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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Setting Goals: Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D., Tells Us How

I've been tormented since high school by a book called, If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Probably End Up Someplace Else. We read it for a career seminar. Tormented, because I've spent a lot of time unsure where the hell I am going, and it has turned out to be true. It is also true that I didn't know until a couple of months ago that the title of that book is a quotation from Yogi Berra, who apparently, though I have never seen him, played some sort of sport and spoke in aphorisms.

So it is fitting, and probably no coincidence, that the first chapter of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, by Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph. D, is called "Do You Know Where You Are Going?" I suspect that Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D., learned that quote was by Yogi Berra before I did. Or she got that book in her high school's career seminar and lived a directed, goal-oriented life ever after. Which is one reason she has a Ph.D and I don't. 

However, this isn't about me, it's about goals. After swimming around in the soup of success-defining, it’s about time to get to something concrete. Goals. Goals and setting ‘em.  I think we can all agree that one definition of success is achieving goals. 

I’ve already posted once on Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D., former proteg√© and current colleague of Carol Dweck. As I mentioned then, the book has a lot in it, and I’m working on it. She writes well, and with humor. So maybe I ought to just quote extensively. Writing humorously about something someone else has already written about (somewhat) humorously, has proved challenging.

I am all for a challenge, though, readers, yes I am! I’m all for challenge, for difficult goals. Difficult, but attainable, goals. This is the ideal goal, readers. A difficult, but attainable goal. All right, all right. 

Okay, so onward, through part one of Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D’s book. As an aside, let me just say, that she has a good name. Symetrical, initial-wise, and rhythmical to say, which must be why I always write her whole name, instead of calling her “Halvorsen,” in faux-intelletual mode, or “Heidi,” in insulting familiar mode. And Ph.D. Well. 

Anyhoo. She starts out by talking about how goals that work are specific. (“Lose 5 lbs,” not “lose some weight.”) Goals that work are difficult, but realistic. And then, right on page 9, there’s a quiz you can take, to discover whether you tend to more abstract thinking about behavior, or more concrete. So I answered the questions. There were five of them, for example,
  • locking a door is

a.     putting a key in the lock
b.     securing the house
After answering the questions—no wrong answers, just different ones, people—you score them. If  you get a 6 or higher, you tend to be more abstract. Each a or b has either 1 or 2 points assigned to it. Except for this last one,
  • greeting someone is

a.     saying hello
b.     showing friendliness

For these answer scores,  a=2 and b=23. Two cubed equals 8.

Why, I asked myself, did Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph. D., give this last answer this extra weight?

The husband was irritated by this quiz, by the way, because he felt it, as are most quizzes in books of these sorts, was leading.

So what about that 23? I mean, you will almost certainly get a score of at least 6, if you answer all five questions.  Who wouldn’t? I suppose Heidi Grant Halvorsen,  Ph.D,. is having a little joke on us. A little in-joke, perhaps? A little in-joke for Ph.Ds in psychology—and anyone with a Master’s in Education, or a passing interest in child development—mayhap?

The answer to who wouldn’t get a score higher than six is someone who hasn’t passed the transition from concrete to abstract thought. Someone like my 10 year old daughter. Try it on yours, and let me know.

Come to think of it, it's impossible to score less than 6 on this quiz. Even if you pick answers with a score of 1 for the first four questions, the least points you can accrue in the fifth is 2. 1+1+1+1+2=a leading question. Hmmmm.
Let's return to the idea that a goal should be difficult, but not impossible. According to Heidi Grant H., Ph.D., people tend to do what’s expected of them, and not much more. So we ought to expect more and then we’ll get it. And when we expect more of ourselves, and surprise ourselves by achieving it, then we set up a “high-performance cycle,” (p. 7), which increases our motivation to keep on working towards difficult, but not impossible goals.

What does the abstract/concrete dichotomy have to do with this? H. G. Halvorsen, Ph. D, adds that abstract goals are why-focused, and concrete goals are what-focused. Well, apparently, we all tend to think about distant goals in abstract terms. Like, Hey, yeah, of course I want to enroll in that evening class to learn computer programming next summer—sign me up. For next summer.  When we’re more abstract, we’re more focused on the reasons why we want to do a particular thing. In the short term, we tend to be more concrete. This can work against us. Like, Hey, what do you mean I won a free course in computer programming and it starts day after tomorrow—no way, I can’t do it. I have to rearrange my manicure and find someone to watch the kids, and I’ll miss my Zumba class. So, no thanks.

