Sunday, November 2, 2014

Happiness is not for Sissies

One of the key themes of the book The Undefeated Mind by Alex Lickerman is that it takes strength to be happy.  You need to be tough.  You need to be thick skinned.  Happiness is not for the timid.  You have to be bold and able to take a punch.

Although we genetically are born with a different starting point for how cheerful we are--what psychologists often refer to as a "happiness setpoint"--we will all suffer.  We will all have misfortunes.  Happiness requires resilience.  Dr. Lickerman describe two aspects to resilience:

  1. The ability to thrive in the face of adversity
  2. Persistence when encountering obstacles
Resilience, to Dr. Lickerman, is a strength we can cultivate.  His book describes the exercises that make you resilient.  They make you hardy.  Tough enough to stay happy when things don't go your way.

Clarify your personal mission in the various roles you play in life (career, family, etc.).  Make important commitments.  Expect victory but only through hard work overcoming plenty of obstacles.  Believe you can still be happy even after pain or loss.  Cultivate gratitude.  Help others.  These practices are the push-ups that give you the strength to stay happy even when things get tough.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Optimistic about the Outcome, Pessimistic about the Path

Optimistic about the outcome:  "I'm going to make it.  I know I've got the skill, the strength, and the patience to find a way to succeed."

Pessimistic about the path:  "I'll succeed, but it won't be easy.  I may find myself in some very difficult situations.  I might not always know at first what I should do next.  I might slip at times and might get scared.  I'll have to tap into my reserves of endurance, patience, and courage before I finally reach the top."

In his book The Undefeated Mind, Alex Lickerman describes his ideas for strengthening your ability to handle adversity.  One of his recommendations is to "expect obstacles".  He describes research showing that people who expect tasks to be difficult tend to persist when things to wrong while those who expect tasks to be easy give up easily.  He recommends what I see as a delicate balance between optimism and pessimism.  In some of his chapters he talks about making vows about your important goals.  In these chapters, I see him advocating optimism--confidence that for most of these vows you will prevail somehow, even if the outcome isn't exactly what you expected.  And in the "expect obstacles", I see him advocating pessimism at least about what he calls "task difficulty".

I think this is a brilliant and all to rare balance of being positive and being negative.  Most authors these days seem to push for nothing but positive thinking.  The worst cases, to me, are the ones who tell you to just visualize things the way you want them to be and then wait for the mysterious power of the universe to manifest your dreams.  Lickerman, instead, tells you to dream but then plan on a very tough road to reach that dream.  Better to be pleasantly surprised when you reach that dream easily than to get discouraged and give up the first time anything goes wrong.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It . . .

According to The Undefeated Mind, by Alex Lickerman, defining your mission at work and at home can lead to more resilience in the face of life's upheavals.  Dr. Lickerman defines your mission as whatever you feel most excited about contributing to the world around you.

This mission will be different for everyone.  For me, when I'm at work, the "mission" that turns me on the most is to improve morale for the technicians who operate our production lines.  This ISN'T my job description.  I'm supposed to improve production results to improve profits, not morale.  But there is enough overlap that I can put a lot of my energy into reducing frustration and tedium for factory workers, into making them feel confident and skilled and in control, and this makes my work feel more meaningful and important to me than it would if I focused solely on manufacturing cost.  And having this sense of purpose makes it easy to cope with the inevitable project failures, budget cuts, difficult people, and other obstacles that we all encounter in our jobs.

I have different missions for the other roles I play in life outside of work.  My missions are unique for me, but they aren't special.  They are no better than what another person might choose for their own lives.  Alex Lickerman's advice is that, for each role you have in life--each context you find yourself in daily such as work and home--you think through the question "What is my mission here?   What way of contributing to the world outside myself is most fulfilling for me in this part of my life?"  And then keep reminding yourself about that mission every day.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Undefeated Mind

When we moved my son into the University of Chicago a couple of weeks ago, one of the speakers at a session for parents was Professor Alex Lickerman, author of "The Undefeated Mind".  Professor Lickerman was discussing Student Health and Counseling Services at the University, but he also spoke about his"Resilience Project", a training program offered to all students that has been correlated to greater success at school and better results in several measures of well-being and happiness.

Because Professor Lickerman was a great speaker who even made College Health Insurance sound fascinating, I decided to buy his book.  I love it.

The core idea is that we can remain relatively happy as we experience the ups and downs of life if we never allow ourselves to be defeated.  If we never stop trying.  If we never stop looking for a new strategy to overcome adversity, even when every other strategy has failed, then we have not been defeated.

I've had some hard times at work in the last year.  I've tried different strategies to manage the people who are making my job so difficult and unpleasant.  Every new approach has failed.  At times I think I let myself feel defeated, as if with some of these people nothing was ever going to work.  But then I'd try a new strategy until I finally found something that seems to be working.

