Reflection

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

Cave pool.jpg

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.

DECK THE HALLS WITH FIVE QUESTIONS THAT HELP YOU ASSESS YOUR RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNICATION STYLE

Andddddd suddenly it is December again. Even though Christmas music has been playing and Starbucks has been using the red cups for over a month, now is when we buckle down and freak out about gift-giving, snow tires, and, of course, even more time with the family.

I love my family and I am lucky to have a family that communicates through an endless group text message, but every family has their own version of pervasive challenges that never quite go away. Especially around the holidays, personalities clash, arguments happen, the house is suddenly THAT MUCH smaller as "grown up, mature" kids try to prove how grown up and mature they are. 

For the majority of families whom I have served in the mental health field, holiday time together is an impassible terrain of anger, sadness, and trauma. In every case, all of the tension is caused by the absence of a single tool: respectful communication. It is very difficult for a child to have a parent or sibling yell at them and relentlessly blame them for something they did not do and for that child to simply shrug it off with a "well, something is going on with them and they are projecting all over me. I wonder what is wrong."

When you are getting berated for no reason, it is human and normal to feel sad, angry, resentful, and defensive because you are being attacked and your self worth is threatened. I am one of the billions of people who have been bullied before, and I still get bullied to this day. Think about bullying, though. It is so sad that a bully is so insecure about him or herself in some way that they have to exert negative control over peers who they deem to be weaker in order to feel less powerless and more worthwhile in the world. What if that bully instead approached some of the "weaker" kids, asked to sit down at their lunch table, and be friends with them, and over time be able to talk about their anger and stressors to friends who would show him or her compassion?  Why does the bully not do that?

Because it is DIFFICULT.

It is difficult to express your feelings. It is difficult to trust others with your vulnerability. It is difficult to be authentic. It is difficult to take a deep breath and remind yourself that it is not your fault. 

Why do you think we had a section in high school health class when we were formally taught how to use "I" statements to express our feelings and have a respectful conversation? Because it is difficult to say "I felt hurt when you said ____  to me." It takes a lot of self-awareness to know how specifically your feelings are hurt, and even more self-assuredness to verbally express them.

And therein lies the big issue.

Not many children or adults know how to put words to their feelings and calmly discuss them. A lot of people know what they are feeling but, because they do not know how to verbalize it, they resolve to believe the only way to express them is through action or argument, leading to fights and resentment.  You cannot change others but you are always able to make change in yourself.

Last week I wrote about gratitude for the connections we make, and respectful communication is the fire that forges those connections into healthy relationships. You see, how you carry yourself day to day and communicate with those around you comprises the story you tell the world. We will never be done working on personal expression and respectful communication, myself included. But we cannot do it alone. I am proud of my own ability to openly express my thoughts and feelings and I had a lot of help along the way. Now I help people identify the stories that they are telling the world, how it is getting in the way of their goals or their relationships and, most importantly, what to do about it.

I have helped clients effectively present wedding toasts, strategize comfortable and authentic networking for their new startups, and hold a respectful conversation with HR about a boss that they absolutely hate.  Our presence is not enough to make a strong relationship. Healthy connections with others comes down to how you communicate. And let me be clear. We all need connections.

So now that we are riding fast toward the New Year, stop and think about the connections you have right now (family or otherwise) and ask:

  • How do I communicate with them?
  • What tone do I use or emotions do I feel during the interactions?
  • Can I feel that I want some kind of change?
  • Is something missing in the connections that I wish was there?
  • Can I put words to what it is?

That is where you start. 

STOP AND SMELL THE TRYPTOPHAN: Gratitude for Every Connection

I attended Thanksgiving a few years ago at my sister's husband's family's home in Colorado with their close family and friends. In that household, it is a tradition to cook unbelievably delicious food, let everyone fill up a plate, sit down and smell the miraculous tryptophan and all of its filling companions, and then carpet sweep the group by asking everyone to take turns sharing something for which they are thankful. A group of, like, twenty people. Cruel and unusual does not cut it. 

