Your Stake in the World: Write a College Essay that Communicates What Matters to You.

When I was in school learning about the coaching paradigm and how different it was from my worldview as a clinical social worker, it changed my life in so many ways. By and large, I shifted from “you are broken and I am here to fix you,” to “you are perfect exactly where you are, and there is always room for growth; what do you want?” My agenda does not run the relationship; rather, the client’s curiosity does. My job is to ask questions that open neural pathways of possibility for clients and to support them to move into action between our sessions. I do this with employees, managers, parents, millennials, and teenagers. 

During my training, I found I had a longing to bring coaching to young people. How different could this world be if students had an opportunity to explore who they are and then learned to leverage those innate talents and strengths 

to shift how they show up in the world? How significant could it be, if, one student at a time, we went from “I have no idea what I want,” to “I know who I am and what will support me to create what I want (even if I don’t know what that looks like right now).” By using students’ real world experience in school, at home, on teams, with affiliations, or at work as the playground for learning, with coaching as the catalyst, we throw a pebble in a pond and watch the whole pond change.

I was working with a 9th grade student who, after some coaching, noticed that the classes where he had the highest grades, were also the classes where he could identify an ally.  He learned that he needed some level of comfort before he could be uncomfortable enough to be seen by the teacher. Learning requires some level of vulnerability. It requires risk. Not only did our work uncover that, once he discovered how it played out, he was motivated to get in the sandbox and play with it.  He came up with a system that started with how he unpacked his bag in class and made eye contact with the teacher. It involved lots of experimenting with putting up his hand in class, whether he wanted to, or not. He would return to our zoom calls every other week, engaging with me in a different way, as well. I could tell things were shifting, but more importantly, he could, too. His mother called me to ask what we were doing together because she had noticed a difference in their home. He started to feel success and he understood that he could actually have an impact, not just in school, but in other areas of his life, as well. What started with “my teacher hates me,” ended with, “I need an ally to feel comfortable, but I can influence who I see as my allies.”

In thinking about this young man in 9th grade, I know that he already has a moment to reflect on to write his college essay. What?? You don’t have to have a ginormous leadership project? You don’t have to be an Eagle Scout? You don’t have to form a non-profit or even be a candy striper at the hospital? The short answer is, “No.” I have spent the last several years picking the brains of high school counselors, college admissions counselors, and folks who are certified to guide students through the college process in the private sector. Guess what? Everyone gives the same advice: to highlight something that communicates who you are. Most would agree, too, that the focus is on the student, not the thing. When a student writes a great (not fancy, which is another blog post!) essay about who they are, they are far more likely to differentiate themselves from the crowd of other applicants.

My 9th grade student could write about how he took his notebook out of his backpack and made eye contact, and what those moments in time taught him about intentionally engaging with other people. He could even marvel at a world where people did this on a regular basis. The admissions committees would learn that he is curious about himself, is willing to take risks in service of his own growth, and that he cares about what connects people with one another. 

Essays are about communicating what a student’s stake is in this world. It is exciting work and when we let students guide the process and we support their agenda, they do a fantastic job at doing just that.

The Red Sweatshirt Strings

There was recently a Facebook post in our community about purchasing sweatshirts for a school trip for elementary students. This trip is a tradition in town, and families are invited to purchase red sweatshirts that both provide much needed warmth for all the outdoor fun and memorialize the event for years to come. Because I had kids in elementary school for what seems like forever and was a chaperone on the trip and a parent helper leading up to the trip, I am well aware of the concern over getting just the right sweatshirt. Here’s the thing: all the sweatshirts look exactly the same. Exactly. You can buy one with a hood or one without a hood. And you can buy youth or adult sizes. But wait. The youth sizes do. not. have. strings. in. the. hood. OMG (picture a car screeching to a halt).

With 100% good intentions – really and truly – when the sweatshirt sales start, parents are warned that they must. buy. the. right. sweatshirt. There must have been a year when a child had a meltdown over their sweatshirt not looking like someone else’s, because for years, parents have been warned that if they don’t buy the right sweatshirt, it would ruin their child’s trip or they’d end up having to buy a second sweatshirt when their child noticed theirs was different. The right sweatshirt was clearly not a youth size. and clearly not a crew neck.

