Sentimentally, it isn’t a big deal, but legally it is

Happy 21st birthday, @beYOUtifulBrian!


I know you aren’t much for celebrating, but today I am grateful for your presence in my life. I’ll never forget the day we met, when you told me you liked my website and agreed to be my first youth advisor. Your twenty-first birthday really snuck up on me! I thought we had another year to prepare. I hope that despite all the competing demands on your time and headspace, you are excited about what lies ahead. I, for one, am looking forward to you moving into your new digs! We’ll hook you up with an account on the Camellia Network to supplement the ACS grant to cover moving and furnishing costs.

Wishing you only the best this coming year, which I know for you includes many days of dancing and filling the people around you with the spirit.


Getting through the holidays as a grownup

1. Cull the holiday card list. 

When it comes to letter writing, I am devoutly old fashioned. I don’t send out professional photos of my family or type up mass letters informing you of my vacations and accomplishments for the year. If I send you a holiday greeting, it means I set pen to paper and write out a personalized message to let you know that I am grateful your presence in my life. I go the extra mile by hand addressing the envelope rather than printing out address labels.

I sincerely don’t expect any reciprocity because these letters come from the heart. The whole ritual of shopping for cards, writing my greetings, addressing the envelopes, and dropping them in the mail makes me feel really good, which is a reward in itself. I also know that my obsession with hand written letters is my very own thing mania, and the priorities and demands in my life will be different from yours.

To be honest, a few years ago I suddenly stopped sending out holiday greetings. I hated the feeling of obligation that went with the tradition. But this year I realized that no one was actually holding a gun to my head and forcing me to maintain such a huge mailing list. Because this practice is meaningful to me, I owe it to myself to make it sustainable. I did this by culling it down to include only my oldest and closest friends, family members for whom I have a real fondness, and new friends I’m very glad to have met this past year. This made it easy to write personalized, authentic greetings to everyone.

Those who didn’t make it to my list, by the way, got phone calls. (I’m really serious about letter writing being a significant gesture to me.)

2. Make plans that don’t make you feel like a prisoner.

‘Tis the season for giving and forgiving, not for suffering and guilt. Break bread with the people who make you feel warm inside. Stay only as long as you are enjoying the company. Remember, you are a grownup.

3. Care for yourself. Care for yourself. Care for yourself. 

This season required a lot of early morning meditation, winter runs in the park, and naps. Also, hugs. Lots and lots of hugs. (Is it January yet?)

Decision-making with an #emergingleader


Emerging Leader Maurice came into office hours last week wearing his red power tie. Our initial plan was to unpack his “hustle” from the Work On Purpose workshop we did in our last Emerging Leaders meeting, but he announced that he wanted to share some “good news” and a “dilemma,” which were in fact related. It turned out that Maurice needed to choose between two very different housing options that each appealed to conflicting values, and the decision was overwhelming him. With his permission, I’m sharing some of the details of our meeting because it contains an exercise that might prove useful to the young people you work with (or to you yourself, if you’re in the market for a decision-making tool).

Continue reading

Every woman should travel/live abroad alone

[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.

The US

To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. Continue reading

It’s kind of like Hair Club for Men

Two friends now have mentioned they thought of me while reading Jill Lepore’s latest New Yorker piece. The news brings a wistful smile to my face because in my past life I wanted to grow up to be Jill Lepore. She is the rare scholar who builds bridges effortlessly between history and literature, between the past and the present, between the scholarly community and the reading public, and as evidenced in her last article, between the professional and the personal. And let’s not leave out how her writing is intoxicating.

It fills me with a certain sadness to talk about Jill Lepore because it reminds me of the choices I’ve made along the way that carried me away from that dream: opting to major in Latin American Studies rather than American Studies; applying to graduate programs in Spanish rather than English or History departments; deciding to do my PhD at NYU instead of Harvard, where I might have actually met Lepore; and, ultimately, resolving to leave academia with only the cloudiest notion of where my future lay.

I shed no tears for this specific series of steps I’ve taken, but I marvel at the amount of time it takes to let go of an identity. I think I’ve written here before about how I had a very specific vision of myself as a professor: I’d be sitting in a bright, book-lined office overlooking a grassy quad in some small liberal arts college in the northeast. The shelves were white (best for showing off all those books!), I had a red Persian rug on the floor, there would be a game of ultimate frisbee going on outside, and students were always glad to come into my office to chat. It was a nice idea for a life, no? And one that looped for years in my head until one day it didn’t. When that light went out inside of me it kind of felt like dying.