Yes this was a compliment of my in-laws' culinary magic wrapped up in a massive complaint for having to stare at it in front of me with hands seemingly tied behind me. That aside, when it was my turn, I brought the house down expressing gratitude simply for connections, because it was through my sister I met her husband and through her husband I met his family and was lucky to be invited to that Thanksgiving meal, where I met other nice people and reconnected with old friends whom I met years prior through my brother. After all, it was by another of my sister's connections that provided me the opportunity to get a job in Colorado in the first place. 

Everything is about connections. If we are unable to recognize what we are connected to, we will not be able to express gratitude for it. People may be grateful for a loved one, a house over their heads, or a strong WiFi signal, all because they recognize the value of its presence. They admit their connection to it. 

I was lucky enough to attend a college student leadership event last week that featured keynote speakers, panelists, and flash-talk presenters from many fields related to innovation, entrepreneurship, and professional development who, through their very different specific lenses, distilled professional success to one single factor: building relationships. Making connections. Authentic networking. Whether for seniors who are starting to make specific connections in the job world or for freshman learning how to play the long game of fostering relationships that will pay off in a number of years, making connections is gold. 

There is not an effective alternative. Business, school, social relationships, everything is about connection. We are yet another community-based species in whose DNA it is imprinted to band together, find a tribe, and protect one another in that tribe against the harshness of the world. Sure, the whole survival-of-the-fittest competitive element of our DNA seeps through the cracks (Thanks, Darwin), but our need for connection is strong and everything and everyone around us continually feeds that impulse. 

I was relieved to learn in my own entrepreneurial journey that the best kind of marketing for my sort of business is networking because I enjoy networking and having conversations with people. I help clients with authentic storytelling and personal branding, and my work is a direct reflection of the importance of my own authenticity. I love what I do and the story I tell about my work and my business is authentic because I am uncomfortable with trying to present some kind of thin sales pitch just to lure someone toward my company. There are so many people who do not know that they need assistance like I provide, and that is FINE. It would never be my place to convince them in that moment that they do. That is why my own slice of our evolutionary connection habit is so strong. The authentic relationship is mutually beneficial. I learn something from everyone's stories, whether they become clients or not, and so I will never not benefit from the connections I am so lucky to form. 

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will always be grateful for being taught the value of connection, how to honor it in my work, and how to continue seeking it in a healthy and humble way. I hope that you all may take a second this weekend to think of the connections you have made and are currently making and how beautifully they contribute to the dynamic Thanksgiving dinner of life. 

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.

SOME THINGS CHANGE, BUT MANY THINGS EVOLVE: the concept of Stable Evolution in Narrative.

I am currently home in Vermont for a couple of days visiting family, and my mom made a dentist's appointment for me. She made it last week before it was even confirmed that I was coming home. I am not sure if it is the evolutionary predisposition of a mother to care for the health of their child that it is still raging in my mother or if sending me to the punishment of having sharp metal objects scraped across my teeth like a dagger across a chalkboard is somehow sadistically enjoyable for her. 

It does not really matter which, but it suffices to say that she has not changed. And that is awesome. Some things really do not change in life. Childhood bullies still might be jerks, siblings will fight no matter how much "maturing" they have accomplished, and my mother will always stay on me about going to the dentist. If you recall from an earlier post that calling the dentist to make an appointment was a huge learning experience for me when I was younger, this time around is a good example of my mother's personal narrative. 

See, narrative evolves. There is no beginning, middle, or end to narrative. It simply evolves and reiterates infinitely. Even when someone dies, their legacy maintains characteristics of their narrative. Any long dead historical figure currently lives on well past the individual stories of their life because of how their stories are told now. 

Despite how one's narrative evolves, though, one does not fundamentally change. Yes, of course you can get plastic surgery or transition your gender, or suffer traumatic brain injury that alters your personality, but you as a human specimen have not changed. You are the same person that takes up space on this planet, but you have evolved into another version of yourself. 

