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Friday, June 29, 2012

Control Freaks Know How to Do It Better

I don't think of myself as a control freak. I mean, if I were, would that book, If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Probably End Up Somewhere Else, keep popping up behind my eyes--ding!--like the dollar sign in an old-fashioned cash register? This book, by David Campbell, is still available, by the way. As I think I've mentioned before, my fancy prep school in Washington, DC, ran a career seminar for us seniors and gave us each a copy. I've never forgotten it. Apparently. Buy a copy and send it to an artsy, confused high school senior with low self-esteem and see how it helps her in life.

I don't think of myself as a control freak, because if I were, I'd have mastered all the concepts in that book and applied them to my life, which would have gone onward and upward from that moment in a blazing path of accomplishment. Ahem.

I don't think of myself as a control freak, because I know a lot of them, and they tend to accomplish things, whereas I get enmeshed in them. Novels, books, relationships, emotional states. And because they tend to be able to get people to listen to them.

I don't think of myself as a control freak, although I'm practically gnawing my hand off to stop myself from texting the upcoming 9th grader about her toe. Again. That would be the other hand, by the way, because one has already paid the price of my lack of control.

Why the agita over the toe? Long story, moral of which is, MOM WAS RIGHT BUT NO ONE LISTENED. Upshot of which is, 13 year old is away at an intensive ballet program with a hurt big toe and no one to make her ice it, check in with the nurse, or rest it if needed. By intensive I mean 5 weeks of dancing at least 5.5 hours a day, sometimes more, 5 days a week, plus Saturday mornings, just so you know I'm not exaggerating.

Oh yes, I am dying to get into the details of how it is I am so right and also so ignored, but never mind. I must take my victory as it comes: too late. I plan to lord it over the others if a similar situation arises in the future, but of course, as Samuel Johnson said, regret is useful if you can apply the lesson learned from it to the future, but you almost never can. Sigh.

So instead, I will ask myself, and you, readers, why I am not a control freak? Is it because I am unsure. Yes, I think that is it. I am unsure. Usually unsure. I see the virtues of several sides of a situation. I am unsure which path to take in the wood, so I hang around exploring the foliage at the nexxus instead of forging ahead boldly. I get a close up view of the flora that way, which is nice, but I'm not exactly blazing a trail, am I?

But then I must ask the follow-up question. If I were a control freak, would I be any better at getting the 13 year old to check in with the nurse, ice her toe, and exercise good judgement about how much she uses it? The long arm of Mother might reach a little further into her brain; but she is 13, and so are her friends, and she'd be bound to figure out that it really can't control her from New York State when she is in Pennsylvania.

The answer is no.

No, I can't control her. No, I can't control much of anything, in fact. And you know what, even if I did know where the heck I was going twenty (thirty?) years ago, I might've ended up somewhere else anyway.

Perhaps I am a spiritual master after all. That last paragraph, short as it is, contains wisdom, does it not? Perhaps I have trod the path of No-Path, which sounds pretty spiritual-master-ish, don't you think? Perhaps I have known, deep down inside some part of myself that I don't know anything about, that the path of life is uncontrollable and therefore counting the petals on the peonies is the best way to travel it, without aim or goal.

Perhaps this knowledge does exist, deep down in the recesses of myself, so deep down that I don't know it's there, and therefore can't access it. In which case, I might as well not know it--which I don't. Which means that I must struggle to forge and control, however poorly, a path through life. I can watch my control freak friends and try to learn from them.

Meanwhile, I will just finish up this other hand....

If I give you her number, will YOU text her? Just a little ice. 10 minutes. That's all. Just ice.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Baker's Dozen Rules of Success

