Category Archives: personal growth

On bucket lists, f***it lists, and the happily mundane

The title of the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” introduced a new phrase into our popular culture, referring to the making of wish lists, written down or simply in our heads, of must-do trips and activities before we die (hence, kick the bucket). The film itself starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two older men with dire medical diagnoses who decide to leave their hospital beds for a whirlwind road trip around the world.

Especially among folks of a certain age (umm, 40s and older), “bucket list” creeps fairly often into conversations about making the most of our respective futures. It’s also an easy peasy invitation to daydreaming big.

But hold on a minute, maybe there’s more to a good life than checking off items on a bucket list! How about the benefits of offloading certain burdens and of pursuing everyday pleasures?

While some are making their bucket lists, others are working on their “f***it” lists, made up of those life matters worthy of jettisoning. As Huffington Post blogger Kathy Gottberg suggests, “we should be both willing and able to let go of anything that drags us down and holds us back from living a happy and content life.”

Furthermore, by choice or circumstance, most of us aren’t in a position to tackle a bucket list that includes a private jet at our beck and call. Not to worry, reports New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber, citing research indicating that simple, pleasurable everyday experiences — “like a day in the library” — can bring us happiness comparable to taking that big trip.

I think I get it. While I have neither a bucket list nor a f***it list, I understand that adding items to the latter can be incredibly freeing. Some of life’s B.S. just isn’t worth carrying around! Also, while I still enjoy visits to cool places, I’m quite happy with stretches that don’t involve long plane flights and that allow time for leisure reading or some quality binge viewing.

In other words, thank goodness there are good ways to pursue happiness besides vagabonding around the world in a Lear jet. Besides, the jet lag would be horrific.

Thinking young and thinking old: The best of both worlds

(Photo: DY, 2015)

(Photo: DY, 2015)

So here’s the question for the day: In looking for books that help us to play the game of life, should we seek insights that encourage us to be young and adventurous or old and wise? Our popular culture worships youth, but there’s much to be said for maturity, too.

How about seeking out both perspectives?!

On that note, here are two books that might be interesting back-to-back reads: Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) and Charles D. Hayes’s The Rapture of Maturity (2004). They were written with different generational audiences in mind, the former pitched at younger folks, the latter aimed at older folks.

From Hayes’s Autodidactic.com website, here’s a description of The Rapture of Maturity:

The Rapture of Maturity affirms the joys of discovery and insight that accompany thoughtful reflection on our years of lived experience and a pursuit of deeper understanding. It encourages the kind of thinking that can transform human relations on a global scale.

Rapture is the reward of living authentically and acting deliberately to leave the world a better place than we found it. For those who seek such a goal, this book is indispensable.

And here’s an online description of Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity:

If you’ve ever thought, “There must be more to life than this,” The Art of Non-Conformity is for you.

Based on Chris Guillebeau’s popular online manifesto “A Brief Guide to World Domination,” The Art of Non-Conformity defies common assumptions about life and work while arming you with the tools to live differently. You’ll discover how to live on your own terms by exploring creative self-employment, radical goal-setting, contrarian travel, and embracing life as a constant adventure.

Publisher’s Weekly aptly noted that “although directed at readers of all ages, [Guillebeau’s] message is likely to appeal most to those without dependents.” So consider the interesting twist: A book that understandably may be discounted as unrealistic by parents raising kids may suddenly be more relevant to them once they become empty nesters.

And for those who are younger, what better way to get a head start on what’s important in life than to read about lessons learned by Charles Hayes, an insightful, thoughtful, largely self-taught philosopher and writer of more senior vintage?

Favorite parts

Each book is full of inspiration, sound advice, and thought provoking observations. Here are parts from each that stand out for me:

In a chapter titled “Graduate School vs. the Blogosphere,” The Art of Non-Conformity explores the question of grad school vs. independent learning. Guillebeau shares his own graduate school experience (a master’s degree program in international affairs) and compares its time, cost, and activities to the benefits of pursuing a largely self-defined course of independent study.

He includes a suggested outline for a “One Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience,” basically a low-cost, do-it-yourself program of reading, multi-media learning, travel, and online publishing. For lifelong learning junkies, this is catnip and gets the wheels turning. It’s a wonderful reminder of how much good stuff is out there for independent learners.

For me, the most memorable passage of The Rapture of Maturity is a story of regret that Hayes shares from his younger days when he lived for a short time in a boarding house:

In the room next to mine was an old man in his eighties who often asked me to have dinner with him. Most of the time I was in too much of a hurry and declined. When I did accept his invitation, I ate quickly and never stayed very long. The recurring memory I have today sees through that old man’s screen door to the table always set with an extra plate in case he might have company for dinner. Today I understand that he was lonely. Back then I didn’t have the time or the patience to notice.