Stick with me.

This is the concept of Stable Evolution that I teach clients and students about in the world of narrative. You remain the same person but you evolve over time. I share so much with the little child Taylor in the photographs here in my childhood house, but so much has happened to me in the years since then that has transformed the sense of who I am. My mother's care about my dental hygiene has not changed for my entire life while she has experienced so many things that have caused her to evolve. The things we experience are events and the events are stories that affect us, one way or another, because we are at the very least aware of them if not intimately involved in them. These stories affect us and contribute to our narratives, which is the neverending evolution of each of our lives. 

I reunited with my college soccer teammates last summer. It was fascinating to hear how each and every one of us had such a different career path and different set of goals for ourselves. Some guys were married, some were talking about buying houses, others about moving across the country for work, most about still playing soccer somehow. We were the same people I knew in college (myself included), the same personalities, but we had all evolved. We had all remained exactly who we were/are while remaining open to the events we experienced since college that have transformed our day-to-day activities and goals. 

"Stable" has a heavy connotation to it because so many in western culture associate it with mental health and use it as an idealized goal to become stable or maintain stability. The problem is that there is no such thing as true stability for a human being. Sorry. It is not possible. The countless things we look at, react to, feel, say, move toward, and think about make it impossible to sit down and say "Yep, all settled." People even think that meditation is the way to shut everything up in your head and turn everything off. Nope, not true. Instead, meditation presents the space to be accepting and aware of all the thoughts and chaos. To let them happen, not to suppress them, and be okay with them. This is why our existence remains stable but our identity is never defined. It continually evolves. The only stability we can achieve is the consistent openness to this evolution. Even ignoring some kind of thought or emotion is still an action that will inform future responses and thus evolve how you personally handle certain situations.

At first listen, a lot of people have trouble understanding this idea of Stable Evolution because the words are contraries. I like to tell them it is characterized by consistency. If you are open to accepting the fact that you are constantly evolving, then your sense of self will remain consistent. One is dependent on the other in that the stability of your sense of self depends on your openness to personal evolution. 

Before I spin you down the rabbit hole any further, here is an activity:

Pick an age in childhood. Imagine what you were like at that age, what you looked like, and what you remember your personality traits to be. Write down everything that comes to mind. Does your current recall of yourself at that time seem very different than who you are now? If so, why? What personality traits are similar or different now?

Now think about all the events of your life that have occurred since that age. Okay, not ALL of them, but run through the timeline in your mind. Imagine how those events have affected you. What did they change about you, if anything? Hopefully, if you are human, you learned something from every event (whether consciously or subconsciously) that has made you evolve but who you are as a person has not actually ever been "changed".

Some things do not change, but a great many things evolve. My mother made dentist appointments for me when I was little until I learned how to do it not because she enjoyed calling them but because she cares about my wellbeing. Even with the multitude of events and situations from which she has evolved since my childhood, she still made an appointment for me to see the dentist today. 

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. 

1. WHAT IS YOUR LEARNING STYLE? 2. ACHIEVE GREATNESS.

Technology affects the way kids learn. I spoke about it last week. The reason I spoke about it last week is because it is simply scary how quickly the use of technology can pervade our lives, habits, and psyches. All you Millennials out there, remember college (the awkward 2-12 years ago, depending on who you are)? My college years occurred in the time frame when students already owned their own laptops prior to entering freshman year instead of my sister's time frame in which her college loaned them to students and said "now, this is called a laptop. You can do homework on it on top of your lap." My laptop was large and clunky and its fan made such a powerful whirring sound that it sounded like a malfunctioning boat motor that often dissuaded me from working in the library.

This was the time period when people started taking notes in class on their laptops and ballpoint pen sales began to drop. I have never taken notes on a laptop (regardless of its motorboat sound). I have always loved and needed the tactile feedback of writing notes with a pen in the layout that best suited my absorption of the material. That is not to say that my classmate in the row ahead of me did not receive the same comprehension from typing his notes out into a ready-made study guide while simultaneously checking Facebook notifications. 