As with most dichotomies, they have their ups and downs, and their plusses and minuses, and their uses and abuses. And here’s some advice, via HGH, Ph.D: once you have your difficult, but not impossible goal, you use your concrete skills to establish your first step.

You use your abstract abilities to motivate yourself—I’m going to learn computer programming so I can hack into ETS’s mainframe and screw up their standardized tests so our kids won’t have to waste so much time taking them next year. And you can use your concrete abilities to focus on the nitty-gritty—I’m going to take the subway to the bus to the elevator to the registration desk and sign up for that computer programming class tomorrow afternoon and then reward myself with a manicure.

You use your abstract, why-thinking, to keep you motivated towards a goal, and you use your concrete, what-thinking, to help you step-by-step through the challenges that arise in pursuit of that goal.

The upshot is you need both what-thinking and why-thinking. Because in setting future goals, we tend to be a little over-confident that we will have the time and the energy and the motivation. Like, after just one computer class I’ll be able to hack into the Educational Testing Service’s computers. It’ll probably take more than one.  So we need our concrete what-thinking to help us see that we’re going to actually need a whole degree before we can hack into the mainframe, and a degree starts with a single credit, so let’s get this show on the road. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Habits of Highly Effective Mormons (With a Little Mysticism Added)

"Did you see the article on Romney that mentions Stephen Covey?" The husband asked me Sunday.

I had not. Not only was it on the front page--and who reads the front page of the Sunday Times?-- but also it was about Mitt Romney. Since I am as likely to vote for Mitt Romney as I am for my mittens, I tend to avoid articles about him. Perhaps this is foolish. Perhaps it is willful head-in-the-sand behavior. So be it. I also avoid op-ed columnists who write about him. So much more efficient than reading them. I'm either going to agree with them, after all, or want to shoot them, so why not take a longer look at the photo-spread of the contact sheets of the photo shoot for the album cover of "Heroes" by David Bowie? And then throw in another load of laundry. (The husband told me about that article, too, by the way. He seems way too relaxed on Sundays.)  I do, however, always check with the husband that Gail Collins mentions the story about Mitt's family dog on the car roof in every piece she writes on him. He says, yes, she did, and then I am free to enjoy a knowing chuckle at cocktail parties when people mention Gail Collins. Or Mitt Romney. Although I don't spend a lot of time around people who mention Mitt Romney. Or at cocktail parties. Indeed, I don't think I've been to a cocktail party since 1995. Safe in my little bubble, I am.

Anyhoo, the article, by Jodi Kantor, was about Romney's faith. Her thesis is that while he hardly mentions his Mormonism in public, it is the bedrock of his existence. While in public, he's practically secular, in private, he's "demonstrative about his faith." Or if not only in private, at least away from the "spotlight."  She gives several examples, including him bursting into song about Jesus and meddling--well, that's a loaded word isn't it?--but, yes, meddling in the affairs of a married couple who felt they both needed jobs to live in the Boston area.  Mitt's commitment to doing good extended to helping the couple redraw their budget, so that the poor woman, pregnant with her first child, wouldn't have to work outside the home. One wonders how far out of Boston they had to move to achieve this little dream?

But this article isn't about Mitt Romney. It's about someone a little more important. See, in this article, Kantor mentions that "Mormons have a long tradition of achieving success by sharing secular versions of their tenets." This is according to a book by one Matthew Bowman. This Bowman says Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is "Latter-day Saint theology repackaged as career advice." 


Not that this information about his religion is hidden. About a minute on the interwebs verified it. Did you know he used to preach on the Boston Common? Did you know he opposes same sex marriage? Did you know he has one wife, 9 kids, and 52 grandkids? Now you do.

So the really weird thing about this information is that I was just the other day wondering where Stephen Covey came up with his whole theory. I mean, before he was the success guru, he was just Stephen Covey. Stephen Covey, Mormon, apparently. You might even say I asked the universe a question, and the universe answered.

