midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “motivation”

Choose It or Lose It

…[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision…

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

…[F]or all practical purposes, we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy…[W]e choose all our actions and thoughts and, indirectly, almost all our feelings and much of our physiology. As bad as you may feel, much of what goes on in your body when you are in pain or sick is the indirect result of the actions and thoughts you choose or have chosen every day of your life…[W]e are much more in control of our lives than we realize. Unfortunately, much of that control is not effective…Taking more effective control means making better choices…

William Glasser, MD, A New Psychology of Personal Freedom

In the 1990s, I attended the Landmark Forum, a three-day workshop designed to bring about transformative changes in the quality of one’s life through an examination of, and shifts in one’s beliefs, thoughts, behaviors, patterns, commitments and actions.

A Forum anecdote that I remember 20 years later is “Flat tire. Choose.” The premise is simple: Your car gets a flat tire on an inconvenient stretch of road. The choices are more complicated: bash the steering wheel; kick the tire; Frisbee the hubcap; bang the hood; yell and scream; drop some F-bombs; curse the gods and your perpetual bad luck; cry; sit on the side of the road in misery or bewilderment. Or, choose to accept reality and make decisions to address the problem. It’s your choice: Choose…

I have no choice. How many times have you heard that grievance? Is it ever really true?

We all have choices, all the time. Even when it seems like we don’t have any. Even when it seems we have no good choices, when choices are constrained, we still have choices,Choices_Sartre the free will to choose. We can choose our attitude, our perspective, our response, our outlook, our meaning. We can choose not to choose, and still make a choice.

We can even choose our feelings, contends the founder of reality therapy and choice theory, William Glasser, MD, who would say that an individual is “depressing,” or “saddening,” indicating that they are consciously choosing their mood state and have the power to make a different choice.

According to Glasser’s choice theory, all human behavior is intentional, not aimless, and choices are based on “here-and-now” motivations. Choices are made to generate feedback from the outer world and satisfy what Glasser defined as the five basic human needs: survival, love/belonging, power, freedom/independence and fun. Choices also are made to send a message to the outer world, and to specific individuals with whom one has a relationship; for example, that one is confident or  self-doubting, happy or angry, trusting or distrustful, constructive or self-destructive, hungry for success or resigned to failure.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a World War II Holocaust survivor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, described the realization that he had choices – his belief in his own self-dignity, and what he could think, envision and hope, for example — despite the brutal and horrific conditions he endured as a captive as a main reason for his survival. Recognizing the freedom to choose was a prime factor that separated those who maintained a sense of meaning in their lives and hope for the future, and those who became deadened to life, devoid of faith and more likely to succumb to death, Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have observed as a mental health counselor that the execution of choice in people’s lives – the willingness to use it proactively and the effectiveness with which it is used – is perhaps the greatest determiner of an individual’s mental and emotional health, the condition of their relationships and their ability to create meaning and purpose in their lives.

Husbands and wives decline to choose to change behaviors or actions that affect their relationships, or to choose to change their relationship status though they confess to being dissatisfied and unhappy. They are making choices nonetheless, and in so doing, locking patterns in place and cementing bonds that contribute to distress. I’ve seen other couples willing to examine behaviors, accept individual responsibility and choose to make changes, who report an increase in satisfaction and happiness almost immediately.

I have heard individuals describe that they choose not to pursue things they want by creating reasons why their desires may not be practical or possible; choose not to make certain changes because they believe they’re just trapped in circumstances; choose to continue ineffective or destructive beliefs, behaviors and actions, despite evidence of poor results, simply because they’ve always chosen that path; choose to deny reality; choose to be taken advantage of or victimized; choose to rationalize addictions; and choose to blame others for how they feel and what they do.

I have also witnessed individuals, even as young as middle schoolers, choose to battle heroically against the hand they were dealt in life, including horrendous abuse, to reclaim their true selves and create their own futures; choose to make meaning out of devastating circumstances, including incurable illness; and choose to take full responsibility for the direction of their lives and their own happiness.