Otafuku, Goddess of Mirth
It's summer, or so I've heard, although the current weather in New York State suggests otherwise, and summer is a time to strip down: in clothing--to a single layer; in meals--to light fare; and in blog posts--to an easy-to-read list.
Here are 12 nuggets sifted from the many books I've read in the last few months, plus one extra, in a list.  And, readers, I dreamed it. Isn't that weird? That's only happened to me once before. I dreamed a poem, and then I sort of woke up, so I scribbled it down on a notepad. When I got up for real in the actual morning, it was just a line of gobbledygook, of course. Alas. My life might have taken a totally different course. (Possibly a terrible one--poets are usually obscure and earn very little dinero until they go out in a flame of tragedy, Billy Collins and Maya Angelou excepted. No thank you.)
  1. Smile and be strategic. Think what you want to achieve from any transaction. (Dale Carnegie)
  2. Build your goals around solid principles. (Stephen Covey)
  3. Find people who believe in you to help you believe in yourself. (Noah St. John)
  4. Shape your mind to support your goals through positive thinking, affirmations, or intentions. (Norman Vincent Peale and Everyone Else)
  5. Focus on the present. (Carnegie and others)
  6. Find time to meditate. (Deepak Chopra and others)
  7. Make sure you rest. (Carnegie)
  8. Develop a growth mindset—believe you have the capacity to change and improve. (Carol Dweck)
  9. Choose goals that are difficult but achievable. (Heidi Grant Halvorsen)
  10. Find work that is intrinsically rewarding: provides you with autonomy; provokes your desire for mastery; fills you with a sense of purpose because you're doing it to make a difference in the world. (Daniel Pink) 
  11. Work that challenges and engages you will help you achieve Flow, which leads to   the feeling of satisfaction, happiness and success. (Czikszentmihaly)
  12. Practice, practice practice, but practice wisely. Seek out coaches or mentors who can keep you working your edge. (Matthew Seyd and others)
  13. Don’t worry about success, find meaningful work and do some good in the world.  (Real actual people I know who are successful)
Not bad. And the only mention of money was my own, in the second paragraph. Just saying....

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Success and the Bruised Ego
I've been thinking hard about this whole fixed/entity or growth/incremental mindset theory, which I've been talking about in my last few posts. It’s got to be one of the most significant theories of succes I’ve read so far. For me, anyway, it’s been a revelation.

Embracing the growth mindset seems to me the only possible way for me to leap off that asymptote of striving to the axis of arriving. Striving to arriving. What a great (accidental) rhyme. Before I began this investigation of success, I felt as if there was this Thing, maybe a gulf, maybe an invisible and unbreakable plexiglass wall, between me and successful people. I felt like they were They. Other. Maybe they had some kind of birthmark that earmarked them for success. Maybe they were born with some innate knowledge of their special specialness. I scoured my body, but only came up with the same kite-shaped birthmark I’ve always had--currently obscured by sun damage, by the way. I scoured my history, hoping to find somewhere some indication that I was Meant to realize my dreams. Alas.

But no, not alas. For here comes Carol Dweck and her protégé Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, and they’re telling me that I can succeed, if I’m motivated, if I believe I can changegrowadaptimprovelearn, and if I persevere. Which means those Theys, those Others, those “real” successes, are just regular people who figured it out before me.

This is really good news, this theory. You can get your growth mindset in place (by buying Carol Dweck's book and doing her helpful exercises--cha-ching) and you can roll. Right? I mean, then anyone can do it. Right? And that’s great and good and fair, right? I mean, we want anyone to be able to succeed, right?

We do. Really, we do. Except, embracing this theory does bruise the ego just a little. The mindset theory is another notch in the belt of the success scientists who have started this whole vogue for the  10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. They claim that the right kind of effort matters more than intelligence. 

Which really does hurt just a little. Ouch. I mean, hello, I’ve already admitted that I spent part of my twenties trying to prove to myself that I was smart. Was that all wasted time?

Uh, yeah. Apparently.

And what about those marvelous extensions of ourselves, our children? What about their successes in school? That score in the top quadrant of the 99th percentile of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test?   Do these things not mean glory for us? Does not our child’s intelligence, demonstrated by report cards and awards, confer glory upon us by default?

Does Carol Dweck wish to deprive us off this stuff? Does Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, like kicking us when we're down?

Are we only allowed to kvell over our children’s ability to work hard and persevere? Yes, as any good parenting book will tell you. Now Carol Dweck comes along with Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, to prove it. Are we not allowed to take their grades and awards as proof of our own worth as well as of theirs?  No?


How the hell are we supposed to rank ourselves and others if everything comes down to who can hang in there the longest? Who's the hardest worker is just much less sexy than who is effortlessly brilliant.

Okay, breathe.

Despite the efforts of the success scientists, no one is saying there's no such thing as native intelligence (or talent).  Dweck and Halvorson skirt this issue, but they don’t totally ignore it. They point out that yes, intelligence has a genetic component. However, environment plays a huge role. An enriched environment will produce an enriched child. Regardless of environment, however, a child who’s not encouraged to work hard will eventually fall behind the kid who is praised not only for being smart, but for effort, and who is taught how to analyse mistakes and improve her performance. Does this sound familiar? Tiger mom-ish? Indeed, HGH Ph.D and Carol Dweck posit that it’s mindset that accounts for the so-called superiority of Asian students. That joke in “Glee” about an A-minus equaling an “Asian F?” That’s because the emphasis is on improving improving improving. And the only way to improve is to face your problem areas and hone them.

