Seek meaning, service in life

June 10th, 2009 by Admin

From The Washington Times, Wed., May 20, 2009

As millions of American students graduate from high schools and colleges in cap-and-gown ceremonies both solemn and festive this spring, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on their prospects for successful living and working. Of course, those entering the working world are doing so at a time of great uncertainty and financial distress, with tight employment and credit markets.

It’s possible, though, that the recession could be a fleeting concern compared to a more personal and lasting challenge they face: finding their moorings amid a sea of choices in a culture that sends them profoundly mixed messages. Decades ago, the life and career paths of the young largely were spelled out in advance, but today’s youth must forge their own path. That can be liberating and unnerving for young people without much basis for making such vital decisions.

Graduation speakers across the land already are dispensing lessons learned and wisdom earned. What have we learned in recent decades about how to live – about how to lead productive, successful, rewarding and fulfilling lives?

Fortunately, a lot.

Not long ago, a sea change swept through the field of psychology, flipping the focus from debilitating conditions and diseases (i.e., what makes people suffer) to happiness and success (i.e., what makes people thrive). The emergent “positive psychology,” led by such luminaries as Martin Seligman (author of “Authentic Happiness”) and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Flow”), resonates not only with new research on youth and adult development, but also with surveys of key factors leading to success in life (from books such as “Success Built to Last”) and studies of people in their twilight years reflecting on how they lived. It also gibes with ancient ideas of happiness dating back to Aristotle and his concept of “eudaimonia,” or a full flourishing of self through excellence and virtue.

One could synthesize this convergence of research and thinking with two key words: meaning and service. That is, find ways to have meaningful connections with and make significant contributions to others. Meaning and service.

Fortunately, there is evidence that the rising generations get this. Countless surveys have indicated they are civic- and service-minded, and that many are not only “life shoppers” – searching for a lifestyle that suits them – but seekers of meaning and connection as well as success and wealth.

Take, for example, two high school seniors who recently received AXA Achievement scholarships: Joshua Wortzel and Brittany Bergquist. Mr. Wortzel started the Garden of Giving, which grows and donates organic produce to local homeless shelters via a solar-powered greenhouse located at a Pennsylvania retirement home, with 20 students and 10 senior citizens running it. The project fosters intergenerational connections while serving homeless people and cultivating environmental stewardship in the community.

Ms. Bergquist started Cell Phones for Soldiers with her brother, Robbie, when they were 13 and 12, respectively. To date, they have raised almost $2 million and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers overseas. The project started when they were getting ready for school one morning and saw a TV report about an Army Reservist in Iraq who unknowingly racked up a cell phone bill of more than $7,600. Outraged, they ran upstairs, drained their piggy banks, hit up their friends at school for donations, and got to work. (continued…)

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Talent proven in adversity

June 9th, 2009 by Admin

From The Washington Times, Wed., May 6, 2009

All around us, we are feeling the bite of this recession, with stories of lost jobs driving anxiety over the potential of losing our livelihood. It may be time to take a different view of our circumstances. Specifically, this may be the best time to start thinking about what you really want to do in life.

In studying great leaders over time, authors Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas learned that many of them discovered their leadership abilities in times of significant stress – during “crucible moments.” A classic example of this is the time Nelson Mandela spent in a prison cell. He emerged a transformed individual and leader.

As Mr. Bennis subsequently wrote, “Whatever is thrown at them, leaders emerge from their crucibles stronger and unbroken. No matter how cruel the testing, they become more optimistic and more open to experience.”

As we open our eyes to the possibilities, two instincts tend to kick in. The first is a jolt of adrenaline where the dreams start to take shape in the form of a palpable sense that, my gosh, I can do that. Pen goes to paper, and the proverbial sketch on the napkin begins to emerge. Then fear kicks in, followed by strong dose of self-doubt and a string of excuses: not the right time, not the right place, not the right set of experiences, just plain not ready.

Fair enough – but let’s break that down. What is holding you back? For many, personal finances is a primary barrier. This is a strong driver and should weigh into any decision-making. As one begins to do the math, however, one quickly should be asking, “What are my needs versus wants?”

In our race to keep up with the Joneses, we have a tendency to get ourselves in trouble by living way above our means (which is, in part, what led to this mess). How about going the opposite direction and figuring out how to live below your means, thereby creating the financial flexibility necessary to pursue your dream? Granted, this takes time and discipline, but is the possibility of creating a fulfilled life worth it?

Another factor that tends to hold people back is a low tolerance for risk. Without a doubt, taking the path less traveled means venturing into the unknown. As strategist and author Jim Collins pointed out, “As an entrepreneur, you know what your risks are. You see them. You understand them. You manage them. If you join someone else’s company, you may not know those risks, and not because they don’t exist. You just can’t see them, and you can’t manage them. That’s a much more exposed position than the entrepreneur faces.”

Even as an entrepreneur in control of your own destiny, however, the path ahead is inevitably opaque and ambiguous. How do you get beyond that? (read more…)

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