During the upheaval of midlife, I’ve considered and made many choices that have had major consequences in my life – whether and how to commit to furthering my education; pursue a career change; empower my kids; fight back against an unfair employer; rebound from divorce; enter new romantic relationships; re-evaluate and restructure current relationships; live on less; relocate to a new area;  start over; and deal with loneliness among them.

Many of the choices have been stressful and excruciatingly difficult; however, I appreciate my ability and freedom to make choices. Usually I have chosen to do something instead of nothing, chosen to take an action rather than punt. I also have had opportunities to choose my feelings, which can range broadly along a spectrum: optimism vs. pessimism; hopefulness vs. sadness; confidence vs. fearfulness; contentedness vs. dissatisfaction; trust vs. doubt; vitality vs. loneliness. Those choices affect my emotions and happiness with my life every day, and thus my effectiveness, productivity and image I present to the world.

Choice is a muscle; without effective and contemplative use, it atrophies, becoming a mechanism to promote misery rather than a tool to amplify freedom. Choose it or lose it: The choice is yours, always and forever.

Speaking of choice, here’s a quote about choice from a favorite movie, The Family Man, in which Jack continually faces choices involving love vs. detachment; family vs. career; personal ego gratification vs. egoless contribution; hedonism vs. temperance; taking vs. giving:

Kate: When you got on that plane, I was sure it was over. I left the airport afraid I’d never see you again. And then you showed up the very next day. That was a good surprise. You know, I think about the decision you made… maybe I was being naive, but I believed that we would grow old together in this house. That we’d spend holidays here and have our grandchildren come visit us here. I had this image of us, all grey and wrinkly, and me working in the garden and you re-painting the deck. But things change. If you need this, Jack, if you really need this, I will take these kids from a life they love and I’ll take myself from the only home we’ve ever shared together and I’ll move wherever you need to go. I’ll do that because I love you. I love you, and that’s more important to me than our address. I choose us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0ZGibTDo9A

 

 

 

 

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The Bailout

In my short time as a counselor, I’ve encountered parents who profess virtual powerlessness in the face of the behavior and choices of their young adult and mature adult children, from their late teens to late 20s.

The child rules the roost, while the parents, frayed, demoralized and depressed, submit to the child’s willful and controlling ways. I feel for the parents and their conundrum. It must be a weighty burden to worry ceaselessly about your child, indulge the illusion BailoutStampthat one can control their child’s fate, bail out the child at every turn, and feel eternally responsible for the child’s life choices and outcomes.

At the core of this feeling of parental helplessness is confusion over protecting a child – from danger, failure, mistakes, homelessness or even projected death – versus enabling behavior that avoids individual responsibility and experiencing consequences. Intentions may be good; results are not. Such smothering and shielding behavior on the part of parents contributes to the arresting of the child’s growth and development. Twenty-five-year-olds essentially are frozen at 15, having learned how to game one or both parents to their advantage and escape accountability. The longer the pattern continues and the parent remains the bailer, the less motivation the child has to change.

Sometimes, one parent contends, their spouse is to blame for their own helplessness, because the spouse is over-protective and unable to let go. One parent claims to try endlessly to set their stunted child free, but the other parent overrules them, shuts them down and continues down the same corrosive path, as the spurned parent becomes relegated to anemic bystander, tilting at windmills. But this is just an excuse to forgive the method the child uses to manipulate the parents to get what they want, just like the child learned as a little kid. While the parents will blame the child – “He just refuses to get a job, what can you do?!” “I can’t believe how she talks to her mother! She has no respect!” – the parents are the ones who fail to unite themselves and stick to any set of boundaries, rules or principles that would render their child’s behavior ineffective and counterproductive.

