AdoptMent works on goal-setting

In this same workshop we also revisited the topic of brain development. We reviewed the difference between the prefrontal cortex or “White House of the brain,” which has the ability to plan for the future, and the amygdala or “reptile brain” that reacts instinctively in fight/flight/freeze fashion.

This helped to introduce the concept of time perspective. Using part of the framework developed by Stanford professors Zimbardo and Boyd, we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of being either a “present hedonist” or a future-oriented individual. Everyone agreed that it was best to live a balanced life.

Since future orientation is the time perspective that most young people generally need to cultivate, we talked about how athletes who are off season or injured often use visualization as a way to “stay in the game.” Our young people learned that going through the motions in your brain actually improves your muscle memory and the chances of you succeeding in whatever actions you plan to take in the future.

We then dimmed the lights and I led a the group in a guided visualization of a day when they hit all their goals and “earned all the points” they needed. I asked them to sit with the feeling of accomplishment and self-pride. This was the first time that I’ve ever done this exercise, and I did not realize how powerful it would be. One person emerged from the activity with a peaceful aura, but two others became quite emotional. This was a moment when I was especially grateful for the clinical staff in the room. Talk about cathartic!

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

YAB Project Management Boot Camp

YAB bootcamp

   Credit: Lindsay Adamski

If you want an inside look on how I develop my material and roll out new workshops, here is a case study. Last Sunday several members of NYFC YAB, accompanied by Lindsay Adamski (a.k.a., ladamski), joined me at AlleyNYC for a four-hour project management bootcamp. (Yes, you read that right: four hours on a Sunday. It was their suggestion. They are intense, these folks.) The aim was to finish the work that we started at the retreat back in August on the YAB Project Management Manual, which like their constitution, is co-authored by YAB and me. My model for this was the OCFS Handbook for Youth in Foster Care, which incorporates the voices of young people in care in every chapter. I especially liked how the handbook defines terms using the words of youth in foster care.

YAB does a terrific job of referring to a printed copy of their constitution during their meetings, and the manual is definitely supposed to act as a guide for every step of the project management process: brainstorming, project selection, planning, execution, and ending (termination, completion, and administration). Each section has handy tools and tips for success. We’re also making it available in digital format, however, because the manual is intended as a living document that they can edit over the years by modifying, clarifying, and elaborating on the existing material (e.g., working out their own ground rules and processes for each of these stages). There are exercises sprinkled throughout, so it also served as a workbook at the retreat and at the Alley bootcamp.

Full disclosure: the first project management workshop was a little rough. In a strict sense I wasn’t disappointed, though, because as with any new workshop, I was prepared for some kinks. (It’s always tough to time new activities.) Furthermore, it was the last workshop on the final day of the retreat, the youth were kind of restless and burnt out from all the work and running around we’d already done, and the creepy cabin we used as a classroom (the “dead animal room”) was not conducive to thoughtful dialogue. I’d assumed that we would finish the chapter on brainstorming rather quickly, but it took us an hour to get through the material. Nothing was too trivial for debate, and in my effort to write down everyone’s opinions, we lagged behind schedule.

It was clear that I had to recalibrate my approach (in business parlance, “pivoting” after “failure”!) for the follow-up session. This was a team effort. Lindsay got feedback from YAB about what they thought could be improved for next time, and the two of us met to discuss some tactics. Here are the ideas we all came up with: 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.

Lisette Nieves talks multi-contextualism and college persistence

[For Candice and Nahjee] I wish you ladies could have joined me for Lisette’s talk, “Multi-contextualism and the Consumption of Higher Education,” because I know both of you would have really enjoyed it. Giving you a digest below. We can dig into all this more deeply when we see each other next, because I would love to hear your reactions.

Lisette made a very credible case for the dishearteningly low college graduation rates of the latino student population being a result of certain cultural pressures rather than a lack of academic preparedness. In other words, it’s not that latino students aren’t capable of hacking college-level courses; it’s the fact that within the latino community young people take on very adult roles within their families, and this sense of obligation—and very real responsibility—often gets in the way of attending to the competing demands of college life. If we understand young latinos’ desire for parental closeness and their role in contributing to the family income, then all of a sudden the phenomenon of high-achieving latino students dropping out of selective colleges in order to attend the community college close to home makes sense.

What enables Lisette to arrive at these insights is by considering the problem of college persistence through the lens of multi-contextualism.  Continue reading

Nahjee stretches her wings

It would take a long paragraph to list out all the awards and honors that Nahjee has won, but I won’t go into any of it here because I’m convinced that the foundation of a positive self concept is not built on the external validation you get from jumping through other people’s hoops, but the feeling of self respect you earn by working toward challenges you set for yourself.

