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Our last good day

A hospice patient very near the end of her life after an extended illness told me that she regretted not having been aware of her last good day until it was well behind her.

That day went unnoticed because it was likely the same as many other days that also went unnoticed.

What she was sorting out for herself, I think, was that like most of us she had not really appreciated what she had until it was gone.

That conversation encouraged me to develop the habit of reflecting each day on the things for which I am grateful, a very simple exercise that draws my attention to the presence of many things I would otherwise take for granted.

Living in the moment with an awareness of appreciation requires vigilance and discipline.

Fortunately, when we drift away from the moment, as we inevitably do, each new moment is an opportunity to reclaim that awareness and gratitude.

What do you do, or might you do, to notice and appreciate the moments of your days?

Find micro-moments of positivity

[W]ell-being can be considered a life skill. If you practice, you can actually get better at it. —Barbara Fredrickson

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson advocates nurturing everyday “micro-moments of positivity” to increase our overall well being.

According to a New York Times article, “Activities Dr. Fredrickson and others endorse to foster positive emotions include:

Do good things for other people. In addition to making others happier, this enhances your own positive feelings. It can be something as simple as helping someone carry heavy packages or providing directions for a stranger.

“Appreciate the world around you. It could be a bird, a tree, a beautiful sunrise or sunset or even an article of clothing someone is wearing. I met a man recently who was reveling in the architectural details of the 19th-century houses in my neighborhood.

“Develop and bolster relationships. Building strong social connections with friends or family members enhances feelings of self-worth and, long-term studies have shown, is associated with better health and a longer life.

Establish goals that can be accomplished. Perhaps you want to improve your tennis or read more books. But be realistic; a goal that is impractical or too challenging can create unnecessary stress.

Learn something new. It can be a sport, a language, an instrument or a game that instills a sense of achievement, self-confidence and resilience. But here, too, be realistic about how long this may take and be sure you have the time needed.

Choose to accept yourself, flaws and all. Rather than imperfections and failures, focus on your positive attributes and achievements. The loveliest people I know have none of the external features of loveliness but shine with the internal beauty of caring, compassion and consideration of others.

Practice resilience. Rather than let loss, stress, failure or trauma overwhelm you, use them as learning experiences and steppingstones to a better future. Remember the expression: When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.

Practice mindfulness. Ruminating on past problems or future difficulties drains mental resources and steals attention from current pleasures. Let go of things you can’t control and focus on the here-and-now. Consider taking a course in insight meditation.”

Which of these positive activities is most appealing to you, and how might you incorporate them into the “micro-moments” of your day?

Break the script of small talk

“Break the script” in some part of your life that has grown too routine. —Dan Heath 

Resilient people often “break the script” of expected behavior, which is a recommendation offered by Dan Heath In an interview with author Gretchen Rubin in which Heath encourages us to alter parts of our lives that have grown too routine.

One of the script-breaking practices he recommends is to “push beyond small talk with someone in your life.”

Heath adds: “When someone asks you ‘How are you?’, and you’re just about to give the automatic answer, ‘Fine, how are you?’, take a breath. Then give the actual answer. Share something real—maybe something you’re struggling with. Trust that the other person will care and reciprocate with something real from their life. You may be amazed at how such a simple moment can deepen a relationship.”

While small talk has its benefits, including increasing our comfort during routine social encounters and easing us into deeper conversations, it also has its limitations.

The benefits of “big talk” include more intellectually and emotionally-engaging conversations, deeper relationships, and the possibility of learning important things about ourselves and others.

In what situations and with what people have you or might you break the script of small talk for the benefit of others and yourself?

The attributes of resilient people

Resilient people:

• often had early role models—family members, teachers, and mentors—who guided and inspired them during difficult times.

• have a willingness to learn from their experiences in ways that others who have had similar experiences do not.

• possess ways of thinking that empower themselves and others. For instance, they are likely to believe in the importance of sustained effort in achieving important goals over talent alone.

• display skills that help them manage themselves and interact with the world in productive ways.

Lolly Daskal offers a list of such skills:

1. Knowing yourself. “If you’re aware of yourself and how you function in the world, you’re in touch with how you feel, and you know your strengths and weaknesses,” Daskal points out. “You also know how your emotions and actions can affect the people around you.”

2. Building relationships that are satisfying and productive. “Human beings are naturally social creatures–we crave friendship and positive interactions just as we do food and water,” Daskal writes. “So it makes sense that the skills involved in building and maintaining relationships are never going out of style.”

3. Active Listening. “When someone is speaking it is vitally important to be fully present and in the moment with them,” Daskal notes. “Whether you agree with the speaker—whether you’re even remotely interested in what they’re saying—focus on their words, tone and body language and they’ll feel heard….”

4. Expressing empathy. “Empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—is a key element in building trust…,” Daskal explains.

5. Giving feedback. “Providing effective feedback in a useful format and context benefits both the giver and the receiver,” Daskal writes. “Leveraged properly, feedback can lead to real growth and development. And effective feedback will always require a person-to-person connection.”

6. Managing stress. “The skill of being able to manage stress—our own and that of others—will never be obsolete…, Daskal concludes. “Create a line of defenses against stressful situations that you cannot control—use your network, be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and learn to relax.”

