Taking the measure of a year

I’ve been in transition for so long now that uncertainty and discomfort had become my life’s norms. How strange to be able to look back on a year and notice the extent of my transformation. Where once was a void, there now is a path. No doubt, I am still trailblazing (can I say trailblazing even though it still feels like bushwhacking?), but now I can clear the way for longer stretches at a time. If I had to distill 2013’s biggest lessons into pat formulas, I would say they were:

1. When facing your fears, the immediate objective is not to become “good” at something, but to become better at being a beginner.  Continue reading


How do we find and earn a living on what we love? – Part 1

This question has occupied my mind for the whole of my professional life.  Most recently, I have worked as a program coordinator for New York City non-profits, and previously, I worked as a program advisor and workshop facilitator at the University of California at Berkeley.  I grapple with these questions daily:  “How do we really find work we love?” and “How do we earn a living offering this work?” For me, this  is a manifestation of a larger life question that is increasingly important to me: how do we live lives that we truly love, and teach our young adults to do the same?  In Ysette’s recent  article on working on dream jobs now, she shares the importance of taking tangible steps towards a passion.  While I agree with the significance of taking small steps towards a large goal, I wonder how we can lay out a complete map  for our young adults to understand the short and long term processes of pursuing passions and earning a living.

The population I serve are mostly young adults of color, ages 19-24, who span a range of educational and socio-economic backgrounds.  When I think of my own career aspirations, I pursued this work with an interest in supporting young adults in making conscious choices towards their dreams in both career and in life.  With this in mind, I have contemplated, from a service provider standpoint, what is my responsibility in offering programming and guidance to assist young adults in finding work they love? And, how do our young adults identify their dreams in career and life, and actively take steps to make this happen?

Embedded in these questions are the assumptions that one we can earn a living off of the dreams that they have, that our dreams are truly what we want, that our dreams are the roots of a fulfilling life, and that all we need is to have a dream, take the steps, and it will be realized.  I am questioning these assumptions, and considering the flaws that exist within them.  In order to assist you in understanding my own process, I invite you to contemplate the following themes and questions:


1. What are the workplace cultures that we were taught, that we currently work in, and that we reinforce (consciously and unconsciously) to our young adults?  How does this impact the conversation around dream careers and lives?


2. What makes a “dream” life and is this something that is reserved for young adults with more privileged backgrounds (racially, economically, socially)?

3. What is an inspired and rational process of supporting the assessment of the multitude of areas one could consider when choosing a dream career and life?

4. What qualifies as a “dream” career and life?  Are there certain dreams that are more sustainable and/or more authentic than others?


5. What role does family play in our young adults pursuits of larger dreams?  In particular, if our young adults can or cannot lean emotionally and financially on family, will they be better or ill suited to choosing dream careers?

6. Who were/are our models for choosing a career, who are our young adults’ models, and who will we connect to our participants to support their pursuit of their dream lives?

7. Where do we find diverse voices of professionals to mentor our young adults through the process of choosing and crafting dream lives?


8. When we support the exploration and pursuit of dream lives, how do we also teach responsibility and basic survival skills?  How can both reality and idealism exist in the exploration and implementation processes?

9. How do we speak to both the significance of our young people dreaming big, but also being grounded in reality of their actual skills, strengths, and abilities?

10. How do we factor in income and wealth into our decisions?  Specifically, when our young adults contemplate choosing dream careers, how do we support them in factoring in expected earning potential, prestige and societal perceptions?

11. What role does  labor market research and understanding larger societal structures play in assisting young adults in assessing pathways and probability of dream lives?


12. How does post-secondary education assist and harm the process of choosing dream careers?  In particular how do college curricula speak to, and not speak to, our young adults’ dreams?  How does post secondary education influence young adults financial health, specifically through the acquisition of student and private loan debt?


13. How do we reflect on our own process of choosing careers as professionals?  How do our passions, mistakes, shortcomings and assumptions negatively, and positively, influence the outlook of our young adults?  How do our biases as service practitioners influence our young adults’ process?

It is my intention to further explore these themes over the next few months through this blog.  In the meantime and throughout this exploration process, I welcome your sharing and ideas.


Steph  Head Shot

Over the past 10 years, Stephanie has cultivated roles as an advisor and coordinator in both NYC and the San Francisco Bay Area.  She has worked within non-profit and  university settings  in the fields of college success and career development. Stephanie has facilitated, developed and coordinated programming for first generation college students and young adults of color. She earned a BA in Sociology and a MA in Education both from the University of California at Berkeley.

Can we really tell everyone to “follow your dreams”?

For those of you who have been looking forward to Steph’s post (I know I have!) I wanted to reassure you that it’s in the hopper. It’s taking a bit longer because she has a lot to say, and I recommended that she break her piece into installments. I was tremendously happy, though, to read her draft because she’s been mulling over the very same issues that I wrote about in my last post on getting youth on the path to their dream jobs. Steph has a brilliant mind for program design, but she is also much more in the trenches than I am in terms of placing young people into internships. So while I have the luxury of pushing young people to follow their dreams, she needs to balance that message with the actual opportunities that are immediately available to her youth. And because Steph is a thoughtful, big-hearted person, the seeming gap between her humanistic conviction that we are all capable of fulfillment and the pragmatic demands and constraints of her work causes her great consternation.

