November 26, 2013

Empowering others to their own self-empowerment

Yesterday a friend pointed me to a link with seven awesome affirmations, reasons to "stop proving yourself to everyone else." There are great points there for everyone to remind themselves of from time to time, especially in the Internet era.

But as I read it, I thought about how these lists are like Twinkies for the psyche--good for the sugar rush and quick calories for one's confidence, but not enough to overcome true self esteem difficulties if the environment around you pushes you down all the time. It's easy to tell yourself to be who you really are, find your own path, own your happiness... but if those closest to you don't give you the space and support you need, you'll keep getting dragged down.

As a parent, youth coach, former scout leader, and manager in the workplace, I am constantly focusing on empowering others. I believe in all seven points in the article and use my own version of them to guide me in coaching, managing, raising my kids, talking with friends--everywhere I interact with people. Maybe that's just my positivity strength, but everyone is capable of being a force for empowerment.

With that in mind, here are seven points for those of us who want to empower others to grow, to accomplish all they can, to be happier, to suffer less stress.

1. Don't compare them to someone else.

Being compared to someone else sucks, especially if you're the one that falls short. Celebrating the abilities and accomplishments of others is wonderful, and we should do that. Saying that Susan's husband is a great cook, however, is different from saying, "I wish you could cook like Susan's husband." Being happy your son's friend got straight A's is different from saying, "I guess you're just not smart like he is."

We all have different talents, strengths, likes, and dislikes. The girl that can't spell might be a dynamite poet. The boy struggling in Chemistry might be a whiz at Physics. Instead of pointing out where you think they're falling short, focus on what they do well. Recognize their talents. Don't get mat at your kid if he'd rather socialize than bury his head in a book; chances are, the parents of the bookworm wish their kid would be more outgoing and social. Love them for who they are, acknowledge and understand their strengths, and guide them in a way that will help them harness those strengths.

2. Understand, then embrace, their dreams.

Popular culture is full of stories of parents forcing their kids into certain careers or molds. Sometimes it works out, but come on. If you were forced into a career you hated, how happy would you be?

People perform better and live happier if they can pursue what they love. What they love, not what you want them to love. Maybe you think you see them being successful in a particular path if they'd only commit themselves to it. But they never commit, even if they've tried it. Frustrating, right? Forget it. Their dreams are not about you. Their dreams are about them. They won't commit to your ideas because they're your ideas, not necessarily their ideas. Instead of trying to fit them into roles, help them figure out for themselves what they love. Then, embrace it. Support it.

3. Illuminate their path, but don't walk it for them

We all know the term "micromanage" as a bad word. For good reason. Not only does a micromanager frustrate the people they're controlling, but they're also creating stress and stifling growth. This is true both with leading teens and managing the workplace, where we strive to develop and grow talent while simultaneously accomplishing the work that needs to get done.

The manager's job is to set up the tasks, then provide the tools and materials for the worker to get the job done. Get out of the way and let them do it. Maybe they'll do it a different way from your way, and that's okay. If they seek help, give it. Shine a light on the path so they know where to go, but don't control every step of the way. People perform far better if you let them unleash their own creativity, and they take far greater pride when they know they've accomplished something on their own.

Micromanaging says I don't trust you to do it right. Handing them the keys and giving them a map says I know you can do it. Which is more empowering?

4. Make sure they stop looking up for a bit.

We're all under such pressure to reach a consumerism-defined version of "success." It's so easy to look at those who have more than we do and think we're not as successful as we should be. Nicer cars, bigger houses, brighter jewelry, fancier clothes. Don't feed that monster. It's just one more way that society makes us feel less than we are. If you think about it, advertising exists to make us think our life sucks, and to make us compare ourselves to some consumeristic ideal that, when you look at it, is all veneer and no structure.

If you know someone perpetually feeling stressed about their wealth or feeling inferior to those who have more things, help them stop looking up the economic ladder for a bit. Help them look down and see how high they really are. (With 1.6 billion people living without electricity, if they can read this blog post they're already in pretty good shape.) Then, go a step further and help them understand that they should not define themselves by the things they possess. And prove it by caring about them, not about their things. Be a good friend.

5. Be patient.

Not everyone develops at the same pace, so be patient. I see parents getting so frustrated with their children because things seem so much easier to adults than to kids. The kid has only 15 years of life experience instead of the 40 or 50 the parent has, after all. The kid isn't going to automatically know or be able to do things adults take for granted. It starts early, with new parents fretting that their baby isn't walking as early as those other babies... give it a rest. All kids grow up. Parenting is a constant exercise in seeing the world from the kid's perspective and helping them grow up. Same thing is true with adults. We are all growing and developing every day, facing new challenges and trying to learn new things. Don't get frustrated that they're not expert in everything right now.

6. Let them fall... but be ready with the first aid kit.

We've all seen the graphics going around the internet that success can't be reached by a straight path. Success is reached through a multitude of missteps, learning with each one. Parents and micromanagers have difficulty seeing their children and workers fail. It could be because they think the failure would reflect badly on them as the parent or manager. Or it could be that they don't want the task to go undone or be done incorrectly. Or, they might just be uncomfortable seeing their kid or worker feel bad at falling short of the goal.

But if you do everything for them, they'll never grow. They'll never feel the sting of losing or the elation of achievement because it will always be dampened by the knowledge that someone was there to fix it and make it all right. Sometimes, you have to be there to catch them before they get hurt. Other times, though, it's more important to stand by and watch, then pick them up and apply the first aid afterwards. Either way, you have to let go and allow them to grow. But let them know you're nearby.

7. Don't try to make it all about you.

It isn't about you. So don't try to make it about you. When they're telling you something, don't hijack their story and tell your own. When they're telling you what they want out of life, don't compare it to what you want out of life. When they're working out a problem, don't try to make them do it your way. So what if they want to load the silverware into the dishwasher upside-down? So what if they want to drive the back streets when you would take the highway? It's not about you, and you can't successfully make it about you. When you try, all you do is make people feel that you care only about yourself and don't care about them.

And maybe that's really the case. But it doesn't have to be.

November 15, 2013

How I thought I got into UC Berkeley but later found I was wrong

More than a quarter century ago, when call waiting was still cutting edge technology, I was a senior in high school on the east coast, and I wanted to go to college far away. I visited my high school guidance counselor and told her I was thinking of computer science.

"Great field," she said. "What colleges are you thinking of?"

"Stanford or UC Berkeley," I said.

"Ha ha ha HA HA HA HAHAHA >snort<," she said.

At this point in the story, you expect me to say I took that as a challenge. That I dedicated myself to proving her wrong. But I'm not a liar, so I won't say that. I basically just went back to whatever I was doing. (But I also picked a sure thing as my break-glass-in-case-of-emergency school. On the off chance she actually was good at her job.)

I applied early admissions to UC Berkeley. I boasted pretty good credentials--over a 4.0 at a good high school, some respectable if not astonishing SAT scores, participation several clubs, varsity letter in four events on the track team. And Berkeley let me in.

For years and years, because of that meeting with my guidance counselor, I thought what really got me into Cal was the essay I submitted with my application.

That is, until I stumbled across it in a box of old papers the other day. And I read it. Now, I can't really tell you what got me in. Luck, probably. Clerical error, maybe. Or maybe they thought I'd make all the other students look good by comparison.

Whatever it was, I don't think it was the essay itself, unless they were impressed by my 24-pin dot matrix printout. They probably saw that and said, "This kid knows computers."

But you be the judge. I give you, at the risk of losing the last tiny bit of respect you might have had for me, the full text. (Typos have likely been introduced during transcription.)

