Why We're More Productive When We Have Less Time

Q:  What's your take on laziness?  Is it an epidemic or what?  I once had a discussion with my friend about how we are less productive when we are less busy, if that makes sense.  For example, when we have a full schedule with deadlines, requests to fulfill, appointments, assignments, etc., we find ways to make it all happen.  Then, when we finally get "free time" to accomplish all the things we've been wanting to do for ourselves, like go to yoga, workout, clean, blog, etc., we don't end up doing much of those things at all!  There is no one but ourselves to hold us accountable for those things, which makes it all the more difficult to get it done with any urgency. - Isabel Gomez, @izzygomez A: You're definitely onto something with your observation, Isabel. You should see my low productivity in the summertime when I'm not teaching - I often fail to even make it to the grocery store!

Why would less time make us more productive? Because it stresses us out - in a good way.

We need good stress (eustress) to perform optimally, according to the Yerkes-Dodson law. Not enough stress and we're like sacks of potatoes on the couch. Too much and we're a bundle of ulcer symptoms.

But I think there's more to the "laziness epidemic" than a lack of stress. In fact, it's just the opposite. It all comes down to an improper understanding our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone." (It's not as scary as it sounds - promise!)

Get Your Time Crunch On

Before we dig into the laziness issue, let's get clear on our Optimal Time Crunch Zone by extending the Yerkes-Dodson law to "Time Crunch Status," as shown in this image I created.

Optimal_Time_Crunch_ZoneIt demonstrates that we need to be somewhat time crunched to be optimally productive.

Too much time on our hands is a recipe for getting nothing done - and too little time is exactly the same!

The big question is, how much time crunch is "too much" and how much is "not enough"?

How to Find Your Optimal Time Crunch Zone

What feels like a ton of free time to me (a whole HOUR today?!?) may feel like nothing to you - or vice versa. So we have to do some trial-and-error to find what amount of free time works best for each of us.

We can do that totally randomly. Or, if you're a dork like me, you can be a bit more strategic about the process, say, like this:

  1. Identify your current Time Crunch Status.
    1. Signs of low Time Crunch Status = not bothering to do the things you want to be doing (e.g., the blogging, going to yoga and cleaning that you mention, Isabel), fatigue, lack of motivation
    2. Signs of high Time Crunch Status = irritability, forgetfulness, exhaustion, missing deadlines, physical ailments like headaches and digestive issues (all sorts of fun!)
    3. Signs of being in the Optimal Time Crunch Zone = You aren't worrying about this issue at all! Things are just flowing.


  2. Jot down your Time Crunch Status AND how many hours a day, on average, you currently have "free" (i.e., the hours you get to fully determine what you're doing).
    • Put these notes somewhere you can refer back to them months - or even years - later.


  3. If you're not currently in your Optimal Time Crunch Zone, tinker with your Time Crunch Status.
    • For low Time Crunch Status:  try adding a bit more requirements to your day, such as by taking on a volunteer position.
      • Notice I said "adding a BIT more" - I've seen many students take this too far too fast, passing right by the Optimal Time Crunch Zone into danger territory. I must admit I did this at the start of my first few semesters of college:  workload felt so light during the first two or three weeks that I signed up for a ton of activities so that I didn't have so much free time. I'm sure you can imagine what happened to me by midterms. Ugly.
    • For high Time Crunch Status: Uh, yea. This one is difficult and I'm no master here. In theory, we should list everything we have on our plate, prioritize that list based on what each brings into our lives (both extrinsically and intrinsically), and then pare off the bottom items one by one until we hit our Optimal Time Crunch Zone. In practice...uh, yea.
  4. Continue to tweak and keep track until you see your personal pattern emerging. Then you'll know what's too little free time for you - and how many hours is too much!
    • In my experience, this "need for time crunch" remains remarkably stable over time. When I think to my friends from high school, I can think of some people who LOVE to be crunched to an extent I couldn't stand, and others who wouldn't want to endure my pace. Although just about everything else about us has changed in 20 years (good bye frizzy hair!), our individual Optimal Time Crunch Zones haven't moved much at all.

The Scoop on "Laziness"

To return to your initial question, "What's your take on laziness? Is it an epidemic?" I'll start by saying that I don't believe "laziness" is an innate characteristic, per se.

Although Peter from Office Space claims he'd "do nothing" if he never had to work again, I don't believe him. Nobody is that inherently "lazy." All humans have stimulus motives, which make us feel horrendous if we're not stimulated "enough."

Instead, I believe "laziness" arises from a lack of understanding of our Optimal Time Crunch Zone.

And, yes, it's an epidemic. We're a culture so obsessed with being busy, we experience tons of burnout that LOOKS like laziness.

In other words, we operate so far above our Optimal Time Crunch Zone for so long that when we finally get a moment to chill out, our bodies scream for us to STOP. Completely! Then we berate ourselves for not getting anything done.

Pretty ridiculous.

Once we get clear on our Optimal Time Crunch Zone, however, we know precisely how much we need on our plates to feel productive and energized. THEN we can work on breaking the "overly busy/overly tired" cycle by respecting our needs.

The "respect" part is what I'm still very much working on. My strategy? Intentionally spending time around people who operate in their Optimal Time Crunch Zone on a regular basis.

That's the best we can do, I think:  become aware of our patterns, look for healthy models to help us break those patterns, and forgive ourselves when we (inevitably) slip up.

One hour at a time.

Thanks for the great question!

What's your take on time crunch and "laziness"? How do you find the healthy balance between being stressed and being bored?

Do you have a question about work, careers, finding your path in your twenties, identity, or what you should eat for dinner? Wait, not that last one. But if you have any other questions, pop them my way @WorkingSelf or I may not know the answer, but I'll grapple around in my experiences and research to help us puzzle through it together. If your Q is published, I'll send you a free e-coaching session on values!

The Hidden Barrier: Fear of Success


Admit to someone that you have a fear of failure and they nod their head in empathy. Speak of your fear of success, though, and you usually get a puzzled expression in return. It's a reaction I honestly don’t understand for when I look around - and within – me, I see fear of success everywhere.

It’s in the student who shows every sign of being a gifted musician yet chooses biology as his major.

It’s in the employee who hangs back in the workplace, convinced he's too inexperienced/busy/uncreative/overqualified/tired/out-of-the-loop to contribute more.

It's in the person who hides behind cynicism and sarcasm, drowning in thoughts like "work is just a paycheck" and "the life I'd once imagined for myself was a kid's fantasy."

It’s in the individual who dreams of having tens of thousands of people experience her writing who, after 5,000 people read one of her heartfelt articles, stops writing altogether.

That last one? That would be me.

My Personal Retreat From Desired Achievement

I’ve disappeared for the past few weeks, ever since my first publication in elephant journal not only hit my lofty goal of 1500 views but tripled it. Thankfully my vanishing act conveniently coincided with the holiday season and hopefully went unnoticed. (See what I did there? <wink> I’m wicked savvy at masking my fear of success.)

There's a back story to my predictable retreat from (rather small yet large to me) exposure:  When I started the blog that morphed into this website one year ago today (today!), I set it to “private” for the first three weeks. I couldn’t handle the idea of anyone reading my thoughts.

Once I finally “released” the blog to public status, I nearly had a coronary when my stats revealed that three people had visited – on a day that I hadn’t stopped by myself (and thus couldn’t provide myself with comforting self-delusions about my visits counting).

That was me a year ago. Utterly scared that if I put my heart’s work out there, it might actually <gasp> be well received.

Which is a bit silly because in my days writing as the Child Development Contributing Writer for I got tens of thousands of hits on my articles every single month. That was “success,” wasn’t it? And I withstood that without a blink.

Yet the experience felt removed from me. They weren’t “my” thoughts laid out in pixels. They weren’t “my” passions laid bare. They didn’t represent “my” dream being buoyed or crushed.

Those articles were assignments, plain and simple.

And herein lies the telltale characteristic of fear of success, a feature that masks its existence from its very owner:  the closer an activity lies to your core desires, the greater your likelihood of stepping back when even a whiff of success comes your way. 

Which means we can accept many accomplishments, making it seem to ourselves and to others like we have no fear of success.

All As? No problem. A nationally competitive graduate fellowship? No sweat. Glowing teaching evaluations? Pshaw.

But put my genuine words out there – words plucked from the ephemeral fog I created in the still, private mornings during the five years I journaled and wrote never-submitted essays and crafted a book proposal that only graced the pupils of select agents’ eyes? Then I back down. Full force.

So today I’m coming out and saying it:  doing well at the endeavor I care about most scares me five hundred times more than doing poorly.

And I believe I’m not alone.

Rare is the person who can look the full glare of desired accomplishment in the face and not flinch.

Why We Fear Success

There should be no shame in this admittance (yet there is…) for when you lay out the reasons for a fear of success, it’s enough to make someone (me…) say, “hey, who wouldn’t be afraid?!”

  • Anxiety and excitement feel physiologically similar, so many of us avoid the excited feeling of success. Psychologist Susanne Babbel claims this may be particularly true for people who have endured traumas. I’d suggest, though, that anyone who is tuned into their bodily reactions and internal states may become overwhelmed by the similarity, which puts introverts at risk.
  • We’re afraid of getting disappointed, which is related to the vulnerability issue of “foreboding joy” about which I recently wrote.
  • We’re privately uncomfortable with making others feel “lesser than.” We all claim we want to be king of the mountain, but many of us only want that if it means there's no one beneath us in the valley. Judith Shervan believes the “fear of being fabulous” comes from a commandment “to not break out beyond where you came from, to not really leave home.” She asserts that we have all been subjected to this, in some way, shape or form. I love the quotation by Marianne Williamson on this topic, which Nelson Mandela chose for his inaugural speech. It begins:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
  • We secretly believe we don’t deserve success. The imposter syndrome is in full effect for many of us. Check out this dusty article from the Working Self vault for more on the topic.
  • We fear the flipside of success. In one of the few times that I shared my fear of success aloud, I told the listening friend that I feared that I would be swept to the top of a wave – and then be left to fall down its face. It's a valid fear:  artists and musicians often do experience the sophomore slump. The self-consciousness that comes with accomplishment blocks attempts at pure creation, resulting in work that is tepid, uninspired, and “safe.” A la countless second albums. 
  • We don’t want to be criticized. When did I know that this website was getting into a good number of people’s hands? When I received my first negative comment. (Given that there aren’t too many negative comments to be found on this site, you know that “a good number of people’s hands” still means “few relative to other websites.”) It’s generally true that the more eyes, the greater the possibility for criticism. Thus fear of success links closely with fear of failure, making it difficult to tease the two apart.
  • We don’t want to feel exposed. There is no more naked feeling than saying, “Hey world, this is what I genuinely care about. This is what I truly want. This is what I'd sacrifice most anything to have.” It’s basically announcing, “Here’s the A-prime, this-can-be-my-undoing, defenseless spot on my body! And I’m not even going to attempt to protect it!” Yikes. Easier to hide behind cynicism, skepticism, and/or a self-deceiving veneer of “I have no clue what I want” than do this. Note I said easier. Not better.