Hayes goes on to explore the role of regret in helping us to shape better lives. “Reflecting on this kind of unfinished business,” he writes, “prepares us for similar decisions in the future.”

Freedom and responsibility

For me, at least, the broader takeaways from these books, considered together, is that life is a balance of freedom and responsibility. It’s about the freedom to do things and make decisions about one’s life, along with a self-defined responsibility to live in a meaningful, authentic, and difference-making way.

Within those very broad parameters, there may be plenty of room to navigate between family, friends, work, faith and spirituality, and various activities.

Not everyone has these choices. Life’s opportunities are not equally distributed, and for some they may be very constricted. But for those who are blessed with, at the very least, some capacity to create these options, these two books may be valuable.

If you’ve got some time to kill…

As some of you know, I’ve been writing a professional blog, Minding the Workplace, for over six years. A lot of the material is heavier stuff, looking at employee relations, workplace bullying, employment law, psychological health at work, and so on. But on occasion I’ve written pieces with a lighter touch that may be of interest to readers here. I thought I’d dig into the archives of that blog and share a few of them:

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Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments? (2014) — “So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come? For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.”

What now, not what if (2013) — “Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them….That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy.”

The perils and pleasures of nostalgia, even about work?! (2013) — I get especially nostalgic about two work experiences. The first was my initial year as a Legal Aid lawyer in Manhattan, following my graduation from NYU’s law school….My second nostalgic focus: Returning to NYU after six years of legal practice as an instructor in its innovative first-year Lawyering Program….Both clusters of memories, however, gloss over the fact that I was years away from discovering my true passions as a teacher, scholar, and advocate. I was clueless about a lot of things, and not exactly on the leading edge of emotional maturity.”

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August 1982: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (2012) — “This month, I find myself particularly nostalgic over events of 30 years ago, when I moved from Hammond, Indiana to New York City to begin law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village. This was a pretty big deal for me. Although I had benefited greatly from a semester abroad in England during college at Valparaiso University, I was far from worldly and had never been to New York City before applying to NYU….Within a few days of my arrival, I would start classes in Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building, on the southwest corner of Washington Square….”

Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012); Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper (2012) — “With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience….”

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Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide toward good transitions (2012) — As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition….If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.

Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.”

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010) — “Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity. Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this. Hilda Demuth-Lutze is a friend from college days at Valparaiso University (Indiana) who is the author of historical novels for young adults. Mark Mybeck is a friend going back to grade school in Hammond, Indiana, whose band, Nomad Planets, is creating a niche for itself in the Greater Chicagoland indie rock scene.”

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down.

I decided to go back across the street, and then I walked over to the man. I pulled some money from my wallet and offered it to him, saying that it looked like he could use something to eat. He appeared to be in very bad health, but when he saw that I was giving him twenty dollars and we began talking, his face lit up. He was very grateful for the money, and I believe he was appreciative that someone took a few minutes to converse with him.

What some might call a random act of kindness actually wasn’t all that random. Last fall I completed a non-credit, online adult education course, “The Science of Happiness,” led by psychology professors associated with UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It was a substantial course on emerging scientific discoveries about what makes people happy, with weekly readings, video lectures, and quizzes, as well as mid-term and final exams. Among our optional assignments was to engage in random acts of kindness, drawing on psychological literature indicating that giving promotes happiness in both the giver and the receiver.

Indeed, a little voice from that course was speaking to me when I walked up to that man and gave him money, and I found myself feeling very emotional afterward. Since then, I’ve repeated this act maybe a half dozen times, approaching people who appear to be very down on their luck, saying hello and giving them a twenty dollar bill. Over the weekend it was a man sitting on a subway bench with all of his worldly belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Earlier this month it was a woman digging through a trash receptacle in search of food, a few feet away from where I was enjoying my lunch.

A couple of times the recipients didn’t say much to me, but on other occasions they expressed surprise and deep gratitude. One man even hugged me. When you see someone’s facial expression go from weariness and despair to a big smile in a matter of seconds, then you know you’ve made someone’s day a little better.

I have hesitated to put this in a blog post because I don’t wish to portray myself as being someone I’m not. I walk by most people I see panhandling on the street, and I’ve never volunteered at a homeless shelter. And let’s be honest: Twenty bucks isn’t exactly a huge sacrifice for a single guy earning a professional salary. But I thought I’d offer this story as just one example of how the non-saintly among us can make a modest difference in the world. No, it’s not “social change” in the grander way that I’d like to see, but if enough of us engage in these acts, then maybe the good stuff starts to add up to something substantial.

Your not-so-random acts of kindness need not be the same as mine. But I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you decide to do, both you and the recipient(s) will feel better because of it.

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Happiness course

Go here if you’d like to learn more about the free “Science of Happiness” course.