Yet I find it significant that both Carol Dweck and Heidi Grant Halvorsen “confess” to possessing very fixed (entity) mindsets all the way until they were in graduate school. Coincidence? I do not think so. Consider for a moment that the fixed mindset is the perfect mindset to drive you to achieve good grades. With the fixed mindset, every A, every improvement, every award is yet another proof of your worth. And of course that sort of work, getting As and winning awards is just the thing you need to compete for those spots in top colleges and graduate programs. Sadly, traditional education is not about taking risks, so the downside of that mindset doesn’t become apparent until later on, after getting As gets you into the college and grad school of your choice. Then, out in the real world, you need a more flexible, creative, motivation-based approach to make a real difference in the world. Innovation requires risk, and the fixed mindset is risk-averse.

Let me also mention that in Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success, Matthew Seyd argues that practice and the right kind of coaching are more important than talent in reaching the top in athletics. Howevs, he glosses over one eensy fact in writing about his own experience becoming a world champion table tennis player. He casually mentions that every year, the coach in his school had everyone who had any interest in table tennis try out, and he picked the ones he wanted to work with.

Do you think he picked them because they were so bad that he thought he could make a real difference in their playing? Neither do I.

So let’s not throw out all those awards just yet. The fact is, there is some sort of inborn talent factor that does set you on a course towards achievement. The fact is, there is a strong correlation between IQ and academic achievement. I can’t remember which scientist guy said so, becuz apparently my IQ isn’t that high, but trust me, he did say so. And there is also a strong correlation between academic achievement and income level. (Okay you professors, don’t laugh ironically and say, yeah, the more degrees you get, the less you get paid. That’s only true in academia.)  So IQ does predict some kinds of success. What it most definitely does not predict, is whether you’ll feel successful or happy or content or peaceful, whether you’ll create a masterpiece of art, whether you’ll have successful personal relationships, or any of the most important things in life. 

Those things require the growth mindset. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How Much Control Over Your Goals Do You Have?

Warning: Control freaks may find contents of this blog post upsetting.

So, now that we've established that setting a good goal requires certain conscious parameters, such as the use of mental contrasting, which is shorthand for saying you need to make sure that goal-setting combines both positive thinking about attaining success AND practical consideration of potential obstacles to attainment and how to overcome those, let me let you in on a little secret.

According to Heidi Grant Halvorsen, much to do with goals is unconscious. That's right, readers-- not in our consciousness. We have unconscious attitudes about what we can achieve. We have unconscious desires. We have unconscious restrictions. We have unconscious routines. We even have unconscious goals.  She gives the example of pulling into the garage after driving home from work and having no recollection of the ride. Sound familiar?  That's right. Our unconscious is running the show most of the time. Basically, we are not aware of a lot of shit.

There are three types of shit we're not aware of, as a rule:

Our mindset about various aspects of ourselves.  Remember Carol Dweck? Remember her idea that people tend to be of either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? Fixed mindset people believe they have a set amount of intelligence, or a set personality. Growth mindset people believe they can build on what they're born with and improve themselves through effort. The people with the growth mindset tend to be happier and more successful in life. Natch, Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Carol Dweck's former student, has her own terms for the very same thing. She calls them entity (fixed) or incremental (growth) beliefs.  Like Dweck, HGH says that the entity belief (fixed growth mindset) is wrong-olla. Yes, you might be born with a higher level of intelligence than someone else, and yes, if your parents are very intelligent, this will come down to you in the genes; but you can always improve your intelligence. It is not a fixed entity. It's something that changes and grows incrementally through effort. What does this have to do with goal setting? Well, if you're of a fixed mindset, you're going to avoid a lot of challenges because you will feel you don't have what it takes to win; but if you're of a growth mindset, you'll be willing to exert yourself towards your goal.

Goal contagion. This is a shorthand way of saying, for example, that if you have a really fit friend you admire who is always exercising, you'll be likely to form your own intention to get in shape whenever you spend time with her.

Triggers. These are things in your environment that evoke a response. Maybe you want to learn French, so every time you pass McDonalds you think of french fries and, you're suddenly spouting all the French phrases you know, mon dieu.  Or perhaps you have an unconscious goal to ingest as much sugar as possible, so a picture of an ice cream cone, a song about, say, "the Candy Man," or a picture of Sammy Davis, Jr., for that matter, can lead you to the register at CVS with a package of M&Ms in hand that you have no awareness of picking up off the shelf. Pretty much anything can be a trigger, as long as it's related somehow to a goal. And the other thing is, you have your personal triggers, and I have mine. Maybe you hate Sammy Davis, Jr., and maybe I love him, so hearing "Candy Man" will help you avoid unnecessary sugar, while I'll be mainlining it.

