this post - let's be honest, you likely won't; it's the first post - I now get to be stubborn about a topic. And you ought to pay attention, because everything I will talk about actually relates to your life. And yours. And yours. And mine. That's important to understand so I'm glad you read all the way to this point (you did read this, right?).