midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “choice”

Man in the Mirror: ‘Compare In, Not Out’

In the substance abuse therapy group I co-led as an intern, the group leader would tell members to “compare in, not out” when he detected a member analyzing whose addiction was worse than another’s, assessing who among members engaged in more risky or reckless behaviors or seeking salacious details about others’ misfortunes and misadventures.

The leader’s message to the addicts was as clear as the typical pre-school teacher’s emphasizing individual responsibility and self-control to easily distracted and influenced children focused on others: “Worry about yourself.”

It’s a simple message, but one that takes discipline and introspection to implement, whether for the purpose of changing addictive behaviors or many other goals or pursuits in life in which the temptation is to compare ourselves to the status, abilities, fortune and accomplishments of others. The era of social media has compounded the phenomenon of “comparing out” through the instantaneous access we have into the windows of others’ lives – their new jobs, kids’ achievements, lively social gatherings, adventurous vacations and other things of which to be envious.

We would be more satisfied with our lives if we would “compare in, not out.” To me, “comparing in” means evaluating myself according to my assessment of my own Man in Mirror 2potential, my ability to strive for and attain goals I believe are worth pursuing, being happy with what I have at any given time rather than desiring what I don’t, and living life in a way that makes me feel positive about my actions, conduct and treatment of others, even though it will be far from perfect.

Still, living life without “comparing out” is a challenge for me, as I imagine it is for nearly everyone who hasn’t mastered some form of meditation or inner peace.

Right now, I am struggling against “comparing out” as I begin my second summer as a seasonal tennis instructor at a large beach resort tennis club, a “gig economy” interlude as I make a career transition to counseling.

Among the instructors, several of whom are year-round employees, it is apparent that I am ranked lower in the pecking order, understandably and justifiably as a seasonal staff member, similar to last summer. I know what I have to do to be successful is to conduct each clinic and private lesson to the best of my ability, stay upbeat and high-energy, engage clients in a friendly, interested and courteous manner, and work cooperatively with the staff as part of a team. But I still find it hard to resist comparing the assignments and the number of on-court teaching hours I get – which determines income — to others. Such “comparing out,” and the ruminations it causes, only makes me feel worse; on the other hand, “comparing in” when I give my all for a lesson or clinic, or assist a fellow instructor when needed, makes me feel positive.

My career transition from public relations to counseling is another area where I have to fight the lure of “comparing out” and instead “compare in,” basing my assessment on what I deem is fulfilling and achieves a sense of purpose. Though there is potential for income growth with the establishment of an independent counseling practice in the future, my first job in the profession likely will pay about half of what I was making in the public relations position I left. Eyeing the reality of my pending job search, it is challenging to avoid “comparing out” to other professionals in my age group who may be at the height of their earning potential and aren’t worried about scraping by. That’s when it’s important to “compare in” and realize I chose this path for a reason and I am fully responsible for my decision and the outcome.

“Comparing in” is difficult because it puts the onus squarely on us for our own successes and failures, our current condition in life, our decisions and behaviors, and, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves and our own satisfaction and happiness. When we compare ourselves only to our own standards, goals, morals, ethics and beliefs, we strip away self-delusions and rationalizations and are forced to see only the “Man in the Mirror,” our only true compass.

(Not) A Chip off the Old Block

Academically, my son Daniel doesn’t take after me – except for the fact that we have each attended college. And in today’s increasingly specialized and technological economy and job market, I’d say that’s good for him.

As a freshman computer science major and bioinformatics minor, Daniel is taking a heavy dose of computer programming, biology, statistics and math. I predict he will separate DanAdam2_PotomacHallhimself from the masses who hold college degrees, which no longer guarantee entry into the professional world, by going the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) route and will find himself in demand in the job market. No post-college Parental Unit Domicile (PUD) basement-dwelling likely or necessary for him!

I, on the other hand, took an occasional math or science course three decades ago at my liberal arts college – only enough to meet the requirements to graduate – and overdosed on philosophy, history, political science, economics and English courses, emerging with a smorgasbord-style International Relations degree that led to nothing in particular.

But in that era, being a generalist with a broad liberal arts education could still work as a professional launching pad for many occupations. It’s not that it can’t work today, but it just appears harder.

Industries can be more selective in hiring graduates who more closely fit the profile for their jobs based on their degrees, internship experiences and technical and industry-specific knowledge. Those without more targeted, specialized and immediately marketable degrees will flood the “generalist” markets, like education, communications, sales, fundraising and social services, creating the immense competition that has left many college graduates on the sidelines.