Peter J. Dudley

Everyone says that high school is “the best four years of your life”. I’ve found this to be true. At least, so far it is.
It is interesting that I should be writing this essay now, for I just saw a production of the play “Is There Life After High School?” It dealt with the problems of high school graduates and their memories of their school years.
I like to think of what I may be doing twenty years from now. I like to think that I will be successful and still handsome. I also like to think that I will still like the same things I like today.
One of the things I will always enjoy is traveling. I am among the fortunate few that travel all over the world when they are young. I not only have been around my state, but I have been to North Carolina and all over the southwestern United States. Two of my friends and I are planning to ride our bycicles across the country to California.
Not only have I explored the U.S., but I have also made one short excursion to Mexico, where I used my eight years of Spanish to speak with the other bilingual tourists. I have also been to southeastern Canada. I have also gone to England on a tour with a group of other students during April of 1983. A few years ago, I went with my family to Austria to visit my sister, who was studying at the University in Salzburg. While we were there, I was fortunate enough to ski on two European mountains.
Skiing is one of my favorite pasttimes. Although it may get expensive at times, I still like it more than any other sport. I like the thrill of speeding down a thin trail with the peril of trees all around me. This also gives me a chance to be alone with just a beautiful view and infinite space for my mind to expand.
I also like to hike into the mountains of New Hampshire. I have done this with my brother and my father. Each time we camped overnight under the stars. It is really beautiful country. Besides skiing and hiking, I enjoy other sports.
I have been on the track team for four years. I don’t run much, however—I pole vault. I also like to do the triple jump. I prefer the
technique sports, because they offer me a greater challenge. I like to be challenged. Competition is very important in my life.
I like to compete for things. Competition helps me to try harder at nearly everything. However, some people carry competitiveness to an extreme. All they want to do is win, win, win.
This is not a good attitude. In most things, I compete for fun. If competition gets hostile or causes arguments, I usually will be the first to give in a little. However, in some things which I deem important, I will not slack off in my attempts to win. When I do, it is out of courtesy.
Courtesy is also very important to me. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a “gentleman”. Some extreme people people might call this sexist, but I believe that men should be courteous to ladies. This includes holding doors, taking coats, and other actions of chivalry.
Some people are offended by this conduct, but more people enjoy it. It is a good way to meet people or make new friends.
Making new friends seems to be the theme of my senior year. I have become much more social, even with people I rarely talked to before this year. I also have joined many new clubs, including Spanish club, American Field Services, International Relations, and As Schools Match Wits. I used to be very shy, but now I am learning to be more forward. But, given time, I can easily make friends. Some of my good friends say i should be a politician because of my skill in diplomacy and making friends.
My skill with words is reflected in my poetry. I am fairly good with writing creative poetry. I also like to write creative prose, but I am not as talented wit that as I am with poetry. I mostly like to write science fiction or adventure stories. My biggest problem is that I don’t have enough time to write long stories. Time is one luxury I would love to have more of.
I usually type instead of write my stories, because I can type faster than write. I also use my word processor on my Apple ][+ computer. I also like to program my computer. I have a fluent knowledge of BASIC, and I know a little PASCAL. When I have some extra time, I either try to teach myself PASCAL or just play games. I like the fast-moving games as well as the strategy games. After all, who doesn’t?
While I play these games, I like to listen to my tapes. My favorite music includes the groups Adam Ant, Queen, and the Stray Cats. Music plays a great role in my life. I also like “Rockabilly” music. I mostly like fast music because I like to dance.
When I’m not dancing, writing, or making new friends, I like to relax. Sometimes while I’m watching television, I like to analyze the commercials and look at the advertising techniques. I also like to look at politicians like this.
During the recent election, I liked to watch the candidates over a long period of time and see if they changed at all. I also liked to watch the way they spoke to the public. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” This is what politics means to me.
Whatever I happen to be doing, I also happen to be having a good time. There is almost nothing that can’t be made fun. Even so, I always look forward to doing something else, for I can rarely keep in one place. I like to be doing something all the time, even if it is just daydreaming.
I daydream quite a bit. I fantasize about being successful in everything I do. Sometimes I wish that I was a world class skier. Other times I think of all the things I could do with large sums of money. These fantasies provide an escape from the everyday grind that we all must go through.
Other forms of escape I use are fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I like to tak eon another character and be that character once in a while. It’s a sort of “alter ego”. It’s strange how most of my characters are crafty, clever, intelligent people who like to get into trouble. I guess I like to play myself—all except the “get into trouble” part. I try to avoid trouble at all times.
I do this because there is really no one hovering over me protecting me. I have no real “safety net” if I should fall. My mother lives in Las Vegas, and my father and my stepmother have just moved to San Diego. I stayed in Glastonbury to finish my senior year among my friends and classmates. Over the past three months, I have developed a strong sense of independence. Occasionally my father sends me some money for necessary things such as education and doctor’s fees. However, I have been working and spending my own money on frivolous pleasures such as lunch and clothing.
I am living with my step-grandmother, but she is very active and rarely home. Much of my time is spent out with my friends. During vacations, my college friends come home, and I spend much of my time with them. Sometimes we discuss what we’ve been doing and what we would like to do in the future.
My goals in life all seem to point to the ancient Greek “Golden Mean”. I would like, as I suspect most people would, to be my best physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
However, I also have lesser goals. For example, I want to clear eleven feet in the pole vault this year. I also want to muster enough courage to ski Starr (an expert-only trail on Mount Mansfield in Vermont).
I also have more distant goals. For example, I want to have a good job working with computers and robots after I graduate from college with perhaps a Master’s degree. But, perhaps strongest of all, I want to remember the “best four years of my life.”

Still here? Cool. Leave a comment and let me know what you think. Or where you went to (or will go to) college. Or whether you can read. Or if you did any of the things I did, or whether you think I was right about anything in the essay.

And the obligatory PROM PHOTO! Since it was high school, y'all.