Fear, guilt and a desire to control immobilize the parent from allowing their child to make their own choices, accept responsibility, experience consequences, learn from mistakes and live their own lives. The result is a pattern of co-dependency that is difficult to break. The child never breaks away from at least one parent, while the other parent may become a spare part, suffering in self-imposed silence or virtual exile. The child depends on the parent to coddle and protect, providing safe haven from having to grow up and contend with an uncertain and uncaring world, from taking a risk, from self-determination. The parent depends on the child’s feigned incompetence and irresponsibility to feel needed, helpful and good about himself/herself, to validate their duty as a parent by doing “anything” for their child, to fulfill the role of protector and savior.

Adults in their 20s who are capable of living independently are essentially rewarded for their “failure to launch.” They don’t need a job because their basic financial needs – shelter, food, electricity, water, health care – are provided, as are wants such as cable TV and a car. So they don’t bother to seek one; holding a job would require taking individual responsibility. They don’t attend school because they have no motivation to set goals. They live at their parents’ home because it’s a safer bet – all the accountability is heaped on the parents — and easier. The unavoidable hassles and conflicts with the parents and turmoil in the household are just part of the bargain. They bum money as needed, claiming it is for one purpose while in some cases the parents providing the money know all along it is for drugs or alcohol, and resent giving in, but give in they ultimately do to maintain the dependent relationship.

Young adults living with their parents is a prevalent U.S. social trend: The U.S. Census Bureau found that more than one-third of people aged 18 to 34 lived under their parents’ roof in 2015; 10 years earlier, the percentage was about one-fourth. Nearly 9 of 10 who had lived with their parents in 2014 still did a year later. Indicating a rise in parental bailouts, the survey ominously found that 1 in 4 young adults aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home neither attended school nor worked.

I am grateful and proud that my kids are heading toward independent lives, on schedule. My 22-year-old daughter graduated college and is teaching in France. My 19-year-old son is attending college, majoring in computer science, and working part-time for UPS in logistics. If one of them holed up in my basement and refused to crawl out into their own life, I can’t be sure what I would do. I would hope I wouldn’t cave in and cater to dysfunction, irresponsibility and manipulation, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes…Thankfully, I don’t think my kids will give me the chance to wear those shoes.

One school of therapy posits that all human motivation is intentional, that all behavior is purposeful. Human behavior seeks to shape the world to satisfy at least one human need. For adults who have failed to launch, that need often is self-preservation. The anxiety and doubt of relying on oneself breeds dependence and escape from responsibility. Their behavior sends the message that the world is a scary place that expects something from us; the goal is to remain safe and preserve ego. If you don’t attempt, you can’t fail. Parents who are too willing to satisfy the need become the enablers, the practitioners of the bailout, who perpetuate their adult children’s prolonged adolescence.

Career Change at 50 ‘Can Be a Perilous Thing’

Altering a career course at fifty can be a perilous thing, and many people, if not most, do not traipse merrily down that path. The luckiest among us find their work fulfilling, and cannot imagine why they would leave. Others would follow their passions if they could, but college tuition, the mortgage, and the care of parents or children or both buckle them into their present work…Still others are simply scared – with good reason, because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions.

— Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

I embarked on a path to a new career at 48. It was more like entering a maze – I couldn’t see what was around the next corner, let alone envision arriving at the destination. I had doubts about whether I would have the fortitude to finish, and whether I actually even wanted to make a dramatic change and start over so late in my professional life.

I had established several decades of skills and experience as a journalist and public relations professional – fields that wouldn’t earn me a cup of coffee in the new career I was pursuing. I wasn’t just transferring and adjusting skills, as I did when I made the leap from journalism to PR. I was doing a total makeover, learning a new way of being.

“The brain likes its habits…and hates change,” Bradley Hagerty quotes a Harvard Medical School professor. “The brain despises conflict: It reasons that I may be happier over there, CareerChange_TwoPathsbut I am earning a good paycheck here, and in general it resolves this cognitive dissonance in favor of the familiar. At the bottom of every dilemma is fear.”