Remember 4th grade? Remember how different kids are, physically? Some are babies and some are grown people? All different shapes and sizes. Some call for youth sizes and some call for adult sizes. But “Oh-holy-hell-I-don’t-want-to-risk-a-crappy time-for-my-kid-the-first-time-they-are-away-from-me-overnight-so-I-have-to-buy-the-right-sweatshirt-oh-crap-what-if-its-too-big-and-looks-like-a-dress-on-them-but-I-have-to-buy-the-one-with-strings-because-what-if-the-other-kids-make-fun-of-my-kid-and-I’m-not-there-to-help-and-oh-shit-what-do-I-do-I-need-to-have-strings-in-the-red-sweatshirt!!!” It is so clear to me that this manic worry about the right sweatshirt comes from an abundance of love and care; from the schools to the parents – no one has anything other than generous intentions. I’m actually so grateful for this dilemma, because it has allowed me to see something in myself that I did not necessarily want to see.

The implied message in the red sweatshirt string proposal is, “You Must Fit In.” What may be true for you, doesn’t really matter. Happiness is in doing it right. Show up with the right clothes. Avoid being an outlier at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t embarrass me.

But when we talk “about” raising kids, parenting kids, teaching kids, don’t we do just the opposite? Don’t we preach “you be you”? Don’t we talk about creativity and following your dream and “it doesn’t matter what they say!”? In our generosity of love and care, adults can confuse the crap out of things.

The red sweatshirt strings have become a metaphor for me. I use it. Not in judgment, but as a point of reflection and a way of asking myself, “What are my red sweatshirt strings?”. Even more profound in the metaphor, is the fact that all six (+) sweatshirts purchased for my family lost the sweatshirt strings as soon as they were put through the wash (yes, I bought the “right”sweatshirts for all of them!).

First, with my kids: Where do I send them mixed messages? I can tell you that I teach them about being kind and loving, but then I may try to connect with them by gossiping about someone. Or I might encourage them to do whatever makes them happy, but then hover over them to make sure that their “happy” fits into my expectations for them. I may even offer “you be you” but “you” better also be “me”.

And then, with myself: Where am I so afraid that if it doesn’t happen perfectly, I feel like my life might fall apart? Where am I holding the reigns so tightly that I don’t allow for an opening of experience or a surrender of results? What fears keep me trying to control every detail instead of relaxing and simply noticing what actually is as the process unfolds? And even more so, where do I engage in frenetic activity, instead of just sitting and noticing what I feel?

The red sweatshirt strings have offered me a checkpoint to pull me back and put space between the thought and what actually leaves my mouth. When I feel my body tighten, or my heart race, or my brain race, I know that the red sweatshirt strings are being activated. I know that I need to put them through the wash. Get rid of them by doing any number of things. I know I need to check in with myself. I know I need to return to the present and notice what is and choose how I want to respond. My wake-up call to the red sweatshirt strings is my awareness that I am trying to control the outcome of something that I have absolutely no control over. It’s that frantic speech pattern of worry and decision and control and “what if?”. And then I need to put the damn sweatshirt through the wash.

When I blog, I blog for me. Not for the reader. I guess that somewhere inside, I am worried about the outcome of something. Instead of yelling at my family, tuning out on social media, manically engaging in activity around my house, I’m going to sit. Notice. Breathe. And see what shows up. And I guess at that point, I’d better be ready to do some laundry.

The Enlightened Summer

If you could see me now. Well, thanks to modern technology, you actually can. And I’ll attach a few more pictures, too. Why on earth should anyone care about seeing pictures of me? Well, it starts with me, right? Leadership starts with the one practicing leadership. I am a coach, coaching leaders, students, young adults…..for the most part in designing their futures and in facilitating the growth of those around them. I sat down today in my “office of the day” and felt compelled to share what I’ve learned this summer about designing my life with the intention of feeling happy more often. And its only July. Can’t wait to see what else I get to learn this summer!

First and foremost, it starts with me. My coaching is so much more effective if I am leading from a place of practice. I need to wholeheartedly believe that transformation is possible, that like me, while my clients are perfect exactly as they are, there is always room for growth. I am ineffective if I am not doing all I can to live authentically, to operate from a place of choice, and to take responsibility for all that I want. From this place, I am prepared to hold the space for others while they do the same. My work with others continually reinforces this for me – I get to look at what holds me back, where I lean into my strengths, and how my perspective towards a situation, which I alone choose, can completely alter the course of that situation. The leaders I coach have shown me time and time again, the difference between a perspective of “It can’t happen,” and “It can’t happen yet.” Our work together reminds me to practice these principals in my own life, first and foremost for my own benefit, but clearly to shift my impact in the world, as well. So in setting my intention to have a more conscious awareness of feeling happy, I also hold the belief that it is, without question, possible for me.

Q: What challenges are your direct reports, your coworkers, your partner or your children calling you forth to look at in yourself?