The thing is we all learn in different ways. Even "visual learners" learn differently amongst each other, just as "hands-on" learners require different tactile stimuli. And that was before modern technology became a tool you could use. Picture two cavepeople, one a visual learner and the other a hands-on learner, trying to communicate to one another how to make a fire. One would be drawing it out with a stick in the sand while the other is wondering how the sand will turn into burning wood.

Being the unique weirdo that I am, I fall somewhere in between. High school math was a great example (why do I always return to math class in these blog posts?). I would need to watch the teacher explain a concept sequence on the board a few times, then ideally have the teacher watch me try it on my own and correct me, then I would be perfect. I would totally get it. The second it became more collaborative - after I got the general idea and the teacher provided the specifics, proactively or as feedback - I was good to go. 

All it came down to is a personalized application to my life. Here is how: the teacher teaches in their unique teaching style to a bunch of hormone-distracted children who each have their own slightly special learning style. Since the teacher is teaching in such a way for everyone to learn and I sit there unsure how this fits with my learning style, let alone the rest of my life, there is an element of connection that is missing. I am not connected to the material because I do not know how it should connect to me. 

All it takes is one comment slightly more tailored to my learning experience and BOOM, math was fun. In business, everything is learning. Since I chose to be an entrepreneur in the business world, seriously EVERYTHING IS LEARNING. When I made my first website, I just said "Allrighty then, I guess I will figure it out as I go." And I did! I was open to the journey and threw caution to the wind. 

But let us think about when you cannot do something alone. Like when you talk to a designer about a logo, or a landscaper to quote a construction project, it is very rare anymore for customers to trust providers at face value, so automatically the provider becomes like my math teacher in that they must convey their information and value but then explain it in the context of your specific need. That is when it becomes collaborative. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Just like hot yoga, a lot of people do not know how narrative coaching would benefit their life and wellness. I could explain the history of narrative, the transformation of branding trends in conjunction with technological advancements, and the psychosocial importance of personal storytelling in an oversaturated and disconnected market, but then my listener will think "Wow he knows a lot" and then go back to a job they dislike. Instead of showing how much of a narrative nerd I am, I enact what my math teacher did for me and collaboratively caress the needs of a prospective client with a personalized explanation that applies to them.

Let us be clear, though: it is not about me, it is about you. It is about your learning style and how we can work together to make that fire. Your learning style is unique, your career development needs are unique, your personal goals are unique, so any way that you work toward them will have to be unique. It is just another math equation: uniqueness of need = uniqueness of action.

The fun part about my job is that I get to help you discover that uniqueness WITH you, not FOR you. It is collaborative so that a) we both learn and b) you do not have to feel like I did a lot of days in math class staring at the board not knowing where to start. 

A starting point can be anywhere, so tell me: how do you like to learn?

The Two Most Important Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Life

I majored in Neuroscience in college. Remember how I said I am a nerd? If you need more confirmation, just keep reading. 

But seriously, I majored in Neuroscience (and now own two businesses? How does that work??). I went to a liberal arts college and went in with the most common liberal arts course of study: UNDECLARED. I thought I wanted to study history, so Freshman fall, right off the bat, I took an Ancient Greek History course. Greek and Roman histories are my favorite so I thought this would be a great place to start exploring. So many names and dates, thought papers, and discussion classes later, I realized that the bleak career prospects were not enough to appeal my interests in the subject.

My second choice was psychology because I had enjoyed it in high school. Freshman spring I took intro psych with a visiting professor who spoke to a lecture hall full of forty students as though they were teeny tiny toddlers learning how to keep drool in their mouths for the first time (I think she was a child psychologist by trade). Beyond her tone, cadence, and overall way of interacting with us, her lectures were slow and her tests were hard. HOWEVER, a neuroscientist from Indiana University who somehow happened to be in Middlebury, VT, exactly when we needed to learn the anatomy of the brain and nervous system (?), presented the neuroscience lecture and holy smokeshow I fell in love.