To make the change I sought – becoming a mental health counselor/therapist – I had no choice but to return to school for a marathon master’s degree venture, and ultimately confront the fear of the unfamiliar and the insecurity of the lower earnings commensurate with starting anew.

At first, I merely dipped my toe in the water by applying to a program and enrolling in the first of 22 required courses. I nearly dropped out after breaking my leg before completing my first course and losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I overcame ambivalence and registered for a second course a few days before the next semester began. From there, it was a step-by-step progression that would have registered in the hundreds on a Fitbit.

After 5 ½ years of classes and internships and another five months of bureaucratic license- application process, I have been hired for my first professional job as a licensed counselor at age 54. As Bradley Hagerty writes in her book about midlife, it has not been a merry traipse, though it has been rewarding nonetheless – the sense of striving and accomplishment, the satisfaction of learning and growing, the excitement of pursuing something new and meaningful that will contribute toward others.

“The role of people in their second half of life is not to build up for themselves, but to begin to give away their time, energy and talents,” Bradley Hagerty writes.

There have been costs accompanying the benefits. I left my job two years ago, largely because it was incompatible with the latter stages of the master’s degree program, where I had to serve internships for four semesters. That plunged me from making a comfortable living to pay for a mortgage, two college tuitions and care of children – just as Bradley Hagerty identified – to an itinerant work life in the Gig Economy, working lower-paying temporary, part-time and seasonal jobs. Breaking even on the monthly household budget, much less saving for retirement, went out the window.

Psychologically and emotionally, I felt unmoored. After all, what kind of responsible, mature man in his 50s would be working the same summer job alongside college students as a tennis teacher? Wasn’t I supposed to be at the peak of my earning power – indeed, the job I left provided me the highest salary I had ever made – instead of making the same hourly wages I earned in my 20s? All this so I could enter a new career at the bottom rung in a profession where beginning pay is notoriously low. Just to drive home the point that I’m a rookie, my license for my first two years identifies me as “Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern.”

Was I scared, as Bradley Hagerty suggests many midlife career deliberators rightly are, “because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions?”

No…at least not so much to be deterred. I was more scared about looking back in a decade still with a yearning to try something new and realizing with regret that I missed my window. Once midlife careens on the backside toward older age, it becomes even harder to reinvent the self.

I also was entering a job market where there is a growing need, where men are relatively scarce and therefore actually valued for their gender perspective and traits, and where the accumulation of life experience and wisdom that comes with age is an advantage in helping other people with their problems – unlike some other professions, where older workers become dinosaurs because they can’t keep up with technology, trends, new methods and the requisite energy to stay on top. Or they are paid at the high end of the salary range, making them expendable in favor of hungry and more footloose up-and-comers.

Altering a career course at 50 certainly can be a perilous thing. There’s no guarantee the job market will unfurl a welcome mat for a midlife career changer or that the changer will be successful, however success is measured. I’ve managed to get through the front door; now I’ll find out for myself whether the new house I’m entering truly is my dream home.

She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane: No Failure to Launch

My daughter literally has launched herself into adulthood.

The cornerstone job as a parent is to help your kids launch themselves successfully into adulthood by fostering their independence, confidence, self-identity, decision-making ability, sense of responsibility and motivation – traits which they have to develop themselves but over which parents have a big influence.

I’m proud and excited to see my 21-year-old daughter Rebecca exhibiting these traits. She has jetted off for Toulon, France, on the Mediterranean coast, for an eight-month RebInFranceassignment teaching English in two French middle schools, her first professional job after graduating college. This will be her second tour abroad, following a semester in college in which she studied at the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, and traveled throughout Europe.

Rebecca landed in Toulon September 18, 2017, not knowing anyone, same as when she ventured to Lyon in a study group comprised of American students from across the country. She was anxious and excited, the eagerness and thrill of the adventure, opportunity, unknown and challenge far outweighing any fears and doubts. I congratulate Rebecca on her adventurous spirit and desire to explore the world.