Come to think of it, there was another question I asked the universe just last week, too. I went to the dentist, and I was sitting there getting scraped and polished, and I thought, I wonder what my teeth would look like if I never went to the dentist. And then I went to interview my next subject for the newsletter I write for every month, and I got my answer. The universe provided AGAIN. (FYI, picture this: you take a piece of soft cheese, like Laughing Cow, and you hold it under your tongue and then squish the cheese so it extrudes around your teeth. Then you let that stuff harden. That's what you look like if you don't go to the dentist. Nice guy, though. A priest. Probably has no dental insurance. Ask the universe. The universe provides. Sometimes.)

I digress. You know, Stephen Covey started an international business called Franklin Covey. He has an online community, which you are free to visit, and perhaps to join. Aside from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which you've heard of even if you've never read it--like The Book of Mormon--he has several other best selling books. And he is Mormon. Then there's Mitt Romney. If any of you is tempted to rail about The Illuminati, can we just take the spotlight off the Jews, and turn it towards the Mormons? Do you have to be a Mormon or play a Mormon on TV to achieve worldly success?

Does it matter that Stephen Covey is Mormon? No, it does not. As long as he remains secular in public. He's not foisting his Mormonism upon his readers. Nor is his religion the only religion that stresses leading a life of principle. Nor is following a religion at all necessary for living a life of principal, I might add. 

Perhaps he was hoping to knead his readers into nicely rounded dough balls through all his 7 habits, and then to pop them into the Latter Day Saints' oven and pull them out as nicely browned Mormons, one by one, once they'd finished the book. The book's been out for a long time, however, and I haven't seen any reports about a vast increase in the number of Mormons.* So I think we're safe to assume that the secular life is still possible, even if you're reading Stephen Covey.

image via Wikipedia
Possibly, people just don't want anything to do with that special Mormon underwear. I know I sure don't. I tried it. It itches.

*Holy Molloly: Alerted by an alert reader, I must report the following, from today's NYTimes: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experienced explosive worldwide growth through its missionary work, particularly in countries with large black populations. In the United States, it is the second-fastest growing religion, according to a recently released decennial census of religions."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is Success High Concept?

Well, yes and no. After all, in some respects, success is simple to define: achievement of aims, whether they be material or intellectual, monetary or hallucinatory. What's the big deal? Why even bother to examine it? When you do examine it, however, you find the word can open up into a real umbrella concept.  Therein lies the fun.
So, after that brief pause to justify myself to you, my scores (possibly that is a misleading descriptor, but let's stick with it for now) of readers, let me move onward under my umbrella!

Carol Dweck's book Mindset is high concept. That means you can sum up her idea in a sentence or two. I am very proud of myself for learning this term, lo these two decades ago, and finally being able to use it. So, as I mentioned in a previous post,  her idea is that achieving and sustaining success and feeling successful depends on whether you have a fixed or a growth mindset. People with fixed mindsets feel that intelligence and personality are established genetically and are pretty stable throughout life, while people with growth mindsets believe that these traits are improvable, influenced by effort.

I liked her book. It was easy to digest. Growth is better. You can change your mindset from fixed to growth. She tells you how. Bam. Done.

Then there's her former student, now her colleague, Heidi Grant Halvorsen, and her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. 

Ah-ha, I said when I saw it, because not only is it another book by a woman (thanks be I found another one after that disastrous side-expedition into Florence Scovel Shinn), but also, yes, Goals. In all my researching, goal-reaching has become a very theoretical prospect. You know, establishing values and principals (S. Covey, et. al.) and it might just be time to get back down to some practicalities. Also, ah-ha, because a protege of Carol Dweck ought to be nice and high-concept herself. Perfect for a blog post. Perfect for a boggled mind. Perfect for we of the short attention spans.

Alas, Heidi Grant Halvorsen's book is a wee more involved than I'd hoped. Indeed, I'm only part of the way through it. Granted, I've been to a reunion, had that thing published in that paper, and read several other books, including Fat Men From Space by Daniel Pinkwater for my mother-daughter book club. It, too, was high-concept: don't eat too much sugar. Then again, if the main character hadn't had that cavity, that invasion from outer space wouldn't have happened. So maybe that's not so high concept after all. And I've been digging into Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which uses the word I hate most in the English language (heuristic) so many times in the first section that I had to hyperventilate and recover with a novel by Heidi Julavitz. I also had to administer David Copperfield, not possible to swallow at once.

