What the Convenience Store Can’t Provide.

Boot print in snowMy family lived near one of those well-known convenience stores in the early years of my children growing up. You know the one with the numbers in the name. It was always open, rain or shine, and even in the occasional snow storm that blew through.

I can recall many winter days when I would lace up the snow boots, wrap carefully the woolen scarf around my neck, slip on the thick gloves, and button up my coat in order to head down to that store. My children were clamoring for a candy bar, or my wife wanted her fountain soda drink, or I was hankering for some whey protein shakes. OK, that last one was a lie. I am very capable of needing some nachos during a bitter blizzard.

That small store was perfect for just such trips. It wasn’t a place we would visit when we wanted a “quality dinner out.” Nor, was it a place I would take a close friend as an example of the fine, local cuisine he or she should sample when visiting our city. It’s a convenience store because it’s goal is not to offer “fine,” or “quality” or even something called “cuisine.” The owner’s intent is to quickly meet an everyday desire, while charging about 25% more for the convenience of doing so at 2 a.m., or even during a blizzard.

But what if my intention is to have a finer experience with food, and a deeper connection with a friend? I know a bagel shop not too far from that same convenience store. In that shop, the food is inexpensive, but it is also unique and refreshing in a way that I would want a friend to “experience” it with me. I would be sharing something of myself by meeting them there. I could talk about my history in discovering the place, the kind of conversations I’ve had with the owner’s wife, the types of new food I’ve tried.

If my intention is to share something of myself with a friend, I set a goal to meet in a meaningful place. It’s certainly not only about restaurants. I could tell stories of my history at college by walking the sidewalks of the campus with an old friend. Or, I could share a drive along a country road I frequently traveled when I was a child, pointing out that place where I got scared unexpectedly by some cows walking along the road.

My wife and I have a mutual friend that has a get-together each year on Independence Day at their lovely house. That same house is a place we used to meet at on a weekly basis when we attended a Bible study there. I spent many hours in their living room laughing, pondering, crying, both supporting and being supported. The family of that house had an intention to provide a relaxing place where their adult friends could wrestle with the meaning of life. That family had intended to help their friends find value in truth, and they succeeded. When I return to that place I feel accepted and known.

Too easily, I think, we could all settle for the convenience store approach to life. We could interact with our friends just as we would an all night store. We grab a quick hot dog, when time over a homemade soup is what we needed. We listen to a moderately inspiring TV preacher, when what we truly need sometimes is an expletive-laden conversation with a Christian friend who understands us personally.

We might value our spouse in a “convenience store” way, too. We might only talk about the everyday tasks of raising the children, rather than slowly listening to one another, and helping each other be better parents.

Life can be convenient sometimes. But I’ve also found that value and meaning come from our intentions to create something that will take time. I encourage you, my gentle reader to take some extra time to do something that will add value to your day and week. Avoid the convenient and go for the experiences that will help you feel accepted and known.

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Damaged but Not Flawed

kintsugi blue cupScience Fiction can be a powerful medium for the outlandish narrative that speaks to the mundane changes occurring all around us.  We can learn something about our current situation by suspending belief for a story about a possible future.

Amazon has created a new series based on a classic science fiction story: “The Man in the High Castle” written by Phillip K. Dick.  While this is a case of the book being better than the movie, the series has new themes and twists that I’ve come to appreciate.  I have to say that when season two came out, I was ready to watch.

One of the lovely plot lines occurs around the character of a Japanese leader who intuits that reality may not be all it seems.  He takes a mysterious journey along an “alternate time line” in which things have turned out differently between his wife and son.  In that time line, he is confronted with the result of his own angry and controlling personality in the symbolism of a cherished but broken cup.

In a touching scene, this character finds redemption in secretly repairing and then gifting the cup to his family.  He makes the repairs with the Japanese technique called “kintsugi”.

Kintsugi means golden joinery or repair of a broken pottery item using a lacquer mixed with gold or another precious metal.  The technique embraces damage as a part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.  The person emphasizes the flaw with the precious gold, and in doing so causes the viewer to consider whether the flaw creates more beauty.