No Failure to Launch here, unlike Matthew McConaughey’s 30-something character in the 2006 movie of that title, who resisted leaving the comforts of the cushy life provided by his parents until they hatched a plan to finally get him to launch out on his own.

Psychology Today labeled “failure to launch” as a syndrome characterized by the “difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Energy, desire and motivation are the necessary ingredients to fuel the launch and overcome fears and anxiety, and taking risks and actions comprise the launch process. Then, resilience and perseverance are required to overcome inevitable turbulence and continue progressing during this stage. Without those components, the post-adolescent risks becoming stuck and dependent.

Ultimately, says Psychology Today author and psychiatrist Robert Fischer, M.D., for a successful launch, a young adult “must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others.  There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart.”

I’m gratified that Rebecca is following her passion and desire by taking the risk and action to travel to France and to teach in foreign schools.

Rebecca is part of an age group that has been segmented recently from the broader adulthood category and coined “emerging adulthood” for its characteristics common to people in their late teens through their 20s. These are young people who feel like the knot in a tug-of-war rope, caught between breaking free of the challenges of adolescence yet often still maintaining close bonds with parents, family and the familiar trappings of youthful existence.

The psychologist who identified the new life-span development phase, Jeffrey Arnett, outlined five distinct features of emerging adulthood:

  • Identity exploration: Establishing one’s self-identity continues to evolve throughout the 20s, as young adults search for what brings satisfaction out of education, work, and relationships.
  • Instability: This group moves around a lot, among schools, jobs, locations and residences as they experiment with future paths, change their minds and directions and struggle to accumulate the resources to fuel their journeys.
  • Self-focus: Emerging adulthood is a time of intensive internal focus, as young adults explore their desires for work, living arrangements, experiences and relationships with a sense of broad possibilities and few encumbrances. It is an age when opportunities may seem limitless, before developments such as marriage, children, increased financial obligations and career choices inevitably pose constraints and redirect attention more outward.
  • Feeling in between: Emerging adults feel they are taking more responsibility for their own lives and decisions, yet still feel they have not completely broken free from some form of dependence and do not completely feel like an entirely self-sufficient, autonomous adult.
  • Age of possibilities: Optimism characterizes emerging adulthood. After taking a hard look at their parents’ lives, many believe they have a good chance to create a more rewarding and exciting life for themselves.

Another researcher sought to determine why some emerging adults thrive and why some struggle in establishing identities and independence. She found that the foundation for such progress or obstacles are established in childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents striking the right balance between providing support, limits and structure, and encouraging kids to pursue independence and make their own decisions.

One type of family dysfunction that inhibits emerging adults from becoming independent is “enmeshment,” when family members’ emotional lives are so intertwined that children have difficulty separating, becoming their own person, and accepting responsibility for their choices and lives. This is a dynamic I have observed often in counseling.

The signs are clear that my daughter is becoming the captain of her own jet. I feel rewarded as a father that I have contributed to the foundation of her launching pad.

What Brown Can Do for Me

What can Brown do for me?

Brown can hire my son and give him real-world, corporate, big-business experience in his chosen  field in college; offer him a sturdy rung on the base of the career ladder; teach him about the discipline, responsibility, accountability, integrity, honesty, Daniel_UPSteamwork and communications that comprise effective work environments; play a role in his maturation; and help him build a financial nest egg before launch into the adult world, all while he is still a teenager. That’s what Brown can do for me – and my 19-year-old son Daniel.

After years of watching United Parcel Service’s (UPS) television ads asking, “What can Brown do for you?” and seeing the brown vans with the brown-clad delivery personnel rolling through my neighborhood, I never expected that the world’s largest package delivery company and provider of supply chain management solutions would be hiring my son as a college freshman to assist with its information technology and data management operations.

For some time as a high school senior, Daniel seemed indifferent about work. But he made a 180-degree turn in his attitude, initiative and motivation, without undue parental pressure or requirements.