While teaching tennis at an beach resort last summer in the midst of my career transition to counseling, I talked with a doctor at Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic after a tennis clinic. His wife also was a physician. He had two kids in college, and explained his parenting philosophy about his kids’ college education. He did not take a laissez faire approach, like many parents who allow their kids to “find themselves” – or not – by experimenting and dabbling with a variety of subjects with no clear idea of where they were heading. Guessing and floundering, and possibly wasting time and money, was not acceptable, he emphasized. If his kids were going to attend college, he demanded that they have “skin in the game” and demonstrate a well-thought out plan outlining what they would study, and how their field of study would lead to a career path and jobs immediately after college, based on real-world economic and occupational data. Otherwise, the parental money pipeline would be disconnected.

It made sense to me. And immediately after my discussion with the doctor, I was struck by pangs of guilt: My daughter Rebecca was about to enter her senior year of college as a liberal arts major – sociology and French minor – and I had never really had that practical conversation with her about the real-world application of her college pursuits. I was the laissez faire parent!

That’s not necessarily a bad approach. There’s value in allowing your kids to make their own decisions, find their interests and passions on their own, and take responsibility for the outcomes. Parents foisting their own interests, desires and fears upon their kids to either force or influence them to take a certain path rarely works – at least not over the long haul – and typically ends in resentment. But I still felt remiss about possibly leaving Rebecca unprepared for a world that can be callous and crush souls.

So I called Rebecca that August day, knowing that merely mentioning the idea of developing a plan for her post-college life early in her senior year could ratchet up her stress level. She assured me that she was considering various ideas and researching careers, and that she wasn’t approaching her pending graduation flippantly.

That was enough for me. I could check off the Parental Duty box next to “Advise Child of Importance of College Choices.” I’ve never been a hard-ass parent. I have confidence Rebecca will find her way, just like I do with Daniel. And even though their career paths will be different, I’m glad both will be making their decisions based on what they want to do, not based on my ideas of what they should do or on pursuing a path based on fear that they won’t succeed. Because they will succeed if they have the desire and interest.

There are no strings attached to my investment in their college educations. I’ll guide where I can and when and if I’m asked. Otherwise, they’re on their own, and I know that’s the way they want it.

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

A Nation Consumed by Anger

Mercifully, the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is nearly over. (Or at least, we can hope. God only knows what Nov. 9 will bring.) And through all the shenanigans, rhetoric, nonsense, hyperbole, deflection, rationalization, hot air and blasphemy, I’m left with one overriding impression: the raw anger and mean-spiritedness of so many Americans. It’s pervasive and seemingly contagious. And quite disturbing and unsettling. I’m predicting anger_insideoutwe’ll see the intensity increase after the results are in.

One of my counseling texts describes unconstrained anger as “a tendency to hold something or someone else responsible.” When an individual holds something or someone external responsible for their stress, anxiety, or frustration, they often feel they “have the right to express it in an aggressive manner.” The nation is afflicted with this malady of “blaming the other” now: It’s the Mexicans taking jobs; it’s trade agreements shipping jobs away; it’s the Syrian refugees; it’s the Muslims; it’s all immigrants; it’s the nefarious, corrupt Clintons; it’s the socialists; it’s all of Washington; it’s the politicians; it’s Obamacare; it’s the media; it’s the police; it’s racism; it’s sexism; it’s greed; it’s Wall Street; it’s Big Business; it’s the liars, cheaters and fraudsters.

Topping the list of managing anger, says the text, is acknowledging this: “You are responsible for your own life, the choices you make, and the quality of your life experience.”

I would argue that too many Americans have been sold a bill of goods called “The American Dream.” While such a highfalutin concept certainly exists — America offers ample opportunity to achieve some self-defined measure of success — it is not a guarantee for everyone. Hard work doesn’t guarantee it. So many other variables are at play outside an individual’s control. And the illusory American Dream also should not be confused with happiness. The Declaration of Independence grants Americans “the pursuit of happiness” but not happiness. That must be arrived at internally, through mind, body, soul and spirit.

I expect too many Americans expect or want something that they do not have, or thought their lives would be different — better, more successful, without constant struggle, disappointment and limitations (self-imposed or otherwise). Too many Americans abdicate taking responsibility for their own lives, the quality of their lives, and their choices. They are not happy with who they are, where they are, what they have chosen, what they do, the people around them or the quality of their daily existence. It is difficult to change. It takes personal responsibility and risk to change. And it would be too painful to blame themselves. The anger has to be released somewhere, so individuals displace it toward convenient targets, and sometimes, literally, to anyone who crosses their path. Why else road rage? Why else scream down a reporter one has never met?

Yes, this is a bit of pop psychology. It’s based on no research, no surveys. It’s anecdotal. Yet there is no doubt that anger in America is palpable, visceral, barely contained and exploding in spots. Post-election has powder keg written all over it. And I can’t help but think that to find the true source and cause of this anger, Americans have to stop looking outward and take a hard look at themselves.

 

 

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