As we head into days with more darkness and “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the lyrics from the old Andy Williams song describe the holiday season, I can’t help thinking about the bumpier road that so many people will have due to the change in seasons, the decreased exposure to natural light, or just a raised anxiety level due to pressure that is either real or imagined. Whether you are talking about seasonal affective disorder or some other form of depression, one of the common threads is the increasing darkness, which at its worst, seems like it will envelop you. This darkness can appear to smother our last glimmer of light as one event seems to compound the next. When this occurs, the voice in your head can become imbalanced with a steady stream of negative messages about both your current state and the chances for optimism on the road ahead. I was reminded about this in a recent post by Jay Michaelson on the the 10-percent Happier blog. Michaelson described the voice in his head as a parade of monsters:
It was impressive to watch the variety of monsters that showed up. Some made me feel lonely. Others recited the superior accomplishments of my peers. A few accused me of being a bad parent — after all, good parents don’t have the luxury of self-loathing…my favorite monsters of all were the meta-monsters: the ones judging me for having a monster attack in the first place.
It’s important to realize that we all sometimes have those voices in our heads and it is equally important to remind ourselves that those voices are not who we are. As Eckhart Tolle stated, “What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am.” Even more important is our ability to assure ourselves that this darkness will pass.
Abbreviating Dark Days
There is one thing that is a certainty and that is the fact that we will all have dark moments. It is beyond our control. What we can do to be proactive is put down some insulation to try to minimize the depth of the darkness and muffle the critic who lives in our head. The antidote is building a routine of constructive habits when you are feeling strong. Whether it is a mindfulness practice, exercise, healthy eating, a social group or some other positive outlet that helps keep you feeling a sense of balance, these are the positive practices that can keep you going when the dark clouds approach.
While there are a number of important skills that we need to reinforce with kids, I am wondering where this one ranks in a time where seemingly non-stop consumption of social media is the norm. How do we get our children to take a step back and realize the power accessible to them if they can pause, reflect, and learn to enjoy minutes of solitude without defaulting so quickly to the all-to-familiar “I’m bored” mindset?
Well, for me and I am sure many parents, it starts with a look in the mirror. How are we setting up ourselves (and our kids) for success when it comes to the phenomenon that Mr. Rogers mentioned above. As Shawn Achor points out in The Happiness Advantage, “Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work.” We function much better under the confines of our professional lives where we are required to use our minds, set goals and be focused on our work. While we fall into our work routines rather easily, our leisure pursuits are a bit more problematic because we are not accountable to colleagues or a boss for these personal pursuits.
A great deal of the insights on this come from Csikszentmihalyi’s research on happiness in flow. It is clear that active pursuits like sports and other physical pursuits are much more likely to heighten levels of enjoyment for longer periods of time, but because the television clicker and the iPhone are so much easier to access, we tend to give in to these defaults.
Here’s the catch according to Achor, “Studies show that these (passive) activities are enjoyable and engaging for only about 30 minutes, then they start sapping our energy and creating what psychologists call “psychic entropy” – a listless, apathetic feeling…American teenagers are two and a half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV, and three times more likely when playing a sport.”
For me, there is a clear need for more mindfulness so that individuals can be more deliberate about their passive and active pursuits. We should spend a few days (or weeks) tracking our active and passive pursuits and how we are feeling on days when we do not have some balance. Are we being reflective about our own actions and reactions or are we so antsy that we can’t enjoy the moments of solitude that we all need to be able to handle the stress and pitfalls that are a normal part of life?
I have a lot more questions than answers, but I know that I am in favor of more wonder in my life and the life of my kids.
Sometimes we forget how important some of the signals we send are to the mood and success of the people we interact with. I was struck by a couple of examples that Shawn Achor provided in the The Happiness Advantage and how a renewed focus on the tone, body language, facial expressions and the little things we say along the way could be a factor in increasing positivity and success.
One example from Achor’s book described a study done at the Yale School of Management where students were put on teams to work together for an imaginary company. Each team had an actor who was their manager and they each spoke to their teams in a different tone. The tones used on the four teams were the following: cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth, depressed sluggishness and hostile irritability. It is not hard to figure out which of the two groups made the most profit during the exercise.
Check your tone at the door
While it may seem like a no-brainer, how much do we really pay attention to our tone and body language during our interactions? We often take energy from a previous interaction into our next interaction and if the prior interaction was a negative one, we may be emitting some of that negative energy into the mix. Doug Smith recommended that one hack for this is thresholding. Whenever you pass through a threshold, focus on what is within that room.
The second example from The Happiness Advantage was the discussion about the importance of our words. “A few key words here and there can make all the difference,” Achor noted. “For instance, when researchers remind elderly people that cognition typically declines with age, they perform worse on memory tests than those who had no such reminder.” Achor also referenced the 1968 study Pygmalion in the Classroom where teachers were told that a group of “ordinary” students were the ones with the greatest potential for growth. At the end of the year, these students posted off-the-charts on tests of intellectual ability.
Our lives are greatly impacted by the stories that we believe to be true and many times these are stories that have been told to us by others. As I look at the post above and share the fact that every “we” is used to take away the vulnerability that would be present if it were replaced with an “I”, I think it is worth the time to make sure that my story is not fixed and that it is not inhibiting others to write beautiful ones for themselves.
Smith had those in attendance do a quick exercise where he asked them to scan the room for everything that was the color blue. After about 30 seconds, he stopped us and asked us how many green things we saw. The point here was that we saw what we were looking for and it can be the same with our mindset if we are spending too much time citing all that is wrong with our lives and just seeing the negative behaviors of those around us.