Some have described this technique as representing the state of mind of existing more fully in the moment, or even of having an openness in the midst of changing conditions.

I would be hard pressed to find better symbolism for the work that my psychotherapy patients accomplish.

So much of life is about finding a centered strategy for moving through and beyond the past damage people experience.  It is very difficult to be able to see your flaw, or mistake, or brokenness as possibly something that adds value.

The kintsugi pottery confronts you with the possibility that damage can be transformed.  Sometimes our flaws are a pathway to seeing beauty.  And, at times our mistakes lead us towards redemption and acceptance in a manner we least expect.

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Dark and Light

I didn’t really want to watch that…but I suppose I’m a bit glad I did.

Pain grafittiSweeney Todd

Old movie yes, but one I had not had the courage to watch until today. What drew me to it were some famous actors I appreciate and the darkness of the story of a “demon barber” and his compatriot who makes meat pies from the said demonic activities. My interest was akin to both that innate apish desire to watch the roadside accident as if I would learn something new, and the peer pressure of “everybody is doing it.”

There were plenty of times I closed my eyes to the action of the barber’s barbarous knife, but I was also struck with the cruelty in the dark tale that is so common to the stories which men and women write. Pick up a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, and you will definitely not find the Disney versions. There are monsters, blood, and death in equal measure to heroism, grit, and love.

The dark movie had moments of care, and strength and belief. Sometimes they were misguided, especially for the young boy who is heroically saved from poverty incidental to the macabre revenge the barber gives. Eventually, the boy senses the evil and in a touching and terrible scene promises to the woman cook that he will protect her. She is moved to sing the same, and I believe she truly wants this. However, she sings while also plotting to do away with the boy himself.

It’s the look on the woman’s face as she cuddles the boy and plots his doom that is both disconcerting and curious to me. That scene so poignantly captures the common spirit of humanity in so far as we seek to do evil and find good. Or, we may even seek to do good but awaken an evil along the way. And, in the case of either an ancient Grimm’s moral lesson or in the case of the beautifully filmed Sweeney Todd, the evil and good grow so intimately and closely in the human heart.

Perhaps that’s what I’m really looking for when I slow down to see that road accident with it’s flashing lights and emergency personnel. I’m hoping for a bit of heroism and looking for the love that is often around the corners of tragedy.

My work as a psychologist does not always allow me to journey with people in a way that clearly delineates good and evil themes. Our personal stories don’t have a filmmaker or musician that inserts the right symbolism or foreboding music to give us clues to what is next. Nevertheless, the timeless virtues are ones we can continue to strive for.

Everyday we need a dose of the strength of our choices, the commitments to love, and determination to keep going whatever we are facing.

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College Myth #4: I Can Trust What Others Decide for Me

“My parents know me best.  And, I really think my teachers and my guidance counselor can guide me through this college selection process.”

Example: Bill’s father thought he should be a dentist. Bill was a good student. Dentistry would be a well-paying, professional career with some stability, status and prestige. There was only one problem.  He didn’t know it at the time, but Bill’s strongest abilities were not in science or spatial relations, two very important aspects of dentistry. He had other very real abilities, but not those. Because Bill was a responsible, hard-working young man, he listened to his father and enrolled in chemistry. He made good grades, but he was miserably unhappy. In his junior year, frustrated and lost, he left college.

It wasn’t until Bill sought out some career mentoring that his direction developed more Continue reading

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College Myth #3: There’s Plenty of Time to Get a Good Return on Investment

The female student on the other end of the phone line said, “I’ll just shoot for the best school I can get into.”

She had already explained how successful she was at her high school.  She would be graduating in May 2013 in the top 10% of her class.  She was playing a varsity sport, and was earning a well-deserved athletic reputation.

Her parents sent her my way, ironically because she was too sure of what she wanted to do in college.

When I asked her about her initial plans, she said: ‘I’m going to go to Harvard and I’m going to be a doctor!’ Now there’s a powerful one-two punch. Case closed! No anxiety here.

I wasn’t fooled by her quick answer, and deep down she wasn’t either.  As we talked over the course of weeks, she expressed her anxiety and uncertainty about the upcoming college choosing season.  She had created a story about her life goals, but was completely uncertain about how she would get there.

