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!


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

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.

Walking the walk

The reading and work I’ve been doing on marketing is more interesting than I expected. It’s requiring me to take stock of my strengths, identify areas where I could use some help, and—the hardest of all—set long term goals. It’s easy for me to set goals for myself in the short-term because I’m organized and I love lists. I can look at my calendar and plot out what I’d like to accomplish in the next month, or even this coming year. But setting ten-year (or more) goals is considerably more difficult.

First of all, working outside of any institutional setting leaves me with no obvious road markers. Had I stayed in academia, I’d no doubt be working toward publishing a number of articles and books and securing tenure. Since my career change, however, I’ve had to chart an entirely new path. Skills such as “organization,” “time management,” or “forecasting,” are no doubt necessary, but they are insufficient tools for this journey. What enables us to set achievable goals ten years down the road is being able to imagine a future self that carries the weight of reality.

Unfortunately, we tend to focus exclusively on “life skills” when we try to get young people to commit some goals to paper. But what’s going to happen after they’ve plotted out their high school and college graduations? How do we encourage our youth to think about “work” as something so much larger (and more fulfilling) than a full time job? These questions do not fall into the domain of GED and job prep programs. We need programming that will complement their efforts by prodding youth to ask themselves who they want to be in this world. And by wrestling first-hand with this task for ourselves, we are better able to empathize with the challenges of young people trying to find their way.

Time management vs. time perspective

Goal-setting and time management are some of the more essential life skills that experts try to teach youth in foster care, but one of the first lessons I learned when I entered the field of youth development is that young people—and especially teenagers in care—are extremely present-oriented. Prof. John Immerwahr has written succinctly on the challenges of educating undergraduates. The problem, he says, is not a matter of students being unable to manage their time well. It’s more fundamental than that: There is a conflict between the future-orientation of professors and the present-orientation of most students. When the desires of the present (“I’m hungry,” “I want to hang out with friends”) compete with the demands of the future (“I want to do well in the next exam,” “I want to graduate on time”), the present almost always wins. This present-orientation is exacerbated in foster care, where problems demanding immediate attention (“Where will I sleep tonight?”) crop up frequently. Continue reading