Resilient people combine some or all of the above into habits of mind and behavior that enable them to focus their energy on living out their most important values and purposes.

What qualities, in your experience, distinguish resilient people?

Why good policy is necessary but insufficient to improve schools

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. —Frederick Hess

Policies that serve an organization’s most important goals are essential sources of institutional resilience.

Having said that, I believe that there are limits to how far good policy can take us in the direction of creating quality teaching for all students in every school.

One of the best things that can be said about good policy, I think, is that it drives out the kind of irresponsible and sometimes mean-spirited policies that harm students, dismay teachers, and destroys public education.

But while good policy can move the education system in the right direction, it cannot ensure the quality of day-to-day improvement efforts in schools.

For that, skillful administrative and teacher leadership is essential.

Frederick Hess writes: “Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.”

Hess adds: “Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

“School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry….

“Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied.”

For example, policy may mandate:

• Evidence-based forms of professional development for all teachers and administrators (a good idea), but not the quality of professional learning that ensues from it and whether that learning leads to sustained improvements in teaching.

• Mentors or instructional coaches for new teachers (good ideas), but not the quality of the mentoring or coaching experience for all new teachers.

• That instructional teams or professional learning communities exist in schools (good ideas), but not the quality of their deliberations nor the results of that work on teaching and learning.

Ultimately, the effective implementation of such policies requires motivated, skillful leadership by administrators and teacher leaders. Such leadership can be set in motion by good policy, but it can be sustained only by enabling forces within school systems.

At the core of leaders’ work is the creation of school cultures of continuous improvement and teamwork, which, even under the best of circumstances, is a demanding responsibility.

While good policies are necessary, they are insufficient.

Policymakers may legislate, but ultimately it is the skillful, tedious, and often overwhelming day-to-day work of administrators and teachers that will determine the quality of teaching and learning for all students.

What is your experience with the effectiveness of local, state, and federal policies in improving teaching and learning for all students?

Multi-generational resilience

Whatever struggle we have gone through remains, at heart, a human struggle. When we see our struggles in the stories of those who have gone before us, we feel less alone. We begin to see that there are sources of wisdom all around us. —Eric Greitens

Over the years I have supported dozens of hospice patients who near the end of their lives told and preserved their life stories for future generations.

These individuals often didn’t see their lives as having any special significance, but agreed to tell their stories at the urging of family members.

Although they never used the the term resilience, they shared stories of overcoming and the sometimes difficult lessons they had learned, stories that inspire and guide as they honor the storytellers and bear witness to their struggles.

“Knowing our history can make us more resilient, especially when we understand our connection to the people who went before us,” Eric Greitens writes in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life.

“[S]torytelling is not just a way to remember what happened; it’s a way to understand what happened. When you tell a story, you give an event meaning. In storytelling we bring past, present, and future together in a way that helps us to make sense of events and make sense of our lives….,” Greiten adds. “We honor the dead by living their values. Through our efforts, we ensure that the good things they stood for continue to stand even when they are gone. Our actions become a living memorial to their memory.”

To that end, I encourage you at every opportunity to ask elders to tell stories about personal or family resilience.

Listen deeply with empathy, and, when appropriate, encourage reflection on the lessons that might be drawn from the stories.

What life lessons did you learn from your ancestors or elders?

Viewing life as improvisation

I have yet to find anybody who finds their gift…. [I]t’s much better to think of something you want to attain and then get the help of teachers and parents to start you on the path of creating that. On that path, you may decide you want to go in a different direction. That’s fine. But you haven’t simply been waiting around for something that would allow you to instantaneously become good because that’s never happening. And I think the process of really seeing how you can improve is something that will transfer even if you try to improve in some other domain. —Cory Turner

Many young people, and older ones as well, are paralyzed by the belief that there is one true path in life that will fulfill their destiny.

As a result, they drift in a kind of limbo waiting for that path to reveal itself.

Another way to think about important life decisions, however, is to view them as a series of experiments or prototypes.

This improvisational perspective is one that resilient people often apply in their lives.

A New York Times article about a new book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dale Evans, addresses this issue:

“A common mistake that people make … is to assume that there’s only one right solution or optimal version of your life, and that if you choose wrong, you’ve blown it,” the article points out.

“Design thinking, as rendered in the book, is about treating life in a more improvisational way….

“Their method is experiential and accepts that failure is part of the process.

“Central to the philosophy is prototyping, a concept borrowed from how product designers work. Let’s say you’re thinking of changing careers. Interview someone who does the job you’re considering. Better yet, ask to shadow them for a day, or work in the field on weekends. If it feels right, take it a step further; if it doesn’t, move on.

“‘It’s a classic form of design,” Mr. Burnett said. ‘You build a lot of stuff, you try a lot of stuff. But it’s always less than the whole product.’”

There are many possible paths in life that can make use of our talents and interests, that will be alighted with our values, and that will be deeply satisfying..

Which means that finding our life’s purpose is to a large degree a process of well-designed experiments paired with an openness to follow emerging opportunities.

What has your life taught you about the role of experimentation and improvisation in creating a meaningful life?


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