Friday, July 27, 2012

What is Your Passion?

Do you have a passion, something you love to do, that is a part of who you are? Do you know that having a passion can lead to higher life satisfaction, vitality and meaning in life? Yep. Well, as long as the passion is in balance. There is always a "but."

My passion was basketball. For a period in my life I played for hours and hours a day. This wasn't when I was a kid (though that's when the passion started) this was as a young adult. I would take time in the middle of a day to get into a game. I was late to meetings and dinners because I played too long ("just one more game" I told myself.) It was so serious that it became an obsessive passion. Obsessive passion is defined as a passion that is out of control. The passion starts to intrude on the other parts of life so much so that there is little or no balance. Luckily I saw it happening and backed off my playing time. Now I still enjoy a game, but there is plenty of other things to do.

Studies show that 75-80% of those surveyed have at least one passion. A harmonious passion is defined as something you love to do that is internalized and becomes part of how you define yourself but it is in harmony with all of the other parts of your life. For years I told people that I was a basketball player. Not very good, a little too short and slow, but I love the game. It was part of my identity. The benefits are  substantial. Bob Vallerand,Ph.D has found that people who have a passion, aside from the higher life satisfaction I already mentioned, have lower rates of conflict and burnout, fewer chronic injuries and overall higher well being.

So, what's your passion? You can have more than one. If you don't have one, it is possible to develop a passion. Start by identifying some activity that you enjoy doing. Next develop your skill in the activity and examine if it is becoming part of how you identify yourself. Once you allow it to become a part of your, it has developed into a passion. Now, just enjoy the moments it gives you.

I don't get the chance to play basketball much anymore because I can't find a good local gym in Asbury Park to play. But I have other passions and this is one of them.I love to write. I love words and how they form ideas. I have the benefit of sharing with you and just enjoying the moment. So try it. Find your passion. It feels great.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Did You Learn In Life Today?

Growing up, dinner with the family was a rule. No matter where we were or what we were doing we made sure that dinner was a family affair. Of course, I had the luxury of a stay-at-home mom who loved to cook. Bonus! And yes, of course, there were the prerequisite questions one of which included "what did you learn in school today?" It was not always posed this way, but there was some version of it. I grappled with that question because I didn't pay too much attention during the day at school. However, on my way home for dinner from the basketball court I always tried hard to think of something.

Years pass and no one asks me that question anymore. Of course I don't live with my parents, but more commonly it's not the question we tend to ask adults. Why not? There is a common perception that our brain stops developing somewhere in our youth and we get to a certain point where we are on a downward slide. Yet the new reality shown to us by neuroscience is that the brain can continue to develop long into our lives and it can be as receptive as a three year old brain.

What is even sadder is that because of this mental model many of us eschew learning as we age. We stop going to classes or lectures and tend to only read books that support what we already know. Even the news we read (because of the customization of computer generated sites) just reaffirms what we already know. We are missing the possibility of expanding our brains and broadening our experiences.

This past weekend I was honored to present at the Canadian Positive Psychology Association Conference in Toronto. It was amazing. My brain has not worked that hard in a very long time. The speakers were consistently above par and gave me a lot to think about. Yet, even as I reveled in the experience I realized that the lecture of life gives me something to learn every day, I just don't often choose to see it or dwell on it.

Whether we choose to go to a lecture series, or listen to a TED talk, or read a totally new idea in a book or magazine, we can stimulate our brain and our life. However, focusing on the nuances of every day and questioning why things happen, how they came about and what can change also allows us to expand our brain. The first step is to intentionally learn. Find new things that we'd love to know and pursue them. We will find that life takes on a totally different feeling because every day is an exploration about what life will teach us.

I believe we move in the direction of our focus, so I'm gonna start asking myself the question "what did you learn in life today?" I know that by asking myself that question I'll start looking for the answer. And I might ask those who sit down to dinner with me. It will be an interesting conversation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Try a New Experience

About a year ago I found  myself on the face of a shear rock wall 45 feet above the canyon floor. It was an old rock quarry and my friend Brendan had convinced me I had to try rock climbing. He strapped me in the harness and lowered me down into the quarry. My job, should I choose to accept it, was to climb back up the wall using the small cracks as finger and toe holds. Tom Cruise made this look a lot easier in one of the Mission Impossible movies. 

I learned a lot that day, especially how hard my heart can pound when my feet slip off the wall and I'm holding on by my finger tips. But the most important lesson that Brendan impressed on me was "use your legs." He taught me that too many novices try pulling themselves up the steep cliffs and tire very quickly. "Your legs are much stronger. Push yourself up the cliff." And he was right. 

People speak to me frequently about taking on new challenges and trying new things. I strongly encourage them to do so. Studies show that experiences create much longer lasting and more powerful memories than purchasing things for yourself or others. Instead of heading to the mall on a day off, think of something you'd like to try doing. It will leave a lasting impression. 