How We Combat Fear of Success

With all that working against us, what can we do?

We can battle fear of success by doing what we’re doing right here:  naming it, calling it out, recognizing it in ourselves.

For when fear of success remains hidden to ourselves, it acts as plexiglas barrier between us and the work we need to be doing.

And then, once spoken, we march on.

We accept Williamson’s pronouncement:  “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.”

We admit our genuine desires aloud and find ways of dealing with the ripple (or crush) of anxiety that follows.

We ride the wave of achievement even though we know it will inevitability buck us at the end.

We create as if no one is watching.

We build, in sum, the very life we’re afraid of living. Because we know, deep down, that a life lived in fear trumps a life lived in denial.

Photo credit: ecstaticist

The Vulnerability of Growing Up


Today I'd simply like to share the preceding quotation with you. I discovered it in Brene Brown's terrific book Daring Greatly:  How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. If you haven't read it, now's the time. Truly.

In the spirit of vulnerability, I will say that this I'm keeping this post quotation-centered because that's all I can muster at the moment.

Over the past week I drafted two full-length posts but when I read them this morning, they simply didn't ring true.

They sounded like someone trying to sound like she knows what she's talking about.

The reality is, life is a process of trial and error. It's a deep, all-encompassing, often-frightening foray into questions that only you can answer for yourself.

Which begs the question, what can I say on Working Self that you can't discover for yourself? What can I write that hasn't already been said by countless life coaches and self-proclaimed personal growth gurus? What can I offer that truly enables us all to transcend the platitudes and wrestle with the messy stuff, side by side, one seeker next to another?

I believe in my core that community and reading and research can help us grapple with possible answers.

I know in my gut that the blogosphere was created for just this purpose - not for making money off of ads and affliliates or spouting more cliches or self-promoting ad nauseum.

And I know beyond all other knowledges that I'm here to help others discover the work they're meant to do, and to walk beside them as they finally get down to doing it, lest that work never be done.

Yet translating that into a website? <sigh> Hard stuff.

I'll be giving this place a facelift soon, and I want a contentlift to accompany it.

I just don't know how.

(Sheesh, no wonder I can't write any more!)

So here's my vulnerable moment:  I'm scared I may never be able to fully do the work I'm meant to do. I'm afraid I'll squander this prime opportunity to trigger the unfurling of others' great, important work. I'm terrified that I'll write for decades only to look back and discover that I did nothing to further the conversation, adding only more hollow words to the already overloaded information explosion.

Maybe that's precisely will happen.

Life has no guarantees.

But I'm determined to keep writing all the same. One word at a time.

And with each word, I'll thank you for continuing reading. We can grow more vulnerable together.

In what ways have you become more vulnerable as you've gotten older? 

(PS - Since I know how amazingly supportive this community of readers is, I want to head you off by saying that I'm sincerely not fishing for compliments. I realize that the standard I hold myself to may be higher than what others may expect from me. In some domains this may be problematic, but on this blog I think it's reasonable:  you're worth as much. And more.)

Are You Getting Frustrated Productively?


What do you do when you're frustrated? Not sure? Then consider what you'd do in the following situation:

Last week you had an interview for your dream job. I'm talking, the job so perfect you couldn't have created it if it had been pulled straight from your imagination. The interview went amazingly well - you clicked with the panelists, your answers were spot-on, and you could see in the panelists' eyes that you'd synched it.

Problem is, you haven't heard from them since.

The phone finally rings. It's the Head of HR at Dream Company. "Sorry," she says. "We're unable to offer you a job at this time. There were many outstanding applicants and rest assured that our inability to offer you a job is not a reflection on your qualifications. We hope you'll consider applying again in the future."

After you hang up, what do you do?

A) Think, "Oh well. Whatever. I didn't want that job anyway." Then sit down and watch Netflix for hours on end.

B) Immediately start sobbing. Then keep sobbing. Then sob every time you recount the outcome to friends, family, or the random woman buying grapes beside you in the market.

C) March out to your roommate and scream, "They don't want me?! Who do they think they are, not wanting me? I'll show them! One day I'll be the biggest news since Miley's foam finger and they'll be sorry. Really, really sorry." After yelling, you feel better, although a glowing ember of anger remains in your core.

So which one is you?

And which response do you think is the healthiest?

If you answered C to both questions, your future is in good shape. If not, read on!

What We Learn By Frustrating Babies

My first paid job in my twenties was frustrating babies. I'm not kidding. (See? Your job could be worse.)

I was literally paid to talk moms into bringing their 4-month-old sweethearts into a laboratory so that I could make said sweethearts mind-numbingly, red-face-screamingly frustrated.

I did this by teaching the bambinos how to turn on a picture by pulling a string...and then, once they'd learned it, making the picture and music not turn on when they wanted it to.

After the families left - oddly cheerful because I gave them a bib in exchange for the crying - I got to watch videos of the babies' screaming faces in super slow-motion for the rest of my work day.

While it may sound like I was involved in some uber-sketchy torture ring, this was in fact valid and valuable research conducted at The Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

And what we learned from the research could change your life.

Three Ways of Responding to Being Frustrated

When we watched the videos, we noticed that the babies who got MAD when frustrated had the most productive behavior. Their tiny faces contorted into anger expressions - eyebrows knitted, mouth in a square, nose wrinkled - and they pulled the crap out of the string for minutes on end, determined to make things go their way.

The babies who got sad simply gave up. They sat there like limp little blobs, the string dangling flacidly, their only motion being intense, racking tears. (We often had to stop the study session early to relieve these kiddos - and their distraught moms.)

Notably, not a single baby became emotionless, the way many adults do when frustrated. That's because apathy is a learned response. It's a defense mechanism consisting partly of repression ("I'm not upset") and rationalization ("I couldn't care less about that job anyway.") Babies don't do this sort of thing. Since it's so unnatural, we shouldn't either. It's no wonder repression has been linked to many physical ailments, including high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, and diabetes.

How To Best Respond When Frustrated

The bad news is, your response to frustration is probably largely innate. Hence why 4-month-olds showed different patterns; it was inborn.

The good news is that you can fight what's innate.

Simply having the knowledge that anger results in better outcomes than sadness and apathy can enable you to make the choice to go against your first impulses.

I'm not saying not to express your sadness if that's what you're feeling. Go ahead and express it. But then move the heck on.

Get pissed. Rile up the works. Shake a few limbs.

Force yourself to channel that sadness - a passive emotion - into anger - an active one.

Whatever you do, don't go off into a corner and cry for days. Or weeks. Or months.

How Frustration Response Relates to The Twenties

In the years since frustrating babies for a living, I've watched countless twentysomethings relive the frustration patterns time and again.

No shocker there:  the twenties are inherently frustrating times. In a very real way, they're like having a picture that used to show up when you pull a string suddenly start to show up randomly, or not at all.

To be sure, all of adult life has its frustrations. But it's in our twenties when we first learn we're not in control the way we used to be. Which is hella frustrating:

You used to do all your homework and receive verbal praise from everyone around you. Now you do all your work in the office and the niece of the boss/the blowhard/the socialite gets all the praise.

You used to put your best foot forward in a class presentation and earn an A. Now you prep like crazy for an interview and get a "no thank you" in response.

You used to have many ways to pursue your interests:  picking college classes you liked, choosing paper topics that resonated with you, doing extracurriculars that lit you on fire. Now you're spending your days doing what's dictated to you, and you don't have the time or energy to pursue your own interests when the day of dictation ends.

In short, the twenties are about adjusting to having the rug pulled out from under you.

Are you gonna cry about it, or are you gonna get up and weave a new rug?

The angry babies, they'd do the latter.

And I'd highly suggest you do, too.

Because the twentysomethings I've seen get angry, they're the ones who are actively creating the lives they desire.

The ones who are crying and withdrawing? They're working the crappy jobs and lamenting that their adult lives will never be what they imagined.

So what's it gonna be?

It's your choice.

Now I want to know:  How do you typically respond to frustration? What are you going to do differently going forward? Write your answer in the comments below!

Ready to get riled up? There's no better way to make constructive use of your anger than by getting clear on your vision for your life, setting goals based on that vision, and making a plan to get what you want.

Let's work together to turn your anger into action!

Check out my coaching page for details. September slots are going fast!

Embrace Your Pain

The following guest post was written by Nick at A Young Pro. Nick is a recent college graduate trying to find his way in the crazy corporate world. He is a happy husband, a proud father, and he blogs about Career, Personal Finance, and Millennial Life. As a 20something edging ever closer to becoming a 30something (full disclosure: I’m 28), I can’t help but engage in increasingly frequent bouts of self-reflection. I consider my late 20s to be a perfect time to analyze both what I have done well, and what I have done not-so-well to this point in my life.

No Train No Gain Sign

One concept that I have become intrigued by lately is “growth”. In my early “adult” life I struggled to grow. I moved away from my parent’s home when I was 18 years old to attend college, only to move back home when I was 18 ½ years old, having flunked my first semester resulting in a lost scholarship. I spent the next several years working low-paying jobs, living with my parents, not growing at all. I was in a holding pattern and I didn’t know how to break out of it. I’d like to think that my situation is not all that uncommon. I believe many young people struggle to learn how to move on to the next phase of their lives. I want to teach you an important concept I recently learned. Something that can help you learn from the struggles of your early adult life and grow into the next phase of your life.

I have been reading a book lately entitled “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth”, written by John C. Maxwell. As I reflect back on my early adulthood, one law in particular sticks out to me. It is law #8, entitled “The Law of Pain”. The Law of Pain states that “good management of bad experiences leads to great growth”. I didn’t realize it at the time but back then I had a lot of pain points, and instead of growing from them, my pain points were holding me back. Here are some of them:

  • The Pain of Accountability – I didn’t know how to take responsibility for my actions. I had a sense of entitlement about certain things and that caused me to fail most of my classes in college.
  • The Pain of Hard Work – I knew how to work, I just didn’t know that I knew how to work.
  • The Pain of Identity – My lack of self-awareness caused me to engage in activities for the wrong reasons (such as attending college). Because I often lacked the proper motivation, success was much harder to come by.
  • The Pain of Financial Incompetence – In my early 20s I had very little knowledge of personal finance. This caused me to get myself into debt, which I would have to claw my way out of eventually.