Fact: In the ‘real world’ – that place out there after college – people get ahead fastest, are most successful, and are happiest when they know clearly how to state what their highest and best contribution can be. The key ingredient in knowing how you can contribute is self-knowledge.

The point: If a student’s only goal is to get into the most prestigious university (or that slight variant – the college that Dad went to) the student is overlooking the most important piece of the puzzle: herself.

Students rarely find out about themselves from taking a college course.  They learn how successful they are at mastering the course material, but not necessarily about who they are.

Return on Investment

Families spend a lot of time calculating and saving for the outlay of money that college requires. Few parents realize how little it can cost to “figure out” your college major, or to discover how your talents and personality can match your career goals.

In the following article, when one considers tuition and fees by themselves, the average class at a public college is costing: $721 for a 3-unit course.  At the average private college, that same course would be $2,421.


That money is wasted if a student is unaware of himself or herself.  A complete assessment of personality, interests, and the Highlands Ability Battery costs a bit more than one class at the average state college: just $800.

For peace of mind about your college tuition bill, pay attention to your return on investment.

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College Myth #2: My college will help me figure out what I should study.

A 17 year-old young man sat in my office telling me:

“I have no clue about what I want to study in college.  I’ll wait until I get there to figure that out.”

The young man grew up in a family with two working parents who were college graduates.   He was an intelligent and attractive individual.  He would also

be graduating soon in the top 10% of his class.

With all that he had going for him, I was shocked to hear that he had given very little thought to one of the biggest decisions of his life: college major.

Without a good dose of reality, I think most readers know that the results of his approach are fairly predictable.

The student will likely spend four years taking courses, going to parties, and avoiding the real world. At some point (4-5 years down the road), the student is going to face graduation. And students who have not been dealing with who they are and  what  they  want  to  do  in  life  probably  aren’t  going  to  be any further along than they were when they first entered college.

Fact: Even the most elite universities cannot look inside your heart and mind to know what you are passionate about, what has meaning for you. Only you can know that.

Prepare:  In this case, the 17-year-old I mentioned had someone to advise him to take a more reasoned approach.  He took the time to learn about himself through our visits and through a personal retreat time he designed for himself.  He put in some hard work to consider his values and goals, to understand his personality and his natural giftedness.

The Highlands Ability Battery was one of the tools I used with him to uncover what he was naturally talented at doing.  He came to understand that his logic and conceptual aptitudes, coupled with his mechanical talents could make him successful in an engineering field.  His personality styles of Introversion and Openness to Learning would also be a match for that career choice.

If a student goes to college with some reasonable options at hand—ones that are based on objective tests and measures—he will have sufficient focus to choose courses, majors, and summer jobs (or internships) that will actively allow him to take the ball down the field.

The point:Having no focus is just as bad as having a focus that is prematurely narrow.

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I’m the adventurous type when it comes to food.  I will try a new spice, a new meat, or an odd fruit I’ve never seen before in the grocery aisle.  I’ve tried to instill this in my children, and even to influence my wife.  It’s not so easy to change another person’s outlook—especially their sense of adventure.

When I’m travelling I appreciate a local restaurant, rather than rushing to a chain I could have dined at back home.  Recently, I stopped in at this diner, deciding I could quench my thirst with a cup of coffee.  I figured that would be a safe item, and if I was intrigued I could order something else.

What I found in this particular place was some good conversation about cooking.  I began to recall times in the kitchen with my grandmother sharing stories about preparing food and eating.  One of the cooks shared that their diner is known for their “home fries” as she sat peeling potato after potato into a bucket.  When is the last time you saw a person at a restaurant peel potatoes?   It impresses me to see actual food being prepared.

Adventurousness is a personality style measured by several psychology inventories.  They one I use often is the Workplace Big Five.  On that test, being a person who appreciates Adventure means you are open to change and new experiences.  Adventurousness is closely related to imagination, complexity, and artistic interests.

This personality style can be helpful in careers that are fast paced and place you in positions where a new culture or new way of thinking is valued.  Conversely, with a low adventure style you hold fast to acceptable practices and methods in the workplace.

Making a match between your Adventure scores and a career is an important factor my line of work.  Contact me for more information.

By the way, a lot of good has come from my tendency towards adventure.  Also, I’ve had a whole lot of sour tastes, and quickly disposed of foods—if you know what I mean.

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College Myth #1: Choosing a College Major Is The First and Only Step

“I already know what I want to study in college.  I don’t need to do any further exploration.”

Fact: Until a student understands her innate abilities – how she learns and solves problems best, any decision about what to study in college is premature.

Students feel enormous pressure: “What are you going to study?” “What do you want to be?”  If the student answers, ‘I’m going to study medicine,’ all the pressure stops. Problem solved.

But who knows if there is something else the student should consider that she just hasn’t thought of?

This approach can arise out of family pressure and messages.  Parents can send the message that “success=decision.”  If life were only this simple!  Decisions can lead to success, but it’s not just any decision.  Effective decisions come from adequate self-reflection, timely investigation, and increased self-knowledge.

Parents can also believe that schools have provided training in choosing a career.  High schools (and even some colleges) are poor places to learn these skills because the focus is too much on following the rules while spitting back acceptable answers in math or reading.  Schools can actually dampen the academic exploration and intellectual experimentation that students need to discover their talents.

Example: Karen was set to study philosophy at a small liberal arts college.  She was accepted on early admission and her parents were thrilled that she had found her lifelong path.  Then she completed the Highlands Ability Battery and found out she had structural abilities. Interestingly, when she found out about these abilities, and did some research on what she could do with them, she discovered that she had always felt a deep seated but unexpressed love of architecture and design. She ended up at a large university where she could explore abstract fields such as philosophy, but also architecture and industrial design as well.

The point:By finding out about her abilities, she went to a college that would leave all her options open.  Karen took the time to understand herself, explore her strengths and now has a much clearer career direction.

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The Contentment of a Cat

“What do you mean I’m not balanced!”

The woman who said this to me had a 40-hour a week job for which she commuted 2 hours each way. She also had hours of cab service she provided for her children to and from soccer, gymnastics, and football. She also spent half a day at her church, volunteering her time. In the wee hours of early morning she stole minutes here and there to dream about starting her own business.

There was no space for her to listen to her inner voice, or to renew herself.

I told her, “Being busy with many things doesn’t bring balance. Where in your schedule is time for peace and reflection and goal-setting?” The anxiety to fill up our life with “good” things sometimes keeps us from experiencing those good things. She was so distracted and tired, having a spontaneous conversation with her children was low on the priority list. Asking for prayer, or authentically offering it, wasn’t possible because she was so busing serving she left no place for being served.Like the cat, we humans must lay aside anxiety about the past and future to comfortably be in the present.

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Positive Psychology Part 2

In my previous post on positive psychology, I reviewed virtues that people can develop, and that help change themselves for the better.  I’ll continue describing other positive psychology virtues that I highlight in my own psychotherapy work.

Self-Control or self-regulation is learning to delay your present want/need for a future benefit.  It is both a mark of maturity in an individual, and contributes to a more responsible life in the community for that individual.  If you think about it, you are bombarded daily with information from physicians  who say that if you control yourself you’ll live a longer life (reduce cigarette smoking, reduce calories, increase exercise, practice safe sex, etc).  Well, this psychologist wants to add that self-control can also benefit you in building your marriage, succeeding at your career, and experience emotional peace, among other things.

Humility is about keeping your abilities and accomplishments in perspective.  Humility means having a realistic and accurate estimate of what you can do and what you have done in the past.  A person with humility is able to acknowledge their mistakes and limits.  In addition, a humble  person is open to new ideas and advice from others, appreciating the value of all people and what they have to contribute.

Wisdom is more than just gained academic skills, knowledge, or even social/emotional intelligence.  According to a researcher into intelligence–Robert Sternberg–Wisdom involves a capacity for sound logic, empathy, learning from experience, sensible judgment, efficient in using information, and possessing an accurate intuition.

Continue reading

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