Quincy Market, Boston

Something is always possible. I could have said, “no”. I could have said, “I’m too busy.” I could have stopped scheduling clients for the summer. I could have said, “I can’t.” All of which would have been ok. Truly. And all would have been honest responses. But if I have things I want in this life {read: a more conscious feeling of happiness}, I need to look at what I am willing to work for. I need to look at what my personal responsibility is towards moving in that direction. When it feels like there are so many things, seemingly outside of my control, keeping me from working towards an intention or goal (in my case, it is generally a pull of desire to put both feet into my home life and both feet into my work life except that I only have two feet, as well as a magnetic pull towards blaming others for any dissatisfaction I feel), I need to hold a belief that possibilities always exist; even the ones I did not know existed. From time to time, I coach someone who says, “Well, I couldn’t {insert whatever action they designed from our last session} because {insert whatever got in the way}.” Examples of this have included “look for a job because my internet was down,” “reach out to that client because I didn’t want to bother them over the holiday week,” and “talk to my boss because she has been working from home and has not been to the office.” So I ask, “What would have to happen for you to be able to say, “I did my best to… {insert the action they designed}. Inevitably, the client comes up with something that they could have taken responsibility for. In these three examples, the responses were, “gone to the library or used my phone,” “cut through my own BS and been honest with myself that I wasn’t calling because the call was causing me angst,” and “called my boss and asked to talk on the phone or at least made an appointment,” respectively. When they felt stuck, they stopped moving but when prompted, all three easily came up with something else they could have done. Maybe conscious happiness can’t be my primary emotion 100% of the time, but where can I take responsibility to create it to improve on my current percentage?

Q: What would change in your life if, at the end of each day, you were able to say, “Today I did my best to {insert the action you’ve designed for yourself},”?

When I clear away the noise, what I want is often within reach. So this brings me to today. My epiphany. I sat down, on the second floor of Faneuil Hall, computer and work bag in hand, and looked around me. I couldn’t believe, that for the second time in one week, I was breath-taken with the beauty of my “office”. My daughter and her friend were doing some shopping and I had work to do. Writing this blog was not the work I had to do but I could not help myself. Suddenly, sharing this with you felt imminently important. Not long ago, I would have been angry at myself and the world for having to choose between taking these girls into Boston and getting my work done. I would have made up a story about how hard my life is and how unfair it is and the self pity would have taken me directly to the refrigerator or to my bed, or worse, to raging about all of the demands put on me. My daughter would have felt awful for causing my tantrum, the mood of the house would have changed, and I would have felt self-righteous and then, if I was lucky, much later I would have been able to see the error of my ways…which would have only led to shame. When I think back on this past year, I realize that when faced with what could be a conflict, before I head to the proverbial cheesecake or 100 year slumber, I have learned to do a quick inventory of the situation. I get honest. I clear the noise of self-pity or resentment or “I’m too busy” and say, “What is possible here?” I put space between my feeling and my reaction. And from here, I get to fully enjoy both my work and my home. I get to joyfully choose the direction I take. And I get to take full responsibility for that choice.

Q: What becomes possible when you put a tiny bit of space between your initial thought and what you actually say out loud?

oceanside

Just last night I met someone who, while lovely, was clearly skeptical of life coaching. She learned I was a coach and started asking questions about my practice and the people I coach. She offered up her belief that coaching is just a fad and went on to say, “Work is work for a reason. No one cares if you are happy or not.” As you can imagine, there were several thoughts that came to my mind, but what I said was, “What if it is possible to have both?”

Maybe that is what ignited my thinking today. I never want to be limited by a belief that the social norms don’t allow for me to get what I want in whatever area of my life I feel called to work. This summer, I’ve been called to work on my own life satisfaction {read: happiness}. Happiness is not an emotion reserved for someone else. I don’t so much care if you care if I am happy. I do care if I am happy. And I would argue that those who interact with me care if I’m happy {see #3 above}. My happiness has a ripple effect on those who live with me, those who are close to me, and maybe even those with whom I work. With this ripple effect as a backdrop, I hold a belief that the world would be a better place if more people spent more time (work, home, recreational, etc.) feeling happy. And for today, I’ll hold the possibility for the lovely woman I met last night.

 

Showing up for myself: A lesson in how knowing myself changes how I show up for what’s tough.

Trust. It’s such a tricky word. Nothing evokes fear in me like that word. And yet, when I can fully and wholly relax into trust….wait. Let’s face it, I’m not sure I can. But I know I have. So what was different between then and now?