I could list more pain points, but I’m sure you get the point by now. I would even wager that many of you have similar items on your list as well. Mr. Maxwell points out three universal truths about bad experiences (pain). First, “everyone experiences them”. Second, “no one likes them”. Third, “few people make bad experiences positive experiences”.

The third point is what I really want to focus on here. Early on, I didn’t know how to learn from my mistakes. Mr. Maxwell seems to think that is more common than actually knowing how to learn from mistakes. Maybe you know, maybe you don’t. If you are a 20something reading this blog there is a good chance that you are more self-aware than most of your peers; there is also a good chance that you frequently make mistakes (I hear the same can be said for 30somethings, 40somethings, and beyond). Can you imagine the power of harnessing those mistakes and turning them into your largest growth opportunities? If you are like me this concept gets you pretty excited. So how do we do that? Luckily Mr. Maxwell has some advice on the matter.

  1. Choose a Positive Life Stance – I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking. I can’t explain it, but good things happen when you have a positive attitude. If you learn to be positive through the bad experiences, clarity on what may have caused those situations comes much easier. I have found that a positive attitude helps me to recognize the lesson in my bad experiences.
  2. Embrace and Develop Your Creativity – I have a feeling Rebecca is a big believer in this one. Mr. Maxwell states “The people who make the most of bad experiences are the ones who find creative ways to meet them”.
  3. Embrace the Value of Bad Experiences – Growing as a result of bad experiences is a choice. You must decide that you are going to learn from your bad experiences.
  4. Make Good Changes After Bad Experiences – Once you have learned a lesson from your bad experience you must apply that lesson to your life and change your behavior.
  5. Take Responsibility for Your Life – Another personal favorite. No one is in charge of your growth but you. You decide you need/want to grow. You find the lessons to learn from your experiences. You make the changes in your life.

I leave you with this final quotation from Mr. Maxwell:

No matter what you have gone through in your life—or what you are currently going through—you have the opportunity to grow from it. It’s sometimes very difficult to see the opportunity in the midst of the pain, but it is there. You must be willing to not only look for it, but pursue it.

So get out there, face your pain, grow, and prosper!

We need pain to grow. (Photo credit: Peter Kudlacz)

The Upside of Rejection, Part III: Motivation Builder


Rejection as motivation builder? Am I smoking something? Yes rejection stinks. Worse than my daughter's diaper pail at the end of a hot summer week. I was reminded of this earlier in the week, when a plum job opportunity floated into our household, only to be booted out with an abrupt rejection. (Begging the question of whether it's possible to invite rejection by writing about it...)

There's nothing but pain in the Rejection Process. I totally get it. Too vividly at the moment.

BUT, after the pain, there's something more. Or at least I theorize that there is. If we do things right.

So I give to you, for the first time ever, an RFT Original Theory, presented in graphical form. (You've been breathlessly awaiting this day. Admit it.)

As you can see, I theorize the following:

  • Our motivation climbs from our typical, baseline level when we're working on applying to a job or graduate program (this may include the application itself, a round of interviews, requests to stand on your head, what-have-you).
  • We then sit at baseline for a while - sometimes a LONG while - waiting to hear our fate. (The fingernails dwindle into nothingness.)
  • Rejection hits! NOOOOOO! (To be said like Rachel on Friends.)
  • Despair, bitterness, hopelessness, a 5-pound weight gain borne completely of Pop Rocks and Slim Jims follows. (Why Slim Jims? Beats me.)
  • But here's the good part:  I strongly believe that once we get over the rejection, we not only can find a more authentic path and be open to serendipity - the topics of the first two posts of our rejection series - but we can also reach a NEW baseline level of motivation, such that we're more fueled than we were before the rejection.

To get that boost in motivation, though, we have to do two crucial things:

  1. Not ignore the rejection. We have to be willing to look the rejection in the face, think about what it means, and regroup with a plan that's true to ourselves and that intentionally compensates for any weaknesses exposed during the Rejection Process.
  2. Be open to looking everywhere but where you've been looking. In the early phase of the Rejection Process, we're so hyperfocused on one goal that we tend to forget to think about the goals that may be waiting for us in the absence of that particular goal. Clear as pond scum? Alright, let's try an example:  All of the rejections my hubby & I have faced in the recent past have been freeing up tons of time for the goal I'm most fascinated by - and most afraid of:  making a real go of building this blog into a fully-functioning business, complete with freebies like live, no-pitch, kick butt webinars; email newsletters chock full of useful stuff; and blog posts that deliver valuable content readers can USE; alongside paid products like expanded coaching services, e-books, and online courses, such as on the topic Should I Go to Grad School? Sometimes rejection is the very thing we need to keep a dream alive. Especially a dream that we'd love to run from. Bottomline:  At times we're our own worst enemies and we may be rejected so that we get our heads screwed on straight and finally get down to our real work.

And that's that. All the thoughts I've ever had about rejection. And then some. As we wrap up our rejection series, I want to hear your closing thoughts on rejection. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? What do you still want to know?

Programming note:  Speaking of the anxiety-and-avoidance-inducing new website, this is the last time you'll hear from me before it launches on Monday the 24th. (Albeit a soft launch; I don't anticipate everything will be fully functional, but since it's just you guys and me at this point - i.e., my super-supportive seedling crew who have enabled me to dream big - I can totally handle that.) This site will have posts next week, though, before the changeover occurs:  two awesome guest posts by twentysomethings! I hope you enjoy them.

See you on the other side of my fear!

The Upside of Rejection, Part II: A More Authentic Fit


Last time we discussed one benefit of being rejected from career-related opportunities:  making space for serendipity. Today we'll look at another upside I've experienced and observed:  how rejection allows - or perhaps forces? - us to find a path that is more authentic. Countless times I've seen my senior students chasing jobs or grad school paths that are, to the outside observer, awful fits for them. Sometimes it's due to an obsession with status, money, or impressing others, but even more often it's because they got stuck on a path that no longer matches their reality.

Upgrade Your Career Ideas

When we pick a field, we typically have a particular possible career path in mind. Problem is, this path is usually narrow, stereotypical, and not necessarily perfectly suited for us.


For instance, nearly every student who declares a psychology major says they're thinking of becoming a clinical psychologist. I did, too. But I'm not one. And neither are 85% of people who graduated as psychology majors.

This isn't because people are copping out. Well, maybe in some cases. But for the most part it's because as we get more exposure to a field, we learn about career paths we never even knew existed. And those paths, it turns out, may be a terrific fit for us.

The issue is that we often fail to update our ideas about possible careers when we get to the actual act of looking at job or grad school opportunities.

An Example of Rejection and Authenticity

For instance, after graduating, one of my students worked at a nonprofit doing textured, hands-on interventions for low-income families. She was generally happy in her work, but there was no room for growth so she decided to return to grad school after two years on the job.

Her decision to go to grad school was good. Her choice of grad program was, in a word, not.

PHD Comics

Unsurprisingly, she said she wanted to become a clinical psychologist. She'd said this since the day I met her. The thing is, she thought, behaved, and held the values of a social worker. So I told her so. But between status, parental expectations, income potential, and sheer momentum, the student stuck to her plan.

I supported her, of course, and helped her craft a personal statement to fit the intended path while rendering her experiences honestly. The resulting application packet was strong; she'd been an excellent student and it was clear she'd be skilled at anything she set her mind to. Still I worried that she would never be a great  psychologist- or, more importantly, a fulfilled one - because her heart wouldn't be  fully in the work.

Perhaps the grad programs felt the same way; all seven schools turned her down. When she told me about the rejections, she said she'd stay in her job for a year, retool her application packet, and submit to more clinical programs the next fall.

Over the course of that year, however, she did the hard work:  reflecting on her skills, interests, and values, and decoupling from her own and others' expectations for her. She realized that - lo and behold - she actually wanted to be a social worker. And when she finally applied to social work programs, they fell over each other trying to snatch her up. She has since made a rich, meaningful career in the field.

Don't Wait for Rejection to Find Your Authentic Fit

All in all, you can wait for the painful blow of rejections - or, more likely, rejectionS - to remind you to reevaluate your path, or you can be more proactive about it. My advice? Sidestep the pain. As much as we love to avoid introspection, isn't it worth sitting down every year and taking stock of your developing understanding of your field and where you see yourself fitting in if it'll save you a rejection (or two, or fifty-nine)?

New Year's is a good time for this annual "mental software upgrade," or set any anniversary that's personally meaningful to you. All that matters is that you stick to it.

And here's one less excuse:  when my new site ( launches on June 24th, you'll find a free little tool waiting there to guide you through the process.

With some proactive introspection, rejection doesn't have to be the wake up call to reconsider the path you're on. Though it could be worse; instead of being rejected from the wrong path, you could be accepted on it, only to wake up five, ten, fifteen years later and realize what a mistake it all was. You know, like I did.

On Friday we'll wrap up the rejection series with a discussion of motivation. See you there!

Every intro psych student thinks they'll be the next Freud. (And is it just me or does this Freud doll somehow evoke Abe Lincoln? Maybe that's Freudian of me...) (Photo credit: Ross Burton)

This is pretty funny. And true. In all seriousness, grad school can be the right path...just make sure you're going IN the right path. For you. (Photo credit: Taekwonweirdo)

The Upside of Rejection: Room for Serendipity


Over the past few months I've faced my fair share of career rejections. It's not so much that I'm being personally "rejected" as that the hobbled economy is drying up many of my freelance, writing, and teaching opportunities. But it sure as heck feels the same. I could take all of the "no's" to heart and feel utterly defeated. And at times I do.

But for the most part I'm oddly buoyed. I'm the crazy (annoying?) sort of person who thinks rejection has an upside. I'm not gonna go all "the mysteries of the universe" on you - totally not my style - but from the POV of an observer of tons of rejection (just watch senior college students job search...), experiencer of plenty of my own (read:  I'm a writer), and, as always, a consummate reader of the psych literature, I now offer you a 3-part series on rejection!

Today's lesson:  there may be serendipity lurking in that turn down.

Serendipity? Isn't That a Bit Woo-woo?

I promised no "mysteries of the universe" and I go talking about serendipity right off the bat?

Well, yes. Because even learned scholars believe that serendipity plays a substantial role in career development. For instance, eminent sociologist Harold Becker wrote, "‘Most of the things that happen to [people] happen ‘by accident'."

Corroboration #2:  at this year's Bates graduation, the panel discussion with the four graduation speakers was entitled "A Life of Purpose, A Life of Serendipity." If my buttoned-up academic institution can embrace the notion, anybody can.

