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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Problem of Advice

Ahhhh, it’s good to settle down after the holiday season. My computer and notebook are back on my desk. My study has returned to its former condition (study and meditation room), after being a guest room. The dog has returned to the floor at my feet—thanks to bribery with a delicious looking cheddar flavor treat. 

Oops, the dog is off, now. More enticing things elsewhere than stale cheddar flavored treats, I guess. The college student has gone away, too. More enticements in Cambridge, where she is working in a lab at MIT — and living off of ramen. Add some peas, I suggested. And an egg. (Thanks for that one, old friend Leif). To the ramen, not to the lab, of course. I don’t really need to say that. Then again, you can’t be too thorough with instructions and advice, can you? I’m thinking of the instructions my mother would leave for us to cook something or other. She always started with, TURN ON THE OVEN. 

Which, if you think about it, is insulting, but all too often, also embarrassing because necessary. 

So, no peas or egg in the lab. Unless instructed by the professor. 

The college student is right now not appreciating me at all, if she is reading my blog. But she was much more tolerant the other night when I experienced an uncontrollable need to text her about washing sweaters. This must be a phase of parenthood. I don’t know what to call this phase, but its characteristic is an unnerved sense that one’s child has escaped one’s clutches without all the proper instructions one thought one would be able to give her, in time. Instructions about washing sweaters, for example. 

Do you want to know what I told her? No, you don’t, do you? You already know it. My advice is useless. 

Meanwhile, the 10th grader cut her hair. I've done that. I stopped when, after one cut, my hair was distinctly lopsided and to even it out had to be made much shorter than I wanted. After that, it was special treatment for Hope’s hair all the way.

I figured the 10th grader deserved her own natural consequences. She invited over a friend who had cut her own hair a little shorter than she intended, and asked her to help. The result, after a part adjustment I suggested, is actually quite good. Advice: center parts are not for most people a flattering look. 

But you already knew that, too. 

I feel superfluous. Fortunately, I have banded together with a bunch of women from my high school class to form an accountability/support/what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life group. We started this month via video conference. We’re reading and doing the exercises in Designing Your Life: How to Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The book is based on a very popular course at Stanford, taught by these guys. The most popular course, apparently. It applies principles of design to the subject of living well. It was designed for undergraduates, but we're hoping it works well for those of us at midlife who are feeling a little, well, superfluous. 

The basic premise is that life can be considered a design problem. A design problem is solvable, but it  can have multiple solutions. "A well-designed life is a life that is generative -- it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise." (Burnett & Evans)

To look at life as a design problem means adopting the designer's mindset. This is characterized by five elements: 
  1. curiosity
  2. bias to action-willingness to try stuff without attachment to a particular outcome
  3. reframing problems - to get unstuck
  4. awareness - of the process
  5. radical collaboration - connecting with others from various disciplines

I’m going to be honest. I’m reading this book for me, but also because I hope the daughters (and the husband) will read it, too. However, I know how advice from mom (and spouse) goes over. Lead balloon, anyone? So, if I’m the only one in the family who manages to design a joyful life and live it well, so be it. Readers, I invite you to read it, too. I’m sure to be writing about it in the coming months, and would love to hear your thoughts. 

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