I look forward to sharing her writing with all of you and to engaging more deeply with her provocative thoughts on this question not only of how, but of whether or not (or to what extent) we should counsel all our young people to pursue the dreams because “the money will follow.” (I hope that this last sentence gets your heart beating and your neurons firing, because I would love for you to join in on the conversation.)

Explaining the concept of ‘fulfillment’ to youth: Work on your dream job right now

I met with one of my young people today to talk about a business idea he had and to design business cards. When the words “network marketing” came out of his mouth, however, I admit to having to restrain myself from reacting strongly. He said a lot of people had already advised him to be wary of scams and pyramid schemes, but he had friends and family members who were making a tidy amount of residual income through a certain program. I asked him what the root of his interest was, and he said that he wanted a fulfilling career. He didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk for forty years in a job he hated. Whenever this phrase comes up (and it often does) it’s really important to dig into what a person means by “desk job.” As a child I hadn’t the foggiest idea what my parents actually did in the office, and that honestly didn’t change much when I was a college student and still had a very limited notion of the range of work that people did in the world. Sure enough, what my youth had in mind were clerical jobs—”being someone’s secretary.” When I asked him where he got his ideas about work, he said it was mostly from movies and TV, where people push paper around in tiny cubicles. Who wouldn’t be despirited by such a vision of work life? 

We were having this conversation at AlleyNYC, so I took the opportunity to point out that everyone here pretty much has a “desk job,” but that most of us were working for ourselves. That gave him pause. I took the opportunity to return to the word “fulfillment” and asked him what exactly he meant by that. He said to him it meant not having to wake up and go to a job that he disliked. So I gave him a scenario: What would you do if money were not a concern? Continue reading

Another exciting guest blogger!

I am very excited for my next guest blogger, who promises to post her thoughts within the next couple of days on work development programs for young people. Steph Cowling is a very dear friend who goes about program design in a thoughtful manner. A strong moral compass guides her approach to youth work. What is especially striking about her work is her natural habit of reflexivity: No aspect of program design is taken as a given. She will push you to consider the why and the how. She will illuminate the systematic implications of your decisions and decipher the coded messages your actions convey. She is, in short, a treasure. I always walk away from what she calls our “heart- and brainstorms” enriched and inspired. So you, dear readers, are in for a treat!

The best part of work

[For Dale—again—whom I miss something fierce] So today is a bit unusual (though I wish more days were like this) because I’m spending a good portion of it with a bunch of young adults. I have five people coming in (and one person Skyping in over his lunch break) all at the same time. This is the first of what I hope will be a regular series of meetings for this group, which I am bringing together because I noticed that so many youth in/recently out of foster care have expressed a desire to start their own non-profit/business to help other children and families. I figure, if I’ll be providing support, information, and resources to one person, I may as well do this for all. Plus, they’ll have the added benefit of peer support.

Eventually I want this group to be self-organizing, but I hope they will agree to a little foundation-building led by me at the start. One of the topics that I’d like to address is the concept of leadership, and how statements like “I want to be a leader” or “I want to be a business-owner” are virtually meaningless if you don’t have a substantial idea propelling you toward a larger vision. In this vein, the group would really benefit from some of the exercises in the Work On Purpose curriculum.

I’m eager to hear their thoughts, though, on what they would like to gain from our meetings and from each other. One person expressed the desire to talk to professionals about different options for advanced degrees—MSW, MPA, MBA, JD—and some of the benefits and career trajectories of each one. I already have a couple of guest speakers lined up for this.

After this meeting I have three one-on-ones scheduled, and they will all be very different. I asked one person to come in to work on broadening his perception of his skills and strengths. We’re going to do an activity where we unpack a certain experience in his life that he mentioned very off-handedly to me, but which struck me as an indication of a massive store of adaptive resources. I plan to send him off with the assignment to think of two other things about himself that point to skills outside the usual ones he’s constantly praised for.

My second meeting is going to be focused on life-planning, which entails understanding the trade-offs of different options and learning how to de-risk each path. Finally, another person requested a meeting to design some business cards for himself. He’s going to arrive with a list of adjectives that he thinks captures what he wants to express about himself both professionally and socially, so we can then choose design elements that communicate that persona. But first we’re going to take a look at his newly-downloaded calendar and figure out a system for getting organized that makes sense to him.

So pumped for today! TGIF.

We Grow When We Tackle Challenges

“The best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure.” (Paul Tough, p. 85).

All of the reading that I have done these past few weeks has made me think of my own approach to risk and failure. In my personal and professional life I have a strong tendency to play it safe. I am guilty of letting my fear of falling on my face hold me back from trying something new.

A great friend of mine visited last weekend and this topic came up during one of our marathon conversations. She teaches third grade and her vision for her classroom is “We grow when we tackle challenges.” These third graders are extremely lucky to start learning this at a young age (and to have such an amazing teacher). But I think this motto is powerful at all ages. It’s scary to take a risk, but it is the only way to stretch ourselves to achieve new and original success. Reflecting on this theme has led me to some very interesting books (like this one) and a greater awareness of my own hesitancy to step outside the box. Posting on this blog is one (minor) risk and has opened me up to what I hope will be many more as I grow in my career.

Thank you, Ysette, for the chance to share on your blog and welcome back!

Helping youth define their mission

Yesterday I began an extended program to help New Yorkers for Children‘s Youth Advisory Board define their organization. This is a very exciting time and I feel so lucky to play a part in this process. The YAB has been around for about four years now, but this year really marked a turning point for the group. NYFC’s web site advertises the YAB as a group of high school and college students in foster care who gather once a month for dinner to socialize and help plan events and programs that benefit younger children in care, and also to advise NYFC on the concerns of older students in care. Currently, most (if not all) are in college and are in their early twenties. YAB has largely played a supporting role in events planned by NYFC, but recently members have been expressing an increased desire to plan and carry out their own projects. To help in these efforts, they decided to hold elections for four positions (President, VP, Treasurer, and Secretary), and also to define their own mission statement.

The current version of their mission statement is too broad, so yesterday we engaged in a series of discussions and exercises designed to help them refine it. We began with a meditation on the word community, which they used to describe themselves in their mission statement. We talked about how a community was a group of people that had something in common: things like a geographic location (actual or symbolic, as in diasporic communities), an institutional affiliation (such as a student and alumni network), or even ideas and ideals (e.g., the philanthropic community). Someone added that people in communities also supported each other and looked out for one another’s best interests. What united the members of YAB a community was everyone’s experience of foster care.

To provoke them a bit, I presented them with the argument that YAB was more than just a community, that it was an organization. We talked about the work of community organizers, and through that they were able to define an organization as a group of people who rally behind a cause and work toward goals.

Once that observation had been made, we were able to begin digging into concepts that are fundamental to personal and organizational orientation: values, purpose, vision, mission, and functions. Everyone got a handy graphic tool to help define these concepts. Behold “Mission Man”: Continue reading

Work on Purpose

(Lots of posts today because so much has happened in the last few days.)

Two days ago I attended a Wesleyan event featuring Lara Galinsky, who makes a living helping individuals follow their path to fulfilling work. She has a saying that HEAD + HEART = HUSTLE , where ‘head’ is all the stuff you’ve learned in school and skills you’ve picked up in past jobs; ‘heart’ is what moves you; and ‘hustle’ is like flow, or being in the zone. She believes that when head and heart are aligned, you can achieve hustle. This activates a positive feedback loop where your hard work will make an impact, and that impact will bring you happiness, and that joy will once more inspire you to work hard, and so on and so forth.

The formula is quite close to the one I devised for my Finding Your Calling workshop: GIFT + JOY + PASSION = CALLING, where gift = what you’re good at, joy = what brings you happiness, passion = what moves you. When you manage to find or create work that brings in all three components, you have your calling. Lara’s formula is leaner and more elegant than mine (the alliteration is a particularly nice touch), but for younger people I think it’s good to get them to explore the different aspects of themselves with finer instruments.

Heartily recommend Lara’s book, Work on Purpose. It’s quick, engaging, and very inspirational.

Coming of age in a dejobbed world

I just finished reading William Bridges‘s Creating You & Co. for my own personal purposes, but it ended up being useful for my Finding Your Calling workshop because the author’s description of how to work effectively in an increasingly “dejobbed” world resonates surprisingly well with the premise of my Coming of Age program.

Bridges’s book was uncannily prescient back when it was conceived in the 80s and published in the 90s, and it continues to send a timely message today. It expands on his argument (first articulated in JobShift) that we are experiencing changes in the way work is organized, and that it is a transformation just as immense, disruptive, and significant as the onset of the industrial revolution. He reminds us that the job as we define it today—something that you “have” that is delimited by a set of tasks and responsibilities, and is usually confined to certain hours of the day at a fixed location—is a product of the industrial age, prior to which jobs were something people “did” according to the need and the season. He then cautions us that jobs as we know it are disappearing, and it isn’t just because corporations can’t afford to pay full-time employees any longer, but that today’s work is qualitatively different. Corporations need to be able to change directions much more quickly than before not only to respond to technological advances and the whims of the mass market, but also to serve a variety of smaller niche markets. A lot of that work is project- or needs-based and is done by temps, consultants, or people whose “job descriptions” are constantly shifting.

As Bridges presents it, this is neither good nor bad news. Career insecurity can be scary, but if we take his counsel, we open ourselves up to great opportunity. Regardless of our level of education or experience, he insists that all of us can adapt to the dejobbed world by assessing our own unique blend of desires, abilities, temperament, and assets (our D.A.T.A.), defining our personal “product” (what we have to offer to others), and finding a “market” for it. It is a very compelling and convincing proposition, and it is in harmony with my definition of growing up, which I see as the process by which we come to know our strengths and use them to carve out a place for ourselves in the world. In a generation or two, Bridges predicts that this will all seem intuitive to our youth. And if so, the majority of us will be able to do work that is really fulfilling and in sync with our personalities and abilities, rather than working at jobs where we have to make ourselves fit assigned positions.