What Serendipity Is and Why it MattersSerendipity (film)

So let's get down to brass tacks about serendipity. And I'm not talking about some tooty fruity chick flick that I pretend to hate but freakishly adore. Serendipity is happenstance or - to reinstate my academic cred after that embarrassing admission -  "unplanned or unpredictable events," according to researchers Betsworth and Hansen.

In other words, serendipity accounts for the ways we can't plan every step of our path; sometimes a well-timed offer shapes the road we follow. And it happens for many of us:  one study found that 64% of men and 57% of women believed that a serendipitous event played a role in their career.

Serendipitous job matching in particular refers to "situations where routine social interaction unexpectedly leads to opportunities in the labour market."

In other words, one way to think of rejections is as "room for serendipity." Rejections leave you available for opportunities that may suddenly present themselves and for which you could never have planned.

My Fave Example of Serendipity at Work

Here's the classic example I share with my all of downtrodden, rejected students (who, by and large, happen upon an amazing opportunity within weeks of the rejection):  Not long after we moved to Maine, my husband got his first-ever interview for a coaching position, assisting a cross country team at a local high school. We were in our early 20s and this opportunity was BIG TIME - my hubby has been running since we was 8 years old and had been dreaming of coaching for just about as long. We prepped him well for the interview, sent him off all dudded up, and he came back confident and enthusiastic.

Until the call came in two days later:  no job for him.


He was crushed. To put it mildly.

About a week later, he ran into one of his college professors in a store. The prof, who happened to be the cross country coach at the small private college, relayed his frustration at not being able to find a decent Assistant Coach for the upcoming season. TA DA! Since my husband hadn't been offered the other coaching position, he was able to say, "I'm available." And so began a wonderful new job - coaching at a college?! - that made the original opportunity pale in comparison.

The Secret to Making This Work

A pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream

The only way rejection can serve as "room for serendipity," however, is if you let it. In other words, you have to bounce back from the rejection quickly so that you can be attuned to those "routine social interactions" that lead to serendipitous events. You need to be out in the world, talking to people, living your life in order for this to work out. In common parlance:  not holed up gorging on Ben & Jerry's moaning that your life is over.

And that, my friends, is about as good a reason to bounce back from rejection as any I can muster.

That said, I'll muster two more (hey, why not?):  on Wednesday we'll talk about how rejections can allow for a more authentic fit, and on Friday we'll wrap up the series by viewing rejection as motivation.

In the meantime, tell me:  when has serendipity played a role in your life and/or career? Do you believe it is an important facet of career development?

Reminder:  We're switching over to our new site - - on Monday, June 24th! I'm busy moving every pixel and writing every word (in other words, don't get your hopes up TOO high!) and I'm very excited for what I'll be able to offer you all going forward. Those of you who subscribe to my brand new email newsletter will be entered in our first-ever giveaway, so be sure to hop on over in a couple of weeks and sign up!

Becker, H. S. (1994) ‘“Foi Por Acaso”: Conceptualizing Coincidence’, The Sociological Quarterly, 35, 183–194.
Betsworth, D. G. and Hansen, J. C. (1996) ‘The Categorization of Serendipitous Career Development Events’, Journal of Career Assessment, 4, 91–98.
McDonald, S. (2010). Right place, right time:  Serendipity and informal job matching. Socio-Economic Review, 8, 307-331.

The hubs with one of the many athletes he's coached over the years.

Step away from the pint. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Original Video: Passion, Work and Your 20s (A Corny Visual Guide)

I recently got myself involved in a challenge. Or, more appropriately, a dare. I'd been commenting back and forth with actor Steven Sparling, the blogger behind The Thriving Creative (if you haven't checked his site out, you're seriously missing out), and we got to challenging each other to make and post videos on our blogs. Within one week. His creation was posted promptly, had an inspiring message, and was delivered in a straightforward, engaging manner.

And me?

I took the full week to do it, got carried away with iMovie, and employed pipe cleaners and brown-painted styrofoam balls that, it turns out, look like meatballs on camera.

In other words, those posts I wrote about failure? That wasn't just lip service. Since I believe we only make progress by DOING something, here is my earnest fledgling effort. And the truth is I had an absolute blast making and editing this video. However silly it looks!

The video's topic:  My dear high school friend Allie (10-year-anniversary shout out!) forwarded along a story from NPR questioning whether passion is actually important to career. They were reporting on a blog post on Marginal Revolution, in which an Ivy League grad asks how to find a career if he doesn't have any passion.

Is passion needed for a fulfilling career? Watch my 5-minute video to find out (as if you can't guess my response!)


Have you tried making any YouTube or Vimeo videos? Would you like to try? I'll lay down the one-week gauntlet for you if you're so inclined! Feel free to post links in the comments.

PS - If you were watching closely, you probably spotted my new website address. Yes, we're moving! More details to come soon...Once I figure out how to use CSS. In other words, maybe never.

Who's In Your Rear-View Mirror?

Yesterday a large, black, Chevy truck rode right on my tail as I brought my daughter home from daycare. Even though I knew it was a cop-infested stretch of road, I found myself going 15 mph above the speed limit. Dodge Ram

Just ignore him, I kept telling myself, but every time I took my foot off the accelerator, he'd loom large in my rear-view mirror and I couldn't help but speed back up. When he finally turned, the release of tension was palpable. What that sound?, my toddler asked in response to my exhalation.

It was ridiculous. Some stranger in a car behind me could affect my actions that much? I was making the decisions about when to gas it and when to brake. Why did it feel like he was the one dictating the drive?


This got me to thinking about my undergraduates. As I talk to them about their lives and their future plans, all too often everyone and everything imaginable leaps into the conversation. We're suddenly having a chat about their parents, other professors, their friends, "society."

It's your car, I tell them in far too many words. Why are you letting everybody else drive your life?

Because those people and things are the menacing black Chevy in their rear-view mirrors. And maybe in yours.

With this analogy in mind, I challenge you to take fifteen minutes and answer some questions for yourself - on paper. (Yes, writing it down makes a difference. Prof says so.) With any luck, at the end you just might feel like the hulking Chevy has finally turned, leaving you free to roam down the road at your own pace.

1. How often do you look in your rear-view mirror?

Are you someone obsessed with monitoring everything and everyone around you (that's me), or are you able to block the world out and live according to your own devices? If you're the former, you're going to have to learn how to block out the menacing cars in your rear-view.

If you're the latter, you're not off the hook; you might be going too fast and could benefit from looking around and seeing some "slow down" signals once in a while.

2. At what speed do you naturally travel?

Example variable speed limit sign in the Unite...

When it comes to life, what's your natural speed of travel? Are you someone who likes to go 50 in a 35? Or do you prefer to go precisely the speed limit, or just a few notches above? Perhaps you're someone who likes to keep things slow; you're the car chugging along in the right lane of the highway, doing a steady 45 in the 65. (I do curse you at times, I must admit.)

None of these paces is necessarily "wrong." But if going the speed limit translates into doing what's developmentally appropriate for your age, then perhaps there's something to be said for sticking somewhat close to it. If you go "too fast" you might surpass your abilities and find yourself in uncomfortable, overwhelming circumstances. If you go "too slow," however, you might miss out on opportunities and fail to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

In any event, it's important to know how you like to travel, before considering how others influence your travel.

3. Who and/or what is in your rear-view mirror?

Now it's time for some brainstorming. Create a list of everything that influences you, whether it be positively or negatively. Try to get as specific as you can. For instance, if you talk about "society" affecting you, what exactly do you mean?

Then rank the list. Which affects you most, and which the least?

4. What effect does each of the entities in your rear-view have on your natural speed?

Next to your ranked list, write a "SU" next to the entities that make you "speed up" or that push you in some way. Put a "N" next to entities that have a neutral effect on your speed. And write a "SD" next to the ones that in some way encourage you to slow down.

U-HAUL in the rearview mirror

Reflect back on your natural speed from Q1. Do you think you should, in general, be traveling faster or slower than you naturally do? This tells you whether "SU," "SD," and "N" are positive or negative for you. For example, if you typically drive the speed limit, both the "SU" and "SD" influences may be negative; but if you naturally drive too fast, the "SD" people may be great and the "N" people may be questionable.

With this in mind, circle the entities that have a negative effect on you, and star the ones that have a positive effect.

5. For the entities that are affecting your speed negatively, how can you "black out" your rear-view mirror?

The starred entities are the ones you should have in your rear-view mirror in unlimited measures. They're the people and things you need to glance back and see on a regular basis, so don't let yourself forget that they're there.

New Window Tint!

The circled, negative entities, though - my big, black Chevy, as it were - need to be handled. You don't need them out of your life - they're probably adding much to your existence, even if they're affecting your speed inappropriately - you just need to learn to stop seeing them when you're driving. So do something totally illegal:  black out that rearview mirror!

You especially need to "black it out" when you're about to "make a turn." Decision points are the most crucial moments to ignore what's behind you or you may very well go the wrong way, like we discussed in our recent class on regret.

So your final task is to brainstorm strategies to black out the mirror. The strategies need to be specific to you, but might include:

  • Finding ways of distracting yourself from the lurking entities. Think of it as turning the radio way up and singing your heart out during the drive.
  • Creating a mantra that resonates for you that you can repeat when you feel the influences bearing down. Something like "I'm driving, I'm in control, this is my car."
  • If you're a visual person, closing your eyes and literally picturing yourself in a car with black paint smeared across the back window. See yourself in the enclosed space all alone, free to think without distraction. Feel what it's like in this space, in as much detail as you can muster, using all five senses (just what does an empty car taste like?!). If the thought of being alone in the car makes you feel anxious rather than relaxed, then pop a starred person from Question 3 into the passenger seat. Feel better?

All in all, I wish you safe and happy travels, full of the knowledge that the only person with the foot hovering over the pedals is you. There may be an entourage rivaling the President's motorcade trailing behind you, but they can't drive your car.

If only that had worked with my huge Chevy.

My intimidator looked a lot like this. But I swear it was a Chevy. Not that I really know car makes... (Photo credit: kenjonbro)

There's too much clutter back there. (Photo credit: ChristopherTitzer)

Are you traveling in the right zone? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seems pretty neutral to me. (Photo credit: eschulz)

Make that back window nice and dark! (Photo credit: aresauburn™)

Fear of Regret Can Paralyze...or Propel

Oh, do I embarrass you?? There are regrets (Why did I post that drunken selfie on FB?) and then there are regrets (Why did I study sociology when I want to be an architect?). In our twenties we tend to fear both types of regrets, but it's the latter that most affects us. We can become so paralyzed by fear of regret that we fail to act at all; we think any action might be the wrong action.

And our worries aren't unfounded. We all accumulate regrets with age, as your classmate Lisa exemplifies in her post Start From Where You Are and Believe. One-third of American adults have education regrets, one-quarter have career regrets, and 15% have romance regrets.