All this finally brings me ’round to the title of this post. (Yes, I have a terrible habit of burying the lede when I blog.) How am I like Sy Sperling? Well, I’m not only the founder of Minds On Fire, but I’m also its first client. My work involves taking all the tools, knowledge, and wisdom that I’ve gathered and continue to use to reimagine a new future for myself. I bring it all together into a program for youth in transition. So essentially, I’ve designed my workshops and am building my curriculum around the scariest and most profound experience of my life.

Here is a present for those of you old enough to remember:

First Minds On Fire advisory meeting held today!

Today my advisors and I convened in the “War Room” of AlleyNYC to work through the bones of our pilot program, Multiple Paths to Adulthood. So far the pilot is structured as a three-part program that begins with “Conversations on Adulthood,” a series of sessions that approach the topic of adulthood from various disciplinary and cultural frameworks. The objective is to expose young people to different—even conflicting—ideas of what becoming an adult means, so that they can formulate an informed and highly personal definition of adulthood in a manner that resonates within the context of their lives and communities of support.

The  questions that run through this module are: What is an adult? How do you become an adult? Are you already an adult? and How do you know? (some metacognition involved in this last question). We hope to give young people transitioning out of foster care the space to sort through their own thoughts and ideas about adulthood at a critical distance from all the messages that filter through from their families, foster care agencies, peers, and other social and cultural forces.

On a more personal note, I can’t describe what a load off my shoulders it is to have all these ideas living in other people’s minds now. I feel especially fortunate to have advisors who are fully committed to the values and principles of Minds On Fire, but who bring perspectives and experiences that complement and enrich my own.

The goals of youth in care

As part of the Lean Startup for Social Enterprise course that I took through Be Social Change, I started conducting customer development interview with youth in care. This exercise forced me to step back from all the generally positive feedback I’ve had from social workers, child welfare administrators, and other adults in the youth development space to ask a more fundamental question: Will the youth themselves find my programs useful?

So far I’ve interviewed three young people either in care or recently aged out to determine how they set goals for themselves, what internal qualities they possess to help them along, and what other tools and supports they have to reach their goals.

My conversations with them tended to meander, but I was able to gather a lot of knowledge and insight from each young person I spoke to. Already there are some common themes emerging. Note that this is a totally unscientific study with a tiny sample size, but what I learned seemed worth sharing:

1. Young people in foster care develop systemic thinking skills early on. Because they are exposed to the workings of a massive bureaucracy that impacts their daily lives, youth in care know where the pain points are. They see exactly where all the moving parts fail to connect because a lack of communication and coordination. And they sense the irony of how a system meant to serve the interests of children can come woefully short of its goals.  Continue reading

Yes, I watch Girls

Judging by the reviews and blog comments, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, and I am definitely in the loving-it camp when it comes to Lena Dunham’s Girlswhich recently wrapped up its second season on HBO. I really admire the strength of Dunham’s vision of who she is as a writer/director/actor. Although her characters get into rather outlandish situations, she manages to represent some of the most truthful, human moments on the small screen of what it’s like for a certain demographic of twenty-something struggling to become adults in New York City. It’s fascinating watching her characters struggle with their careers and their dating lives, but Dunham especially shines in her depiction of the ups and downs of close female friendships.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, here is the opening scene to the entire series, which sets the protagonist Hannah up for her misadventures by having her parents finally cut the purse strings years after she’s left the nest:

How’d you know?

Just a little over halfway through Lars and the Real Girl (2007), the titular character approaches his older brother, Gus, and engages him in a discussion about rites of passages. In the absence of any coming of age ceremonies, how did Gus know that he’d become a man? Gus stumbles over his answer, “Well, it’s kinda sex, but, but it’s not…” before he’s saved by the bell.

In the next scene, Lars presses Gus until he relents and offers

Gus: Well, it’s not like you’re all one thing or the other. There’s still a kid inside, but you you you…you grow up when you decide to do right. And not what’s right for you—what’s right for everybody. Even when it hurts.

Lars: Ok, like what?

G: [Sighs.] Like…you know, like…you don’t jerk people around. You don’t cheat on your woman. And you take care of your family, you know. You admit when you’re wrong. Or you try to anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know? It sounds like it’s easy, and for some reason, it’s not.

Be a mensch, in other words: do the right thing. Gus offers their father as an example of a man who “tried to do right by us, even though he didn’t know how,” by struggling to raise them, as a single dad, through a fog of depression. Then he himself “mans up” to Lars by apologizing for abandoning him the first chance he got to leave home.

I do think that there is at least one other definition of manhood (and more broadly, adulthood), one that underpins the entire film. As Lars works through his delusion, from start to end, there is a definite sense that he must face his monsters—the twin threats of emotional and physical connection (and we’re not even talking about sex here)—before he can call himself a man. (Would that we all could enjoy the unflagging support of an entire small town while we do battle with ours!)

For those who have access to the full film, the scenes above run roughly between 1:13:38 and 1:16:00.