He started during his senior year in high school as a restaurant worker, preparing food and grilling in the kitchen and helping customers behind the service counter. To my surprise, he chose to maintain his job after enrolling as a freshman at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), even though his employer was 30 minutes away from campus. He kept that job for nearly his entire freshman year.

In his freshman spring semester, Daniel, a computer science major, attended a job fair on campus, connecting with UPS, which hired him as an intern. Among the benefits of an internship at UPS are that the position is paid, and it lasts more than a semester, or even a year. UPS’s internship can last throughout a college career, as the company uses its internship program as a recruitment tool for grooming future full-time employees.

Of course, since Daniel is a computer science major taking a full load of computer systems, math, informatics and science courses, and I am a liberal arts major who has worked in journalism, public relations and the social sciences, I have a hard time understanding what he is doing day-to-day.

But this is what I got from his description: Daniel works in the world of Big Data, which Wikipedia describes as “data sets that are so large and complex that traditional data processing application software is inadequate,” and includes challenges such as capturing data, data storage, data analysis, search, sharing, and other functions. As someone who is perplexed by Small Data, I am quite impressed.

As Daniel describes it, he is an application developer who deals in the areas of customer engagement and quality control. He tracks and monitors UPS data centers and deals with code that helps keep track of data. He helps ensure that UPS’s delivery technology is working for its customers. He is a trouble-shooter.

As a father, I am proud and gratified to see my son holding down a professional job, working as a colleague with adults, becoming more independent, developing a work ethic, learning the value of earning a living and of saving for the future, investing in himself, juggling work and school, and evaluating through experience what he would like to do with his career before he is tossed into “the real world.”

Many young adults wind up directionless in their 20s, and squander precious time trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to identify interests and passions, and how those can translate to making a living, or in working in dead-end jobs in which they have little interest or future. I know a few fathers whose sons have dealt with these challenges, and both the fathers and sons have had difficult times as a result, both as individuals and in their relationships.

So what can Brown do for me? Quite simply, it is helping my son get a good start on his adult life, which brings me peace of mind. And that’s invaluable for a parent.

Sweating it out to the End

I was sitting in the sauna after a swim, trying to meditate (and lose a pound), when the thought hit me (a welcome thought, nevertheless showing I don’t know how to meditate): the only thing separating me from graduation with a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree was one more paper, the fourth chapter of a final project.

In the heat, I felt a surge of accomplishment, the dripping sweat an appropriate metaphor for the 5 ½-year graduate school and internship marathon. I reflected on all that had happened during that time – a broken leg requiring surgery and a year of

DSC00056 (2)

These grads, including my son Daniel (left), are younger than me, but I’ll be celebrating the same experience soon.

recovery; turning 50; my mother dying; leaving a seven-year job under contentious and demoralizing circumstances; both of my kids leaving for college – and felt amazed I had arrived at this moment. I had nearly dropped out after the first of my 22 classes and three internships, the path seemed so complicated and daunting.

 

So other than giving myself a pat on the back for perseverance, what can my experience say about sweating it out for a goal at midlife that perhaps could resonate with others?

  • Personal growth and development keeps life interesting. I feel more alive and engaged with new challenges and goals to pursue, and restless when I feel stagnated and mired in routine.
  • It’s never too late to learn new things or set new goals. Changing careers is another matter entirely that involves issues of practicality, responsibility, risk and sacrifice. But those complexities shouldn’t preclude exploration.
  • Moving forward on faith can work out, and could be a necessity for progress. Sometimes pushing through doubts is the only way forward. I still don’t know how my whole counseling endeavor ultimately will work out, but I have faith that it will. Needing a guarantee on an outcome may preclude the journey.
  • Find a way. Don’t let something that seems too hard stop you, if you can creatively discover ways to make it work, even just one step at a time, especially if you believe you might live with regret for giving up on a goal or dream too easily. I feared living with regret, which helped propel me to continue grinding ahead. Sometimes “a way” may seem impossible, but perhaps as likely self-imposed limits make it seem so.
  • Pursuing something new, whether a hobby, pastime, education or career, can bring you into contact with a new community that can enrich your life. The people I’ve met through my graduate program have provided community, enhancing my life and helping me learn.