No, not with him. With his sweet, beautiful, nerdy words about the brain and nerve cells and autonomic responses. Speaking of autonomic responses: I was autonomically reacting to the subject matter in the same manner I did when I first fell in love with a human female.

Flashback to exactly a year before that: In high school AP Biology senior year, I did not hesitate to dissect the brain of a fetal pig even though the internal body systems were all that were required for the lab report grade. I painstakingly chipped away at the skull and gently shaved it away so as not to damage the brain tissue underneath. I peeled off the coating of the brain and slowly wiggled the brain out of the spinal column.

I had no idea why I so comfortably volunteered to do it and immediately went after it in my free periods or why I took suchpride in holding the brain of another animal in the palm of my hand, but it happened all the same. I was in flow.

Fast forward a year and even though a brain was not in my hand, the love was back in my heart. I immediately declared neuroscience, found my advisor, and signed up for all the classes in the major I could. I even finished my general ed requirements by the end of Sophomore fall so that I could literally spend two and a half full years nerding out on the best subject matter of all time. 

I will never forget sophomore spring when I took four science classes in my major, two of which had labs, and people began to ask me: "so what are you going to do with neuroscience?"

Good question, though it is beyond me why I was being asked that mere months after I declared and before I was even halfway done my college tenure. Despite that, this is what it came down to: it did not matter. Who cared what I did with it? I did not care. I had no interest in going into the field of neuroscience at the time but I simply loved the subject so damn much. 

On a particularly stressful night before I probably had two exams, a paper, and a lot of reading assigned, my dad asked me on the phone: "why are you studying it then if it is causing you that much stress?" I know he cared about my health and was genuinely concerned, and I was equally genuine when I shrugged to myself and answered: "because I love it."

I still do not know why I fell so hard in love with neuroscience, but there also does not need to be an explanation. It simply clicked.

We all have unique interests and we are all presented with choices.

What to study, where to live, where to move, where to travel, how to get there, what job to get, what career to create.

No matter your interests, there is something in a choice that connects to who you uniquely are as a person that pulls you toward an option or away from one. Either way, the choice you make says more about you than the choices on their own. Something inside me guided me to work on that pig's brain and that says a lot more about my personality than it does about the fact that a fetal pig was lying on the lab counter in front of me with an untouched head. 

What is it about you that guides your decisions? Why are you where you are? It is okay if the answer is: I made a mistake. That is fine because it is accountability for a choice you made. Even if it turned out to be a mistake, you still made a choice and that act says a lot about who you are and where you are in your life. 

So question number one is: no matter what choices you made to be in the spot you are right now, what do you love about what you are doing? Think about it. Is it something about the work itself? Do you just enjoy the commute? Are you thankful that your job sucks and it gives you something to complain about? What is it for you? Why do you get up and do it all the time?

I have discovered - only recently, mind you - that the unique love I have for neuroscience is about the exploration. I will get into more of that at a later time, but it suffices to say that the architecture of the brain and its organization and functions present the opportunity to explain everything about who we all are. I think the brain is cool as a physical object, sure, but that is not why I took so much time and care to breach the pig's skull. It is because the experience offered an opportunity for exploration. 

So question number two is: now that you know what you love, what do you want to do about it?

Where do you want to take it? Is there a change you want to make, or a next step within your role that you want to take? What are you going to do with your love?

A lot of people I work with hit this point where they realize there is something in what they do that they love that keeps them going every day and that they want to do something about...but they are terrified of taking a next step because they cannot articulate answers to these two questions.

I have answered them for myself, and the second answer continues to evolve, but that is okay. That is the process. When you are in love, the feelings evolve. The nature of the connection evolves. 

What evolution are you hoping for?

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."