The best news is that we can improve our ability to show gratitude. Start a daily ritual of sharing one thing you are grateful for at dinner each night or start a daily gratitude journal. If you are a leader, think about ways to infuse opportunities into meetings so that people can share gratitude. If you are a teacher, look for regular opportunities for students to share gratitude.
At the end of last week, I was feeling a bit drained and negative when I was reminded of this TED Talk by Tim Ferris in his weekly Five-Bullet Friday post. Tim had this to say about Sam’s talk:
“This video hit me really hard. Despite some tears, it was exactly the reset I needed. This kid is a total stud. Just watch it, and do not rush. Also, do *not* read the description beforehand, only afterward.”
I agree 100-percent that if you are looking for a reset that you just need to watch this video and think about Sam’s three keys to a happy life.
I am OK with what I can’t do because there is so much I can’t do.
Surround myself with people I want to be with.
Keep moving forward…If I am feeling bad then I let it in and then do what I need to do to move past it.
Matthew Walker’s new TED Talk, Sleep is your superpower (below), is another in a long line of research-backed publications highlighting the life-altering benefits of sufficient sleep. It still seems strange to me that it has taken so long for the points outlined by Walker and other sleep experts to become embraced and supported in a widespread manner. Instead it seems that we still highlight the grit of someone who can burn the candle at both ends and still seemingly function at a high level. We still poke fun at the person who goes to bed early and can’t keep up with the latest on Game of Thrones or whatever the latest must-watch primetime series might be.
“The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and education of our children. It’s a silent sleep loss epidemic. It’s fast becoming one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century”
“…all the ways in which sleep deprivation hurts people: it makes you dumber, more forgetful, unable to learn new things, more vulnerable to dementia, more likely to die of a heart attack, less able to fend off sickness with a strong immune system, more likely to get cancer, and it makes your body literally hurt more. Lack of sleep distorts your genes, and increases your risk of death generally…”
“Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning (even on the weekends). Sleep in a cool room.“
A new week provides a new opportunity to start on a course of constructive habits. Stringing together a few days gives us the opportunity to string together weeks… Stringing together weeks gives us the opportunity to string together months… Then you have a habit. There is no magic solution, recipe or guru that can do this for you. You just need to begin.
Pick an area to start a new habit this week
Get to the gym a certain number of days (schedule it now)
Get more sleep (7 hours or more)
Cut back on sugar
Cut back on your social media time
Show more gratitude
Spend more time on mobility
Drink more water
The choice is yours, so pick an area to work on and start making positive progress. The most important thing is that if you miss your goal then just begin again. Many people miss their mark and then allow the negative voice in their head to take control. Forget the negative self-talk and just start a new streak the next day. The truth is that you can clean the slate whenever you want. You are in control.
I was fortunate to attend the second annual Initiatives For Developing Equity and Achievement For Students (IDEAS) Conference at Bentley College on Saturday. The title of this year’s conference was New IDEAS for Developing an Equity Mindset. After the opening keynote by Zaretta Hammond, my notebook and my mind were full. Hammond, the author ofCulturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, gave those in attendance a great deal to think about.
While I could never do justice to Hammond’s Keynote, my biggest takeaway revolved around Hammond’s thoughts on the increased focus on social justice and equity in schools. She lamented the fact that conversations surrounding these topics have been going on for quite some time, yet the achievement gap for black students remains.
“Children leveling up needs to be the barometer,” Hammond noted. “All of the social justice talk we have been having and we still have the same data. Competence precedes confidence and social justice is focused on confidence when it should be focused on competence.”
While I could go on and share an endless number of inspirational words from Hammond, I want to dwell on the preceding quote in relation to myself. My own challenge is to become more competent in talking about matters of race from a position of knowledge and not settle for a sense of misguided confidence in the fact that having the best interest of all students in mind is sufficient.
“People are doing a lot of talk about equity, we need to have more doing.”
Brad Stevens recently wrote a letter to his nine-year old daughter titled Be A Great Teammate. As I read through the letter, I couldn’t help think that the qualities that Coach Stevens was encouraging his young daughter to adopt were also qualities should be adopted by anyone looking to be play a positive role within any group they interact with. In fact, he did point this out to his daughter in telling her the following:
“You’ll be on many teams throughout your life…The thoughts below apply to all of these scenarios.”
The other problem I had was trying to decide which part of this letter was the most significant. While I encourage people to take a minute to read the entire letter, the following lines from the concluding paragraph are the epitome of what I think of when reflecting on the great teammates I have had the good fortune of working with.
“When times are good, be the great teammate that others want to celebrate with. When times are tough, be the great teammate who offers a shoulder to be leaned on. When you get older, you’ll realize that it wasn’t about the good or bad times, it was about who you navigated those times with, the lessons that you learned and the relationships that you forged.”
About 15 years ago, during my first year as a Principal, my superintendent had our administrative team read Good to Greatby Jim Collins. I still recall some of the quotes from that book, especially the first sentence which hooked me in right away, “Good is the enemy of great.” Two sentences later, I was hooked when I read, “We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools.”
Jim Collins on the Tim Ferriss Podcast
I was thrilled last week to have the opportunity to listen to Jim Collins on the Tim Ferriss podcast. The discussion on how Collins tracks his creative time over the course of the year was very interesting. He strives to have a minimum of 1,000 creative hours and defines creative time as “any activity that has a reasonable direct link to a creation that is new or durable.”
For those of you who read Good to Great, this is a deeper dive into the Flywheel that was discussed in Chapter 8. “Sustainable transformations follow a predictable pattern of buildup and breakthrough. Like the pushing on a giant, heavy flywheel…with persistent pushing in a consistent direction…the flywheel builds momentum, eventually hitting a point of breakthrough.” Turning the Flywheel is being promoted as a guide to help organizations create their own flywheels.
I look forward to getting my copy of Turning the Flywheel today. Book study anyone?