So, yes, regrets may be in our future, and they're worth fearing. But only if we use that fear to propel us toward a more genuine, fulfilling life doing work that is meaningful to us. And that pays the bills in the process.

Fear Regretting Inauthentic Choices

English: Erik Erikson Česky: Německý psycholog...

When I tell my real-world students the following, they look at me like I'm the biggest dork in the world. Get your "wow you're uncool" face ready:  I make all my major life decisions by consciously considering the end of my life. And psychologist Erik Erikson.

Bear with me. Erikson - who we've talked about as the it-man of identity development theory - said that in the final stage of our lives we want to have a sense of integrity instead of feeling despair. We gain integrity from reviewing our lives and seeing that we the life choices we made were authentic to our selves and matched our core identities.

So I let Erikson and my deathbed propel me. I mean, who wouldn't? (Uh, most normal people.)

Join in on my morbidity - when you're on the cusp of a major decision think, what would my elderly (dying) self think of this choice? You'll never go wrong if you pick what's genuine to you. Assuming you've done the work to discover your true self, a process we'll be discussing in upcoming classes.

This approach truly works. Believe me; I'm well acquainted with dying Becca. (She's very, very old. And stunningly gorgeous for her age.)

Inaction is Worse Than Action

SweetlyIndecisive began a recent post with the claim that inaction is more regrettable than action. When you ask college students, though, they consistently refute this, saying they most regret what they've done. That's probably because we're stupid idiots in college. (Uh, hello running a college radio show on which I thought it was a good idea to sing along with the songs.)

It's only when we broaden out to the "average American" that inaction becomes the big regret.  While adults have equal numbers of action and inaction regrets, their regrets about inaction last longer and cause more severe losses than regrettable actions.

In other words, do something. Anything. Except singing on the radio.

You'll Most Regret What You Can Change

That isn't a typo:  we have more intense regrets about situations that we can still change. What can we learn from this? That it's a good idea to either immediately take the corrective action, or instead to create closure such that action is no longer a possibility. Otherwise it's going to haunt you. For a long, long while.

Interpersonal Regrets Are Most Powerful

Awkward Family Photos

Although we have many regrets about education and career when we're adults, regrets about interpersonal issues sting the most. As psychologists Morrison, Epstude and Roese say, "Failed marriages, turbulent romances, and lost time with family may elicit regrets that last a lifetime."

In other words, don't focus on your professional development to the detriment of your personal life. Our need to belong obliterates our need to achieve, to have status, and to have financial gain. So keep things in perspective. Or else you'll regret it. And I don't just mean the way celebs regret their atrocious selfies. I mean the real deal.

Have you racked up any big-time regrets? If so, what advice would you give others so they can avoid them?

Morrison, M. & Roese, N. J.  (2011). Regrets of the typical American:  Findings from a nationally representative sample. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 576-583.
Morrison, M., Epstude, & Roese, N. J. (2012). Life regrets and the need to belong. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 674-681.

Tell me that the person who posted this never regretted it. (Photo credit: This Year's Love)

Erik Erikson. My hero. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There's nothing quite like family. There'd be no awkward photos without them. (Photo credit: marcia.furman)

There's Nothing I Can Do. Or Is There?

The twenties are a time when everything feels out of control:  you can visualize a lifestyle you'd like to have, but can't see the steps to get there; your job is entry-level and low paying, if you've even managed to get someone to hire you; and your sense of self vaguely resembles waterlogged putty. English: Art of Hopeless identification Españo...

It's no wonder we have the urge to throw up our hands and say, "Forget it. There's nothing I can do. This sucks."

Believe me, I've done the hand tossing myself. Many times over. As recently as last week.

But as we discussed in the last class, feeling in control - even when things look like a right ol' mess - is vitally important to forging a fulfilling career and, given the number of hours we spend at our jobs, a satisfying life.

So here are some tips about how to feel like there is something you can do, even when life is persuading you otherwise.

Avoid Absolutes

You know this tip from SAT prep:  words like "never" and "always" are red flags of an incorrect answer choice. So too in life (who knew that the SATs were actually worth something?). If you hear yourself speak - or listen to the incessant chatter in your head - and notice tons of absolutes, you're doing yourself a disservice. Instead make friends with the phrases "sometimes," "in this case," and "once in a while." It pays to be wishy-washy. Sometimes.

Know That You Always Have Options

They may not be great ones, but they're still options. For instance, if there aren't any job nibbles where you're currently living, you could consider moving somewhere (e.g., to a city) where there may be more opportunities. When you're feeling like life's shoving you around, take five minutes to do the dorky thing and write all conceivable possibilities down. Better yet, get a friend involved in your brainstorming dorkfest; two minds are better than one. Even if she then has this tidbit to blackmail you with. (BTW, did you catch the "always" in this header? A-ha, I am testing you!)

Recognize Your Role in Good Events


Typically when we get into the "life's out of my control" mindset, we extend it to the good things that happen to us, too. Instead of realizing that we actually did something to make a happy event happen - like a job offer or a romantic milestone - we tend to chalk it up to "chance" or "luck" or something someone did for us. Since it's easier to convince ourselves of our role in positive outcomes than negative ones, you can start your mindset change right here.

Know That If All Else Fails, You Can Still Work on Improving You

There's a ready-and-waiting option available no matter what:  no one and nothing can stop you from working to improve yourself. Look at people in prison - even they attempt self-improvement, regardless of their obvious barriers to freedom of choice. If you can't secure a job or you're stuck living in your parents' basement or your idea of a roaring good time is following Kim Kardashian's mind-numbing exploits, you can still work toward identifying the career - and life - you'd ideally want. That's a matter of identity development, something we've talked about in the past and have a lot left to cover, which is why we'll be diving into the topic next week.

But first up, regrets. You'll regret it if you miss that class (sorry, I couldn't resist) - see you Friday!

Tell me:  How do you fight the urge to say "There's nothing I can do"? I'm open to suggestions - and could use the pointers myself!

Gardner, D. C., & Beatty, G. J. (2001). Locus of control change techniques: Important variables in work training. Education, 100, 237-242.

We're naturally good at hopeless. Finding the opposite is the challenge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life going right for a change? What did you do to make it happen? (Photo credit: Verpletterend)

Living in the Present, Planning for the Future

English: Now and Later candies, made by Farley... Now and Later candies were serious currency on my middle school playground. You could trade the tiny sweets for just about anything:  an "in" with the guy you liked, court time playing basketball, even the cessation of rumors by the resident mean girl. Maybe we had it all figured out back then, knowing what we'd need most in life is both now and later. Alright, fine, we just wanted a sugar high. But if the balance between living in the present while planning for the future could come in a sweet, colorful package, it sure would be a hot trade on the twentysomething circuit.

Little sticks in the craw of a millennial like the desire to be in the here-and-now when everyone is interrogating you about the down-the-line. Jenni of Twenty's Inc. recently summed this up well: "Thinking long-term is such a foreign concept for most 20-somethings. It’s a dreaded thought and simply uncool. It’s all about NOW. Being in the moment. Why care about tomorrow when you’ve got today?"

I remember that feeling intensely. My journal read like a glitchy status update button, perpetually spitting out "Why doesn't everyone just let me live?!" Yet here I am in my 30s, regularly imploring you poor 20somethings to plan ahead and think of your career. How out of touch am I?

So here's my contrition, and my contribution:  what I wish I'd known about the now and later balance, based on psych research no less.

Perspective 1:  Living in the Present


Many of us like to live in the present (hedonistic) time perspective. This approach centers around a "if it feels good, do it" mindset. Obviously it can lead to risky behaviors and can cause us to avoid actions that will be important for our future, like saving money or <clearing my throat> planning for a career. But it also feels pretty darn good. Which isn't for nothing.

This is the time perspective that has been stereotypically linked to millennials. The "I don't think I just do" approach has pundits and parents shaking their heads and lamenting the stretch of adolescence. What are you crazy GenYers doing with your lives? they demand to know. The thing is, as we'll see shortly, while "all now all the time" isn't a good plan, there is a definite place for "in the now" thinking. And it's something the aging critics could use a bit more of themselves.

Perspective 2:  Planning for the Future

What parents and elders want you twentysomethings to do is get down to business and plan your lives already. They'd love it if you sucked onto a future time perspective, emphasizing future goals and rewards and delay of gratification. And they're not entirely wrong; of course a future orientation is need in our lives. But only in moderation.

"We are concerned for those excessively future-oriented people who cannot 'waste' time relating to family or friends, in community activities, or enjoying any personal indulgence," say researchers Zimbardo and Boyd. "Such a 'time-press' fuels high stress levels." They go on to suggest "time therapy" for people like that. Perhaps parents should be careful of what they wish.

Besides, you millennials are not actually ignoring the future. Much of the present (hedonistic) behaviors you demonstrate may actually be future-oriented. You read that right. In a study of 248 undergraduates, 77% reported that they engage in behaviors now because they fear they will lose those opportunities later.

Respondents generally characterized adulthood as a period of lost freedom, when they would become someone confined to a particular place and social group, and when they would go to bed early. In response, a number of participants stressed the spontaneous nature of their current actions. - Ravert (2009)

The feared "when they would go to bed early." That part cracks me up. And makes me cry from the reality; just look at what time my tweets end each day. So let me pause to say:  tweet 'til 3am millennials! Do it while you can! The 30s are coming for you! And back to the story...

Perspective 3:  Staying Grounded in the Past

There's one final element we've been leaving out of this now and later discussion:  the past. Identity researchers agree that we develop our sense of self in the context of significant others, many of whom are from our families and our childhoods. For better and for worse. If we can focus on the "for better" part while discarding the social comparisons and other pressures that compel us to give up on our inner yearnings, then the past has a meaningful role to play in our search for identity. And, hence, our search for a fulfilling career.

Striking a Balance

So how do we find a balance between our three time perspectives? Or develop what the researchers call a "balanced TP"? (how out of it can they possibly be?) Simple:  we find balance by maximizing them all.

We can - and ideally should - be high in all THREE time dimensions simultaneously. We don't have to give up now to focus on later, or the past to be in the now, or later to consider our past. Time perspectives are orthogonal components, completely independent of one another. It's a myth that you have to be an old stick in the mud in order to start thinking about life beyond your next Pinterest pin. In fact, as we saw earlier, we may look highly spontaneous in our twenties precisely because our minds are shifting into more intense consideration of the future. Which is a good thing indeed:

The future focus gives people wings to soar to new heights of achievement, the past (positive) focus establishes their roots with tradition and grounds their sense of personal identity, and the present (hedonistic) focus nourishes their daily lives with the playfulness of youth and the joys of sensuality. People need all of them harmoniously operating to realize fully their human potential. - Zimbardo & Boyd (1999)

If I could just wrap those sentiments in a sweet candy shell, I'd be the most popular kid on the twentysomething playground. Which would make my past, present and future selves pretty darn happy. Now that's what I call maximizing.