Are you worried, control freaks? Does the world seem like something you can't control? Do you soothe yourself about this truth--because it is, sadly, true--with your lists, your matching socks and undies, your germophobia, or your obsessive worrying (yes, anxiety is a way of trying to control the uncontrollable--but that's a blog post in itself, isn't it?) Do you comfort yourself with the thought that if you can't control the world, then you can at least control yourself? Sorry. Apparently, you can't.

Here's some good news, though. Remember that you can change your mindset to an incremental (or growth) one from an entity (or fixed) one and that will help you roll up your sleeves and work for your dreams.

Here's more good news. While you can be unconsciously triggered to do something, you'll never be triggered to do something that you don't want to do. Like murder your upstairs neighbor for skateboarding over the bare floor after 11p.m. Heidi Grant Halvorsen says you won't do it, as much as you might like to. "Nothing can trigger a goal that you feel is wrong to pursue, no matter how desirable it seems" she says. Right on p.48.

Here's a final bit of good news. You can plant your own triggers to motivate you. That means you can hang up that old poster of the kitten on the knotted rope and the slogan, "When you reach the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on," to inspire you to finish that novel. In fact, studies show that consciously planted triggers are just as effective as unconscious ones. See, that feels better already, doesn't it?

Now, were you noticing the same thing I was, readers? That consciously planting a trigger sounds not unlike planting a seed of intentionality (Buddhists), or saying affirmations (Wisdom Traditionalists.)

It looks like Heidi Grant Halvorsen joins the ranks of success folk who believe in the power of positive thinking or affirmations. She stands alongside the likes of Mr. Dale Carnegie, Napolean Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, Deepak Chopra, Noah St. John, and our old friend Stephen Covey.

So get out your meditation cushion, hang your inspirational posters, listen to motivational speakers, write down your dreams, whisper your affirmations to yourself at bedtime, and do what you can to control the uncontrollable. You just might succeed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Power of Motivated Positive Thinking

Good news for the “if you can dream it you can do it” folks. Another vote in favor of positive thinking comes from Heidi Grant Halvorson. That’s right. She joins the wisdom traditionalists like the annoying Florence Scovel Shinn and Louise Hay, the spiritualists like Deepak Chopra, the businessmen like Mr. Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, and the “success scientists” like Matthew Syed, who wrote Bounce, in touting the importance of positive thinking in reaching your goals. 

But, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, the type of goal you’re aiming for and the type of positive thinking you do about it influences your chances of success. First of all, you’ve got to be motivated. There’s a fancy theory psychologists named about motivation called the Expectancy Value Theory, which means, according to Heidi Grant Halvorsen, “people are motivated to do anything as a function of (1) how likely they are to be successful (that’s the expectancy part) and (2) how much they think they will benefit from it (that’s the value part.)"
So if you’ve got your motivating goal, then go ahead and visualize achieving it. But, readers, you must also remember that your goal should be difficult, specific, and you can’t simply visualize breezily zipping over the finish line through the ribbon to claim your laurel wreath. You must visualize all the obstacles you might have to overcome, and visualize overcoming those, too. 
Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? And in fact, H.G. Halvorson has a distressing passage about weeding out unrealistic goals, by considering if the obstacles you envision are too great. Which seems to beg the whole question of achieving your dreams, if you really think about it in a certain type of depressing way. 
Nevertheless, if you can visualize both those obstacles and overcoming them, then you are set to go go go for it, because people who do that have the persistence and are willing to put in the planning and effort required. Those of us who prefer to imagine “podiuming” (in the immortal words of that adorable snowboarder Shaun White who won the gold in the last Olympics ) are more likely to be unprepared for the difficulties we will inevitably encounter on our runs down the mountain. 
If it all seems too exhausting, consider that question of motivation. I know there have been times when I’ve hardly noticed the hard work I put into achieving a goal because I was so motivated to achieve it.For example, the year after college (an excellent time to learn a life lesson), my friend Cathy and I wanted to move to San Francisco. We got out there, and my handsome friend Phil offered to take us around to look at places. He borrowed a VW bus from his friend Eddie, a former Buddhist monk who was at the time laid up in a Silicon Valley hospital with two broken legs from hang-gliding. Phil drove us all around the city. It took all day. We looked at 20 apartments. When we finally found one we liked and could afford in Haight Ashbury, we had to beg and plead with the landlord to take a chance on us. My friend was unemployed and waiting to hear from the Peace Corps, and I had a job as a paralegal. 
We got the apartment. 
It was only after handsome Phil rumbled off in Eddie’s bus that I realized how exhausted I was. And I learned a lesson that day, readers. The lesson was, that if you really, really want someone--I mean something--then the work involved doesn’t bother you at all.