This piece is cross-posted on my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

Pursuing your passion (realism edition)

If only...

If only!!!

The title of Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (1989) is perhaps the world’s easiest eight-word commencement speech, and it has been repeated, mantra-like, in countless pep talks and career counseling sessions. At least before the Great Recession hit, the book was extraordinarily popular in college career services offices, especially for liberal arts majors.

In fact, it’s a pretty good read and worth a look for anyone in a career/life shifting or changing mode. However, the message conveyed by the title may sound downright starry-eyed and naive to those juggling rent payments or a mortgage, kids, car payments, a grocery bill, and the rest…maybe to the point where you’re saying to yourself, oh c’mon, what a load of fertilizer.

And yet, we go around only once in this lifetime, and it strikes me as being a terrible shame for folks to give up on what activities engage and excite them. So here’s what I call the Realism Edition of Pursuing Your Passion:

First, it may be possible for you to turn your passion into a job. Is there a demand for what you like to do? Are your talents sufficient to satisfy that demand? Will the income pay the bills? It could take you a while to answer these questions, but if the answers lean toward yes, then maybe you can make a go of it.

Second, even if the prospects of turning your passion into a full-time job are limited or doubtful at this juncture, can you start by doing it as a side gig or perhaps as an avocation? You’ll be able to derive enjoyment from the activity, maybe earn some income from it (or at least cover expenses), and plant possible seeds for turning this into your next career.

Third, if your passion doesn’t necessarily translate into income, can you pursue it as a hobby? With the busy demands of everyday life, we’ve lost sight of hobbies as a meaningful, important activity. Maybe it’s not in the stars, at least for now, for you to be a pro basketball player, famous clothes designer, or featured nightclub singer. But how about joining a hoops league at the Y, setting up a knitting space in a spare corner, or participating in a local singing group?

In some cases, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow may be more dreamy invocation than hard reality. But even if your passion isn’t meant to be your main income source, there should be a way to bring the core joys of that activity into your life. There are no guarantees, of course, but wouldn’t it be a shame not even to try?

Regrets, we’ve had a few

ViralNova.com has put together a visual feature, The Top 37 Things Dying People Say They Regret:

Everyone goes through life experiencing enough mistakes and resulting damage that, by the time they are old enough, they have regrets. They say hindsight is 20/20 and when you look back at your life you will know what moments you should have changed. However, we want to help you out. Forget hindsight. We’ve compiled a list of the 37 things you must not do or else you will definitely regret them at the end of your life. Just read through these and trust us. It’ll be worth it.

Here’s a sampling of the 37:

  • “Not traveling when you had a chance”
  • “Not quitting a terrible job”
  • “Spending your youth being self-absorbed”
  • “Not volunteering enough”
  • “Neglecting your teeth”
  • “Working too much”
  • “Never taking a big risk (especially in love)”
  • “Not spending enough time with loved ones”

There’s stuff on the list that may resonate with people of different age groups. It’s an easy but thoughtful feature. Take a look and ask how many of these items apply to you!

And by the way, there’s at least one item relating to music, so you might click on the video of Sinatra crooning “My Way.” We may have missed seeing him in concert, but thanks to YouTube, CDs, and MP3s, we can still enjoy his great performances.

“I want it all” (Grown up edition)

In the course of a life, can we really have it all?

The YouTube video above — featuring a song from the 1980s Broadway show “Baby” — captures our wishful thinking, especially when we’re younger. In this scene, three women of different ages and life circumstances — but all on the south side of 40 — meet by chance in a doctor’s office. In a sweet and clever number performed by Liz Calloway, Catherine Cox, and Beth Fowler at the 1984 Tony Awards, they share how they want it all.

Getting real

Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.

So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, feeling a bit heady about ourselves, while thinking that the world was ours to conquer — and here’s our dean throwing cold water on us and suggesting that it’s probably not going to happen in the way we’re imagining it.

Among the sea of forgettable graduation speeches that I’ve heard over the years, I guess it means something that I remember this one.

Instead…how about a meaningful life?

Rather than chasing such an elusive goal, let’s focus on what makes for a good and meaningful life, while respecting the fact that we’re not able to control everything.

For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family, caring for a loved one, or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause, or perhaps creating something artistic or delicious. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.

A lucky few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. But for most of us, it will involve some juggling, choosing, compromising, and hopefully succeeding more than failing.

And if we are fortunate and play our cards well, we will get to do a lot of good things during the time we’re here.

Sorting through clutter

For some, sorting and tossing clutter — objects, emotions, experiences, what have you — may be a key to that meaningful life, especially when we reach a certain age. (Fill in number here.)

Okay, I’m the last person in the world who should be talking about reducing clutter. I’ve been a saver and collector all my life. (I’m a classic Cancerian in that sense.)