Ravert, R. D. (2009). “You’re only young once”: Things college students report doing now before it is too late. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24(3), 376-296.


Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1271-1288.

Gooey sweetness with a dense center, Now and Laters offer enjoyment for both the present and the (near) future. Which is all we want out of life, isn't it? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What's time got to do with it? Everything. (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Career Choice Overload

A number of years ago, a junior student I'll call Caroline came into my office for an advising meeting. She'd already declared a psych major - otherwise she wouldn't be stuck with me - but it soon became clear that she had a million interests besides her major. Which isn't bad. It's just...overwhelming. Direction sign at Soya-misaki

"I like psych, but I don't know if I'm gonna do psych. You know, in my life. Because there are so many other things," Caroline said. "Like I love rhetoric. And anthropology is amazing. And even economics fascinates me. And then there are those shows, those ones about crime scene people, they really get me. Maybe I'd like to do something like that. Or maybe be a marine biologist. That's always seemed fun, too."

Oh. My. God. Caroline may have been a poster child for a liberal arts education, but she was also a billboard for not having much hope of finding a path once her collegiate bubble burst. Not that I'm judging. I, my dear students, was just like Caroline. Perhaps still am.

How can we be reasonably expected to choose one career after a lifetime of being told "you can do anything you want"? It's tyrannical. It's ridiculous. It's...well, rude.

It's also necessary.

So let's get over kvetching about it and get on to a solution, shall we?

Adopt a New Mantra

"I'll have eleven jobs in my lifetime. I'll have eleven jobs in my lifetime."  Every time choice overload threatens to paralyze you, this is what to tell yourself. You are not choosing one job or career forever. You are simply choosing your NEXT move. You can go ahead and pursue a different interest in the future. Think of it as serial monogamy. Career style.

Get the Options Down in Black and White

Often I'll ask students experiencing career choice overload, "So have you done any work trying to figure out what you really want?" The common answer:  "Oh sure. I think about it all the time." Terrific. I think about going to Italy all the time and guess what, it hasn't gotten me there.

It's highly clarifying to get information out on a blank page. This is why experts say that to budget effectively you have to write out a budget. Um, yes, not rocket science here. Options feel like an overwhelming jumble in our heads. When we lay them all out in front of us, they look more manageable. Even if there's 50 of them.

Compile your list over the course of weeks. Every time a new idea pops into your head, add it to your list (best make the thing portable, then!). Write down specific careers, umbrella topical areas, anything that you think is related to what you might want to do. When you start recycling ideas that are already on the list, you're done.

Categorize Your Choices

Now take your handy-dandy list of interests and potential careers and put them into categories. Studies show that categories decrease choice overload. In psych-speak "categories make it easier to navigate the choice set and decrease the cognitive burden of making a choice," wrote researchers Scheibehenne and colleagues.

Many items on your list will relate to one another. For instance, say you wrote down the over-arching field of entymology. You also wrote down later on your list that you particularly like stink bugs. Ta da! This is really one choice, not two. (Lest you mock this option, specializing in stink bugs may very well get you on NPR).

Save The List. Permanently.

This is a tip I picked up from my fiction writing days:  it's much easier to cut material if you know you'll always have it saved somewhere. So before you go deleting any options, save the original list somewhere you can access it again in the future. Chances are you never will look at it again (the fiction passages that were so bad I cut them from my awful fiction wholes? not needed), but you'll feel reassured knowing it's not gone forever.

Pick a Heuristic, Any Heuristic

When's the last time someone implored you to do that? I tell you, we offer first time experiences at CA101. Good stuff here. Good stuff.

A heuristic is simply a rule of thumb we use to make decisions and solve problems. They simplify information so that we don't become paralyzed. It makes sense then that in their detailed analysis of 50 studies on choice overload, psychologists Scheibehenne and colleagues found that using heuristics helped people avoid choice overload.

Here are four heuristics they point to as useful options. Take your pick! Or mix and match!

  • Elimination-by-Aspects Strategy:  Quickly screen out any options or categories that don't seem attractive. The more you allow yourself to rely on your "gut" instead of logic here, the better.
  • Satisficing Heuristic:  "Choose the first option that exceeds [your] aspiration level." In other words, pick what's "good enough" - don't try to find "perfect." Some of us have personalities that do this better than others (we others are called maximizers), but even us perfection seekers can train ourselves to use the satisficing heuristic.
  • Consideration-Set Model:  Consider how much work you'd have to put into each option (e.g., do you have to go back to school?) and how much benefit (emotional, financial, liturgical) you'd receive from each. Which will give you the most bang for your buck?
  • Go With the Default:  Probably the simplest heuristic there is. Simply pick the option from the list that feels most obvious. For instance, you already have a degree in english. Pursuing a job as an editor probably makes more sense than retraining to becoming a physician's assistant.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

This whole process takes time. So don't try to do it, say, two weeks before applications are due to a graduate program you're considering. Studies show that the more time pressured we feel, the more choice overload and subsequent regret we experience.

Summing Up

So there you have it:  the steps to overcoming choice overload. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? <sigh> Alright, not so much. But you have to do it. Otherwise we'll end up like poor Caroline, who bounced from one unsatisfying superficial job to the next, never willing to "settle" or to "rule out options" and hence never able to dig into anything. When she checked in with me five years after graduating, asking for another round of letters of reference to graduate schools in a wholly different field than she'd applied in the previous two years, she said, "I'm just so afraid I'll miss out on something. Like, if I do go with teaching, then what about my passion for finance. Do I just give that up?"

Well, yes, Caroline, you do. For now. Just for now. And then you go and find some great hobbies to indulge your many interests in the meantime.

Related Posts:

Awash in Choices

How to Create Your "Life Goal"

Time, Time Everywhere, and Not a Second to Use

Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P M. (2010). Can There Ever be Too Many Options? A Meta-Analytic Review of Choice Overload.. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 409-425.

Pulled in too many conflicting directions? (Photo credit: shirokazan)

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

How affronted are you by that question? If you're feeling pretty peeved at me for asking, then you'd better read on. I was asked that question once, bluntly and without warning, by a total stranger. And it changed the direction of my life.

I was a rising college sophomore when, feeling dramatically overwhelmed by roommate tensions (oh poor meeeee!), I walked into the campus counseling center.

The counselor first asked my major.

P physics

"Physics," I said proudly. Too proudly.

He looked at me long and hard. Then he asked, "Who are you trying to impress with that major?"

I wanted to jump across the desk and throttle the guy. Who did he think he was to ask something like that? Where did he get off presuming to know me? Maybe I liked physics because I liked physics. Did that thought ever cross his rude, dense, little brain?

So I told him as much. In nicer terms, of course. He let the subject drop and we came up with a plan for dealing with the roommate. I never saw the counselor again.

End of story, right? But my mind, it simply couldn't drop the counselor's "impress" question. For days and days. And then weeks. And then months. At first I was angry, "Do you believe the nerve of that guy?" was my common refrain to friends. But gradually I started to actually ask the question to myself:  Who was I trying to impress?

The thing was, this guy - this complete stranger - had nailed my pig with his angry bird, if you will. I did like physics, to an extent, but I liked even better the reaction I received when I told people that I liked physics:  wide eyes, a puzzled expression, and then - this was the real payoff - "Wow, you must be smart."

Once I accepted the honest answer to the counselor's simple question, I promptly switched to a psychology major.

In other words, the one-off counselor saved me from a lifetime of an unsatisfying career, all with one question.

And for that reason, I'm asking you:

Who are you trying to impress?

The more offended that question makes you feel, the more likely that it's tapping into something important. (Freud got few things right, but his concept of resistance isn't half bad...)

Whether it be your career choice, your major, your address, your style of dress, your word choice, your status updates, what's your shorthand for making people think, "Wow, you must be ________"?

And that blank is almost always filled with the aspect of yourself about which you're most self-conscious. For me, that's my intelligence. For you it might be your money, or your class, or your dependence, or your fear of getting close to people. Take your pick.

English: Gold Star

This urge to impress - especially about our self-questioned characteristics - makes a lot of sense. It's ingrained in our genes, in fact.

"A hundred thousand years ago on the savannahs of Africa, if you were a solitary individual, you were dead very quickly," William B. Irvine, author of the new book A Slap in the Face:  Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn't recently told NPR. "So you joined a group. And then, once you joined a group, the question of how well you succeeded within that group was determined by your social rank within that group."

"Striving for rank within a group has become ingrained in the human psyche — praise and deference feel good," explains NPR.

In other words, we're literally built to seek approval. So is striving for "wow" such a bad thing?

Maybe not all the time. Maybe not even most of the time. It may be fine when the reaction we receive - "wow, you're witty!" or "man, you're generous" -  is as mere byproduct of living a life we genuinely love.

But when we're changing our life for the "wow" - living somewhere we can't afford, for instance, or putting on a show of extreme independence when we're dying for companionship  - then it may be a problem. In that case, the need to impress is interfering with our pursuit of what's personally meaningful and important. And when we can't seek out meaning, we fail to find lasting happiness. We might also fail to do the "unique and distinctive work" we're each meant to do.

"If you want to have a good life, you have to overcome that evolutionary wiring," Irvine said in the NPR interview. He gave the example of our penchant for fatty, sweet food; while this desire was helpful for our ancestors' survival, it's harmful in contemporary society where fats and sugars are omnipresent.

There was no doubt that, for me, gradually shedding my shorthands for "intelligence" has been vitally important to living a more authentic, richer life, and to doing work that is in line with my values and deep-seated goals. I still have more smartness shorthands to cast off. But the counselor started me on the road.

You may be wondering whether I ever thanked him, the man who changed the course of my life with one simple question. About nine months after our meeting, I was taking a study break when I received a campus-wide email. The counselor had passed away, the President announced. The email didn't say how, it didn't say if it was expected, it just said he was gone. I'd only met the man once, but I felt a profound sense of emptiness and loss.

I gave the emotion some time to rattle around within me, said some silent words in his memory, and then forced myself to go back to studying for my big exam. In psychology.

To me, physics = uber-brainy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For what characteristic - if any- are you trying to earn a gold star? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What If Everyone Sees Through Me?

Career avoidance strategy #597:  Convince yourself you're an imposter and that your accomplishments to date have all been due to luck. Michael Jackson Impersonator

Here's a case study:  a senior recently asked me to look over her cover letter. It was, in a word, understated. When I pushed her to add more about her accomplishments and about skills that I'd witnessed firsthand, she said, "But I'm not sure I can do all that stuff. I'm afraid they'll give me the job and then, like, realize I'm not so great after all."

Ah, yes. The fraud feeling. We think we're pulling some humongous rug over the world's eyes. As if there'll be some big Hollywood reveal when Bruce Willis will jump out, pull an eerily lifelike mask off our faces, and say, Ah ha! See? You are not who you say you are. You are not good enough to do what you're doing. You are just - gasp - you!

Sometimes we even experience this feeling so severely that counseling is in order. When it's that bad, it's called the Imposter Syndrome or Imposter Phenomenon, and 70% of us experience this at least once in our lifetimes.

Regardless of intensity, the fraud feeling takes a toll on our mental health, our sense of fulfillment, and our willingness to go after the "unique and distinctive" work we're supposed to be doing in this world.

Impostors often experience fear, stress, self-doubt, and feel uncomfortable with their achievements. Impostor fears interfere with a person's ability to accept and enjoy their abilities and achievements, and have a negative impact on their psychological well-being. When facing an achievement-related task, Impostors often experience uncontrollable anxiety due to their fear of failure. - Salkulku & Alexander (2011)

So if you want to throw your future for a loop, study up on imposterism. All you need to do is embrace the characteristics of people who feel like imposters:

Huh, sounds like a lot of the things we've been talking about in our class. You really are A+ students in the field of career avoidance, aren't you?

And no wonder. Feelings of imposterism come from two major sources, which just happen to run rampant in Millennnials' young lives:

  1. Parental overprotection, especially from a father. (Hello helicopter parents!)
  2. An upbringing that emphasizes the importance of intelligence. (Hello our entire society!)

So there you go, a foolproof strategy for pushing away a fulfilling career/life, placed right into your lap by your doting parents and an intelligence-obsessed society. Ta da!

But what if you instead want to fail my class?

Well you could overcompensate for feelings of fraudulence by acting like an arrogant prick who can do no wrong, touting your credentials and background to anyone who will listen (and to those who won't.) Heap your resume with skills you've never bothered to perfect (much like Joey on Friends claiming to speak French) and adopt a modus operandi in which you ask others about their lives so you can in turn tell them about yours.

Great for situation comedy. Not for real life.

The other option is to gain self-knowledge (ah, that little thing) by:

  1. Reviewing the many things you've accomplished in your life. Be sure to look far beyond what society deems to be "accomplishments" (e.g., degrees, scholarships, promotions) to the accomplishments that are meaningful to you (e.g., finishing a half-marathon, painting your apartment, watching an entire season of 24 in 24 hours).
  2. Identifying the skills you had to use to reach each accomplishment, especially the accomplishments you care about. These are the skills you likely enjoy using, and that you'd be smart to target in your career search. (Skills needed for 24 in 24 hours? Follow through. Focus. Capacity to overlook incrementally unrealistic plotlines.)
  3. Accepting that luck was not involved in your accomplishments. It might be tempting to chalk your life all up to fate, to some hand-me-down from the gods, but really, not so much. (I mean, a 24 marathon doesn't just happen.)

Whenever I'm feeling like a fraud, I take my self-knowledge and go all 8 Mile on the world. As in, I do what Eminem's character did during the final rap battle:  lay weaknesses on the table before the opposition can. (Little did Eminem know, but psychologists find this to be a powerful persuasive technique.) Instead of putting on a haughty front while worrying that the world will see through me, I tell people up front where my weaknesses lie. I don't undercut myself. I don't undersell. I don't make myself look like a doofus. (I don't think.) But I do keep a healthy sense of humor about my faults and the areas in which I still need work.

So if you don't want to feel like an imposter, get to know yourself. Know what you're good at. And what you're not. Sell the former, because you deserve to. And laugh freely about the latter, because it'll put yourself and others at ease.

Or else spend the rest of your days fearing you'll be "found out," hiding your true talents under a Red Mango bucket (don't you wish they made that?!) or behind a giant dollop of pompousness, and passing Career Avoidance 101 with flying colors. Your choice completely.

Source: Salkulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 73-92.

Good Reads:

The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids (New York Magazine)

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy (The Atlantic)

Talk about a bad imposter. Dude, you so do not look like Michael Jackson. (Photo credit: Feggy Art)

Can't We All Be Above Average?

That's what a student with red-rimmed eyes asked me last week. She stood before me, distressed about her average (perfectly acceptable) grade on a paper assignment, visibly willing her tears away. I said her paper was just fine, it's simply that I reserve the top 10% of grades for students who do a standout job, going beyond the requirements or looking at the topic in a novel way. "But that's not fair," she said. "Can't we all be above average?"

I felt like I was watching the "WHY?!" Nancy Kerrigan video play out before me (if you were, like, a year old when this event happened, start the video at 1:55 for a refresher; man, you make me feel old). I alternately wanted to shake my student and say, "Snap out of your self-pity!" and then to hug her while cooing, "I know. It sucks. I get it. This hurts."

The thing is, I do get it. I've felt it. I sometimes still feel it. I mean, why can't we all be above average? Well, because, obviously, we can't.

So the real question is, why did we get it in our heads in the first place that we could be?

revphil's awards

Partly it's due to the self-esteem movement - you know, the campaign that had you winning "Participant Ribbons" rather than real trophies in grammar school - but even more importantly, it's due to our natural cognitive development.

During adolescence, we all think we're special. No one has to tell us we are, we simply believe it. Nobody has ever had these thoughts before, we tell ourselves. Journal, dear journal, you are witnessing the dawn of a magnificent mind afire. With thoughts like these, I'm destined to take the world by storm.

Don't believe me? Then you haven't been reading many blogs.

The thing is, it's healthy and normal to think this way. For a while. It's called the personal fable and it's part of normative adolescent egocentrism. Psychologists debate its origins, but it may arise as a way of coping with individuation - the process of becoming your self, a being who is separate from those around you.

Sound familiar?

I think it should, because that's what you guys are grappling with every. single. day. I watch it in my office. I read it in your blogs. I see it in our class discussions. Figuring out who you are - and doing so independently of the subtle, all-encompassing, often-overlooked influence of your parents - is what today's twenties are all about.

So here's what I believe:  the personal fable and egocentrism aren't just an adolescent thing. They're here and they're now.

And they're screwing you over. Two times over.

They're paralyzing your quest for a fulfilling life and career, coming and going:

  1. When the personal fable is in full effect, you're afraid of making a misstep that would prove you aren't actually special. I remember thinking just this in my early 20s:  what if I leave my Ivy League "I can prove I'm smart by just saying where I go to school" grad school and simply become a person with a job? Who am I then? And what will have happened to the "mind afire?" I'm too special, too unique, too destined for greatness for such an end. I know I'm not satisfied with my current life, but if I make the leap, take the chance, reach out for the life I really want...<pause for a freak out>...I might end up realizing that everything I've believed about myself has been a complete and utter lie.
  2. Then, as the personal fable wanes, you give up the will to strive for a better life. Wait, I'm not actually special? you begin to think. Everyone else thinks like this, too? Crap. Then who am I to believe I can do anything wonderful with my life? Who am I to bother to fight for fulfillment and to try to "do what I love"? That's impractical. That's unreasonable. Best to just suck it up and take a cubicle job and sell my soul down a river of memos and meetings and incessant cesspools of insipid, pithy emails.

The thing is, both ways of thinking are flawed. We're not all above average. Statistically, that simply doesn't work.  But we do all have the right to a life that gives us a sense of purpose and passion and meaning. There's no quota on that; no requirement that only 10% of us get to engage in that search.

In other words, when my student was standing before me last week, ineffectually blinking back her tears, the urgency welling within her wasn't about a paper. It wasn't about her performance. It wasn't, even, about being "average." It was about being blocked from a life worth living.

And so I said, "No, we can't all be above average. But we can all live extraordinary lives. If we choose to."

She stared at me for a long moment, the tears ceasing to flow. I could see the epiphany creeping into her. Inch by inch. Cell by cell. Atom by atom. These are the teaching  moments we live for, through many a botched lecture, through many an awkward class discussions, through many a hand-cramped session of grading.

Finally, she spoke.

"Uh. So what about my grade?"

Lapsley, D. K (1993). Toward an integrated theory of adolescent ego development: The "new look" at adolescent egocentrism. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 63, 562-571.
Vartanian, L. R. (2000). Revisiting the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism:  A conceptual review. Adolescence, 35, 639-661.

There simply aren't enough ribbons to go around. (Photo credit: ideath)

I'm Awesome. Except Next To You. And You. And You... (aka Millennial Failure Pie)

Which of these scenarios makes you feel better about yourself:  You're at a bar with A) your uber-attractive, date-bait friend whose mere presence ignites a firestorm of sexual interest, or B) the friend who might as well be a beer-lacquered bar stool in the eyes of potential suitors? You are totally lying if you said A.

Being around people who do better than us - whether it's at scoring numbers on the social scene, answering questions correctly in orgo, or having futures laid out in organized little lists (ha, what a ruse) - can make us feel like total crap. Yet we continue to hang around these people. And, more importantly, to compare ourselves to them. (BTW:  this never ends. The 30s redux are uber-parents who present organic snacks in fabric pouches and sew their own cloth diapers. I tell you, after a toddler playdate I think my life is in such shambles that Lindsey Lohan's looks good in comparison.)

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Because we're hard-wired to. Social comparisons enable us to see ourselves and to understand the value of our abilities. This is necessary and can be helpful, especially when there aren't any objective criteria available. How else could we know if we're a worthwhile friend or a talented writer or a good singer ? (RE: the latter - you're not. Hasn't American Idol taught you anything?)

The thing is that doing too much social comparing, especially in one direction, can drive us to drink, as my dad likes to say. The comparisons that tell us how badly we're doing relative to someone else - "upward comparisons" - do have some pluses:  they can make us feel like we're part of an elite group (e.g., if I'm comparing myself to Beyonce, I must be doing something right) and they can make us want to try harder. But they can also make us feel downright cruddy.

Enter "downward comparisons." Here we look at someone with a worse circumstance and think heck yea, I'm doing pretty good!  Downward comparisons give our self-esteem and well-being a major boost.

Thing is, I feel like a total schmuck when I make downward comparisons. For instance, I'm in the children's library the other day and there's a young mom feeding her 1-year-old Gatorade out of a bottle and Doritos. Then she throws a puzzle (that my 2-year-old can't yet do) at her daughter's feet and proclaims, "She's so lazy. She doesn't even try." That would have been a perfect scenario for me to make a downward comparison or two. But how crappy would it be to look at that scenario and think, Wow, I am a good mom! Go me! Ugh.