Nahjee has accomplished a lot these past few days! Aside from sending off an email on a delicate topic and having a difficult conversation with someone, she also took it on her very own initiative to sign up for a networking event. To practice, she told me. And, ever the clever one, she made sure it was an event outside of the child welfare space. (Basically, she’s going to try out her networking skills on a bunch of randos that she’ll “never have to see again,” so that if she “messes up” it won’t impact her career.) Lady, you crack me up.

But seriously: my how you’ve grown.

When the enormity of your dreams begin to overwhelm you, just remember: you are a giant. And you’re so very very dear to me.

“Any important change is not going to feel like a steady, inevitable march toward victory”

This is from Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, a book that had been languishing on my reading list for months, but which I finally picked up last week for my semi-secret project(!). What I love most about it is how the authors flesh out a very simple, easy-to-remember framework with loads of examples of significant changes achieved in very different contexts and at all levels: individual, organizational, and societal.

One of the most powerful lessons of Switch is that big changes are often the result of a series of tiny actions. What will resonate with anyone who works in human services—or for that matter, who has tried to make a significant change in her own life—is the caveat that change “won’t simply be an unbroken string of small wins…More typically, you take one step forward and 1.3 steps back and 2.7 steps forward and then 6 steps to the side…” Such is the non-linear trajectory of all our lives, and anyone hoping to spur behavioral change (and to track those outcomes) will need to take this into account.

Three important lessons about time perspective

Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I am mildly fascinated with time perspective as it relates to young people setting goals and making decisions. I recently finished Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s book, The Time Paradox, which is chock full of facts and insights, both interesting and provocative. The Stanford psychology professors share a lifetime’s worth of research and reflection on time and human behavior, and part of the richness of their work owes to the fact that they don’t hesitate to draw from childhood memories, personal anecdotes, and song lyrics, even as they ground all their theories in science.

From a youth development standpoint, there are important lessons to be gleaned. Here are the three I found most vital to my work:

1. Many of the systems in this world are “built by futures for futures.”

Any sort of program or institution that tries to scare people straight with an idea of dire future consequences—from D.A.R.E. to the criminal justice system—falls into this category. The problem is, not everyone lives with a future time perspective. Many behavioral programs only work for individuals whose distant future is tangible to them. Adolescents are generally extremely present-oriented, and if they live stressful lives, they are that much more attuned to the present and unaware of their future potential.

2. The good news is that time perspective is malleable. We can all work toward a balanced time perspective—an optimum combination of past positive, present hedonistic, and future orientation—for our well-being.

Armed with knowledge and intention, we can alter our time perspective. Zimbardo and Boyd have had success helping students set and meet goals by leading them through visualization exercises. They add that to reinforce a future time perspective, we also need to teach young people concepts and skills such as contingencies, causalities, delaying gratification, planning, and self-reward. Project work is a great way for youth to practice these lessons in context.

For people with the opposite problem of being too future-oriented, the authors recommend we practice mindfulness and integrate into our lives more present-oriented activities such as, yes, stopping to smell the roses and taking unimportant stuff off our to-do lists.

3. Diminishing a past-negative time perspective is vital to our ability to lead happy, productive lives.

I definitely sat up when I read the section of The Time Paradox on how to diminish a past-negative time perspective by revisiting childhood memories and trying to see them from another viewpoint. The authors cite an example of a woman who grows up feeling rejected by her father because he would rebuff her affection whenever he got home from work. They suggest that she could make herself understand that her father was probably too tired to play with her, and that his way of showing his love for her was by tucking her into bed after he’d gotten the chance to unwind.

Would that everyone’s family issues were so simple. But I am reminded of a post I wrote on Louise Erdrich’s short story, “The Shawl” (curiously enough, one of the most popular hits on this blog), where the narrator comes to terms with a family history of trauma and violence with a transformative interpretation of a painful family incident.

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

Staying true to yourself is overrated

This is especially true if your sense of identity has never been thrown into crisis and is largely in line with the outlooks and values that you grew up with. Adolescents necessarily go through a period of “identity crisis” as a result of the changes in their bodies, hormones, and brain development. One of the great lessons of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson is that this crisis period is an optimal time to explore one’s identity: to question their morals, preconceptions, roles, and relationships, and to arrive either at a renewed commitment to those principles, perspectives, etc. or to form new ones. This phenomenon is called “identity achievement.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is “identity foreclosure,” where individuals have a high level of commitment to their self-concept with a very low level of exploration.

An example of a foreclosed individual is the person who joins the family business or enters his father’s profession with nary a consideration of alternative paths. The danger, of course, is a mid-life crisis. Adolescent expert Susan M. Kools has shown that youth in foster care are especially vulnerable to identity foreclosure, since they are pushed into adulthood earlier than their peers.

It sounds counter-intuitive—even irresponsible or heretical—to suggest it, but what if we took a step back from pushing our young people to commit immediately and steadfastly to their goals, and instead encouraged them to look more deeply into themselves, and explore their options more broadly?  Continue reading