My #emergingleaders inspire me

Most people who work outside the field of child welfare tend to assume that my work is dispiriting. They hear the words “foster care” and immediately think “at-risk youth,” a loaded term that conjures only negative images. They imagine that I am out every day fighting the good fight, doing charitable work for the needy. The truth is I have the best job in all of New York City. I have the best job for a whole host of reasons: terrific colleagues, flexible work hours, and a varied work week that keeps me engaged, whether I am deep in research or out in meetings. But above all, I have the best job in NYC because I am surrounded by young people who are at a stage in life where they are all trying to figure out who they are, who they want to become, and where their place is in the world. It’s fascinating.

I work most closely with my emerging leaders—young people on a mission to revolutionize child welfare and other fields of human services. They are working to connect their values, strengths, and passions to embark on careers that will sustain them financially and emotionally while improving the lives of others. Watching them go through this process is inspiring. But what is most touching about my emerging leaders is they way they all throw themselves so fully into their transitions. Aristotle would surely approve of their zealous pursuit of the good life.

How many of us would and could be productive, for example, in precarious housing situations? Sure, some of us worked jobs while going to school, but how many of us also had to navigate complex bureaucracies whose stated missions seem to contradict our daily experience of them? 

My window into the lives of my emerging leaders and other young adults who have transitioned from foster care offers me a profound and daily reminder of the strength and the goodness of the human spirit. 

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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

Emerging Leader Jermaine finds his voice

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I met Jermaine in the fall of 2012, when I started doing my leadership and team building trainings with the NYFC Youth Advisory Board. He had always been the strong, silent type in a generally rambunctious group of young people. He spoke on rare occasions, never once raising his voice. This school year, he joined my Emerging Leaders group and we set two goals for him: (1) to gain a better grasp on his core values so he could link them to purposeful work; and (2) to speak up more. I’m very happy to report that within this semester he has really shown great progress in both.

Now one thing about Jermaine that I didn’t know until this school year is that he has very wide ranging interests. In YAB he is known as the finance/economics/math guy, so he’s always top pick for treasurer. But he’s actually remarkably creative, as well. I got a taste of some of his creativity over the YAB summer retreat, when he started to tell the beginnings of a gripping ghost story by the campfire. Since then I’ve learned he’s also a self-taught musician and a voracious reader. He is the type who will always pursue knowledge for the sake of bettering himself, regardless of whether or not he is a student.

Given his wide ranging interests, Jermaine was overwhelmed at the start of the semester with numerous business ideas. Part of the trouble was that although he knew money was not his primary motivation, he wasn’t quite sure what his core value was.  Continue reading

#AdoptMent youth take personal stock

I’ve been reticent to blog about my work with the AdoptMent group because they’re a younger set and I’m more protective of their privacy. This is a transitional year, not just within the program, but also in the lives of each of these young people. In my first session with them this school year, we returned to the tasks of adolescent development, but instead of focusing broadly on the topic of identity, this time we talked about personal values and relationships, especially how to strike a healthy balance between independence and connectedness.

Last spring I used Zits comics to get the conversation started. We returned to two strips that dealt specifically with identity exploration, and was really pleased that they all retained the biggest lesson from last spring’s identity self-portrait activity, namely that at this early stage in life staying true to yourself is overrated, and identity crises are actually a healthy part of psychological development.

From that group review, everyone paired off with their mentors to discuss comic strips treating the developmental tasks related to autonomy, relationships, and values. The mentors had handouts that indicated the tasks displayed in each strip, but the mentees first had to work on inferring the topic from the material. The second step in the exercise was to reflect on how they were progressing in each of those tasks. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of wonderful stories about how these young people set up challenges for themselves (e.g., earning the money and planning transportation for a solo trip to New Jersey), and noted how their relationships to their parents were in transition

The final part of the workshop had everyone select one particular developmental task that posed a significant challenge to him or her. Continue reading

Decision-making with an #emergingleader

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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

#WorkOnPurpose with Emerging Leaders

About a week and a half ago I facilitated Work On Purpose’s Heart + Head = Hustle activity with my Emerging Leaders. It’s an exercise that helps them (1) define their passions, (2) identify their strengths, and then (3) put those two together in order to begin sketching out their dream job or calling.

The first step was to fill out tags that read “I’ve got a heart for ________.” Participants are supposed to mill around and introduce themselves and talk about their “heart.” Since we were a small group that already knew each other, we simply went around in a circle and stated our answers. Given the nature of Emerging Leaders, it was unsurprising that all our “hearts” clustered around the same themes:

  • children
  • disadvantaged youth
  • young people
  • helping people (two emerging leaders had this)
  • people

For the next part I read through a series of prompts that helped the emerging leaders define their “head” (we were supposed to start with the “heart,” but I accidentally skipped over a page, so we did this in reverse order). These included questions about the skills you would put on your resume, as well as the ones you would conventionally leave out. We approached the “heart” section in the same way: One particular prompt that I liked asked what sort of advice or help did friends usually approach you for.

The toughest part of the exercise for the emerging leaders seemed to be defining their “hustle.” They were supposed to combine responses from their “heart” section and their “head” section into novel ideas for work. E.g., if you really care about the health of the diabetics in your community and you happen to cook well, you might start a food service business for people suffering from diabetes.

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My favorite part of the exercise was having the emerging leaders work in small groups to talk about their hustle. Let me tell you, these young people are particularly skilled at active listening and giving each other sound feedback. They are so compassionate. I wish I could have eavesdropped and recorded all their conversations.

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Here they are in AlleyNYC’s cafe lounge, diligently filling out workshop evaluations. They were super pumped and motivated to unpack their hustles individually during office hours. Looking over copies of their work, I see that they could have benefitted from better direction brainstorming their hustles, because they all struggled to come up with very concrete ideas based on elements from their “heart” and “head.” Although the workshop encourages participants to imagine being able to work their dream job, I think young people really need to be exposed to the variety of interesting work that already exists in order for them to be able to unleash the full capacity of their imaginative powers and envision work that is tailor-made for them.

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Afterward Maurice and Jermaine hung around the Alley and we had a nice long conversation about history, education, foster care, economics, social justice—the works! We are so incredibly blessed to have such thoughtful young men coming up in the world with the burning desire to make their marks on New York City’s youth development and social entrepreneurship scenes.

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

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.

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: