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!

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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. 

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

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).

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Helping Nahjee learn to cook

The best part of work is figuring out how I am able to serve the individual needs of my young people. Today Nahjee asked me for some cooking tips (e.g., the different ways of thickening soup) and sources for good recipes (not from any packaged food website). She’s talked about being pescatarian and how she prefers simple food such as pizza and fries to fancy meals, but this afternoon I learned that her favorite cuisines are Indian and Thai. She also loves thick soups, bean chilis, and lentils. She would like to be able to make a soup that has lots of veggies in it, such as corn, carrots, and broccoli. Nahjee also likes spice. I figured that finding a mulligatawny recipe might be a good place to start, since it would satisfy many of her cravings.

The plan is to take a Friday afternoon to head to Curry Hill, enjoy a veggie lunch buffet at Chennai Garden or maybe a mujadara sandwich from Kalustyan’s (I like mine specially topped with pickles or spicy olives and their awesome hot sauce), and then go shopping for some basic spices and a variety of pulses for her pantry.

Looking up different mulligatawny recipes reminded me of a cookbook that my sister helped me start. During one of the many summers I spent with her in high school and college, she gave me a hardcover journal and I started writing in the simple, reliable recipes that she herself used for her family. After awhile I started collecting recipes on my own from magazines, cookbooks, and friends. But my favorite recipes in the book are family recipes—not just old Filipino standbys, but also special family dishes that bring back good memories.

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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

A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?

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The 12 traits of “flourishers”

This is one of the many gems from sociologist Corey Keyes‘s keynote at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood. He was explaining the concept of flourishers: those individuals who report that “every day” or “almost every day” they experience happiness, but less so for emotional reasons (feeling happy) than from psychological and social ones (positive functioning). He listed out the twelve traits that are much more pronounced in flourishers than the rest of the population, and I’m eager to share them with you:

Flourishers…

  • don’t procrastinate
  • have a high degree of self-control 
  • feel highly capable
  • are deliberate (They know what they want out of life.)
  • have a high disposition to apologize (At this point I start raising my eyebrows because I’m five for five.)
  • have a malleable mindset about their own intelligence (They know that they don’t know everything and are open to being wrong.)
  • have higher levels of curiosity (They like to explore and expose themselves to new and challenging situations.)
  • they have an OCEAN personality
    • open (Again, they’re intellectually curious and open to novelty.)
    • conscientious (Again, they are disciplined and planful.)
    • extroverted (This is where I start docking points.) (Also, why do psychologists spell it with an ‘A’?)
    • agreeable (They’re compassionate and cooperative.)
    • not neurotic (Go ahead and dock some more points here.)
  • have an initiative for personal growth (They want to grow and they have a plan for how to go about it.)
  • learn from adversity
  • are motivated by mastery of the process rather than the outcome (They aren’t motivated by money; they’re all about the journey.)
  • feel loved and cared for

Keyes delineates these traits because he is committed to promoting a concept of mental health that is more solid and robust than our current understanding of it as the “absence of mental illness.” He suggests that we design our interventions with an eye to cultivating these traits in our young people. If we truly want to set them up for a life beyond subsistence or even “settling” (this is Keyes’s term for the complacency of the merely “happy”), then we must go above and beyond independent living and job skills and aim for the personal and professional fulfillment of our youth.

For this reason I especially like the last trait. One of the many things I admire about The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is the fact that they codify love in their theory of change and mission. We don’t talk about love with our young people nearly as much as we should.

The importance of witnessing failure

There is so much I still have to process about the Conference on Emerging Adulthood, including how very different a social science conference is from all the literature conferences I’ve ever attended. Most striking of all was the lack of poor manners and bad behavior, and second to that was the fact that every grad student was accompanied by a research mentor.

I got into a conversation with one such pair following Corey Keyes‘s lovely keynote speech on happiness and mental health, during which he confessed to speaking openly with his students about his own struggle with depression. We were talking about how instructive it is for graduate students to hear their professors talk about struggling, making mistakes, and outright failing at things. The faculty supervisor was telling her student that during one internship she got to witness the top psychologists in the world hold therapy sessions. What was most illuminating for her were the instances when those big-name therapists failed to connect with their clients, missed things that she picked up on, or completely messed up in their responses. In my program, by contrast, our professors did little to dispel the myths that surrounded their ascension to academic stardom. I am not the only one who wondered how I would ever cross the bridge from project-less grad student to tenured professor.

Very late in the game, my advisor finally started to get it. We were sitting in his office, I was very close to tears over a chapter I was struggling to write, and he very gently observed, “I think that what you need from me isn’t academic direction, but a life coach.” By that time, however, I was already so dispirited and embittered, that no amount of comfort could change my mind about leaving academia after graduating. It’s amazing that I ever finished. The first of three times I seriously considered dropping out of my program, a professor I greatly admired met me for coffee and talked me off the ledge, saying that I was precisely the type of student NYU should work to retain and cultivate. For a period we enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual closeness, regularly trading emails with each other at four in the morning. But when she came up for tenure, it was as if that intimacy between us had never existed. Thus began my years- (years!) long search for another faculty mentor.

It’s a sweet little postscript that I now happen to be helping to strengthen the mentoring initiatives at NYU through its diversity and inclusion task force. As a casualty of grad school, I am committed to pushing for social and emotional supports for doctoral students. Research skills can be easily acquired. What isn’t readily learned are the skills necessary to cope with the long road to intellectual autonomy. More seasoned scholars would do their students a huge favor by being more transparent about the vicissitudes of their own professional journeys.

Knowing whom to reach out to (and a meta call for help)

[For Dawn] So I’ve been going through a very specific experience lately that I haven’t really shared with many people in my life, including (perhaps especially) those nearest and dearest to me. Since it’s a situation I’m unfamiliar—and therefore unequipped to deal—with I decided to turn to someone whom I know has handled something similar with tremendous grace and strength. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem strange for me to bring something so personal to someone whom I’ve only recently met. But our limited number of interactions this year have been so enriching and energizing that I knew she would have a lot of advice and words of wisdom for me. [And thank you very much for all of it. Your kindness is overwhelming.]

This happens to be another good example of how I walk the walk and pass what I’ve learned on to my youth. I recently turned in a proposal to contribute to a transition curriculum for a mentoring program (more on that later), and one of the final activities that I have planned is for each young person to map out a personal support networkand then to label each individual in that web of relationships with the type of emotional and/or practical support s/he provides. 

I think it would be helpful for mentors to prompt their mentees with questions such as:

    • Whom do you turn to when you’re sad?
    • Who is the first person you call with good news?
    • Whom can you rely on to give you relationship advice?
    • If you’re in a silly mood, who’s the best person to laugh with?
    • If you just want to be quiet in someone’s company, whom can you sit with?
    • If you feel like dancing, who is your partner in crime?

I prefer a digital contact list myself, but in the context of this workshop I think it would be better for the youth to collect these contacts in an old fashioned paper notebook. Each page would have someone’s name and contact information, but also important details about that individual (e.g., activities they enjoy, skills they have, etc.). The notebook would be solid evidence of the existence of a community and safety net.

Of course for this exercise to have any value, it’s not enough that young people know they can reach out for help, not enough that they know how to reach out for help. The very first step is ensuring that they are ready to receive help. This is a whole nother ball of wax, as they say, and something that’s been weighing heavily on me lately, because I’ve been learning that even when people explicitly ask for help, they also have their own particular ways of resisting it.

Look! Here is another call for help: If anyone has any bright ideas about helping people who aren’t ready to accept help even if they ask for it, please ping me. I’d love to brainstorm with you. (Y gracias de antemano por cualquier ayuda proporcionada.)