So I've digressed. However, I'm here to say that Halvorsen's book has some interesting tidbits to ponder. So far, she points out that having thoughts or wishes or general goals for the future is not the same as having goals. Goals are concrete things you can work towards. Furthermore, contrary to what many of the self-help books say, all the confidence in the world won't assure you'll reach your goal. You need self-control. Furthermore, self-control is affected by use: if you expend a lot of it avoiding eating a marshmallow sitting in front of you, then you might not have a lot left to apply to your dissertation. Luckily, you, and by you I mean we, can develop more self-control, and figure out how to use it wisely. We can learn how to set appropriate goals, and in general, learn how to succeed.

That was just the introduction, my scores of readers. In the very first part of chapter one she says we must set goals that are specific, and difficult. Not impossible, but difficult.

So you can see that this is going to be a multi-step investigation. Not at all high-concept. But I will help you through it. My first goal is to finish the book. No, wait, that is not a difficult goal. How about: finish the book and explain it wittily without eating several handfuls of chocolate covered almonds every time I sit down to it.

Now that's a goal I can work towards. Crunch.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Success Went to My Head (Ask My Niece)

Sorry I've taken so long to post a new post. My head--see, my head--it got all swolled up and I had trouble fitting it in the overhead bin, so my return to Normal, Suburbia, got delayed. I'm better now (steroids), and I'm here to tell you that Success with a capital-S, hasn't changed me a bit.
Portrait of Me by my niece--note large head

Okay, there is a bit of truth up in that paragraph. For one, I did have an actual success, as I mentioned, my guest post in the New York Times (online). It was a thrill. Indeed, it was. At least from the moment I learned my writing would appear before the public until the moment that it did, I was thrilled. After that, the mix of emotions was, well, a mix. Try as I might to avoid reading the comments, I failed. Even though I was prepared ahead of time for a range of reactions, some of them got to me.  Some were supportive, some were abusive. Some were plain silly--like the accusation that I was denigrating an entire metropolis (Boston), by accusing women there of not wearing make-up.

Parse that one, my scores of readers, and your heads might pop off and roll under the seats in front of you. I mean, really, is it an insult to "accuse" someone of not wearing make-up? I mean, is there something wrong with not wearing make-up? And if a whole city (Boston) chooses not to wear make-up, is there something wrong with that?

I rest my case.

Anyway, the other bit of truth in that first paragraph is that I was out of town at my high school reunion and that something in my possession did not fit in the overhead bin  (my carry-on suitcase) on my return.

In the event that any of my readers are under the age of 30 and might, therefore, be alarmed by the knowledge, I will refrain from stating which year reunion it was. But it was a biggie.

I must also point out the fortuitous timing of the publication of my Motherlode piece in the week before my big high school reunion. Not that I'd have had any trouble going without that publication credit in my pocket--I'd already booked the dinner and the flight, I swear--but it was a nice little feather to have along with me. And a few people did mention reading it, and several others also mentioned it, and it was fun to be recognized and have people relate to my written words and find they'd been meaningful to people. Sure, they were mostly other women of exactly my age and background, which is what happens when you go to a girls' prep school in Washington, DC; but we're important. Yes we are.

So my head swelled a little (apparently--ask my niece), even though I'm not exactly on the short list for Secretary of State or anything, like one of my classmates. It was just a little piece in the paper. Nevertheless, I signed a contract with the New York Times Company, and I'm getting paid for it, which means I'm a bona fide published writer.

Now that the excitement has died down, and I've re-established myself to myself as a decent mother and person and human being following all those nutso comments in the NYTimes, I find myself back exactly where I started, writing a new blog post for my scores of readers. I do, however, have a small lesson or two about success to impart.

1. Achievement does feel good. However, the feeling is fleeting.
2. What's most important about this achievement is it makes me feel that since I did it once, I can do it again, and it helps me feel justified in pursuing the thing I love to do.

So that's success. And it did change me a little bit. Just a little bit, though. A slightly larger head suits my frame better, anyway. Just ask my niece.