I’m sure hoping this new counseling gig works out. I entered the Loyola University-Maryland Pastoral Counseling program at age 48. Back then, I couldn’t imagine getting to the end, which has now arrived at age 54. I’m excited to see where it leads. At the least, it will open up a whole new range of opportunities and a greater chance to self-direct my career – possibly in the form of my own business and other entrepreneurial endeavors – as I head into its latter stages. I’m feeling now all the sweat I’ve poured into it has been worthwhile.

[In a serendipitous coincidence, my graduation is the same day as my daughter Rebecca’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Read about my decision of whose big day to attend.]

Guitar Hero

Guitar-MusicStand (2)At neighborhood events, I often see my former guitar teacher, my neighbor who has a guitar studio within walking distance where I once took lessons. And then, inevitably, a wave of regret and guilt washes over me.

I feel compelled to tell him every time that though it seems like I quit, that I really haven’t. No, not me, no quit in this mule. I haven’t given up, at least not in my mind. I’m just on a long, long hiatus. He humors me and listens, probably thinking, “Yeah, sure, I’ve heard that line before.” But I’m serious.

I’d love to be able to play guitar well. I surf YouTube videos of guitar performances and marvel at the seeming ease with which the musicians strum and pick, no need for sheet music. What a thrill it would be, I imagine, to play some kick-ass rock song before an audience with both hands working instinctively to reach the right notes and chords.

But that’s skipping right over those pesky factors of study, practice and work, the disciplines required to develop a skill, no matter if one is highly or modestly talented. Author Malcolm Gladwell promotes the “10,000 Hour Rule,” stating that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required even by the most talented to become truly masterful at a craft or skill. At the one studio recital sponsored by my teacher in which I performed, I verged on Choke City, getting through my piece shakily.

My original inspiration to pick up the guitar goes back 25 years. I had a friend who took guitar lessons. It struck me that I was missing out by not being able to play a musical instrument. I regretted quitting the clarinet as a kid after playing through 6th grade. Music is one of those things that’s easier to learn as a child than as an adult. I remember playing in the Holiday concert and feeling like I had the songs mastered.

I quit playing in school mostly because I didn’t like having to carry the instrument back and forth. Lame excuse, but my parents didn’t force me to continue.

A decade after my friend introduced me to the idea, a colleague’s husband donated guitar lessons for a fundraiser auction. I bid and won the lessons, and stayed on as a student for several months. But then the usual excuses intervened — work, time constraints, two young kids, a 30-minute trip to the teacher’s house — and I stopped. Not quit. Stopped temporarily. Someday, I vowed, I would pick it up again.

Flash forward eight more years. When we discovered we lived in a guitar teacher’s neighborhood, we signed up my 12-year-old son Daniel for lessons. Aha, a chance for redemption! Soon after, I signed up as well.

It was clear Daniel had more aptitude than me, and/or his youth enabled him to develop skills faster. He performed at several recitals, and skillfully played more complex pieces than I could master. As it turns out, college freshman Daniel is strong in math and computer science, disciplines that emphasize patterns, sequences and intervals, and have correlations to music. But he lacked passion and commitment. He didn’t want to practice, and though I encouraged him, I didn’t force him.

About 18 months into his lessons, he announced he wanted to quit. As much as I tried to convince him about his high talent level, and the opportunities he could have if he continued progressing, it didn’t change his mind. It was like having a conversation with the young me, determined to quit the clarinet because I couldn’t envision the benefits. I hope Daniel returns to guitar some day on his own desire. The talent is there.

I continued with the semi-monthly lessons until the night nearly five years ago when I broke my leg in a soccer game. I had become proficient enough to play a book of 20 Easy Pop Melodies by bands such as the Beatles, Rod Stewart and Kansas, just for fun. But I discontinued lessons during my recovery, and lost motivation to practice as a situational depression set in. I never got back to it. I had just started my 5 1/2 year run in a graduate program, and, you know…the usual excuses.