As I've read "The Undefeated Mind", I realize that I was most unhappy when I gave up hope, when I allowed myself to think that there was no way around these people, that I'd have to cave in and do work that was less than I was capable of and deliver results that were less than what mattered.  I was most unhappy when I was close to having a "Defeated Mind".  But when I kept thinking, "What if?" and kept brainstorming up more ways to get around the people who were holding me back, I eventually found some techniques that started to work.  I can see that this is what it means to have an "Undefeated Mind".  As long as I keep struggling, I haven't been defeated.

As Lickerman writes, "possessing an undefeated mind means never forgetting that defeat comes not from failing but from giving up."

Sunday, September 28, 2014


My oldest son, Mackenzie, will be starting as a freshman at the University of Chicago on Monday.  We moved him to his dorm last weekend and helped him get settled in.  It's been years since I'd seen him acting so excited, since I'd seen him approaching one person after another after another, striking up conversations so often that after just 2 days everywhere we walked on campus students were already calling him out by name.  All I could think of whenever I saw him interacting with the other students was, "He's going to thrive here!"

I'm still feeling euphoric, still feeling like he's about to start the best years of his life.  It also got me thinking about the relationship between your circumstances and your happiness, between your circumstances and whether or not you thrive.

There has been plenty of research suggesting that perhaps 60-70% of your happiness is NOT a function of your objective circumstances.  According to Positive Psychology researchers such as Sonya Lyubomirsky, we are born with "Happiness Setpoints" that explain much of the difference between those who are perpetually gloomy and those who are perpetually cheery.  Life happens and people may temporarily cheer up or get sad, but they often bounce back to their usual level of happiness.  The remaining 30-40% of our happiness is in our control and is affected by things like our social behavior, our activities, and our thought patterns.

So will my son really thrive in Chicago?  Is this just the temporary excitement of new circumstances?  I don't think so.  Sometimes circumstances change in a way in which their impact is usually fleeting.  Your girlfriend dumps you.  You get a raise at work.  You get a new iPhone.  But other life changes have a more lasting effect because they help you transform your social behavior, your activities, and your thought patterns.  They thus help you transform the 30-40% of your thoughts and actions directly raise or lower your happiness.

For the last 6 years, Mackenzie attended Walnut Hills High School, a school whose outstanding academics attracts students from all over the city.  Unfortunately, this creates a circumstance in which it is hard to spend time with the friends that you make at school.  It's not like when I went to my neighborhood high school and we could all see each other on weeknights or weekends.  At Walnut or any other great city "magnet" school, unless your parents endlessly drive you around, you better hope that many of your best school friends live in walking distance.  With very few exceptions, Mackenzie was not so lucky.  None of us regret his attending such a fine High School.  It's academic strengths are a big reason he was able to get into the prestigious University of Chicago.  But I think I see how the circumstances at Walnut may have held him back a bit.  I also saw last week how drastically different the social opportunities are for him at University of Chicago.  These are his kind of intellectual people, debating politics, philosophy, history--people from all around the world with fascinating backgrounds and cultures.  And they live with him in his dorm or within walking distance at other dorms.  And I feel how he can't believe his good fortune, how thrilled he is to engage with so many people, and I know that this isn't just something new and exciting.  He is going to thrive.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Poke at my Idea PLEASE

I've sometimes read that it's best to develop a plan from the ground up with others so that they "own" the plan as much as you do.  This may be ideal, but sometimes its too slow, especially when there are lots of people involved.  A friend of mine often seems to want to use the "ground up" approach, and I find that his meetings often don't get very far.

I continue to have the most luck when I make a proposal and solicit responses.  I want people to poke at my trial balloon, even if it bursts, because I know that once the proposal changes to incorporate other people's ideas, they start to buy into the plan.  I WANT the proposal to change.

These proposals work best when I continuously project that I want input.  I have to project that I will not be defensive, that I get excited when someone points out a better approach, even if it means I overlooked something critical or obvious.  If I project this right from the start, I think the other people in the room or on the phone can sense that I value their input.  It's safe to tell me whatever they really feel.  They start to engage and, as the dialogue continues, the plan get better and better and better.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Last week, 15 of us met to brainstorm what changes we needed to have in our organization next year.  The meeting facilitator had us break out into two groups.  On various topics, such as "Tasks", "Rewards", "Structure", "Information Systems", we were supposed to collect feedback from each group.

The facilitator said we should structure our conversations by identifying what we should "Start", "Stop", and "Continue".  That's the normal way we collect feedback in our company:  start-stop-continue.  But I don't like that order.  The emphasis is wrong.  What should we START doing because we've been missing the boat?  What should we STOP doing because we've been screwing up?  The most important question is what should we CONTINUE doing because it's been working well?  What has been our strength?  What should we do more of because it brings out our best performance and results?

I was facilitating one of the two groups, and I insisted on changing the order and the emphasis:  Continue, Start, and Stop.  This seemed to energize people.  We spent our time appreciating the best things they were doing and defining plans to make these things even stronger next year.  And, when we talked about what to START doing, it tended to be things related to what we already have been doing well.  As far as what to STOP?  We often didn't get around to writing anything down, and that was OK with me.