Yet, when I speak with people about their attempt at new experiences too often they believe they have to focus on skills they don't have and use them to get through the experience. What I learned on that wall is that, as much as possible, use some of your key skills to get you through new experiences. 

For example, two years ago I signed up for a sprint triathalon. It was a brand new experience for me and the training was very new. However, one of my key strengths is pig-headedness (I'm sure my classmates in Positive Psychology will wonder where this strength is listed). When I decide to do something, I will not give up until I've achieved my goal. So, though there were a bunch of new skills to learn, I just focused on what I do well, practicing everyday, and believed the skills would come into line. They did and it was a great experience.

Life is so short and precious. Why not fill it with new and different experiences to expand the story of your life? But when you do, remember, use the strengths you have developed to help get you there. It is worth the climb. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Other People Matter

A few years ago, while studying for my degree in positive psychology, Chris Peterson Ph.D. summarized some of the most important research of positive psychology by stating "other people matter." Honestly my reaction (quietly to myself) was "I'm paying for this kind of brilliance?" Yet Dr. Peterson's words keep coming back to me lately because it seems we are being inundated with examples of selfishness and greed that mask themselves as success. This is not what personal greatness is about.

Recently I've given up the practice of counting the cars with only one person in them driving in the HOV lane during rush hour on the New Jersey Turnpike. It really bothers me because it seems these people don't care about anyone else or care about the law, as long as they can get ahead. The broader applications are frightening. This Sunday there were more examples on a larger scale of selfishness and greed above the fold in the New York Times. The articles about JP Morgan Chase lying about their losses, high profile polluters basically walking away free, and drug companies, knowing their drugs kill and getting off with only a small fine. What happened to doing the right thing and caring about the greater community?

We live in a time when our American individualism seems to have taken steroids. It's all about the individual, the heck with what the larger society needs. Many people think, speak, and vote only for what it can do for them (or their wallet), not necessarily the great good of society.

What we need are more examples of people doing the right thing. When we've surveyed people about personal greatness they give us wonderful examples of individuals using all their skills and abilities. What we discovered is that in all their descriptions and definitions of personal greatness, none of them mentioned that the work or outcome usually was for the betterment of society, their community or their family. They assumed personal greatness helps others. We named it "The Assumption of Positive Affect."

It is time to look for examples of people helping others, of going the extra mile, of helping society at large. Because it's these examples that spur each of us on to do something as well. If all we see is greed and selfishness, there is a natural reaction to want to get our share before it runs out. But goodness and charity never run out. There is plenty to go around.

So, today I'm gonna focus on those people who are doing good for others. I want to see people use their skills and talents to help someone other than themselves. Why? Because the example will help me do the same. And in the long run the research shows that people who help and care about others have greater health and happiness. Perhaps I can get that on a sign in the HOV lane.

"Other People Matter"

Monday, July 9, 2012

Where Are Your Calluses?

I picked up my guitar yesterday. It was painful. No, not the music I tried to play, but the tips of my fingers after 30 minutes. They were killing me and I had to stop. I thought to myself "wow, it wasn't that long ago that I'd play for hours and not have a problem." Who am I kidding? It was long ago and I haven't played in years. Most important I've lost the calluses I had built up in the past and now I've got to do it all over again.

In the 13 years that we've been researching achievement and greatness there is one characteristic that continues to dominate why people are successful; hard work. Great individuals and high achievers work hard at their craft, usually much harder than anyone else in their field and that is why they achieve. Very few are the smartest, strongest, or fastest genetically. There are others who should beat them. But these individuals who succeed out-work others every time.

We live in a society that eschews dedication and hard work even as we protest that we are working too hard. We want everything quickly and easily. Immediate gratification is the order of the day. And we expect that we can have an innate talent in something so we won't sweat even as we win. That is a mindset that will defeat us eventually.

Carol Dweck has studied success for over 40 years and her recently published book, Mindset, offers interesting research indicating that how we perceive our talents and abilities can have a direct affect on our success. She identifies two different ways to think about your abilities. The fixed mindset believes that abilities or intelligence are fixed and that there is only so much that anyone has. So, if you are inherently talented in guitar, for example, you have that amount of talent. (that is not me) The growth mindset believes that all of our abilities and intelligence can be developed. The difference in the two is when they encounter challenges or hard work. The fixed mindset believes that they should easily succeed and overcome anyone or anything. That means initially they can't show anyone they are working hard and if they fail, it demoralizes them. The growth mindset however sees challenge and failure as an impetus to work harder. They eventually will succeed because they believe they learn from challenge and failure. The good news, according to Dweck, is that we can change our mindset.

So, where are your calluses? What is it that you work hard to develop, or produce and you continue day after day even in the face of challenge? Everyone of us has the potential to unleash the best of our abilities and talents, but it doesn't come in a day, a month or a year. Success is hard work. Once we embrace that mindset, we have set ourselves on the right path for personal greatness.

As for me, I'll pick up the guitar again today, even though it is painful. I've been wanting to play again for years and now is the time. I'll know I'm succeeding when the calluses develop.