But that’s what I’m doing now, tossing a lot of stuff. You wouldn’t know it from the current look of my office or condo, but believe me, this year I’ve been offloading!

And you know something, it feels good. I have a pretty clear sense of what brings meaning to my life, and I am jettisoning or recycling the stuff that doesn’t connect with who I am and where I want to go.

Generation Jones

These thoughts are especially pertinent to many Gen Jonesers. As I’ve written before, for our generation, it’s game time. As a group, we’ve still got a lot of fuel left in the tank, but we need to be open to how we can create really great years ahead and define our personal legacies.

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This is a considerably reworked and augmented version of a 2011 post from my professional blog Minding the Workplace.

Memories as we turn the calendar

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If you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that I am a nostalgic creature by nature. I often joke that I can get all soggy over the sandwich I had for lunch yesterday. I’ve been this way since I was a kid.

The turning of the calendar to a New Year only reinforces this trait.

In a piece for the November issue of Quest, a membership publication of the Unitarian Universalists, minister Mary Katherine Morn writes about themes of memory and hope.

Our memories serve to create and re-create us all the time. What are we, but this series of stories that we tell ourselves and these images that we conjure? Even our vision of the future is anchored in the stories and images we remember. And the present is some powerful spark, fueled by what we remember and what we imagine about the future.

I recently sat down with a dear friend of mine who enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy, starting with an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and including service as a officer and captain on destroyers during the Cold War. Over the year, his daughter sorted through his personal papers and assembled a series of albums centered on his career, and they evoke rich memories for him and tell compelling historical, human stories to me. The albums are among the keepsakes and remembrances of a good life.

Nevertheless, Minister Morn urges that memories both good and bad “can hold us back from living fully and well.” Dwelling upon “an idealized vision of our past” can cause us to overlook the gifts of the present. For example, sad is the life of the former high school football star stuck in the glories of touchdowns past, or the frustrated actress who lives in the moment of her one star turn decades ago.

By contrast, adds Morn, defining our present “by means of a memory of abuse or illness or some other terrible thing” will cause us to have a “fitful and troubled” sleep through the present. She adds that “(t)he challenge with memory is to hold it lightly, to avoid being trapped in the comfort or terror of it for too long.” For example, in my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, I often write about those who are dealing with memories of severe bullying and harassment at work. Post traumatic stress can cause people to rehash details of bad experiences over and again, undermining their ability to move forward.

Those who are not beset by long and sharp memories (especially you non-Cancerians!) may find it hard to relate to these observations. Consider it a partial blessing! For those of us whose memories stick around, here’s to finding and keeping a proper place for them.

And, while I’m at it, allow me to wish you a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2014!

Synchronicity and A Foggy Day

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Here’s the story behind this photograph: In July 2011, I participated in a law & mental health conference at Humboldt University in Berlin. On one of the conference days, all morning and into a lunch hour walk, I found myself humming one of my favorite Gershwin songs, “A Foggy Day (In London Town).” I simply couldn’t get it out of my head!

Well, with lunch hour coming to an end, I made my way back to the conference site, and as I turned the corner into the main university plaza, these two students were playing…yup…you guessed it. It sent a (good) chill up and down my spine…and earned the kids a few euros.

The phenomenon is called synchronicity, a pair of related events that do not appear to be causally connected. Some would call it a coincidence, but those who know of the theories of psychologist Carl Jung might well suggest that a more psychic element is at play. I would tend to agree. I’m not the most psychic or intuitive person around, but I’ve had these moments too often to write them off as products of chance.

What about you? Do you buy into the idea of synchronicity?

What now, not what if

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Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them.

I was way too young to understand the tragedy of the assassination when it occurred. Today, however, I regard those events with a deep sense of loss and a light snuffed out.  Kennedy’s three years in office were marked by large successes and failures, but he appeared to be hitting his stride by the time he met his demise in Dallas. The “what ifs” are both tantalizing and sad to contemplate. It is oh-so-tempting to imagine what might have been had he lived.

Nevertheless, watching television programs devoted to Kennedy and his death seems like wallowing in a past that cannot be changed. That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. The main protagonist — a modern-day school teacher — learns that when we go back in time, our attempts to change the past may have unintended consequences.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be drawing such fundamental lessons from a bestselling novel, but I’ll take the chance. Even hardcore nostalgia addicts like me must recognize that what’s done is done. And to a generation raised with options, the what-ifs — the speculations over the roads not traveled — can consume us if we let them.

Rather, what counts is how we live today, including the measures we undertake to better our lives and those of others. This point applies in the realms of public affairs, our personal lives, everything. We take the world as it is and do our best to move forward. It’s the best choice we have.

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This article is cross-posted with my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

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