As I write, I am aware that I like to think I trust in the Universe, trust in a higher power, trust in the goodness of the world to take care of me and my loves, I am also aware that I generally have a Plan B. If God doesn’t come through for me, I can always take the wheel. Even in the acknowledgement of this, my heart is racing, I feel edgy, and I really have no peace.

What is that all about? What influences my ability to trust in the Universe? Self care. When I am off the beam – not taking care of myself – all of these fears rise to the top. It is like carbonation bubbling up to the surface and disrupting my peaceful, smooth surface (if you know me, you know that there is very little on the outside that says “peace”, but really, I do feel it on the inside!). Self care looks different for all of us. It took me years to know what self care was for me. I remember thinking self care meant having a giant Snickers at 4:00 every day because “my body was telling me” I needed a Snickers and “we should trust in the wisdom of our bodies,” after all. Horseshit. Other things I played with were staying in my PJs all weekend (pre-kids), drinking, and “girl time”, which always seemed to translate into “gossip time” and I never, ever felt good afterwards. You want to see someone robbed of any chance at peace? Put them in Pj’s for a weekend (after their Friday afternoon Snickers – and not the little “fun” size and not even the grocery aisle size – these were GINORMOUS Snickers), give them lots of alcohol (and whatever other substance or food will help them to “know” they are responding to their body’s wisdom), and let them talk for hours with friends about other friends. Oh yes…and I was probably listening to some depressing music like The Cranberries or the soundtrack from Reality Bites. But I digress….

After lots of work and willingness to give up what I think I know for something I truly know (that word “trust” implied again), it is clear to me what it means to take care of myself. I don’t want the details to muck up the message, so I’ll share that for me, it involves exercise, some sort of spiritual practice, and the right food. It involves fully honoring values that I have discovered are important for me to honor in order for my insides to match my outsides. It involves living in resonance and relaxing into what “is” so that I can know how I feel and acknowledge those feelings (the hard ones are usually fear and embarrassment) in some way, shape or form. Things seem lighter and my attachment to them – my white-knuckled grip – begins to loosen.

So back to trust. I have recently had some “stuff” going on that requires me to rely heavily on the Universe because I am so incredibly powerless over the outcome, that I had to get into a place where I could trust that I, and those who are deep in these weeds with me, would be taken care of. I had to let go of my grip on controlling the outcome and find the trust so that I could surrender the results and trust that the right thing would happen. So what did I do? I took walks. I took care of my food. And my spiritual practice involved writing and a whole heck of a lot of “Lead me, guide me, show me the way.” To the outside world, the “stuff” in my life would have allowed me to say “not enough time”, “x, y, z needs to be taken care of,” and “don’t indulge yourself, you are too busy and need to fix this problem.” But I knew, in some very profound place, that I needed to continue to take care of my body and my soul or I would be useless to those relying on me. Was I afraid? Hells yes. Was it paralyzing? No. Not when I was taking care of myself.

Am I still afraid? Admittedly, yes, fear pops up. It’s here today but as I write (read: spiritual practice) it is subsiding. I’m not in the depths of it, necessarily, but I am still in it. And, ya’ know what? I haven’t been taking care of myself. I’ve been working a lot and making excuses for not getting outside or writing or having meaningful conversations with those I trust. Those are the things that feed me. And the carbonation is rising. It’s actually already risen. I can feel the bubbles disrupting the surface of my being. So I start with writing — here at least — and I make sure I get some exercise today. I have lots on my plate so I will ask for help so that I can do what I need to do to not feel that heart-racing, edgy (and let’s face it – irritable) feeling. And by tonight, my trust will return. My peace will be back. Everyone around me will benefit. And I’ll start all over again tomorrow.

What are you facing today, this week, this month that makes you call into question your ability to trust? Is it your high school senior choosing their next phase? A problem in a relationship that needs attention but your fear is keeping you from addressing it? A health concern of yours or someone you love?

Now ask yourself: “How am I taking care of myself?”

“How am I living in resonance today?”

“Does what I know to be true on my insides – my values, my soul-
speak, my core beliefs about who I am – match what I project on the
outside?”

If the answer is no, stop thinking. Just do it. Do the next right thing. Do whatever it is that you know of (and you do know), that points your attention to caring for yourself. See what happens to that situation that causes you to question your trust. Trust that you are being taken care of. Trust that the next right thing will be revealed to you. Trust in the process. And trust that you and your loves will be fundamentally well. As you do, I trust that your grip on it all will loosen and you will start to feel peace. As you do, maybe nothing other than you will change, but that’s the exact right place for it all to start. I’d love to hear how it goes.