I still have my guitar — actually, Daniel’s guitar — and the lesson and song books. I took the guitar to the beach last summer for my seasonal gig teaching tennis, vowing to pick it up again. But the guitar stayed in its case.

Practicing an instrument is something like exercising. The hardest thing about running for me is stepping out the door. With guitar, it’s putting the music sheet on the stand and taking the guitar out of the case.

April 26, 2017 marks the five-year anniversary of my broken leg and surgery, which signaled the end of my guitar progress. It would be a good day to take the guitar out of its case again. I haven’t quit. I’m just waiting for the right time — any time except the 12th of Never.

 

(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.

Learning the Value of Work, Intrinsic Motivation

I put on a jacket I hadn’t worn in nine months, stuck my hand in the pocket and pulled out a forgotten, folded paper. It was a job application form that hadn’t been filled out for Grotto Pizza, a popular chain in Delaware beach towns that recently expanded into our Maryland suburb. My find triggered the memory of a conversation my wife Amy and I had with our son Daniel in the car on our way to dinner at the pizza chain where I had picked up the application.

The gist of the conversation that March 2016 evening was that we expected Daniel to work after he graduated high school later that spring. I advised that the new pizza restaurant was looking for employees and recommended he fill out an application. Daniel expressed resistance to working – or perhaps just to me suggesting where he should work or what he should do – advocating for a last summer before college of doing whatever he wanted.danielshophouse

It got a little tense before we got to the restaurant, Amy and I frustrated at Daniel’s nonchalant attitude toward working and earning money for himself. We were concerned about him adopting an attitude of privilege. For a couple of years, I had recommended to Daniel that he get certified as a lifeguard because we live in a community with 23 pools, or that he work at a summer camp. But he didn’t take up my suggestions. Lifeguarding would be boring, and he didn’t want to deal with younger kids, he said.

So imagine my surprise when a month after our frustrating conversation, Daniel announced that he had found a job opening on his own and had an interview scheduled at Shophouse, the Asian equivalent of Chipotle Mexican Grill, also owned by Chipotle. He had two interviews, including a group interview with the whole staff to evaluate whether he would fit in, and got the job.

A second surprise came at the end of summer 2016. Daniel easily could have decided it was nice having his first work experience, but he was done with that chapter and on his way to college. Instead, he decided he would keep his job while going to school.

He has been like a utility infielder at Shophouse, working the grill, preparing food, explaining the menu and serving food on the line to customers, and operating as cashier. He is working his way to a promotion to kitchen manager. I dropped in one night recently for dinner, where he made me a chicken with peanut sauce bowl. I watched him serve customers, thinking he had come a long way in working with adults and learning about the responsibilities of a job.

He is developing a good work ethic, always arriving to work on time, doing whatever he is asked to do and embracing the team concept of his employer. He also is learning about saving and the value of money, spending on things that are important to him but saving most of what he earns for the future. He earned straight A’s during his first semester of college while holding down his job.

I am proud of the way Daniel has embraced his job and the pride he shows in his work and earning his own way, while juggling a rigorous academic load. I am cheered that he is learning about the concepts of individual responsibility, quality of work, working as part of a team and his ability to direct his life with his choices, work ethic and attitude. He already has started applying for summer internship jobs in computer science, his chosen field. His self-motivation has blossomed.

Several times with my kids, they have gone on to do things I had wanted and encouraged them to do, but they did it on their own and in their own way and time, not in direct response to or because of my nudging or urging, or so it has seemed, though maybe my fatherly advice and wisdom had an influence. I’ve always told my kids that it is preferable when they do things out of intrinsic motivation – based on their own desires and interests – rather than out of extrinsic motivation, such as pleasing their parents and getting the old fogies off their backs. I’m glad they are learning this lifelong lesson, as Daniel’s employment endeavor indicates.

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