You Millennials seem to have the same hesitancy. For all the talk about your generation's narcissism, I find you to be loathe to make downward comparisons. Oh sure, you'll cut someone down for a bad choice (Can you believe she's wearing those boots with those pants?). In a heartbeat. But you're also super-attuned to social and economic disparities and you don't seize on others' unfortunate circumstances as an opportunity to feel good about yourselves.

Which means that you're left making a ton of upward comparisons and very few downward comparisons. No wonder you guys feel like you're always failing.

Michelle Kwan, New York, NY, 1997

Especially since failure hinges on social comparison.

Worse yet, while there is no absolute standard for failure (even the "absolutes" that do exist - like the average score on an IQ test - are actually constantly shifting), we continually talk about failure in absolute terms.  Common phrases heard in my office:  "I totally failed at that interview I went to." Or "I'm really failing in my stats class" (by which the student means getting a C). Or, most disheartening of all, "I'm failing at everything I try."

This is stupid talk. We don't go around saying things like, "That building is taller" or "That guy's pecs are bigger" or "Donald Trump's hair is scarier." They're meaningless statements. (Well maybe not that last one.) We were taught in the first grade to state comparisons when we use "-er" words.

The problem with failure, then, isn't that it's based on social comparisons, it's that we don't acknowledge those comparisons. We act like failure is a state of being that has no referent when in actuality it has "comparison" smeared all over it.

Put this all together, and you get Millennial Failure Pie (MFP):  You're making tons of upward comparisons, not balancing them with downward comparisons, and doing it all unconsciously. Disaster.

There are probably a million things we could do to try to address the MFP. But how about starting here:  changing the way we think and talk about failure.

  1. Failed compared to who? For instance: "I failed at that interview." Meaningless. "I failed at that interview compared to the person who got the job." True. "I failed at that interview compared to the person who walked into the interview room hammered, vomited on his shoes, and then fainted." Actually, there you kicked some butt.
  2. Is the comparison reasonable? For instance:  I failed the SAT compared to my cousin who got a perfect score. Twice. (Yes, really.) But who didn't?

If we thought and talked about failure in this way, it might unconsciously activate some of the downward comparisons that we need to make in order to stay psychologically healthy. And we wouldn't feel like callous, pompous pricks while we're doing it.

Then maybe we could hang out with our gorgeous BFF, our I-could-calculate-the-molecular-weight-of-plutonium-without-trying classmate, and our has-it-all-together friend and not feel as crappy as Taylor Swift's latest ex. We'll just feel like us. Which is more than enough.

Michelle Kwan was awesome. Just not on the Olympic podium. Is that failure? (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Three Cheers for Failure!

What did you fail at today? No, really, I want an answer. Don’t cringe, don’t cower, don’t accuse me of being harsh. What did you fail at today?

Sara Blakely's dad asked her just this every single night. You know Blakely. She's "The One" - that mythical being sent to save us  from the specter of rumpled waistlines, saggy behinds, and had-many-too-many beer guts. While we could debate the value of her invention, there's no debating whether it worked out for her:  she was the youngest woman ever to make the Forbes billionaire list.


And all because her dad continually asked her if she failed.

“If there were no failures, Dad would be disappointed,” reports Kathy Caprino in her excellent Forbes article, 10 Lessons I Learned From Sara Blakely That You Won’t Hear in Business School.

“When I did fail at something, he'd high-five me," Blakely said.

I heard Blakely mention this in an interview long ago, back before she was a billionaire and was instead a lowly reality TV star. (Yes, I am coming clean and admitting that I watched Richard Branson's reality show Rebel Billionaire. On Fox. Which pretty much sums up my 27th year of life, in case you're wondering.)

As soon as I heard about her dad's strategy, I loved it. What better way to de-stigmatize the “f” word than to use it every single day, in a positive way? Instead of searching for “success” – which, let’s face it, is a slippery notion that should be self-defined but that we typically allow society to define for us – we could search for failure.

In fact, I love it so much that I’m planning to do this very thing with my daughter. When she’s old enough to hold a conversation that involves more than Dora, why we can't always be naked, and her vacillating desire to pee-pee on the potty, that is.

When I told my plan to the students in my upper-level developmental seminar, they looked horrified. Two of them audibly gasped. One shouted out, "That's awful!" And I'm not kidding here. You’d have thought I’d suggested feeding my kid a nightly dinner of raw sewage and Ice Cream Brrrgers (seriously, have you seen that thing? D.i.s.g.u.s.t.i.n.g.)

Failure is that powerful. It makes us react in visceral, unhinged ways.

Especially you guys, the victims of the vaunted Self-Esteem Movement (a crusade just begging to be lionized in an upcoming post).

But what if failure wasn’t so powerful? What if it was just a word, like ramen or coffee or sexit? (Wait, what?) Even better, what if it was a word worth reaching for, not avoiding? How would you live your life differently if that were the case?

“What I didn't realize at the time was that he was completely reframing my definition of failure at a young age," Blakely said about her dad, according to Inc.  "To me, failure means not trying; failure isn't the outcome. If I have to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I didn't try that because I was scared,' that is failure.”

Of course you can’t turn back time and have your parents reframe “failure” for you (you also can't go back and get them to buy that drum kit you really wanted. Sorry.) But you can choose to reframe failure for yourself. If you want to.

That said, it's not an easy thing to do. Although I heard Blakely discuss her dad's approach eight years ago, fear of failure remains as chained to me as Rihanna to Chris Brown. But I like the idea of asking ourselves everyday if we failed, and celebrating said failures. Maybe we should hold each other accountable:  Yay, we’re a bunch of big, fat screw ups! We're messing up royally everyday! One could wonder how we gather the scraps of dignity to go on! Go us!

Unconvinced? I don’t blame you. Our negative connotations with “failure” are hard to shake. But we've got to do it, one way or the other, because, as we'll see in upcoming posts, failure is critical to development. So however you manage to ditch the fear, it's time to toss it to the curb. Like that Ice Cream Brrrger.

What’s your reaction to the question, “What did you fail at today?” Would you have liked it if your parents had asked you this?

I'll spare you my feminist diatribe about Spanx and stick to the point: Their founder gets "failure" right. (Photo credit: apalapala)

Why You Aren't Reaching Your Goals

Because you stink. No, that's not why. But you tell yourself something along these lines every time a goal eludes you, right? I know I do.

It's like, I told myself I'd do XYZ, I wrote it down, I even told my friends and family I was going to do it, and now look at me, washed up, never going to achieve XYZ, or probably anything else I set out to do. I'm lazy and lack willpower and might as well give up and lay on the couch for the rest of the day. And then I go eat a pint of ice cream.

The thing is, we've been going after goals all wrong. And nobody bothered to tell us.

Based on sports psychology research, we've been told we should make our goals SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

We've also been told to write those goals down. (For a particularly hilarious example, check out the uber-detailed list midway down this post by Rebecca Cao). And to commit to the goals by telling others about them.

Goal Setting

By that reasoning, I should be on my third published book by now. HA!

In actuality, what psychologists call "goal intentions" - such as, Update my LinkedIn profile. Get a job in a museum. Avoid going insane from the overwhelmingly lost feeling of leaving college. - don't work much better than having no goals at all.

This is especially true for goals that can be waylaid by emotions, including the overpowering fears we've been discussing lately. (Show me a goal that isn't susceptible to emotional influence and I'll show you a camera-shy Kardashian.) For instance, researchers told spider-fearful (but not phobic) people to set the goal "I will not get frightened" and then showed them spiders. These people did no better at staying calm than spider-fearful people who didn't set a goal at all.

The problem is that setting goal intentions doesn't help us know HOW to reach the goal.

In walk "implementation intentions," which researchers have been studying since the mid-90s (why didn't anyone tell me?!). Psychologist Schweiger Gallo and colleagues describe them like this:

Implementation intentions are if-then plans that spell out when, where, and how a set goal is to be put into action: “If situation x is encountered, then I will perform behavior y!”

And these little nuggets of power really work.

In the spider study I just mentioned, a group of spider-fearful participants were told to set the implementation intention "if I see a spider, then I will remain calm and relaxed!" And guess what? When they saw a spider, they remained as calm as people who had no fear of spiders. The fear was completely eliminated.

It turns out that implementation intentions work for a variety of goals, ranging from dieting to exercising to recycling to doing breast self-examinations to writing reports. Sure as heck we should be able to apply them to career goals!

Implementation intentions work for two reasons:

  1. They draw our attention to a particular situation (the "if" part of the statement.)
  2. They tell us what we should automatically do if we encounter that situation (the "then" part of the statement.)

And the beauty of implementation intentions is that they DO become automatic. Very quickly. They require little cognitive effort on our parts, psychologists find. Goal intentions, on the other hand, require us to THINK about them to get them to work. That's why I used to try taping my goals to my bathroom mirror. And then, you know, ignored them after a couple of days.

Most importantly, implementation intentions work even when things are fighting against our goals, including external circumstances (such as distracting images being shown while we're taking a test) and internal states (such as fatigue and hunger). And there's no doubt that we have plenty of those!

So let's try setting some implementation intentions related to the Twentysomething Career Search:

  • If I sit down to job search and feel like I'd rather be prying my toenails off, then I'll tell myself that I just need to send out ten resumes each day and I will get 'er done.
  • If I try to work on my "All I Want To Be" Statement and feel so overwhelmed that I seriously contemplate running off to become one of Hef's concubines (yes, even if you're a guy), then I'll tell myself this is only a first draft that I can change anytime and I'll write something down.
  • If I start to tell my parents that I don't actually want to follow the career path they'd hoped for me and I fear pangs of fear so intense I think we might need to call 911, then I will tell myself to stay calm and to breathe and to remember that my parents love me (or so I hope) and I'll tell them anyway.
  • If I look at my bank statement and start to call myself all sorts of nasty names because the balance is so low, then I will remind myself that I can search for a stop-gap job to help me through this rough time and that this will not last forever and I'll keep searching for a fulfilling career. (And then I'll go find a loan. Right quick.)

So bottomline, if you enjoy avoiding a fulfilling career, by all means, keep setting your goals. Type those bad boys up, hang 'em high, announce them for all to hear!

But if you're ready to actually start meeting your goals, it's time to get down with some if-then implementation intentions.

What's the first implementation intention you're going to set for yourself? (It doesn't have to be career related; we still have many psychological blocks to work through before we're fully there...!)


Schweiger Gallo, I., Keil, A., McCulloch, K. C., Rockstroh, B., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Strategic automation of emotion regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 11-31.

See if doing this actually helps you. As if. (Photo credit: lululemon athletica)