Newsletter 573 – On Purpose: Benefits of a Transcendent Mission

Last weekend I read a review and then read On Purpose, a new book by Victor Strecher, professor and director for innovation and socialON-PURPOSE-cover-1 entrepreneurship at University of Michigan School of Public Health. The book’s endorsers promised something more creative and innovative than Strecher delivered. Illustrated to look like a comic book, this short volume describes the death of the author’s 19 year-old daughter, gives a few details of his grief journey, and then shows the importance of having a purpose for living. On Purpose is a minimally-interesting story about a fictional college class that hears a lot of quotes from famous people and scientific research summaries about the major health benefits of having a “transcendent mission” life purpose.

In the footnotes, the book documents the cited research and supports evidence for the crucial importance of having a life purpose that goes beyond ourselves. This is a purpose characterized by empathy, compassion, openness, personal growth, supporting the needs of others, and creating or contributing to something larger than ourselves. It is far different from self-enhancing goals that strive for power, status, wealth, possessions, physical attractiveness, popularity, admiration, and prestige.

As we lose self-transcendent purpose we stagnate as a society, says Strecher. We numb ourselves in front of the TV set, eat too much, smoke, abuse prescription drugs. We ignore our environment. We listen to bad pop lyrics. We also die younger, are more likely to have strokes or heart attacks, and are 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than people who have a strong, transcendent purpose.

Dr. Strecher probably is a better researcher than story teller but his easy-to-read book may spread a message that most of us already know: Having a viable, active and other-centered purpose is more than a dream of life coaches or of companies with wordy mission statements that are framed, hung on the wall and ignored. You may like Strecher’s own mission statement: to encourage over one billion people to find their purpose and to teach all my students as if they were my own daughter.”

What’s your mission statement? How do these conclusions relate to your work? Please comment.


Newsletter 572 – Why Do People Helpers and Leaders Resist Help for Themselves?

Most people at work [including counselors, pastors and students]…divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: building and preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company [and organization] today.

Helping 1This quotation is taken from a contemporary business magazine. The article argues that it is best for an organization and for individuals to face this reality and find ways to get help and even turn their struggles into growth opportunities. Set this against a major article in Monitor on Psychology (April 2014). Researchers focused on psychologists who spend their days helping others but neglect to care for themselves. The result is a high incidence of burnout, depression, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue. And that’s not limited to professional therapists and graduate students.

What deters people like you and me from getting needed help? The answers are not surprising: social stigma, fear of emotion, resistance to self-disclosure, and difficulty admitting personal distress. For some it is lack of time and resources, difficulty finding a therapist who will keep quiet, resistance to going to a colleague or former student, concerns lest revealing personal stress can adversely impact one’s professional reputation. There’s even a sense that getting help might not do any good.

Nevertheless, the Monitor researchers found that the outside help was effective and valued among most of those who’d had the courage to reach out. Getting help for personal problems benefits personal and professional effectiveness. Organizations, church boards and academic institutions can help by making resources available and encouraging growth through therapy and coaching. Some research even suggests that companies benefit when they encourage their employees to seek available assistance. For individuals it may be best to talk with a friend or mentor who can be trusted. When these resources are not available maybe you can find a helper who does not know you. Whatever we do, it rarely works to handle these things alone. The Bible emphases repeatedly that we need each other. Lone-rangers often self-destruct.

It would be good to  hear how others have benefited from counseling or coaching, or what you’ve learned about helping others get needed help. Please comment.

Newsletter 571 – How Does Creativity Apply to You?

innovation and creativity 3Innovation and creativity are popular topics in the publications I read, especially the business magazines (like Inc., Fast Company and Harvard Business Review). I’ve also noticed these words in national newspapers, regular blog posts, and conference programs. Why is this so important among people who value progress, relevance and future trends?

Like it or not, most of us live in a fast-paced, competitive culture that includes churches and other Christian institutions. To thrive, and sometimes simply to survive, we may need to be appealing, attractive, fresh and “cutting edge.” In addition, many of us are invigorated by the process of discovering or creating new experiences, beauty, art, and even practical gimmicks that make our lives and products more fulfilling and useful. Think of the counseling, coaching or teaching that involve many of us. We want to encourage and bring positive change in the people with whom we work. We’re delighted if innovation and creativity make their lives better.

It is impossible to summarize the massive writings and research about creativity but here are some observations:

  • Despite the creations of innovators and inventors who work alone, there is value in creative people working together. In the Fast Company issue that focuses on creativity (April, 2014), editor Robert Safian writes that building on the ideas of one person can lead to thinking that is “narrow, predictable and boring….Collective creativity is far richer than any single source can provide.”
  • But corporate bureaucracy and rules also can deaden creative impact. Consider the churches, accrediting agencies, governments and individuals that are stalled in rigidity and unwilling or unable to move forward.
  • Any of us can shut off creativity and stay mired in the status quo, sometimes because this is personally beneficial or easier.
  • In contrast, creativity can be cultivated. A good starting place is to look at the creative efforts of others, to try new things, to take new risks. Creative people and ideas stimulate more of the same.
  • That said, there seems to be something innate in this. Some people are naturally less creative than others. Their personalities and background experiences limit their ability or desire to innovate. These people are very much needed to bring stability and grounding to our lives, society, churches and professions.

What have you learned about creativity? Please comment.

Newsletter 570 – Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life

HBR Cover Balance 1
Can anything fresh be said about balancing the challenges of work and life – and thriving in the process? Apparently the Harvard Business Review editors think this is worth the several cover stories in the March 2014 issue. Maybe the cover is a tip-off to what follows. The image of an elephant balancing on a ball is above the words “Forget about balance – you have to make choices.”This reminds me of the (easily retrieved) Balance - ElephantInternet image of an elephant balancing on a small ball above the words “Balance is the Key to Life!” Do you agree?

  • Balance is impossible if we mean consistently planned and preprogrammed time slots at work and apart from our jobs. We all know that life can be surprising and disruptive. Sometimes family crises demand attention, as do deadline-controlled periods at work. The goal is balance over weeks, months or years, not on a daily basis.
  • Home life and work life can each benefit the other. Partners at work and spouses or friends elsewhere can both bring emotional support, encouragement and fresh perspectives.
  • One large survey found that “leaders with strong family lives spoke again and again of needing a shared vision of success for everyone at home.”
  • Neither of these two domains (work and non-work activity) should be allowed to dominate the other. “Mixing these spheres too much leads to confusion and mistakes.”
  • Watch out for the destructive power of always being plugged in to communication technology including cell phones and computers. Twenty-four hour availability can hamper initiative and erode performance in individuals and in organizations.
  • The HBR articles only discuss life at work and life away. But how much of this applies to people, maybe in the millions, who have successful careers but who also are devoted to writing novels, making music, or fulfilling other avocational pursuits? How do I help a friend who has a relatively successful career but longs to spend more time working on a fulfilling hobby? Where do these fit into the balance mix?
  • Perhaps the overarching conclusion is to set realistic boundaries and keep flexible.

What do you think? How do you find balance or help others do the same? Please comment.

Newsletter 569 – Hardest Word for Most of Us To Say?

Just say no 1It is not a vulgar word or a long word like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of Mary Poppins fame. A Wall Street Journal article (March 11, 2014) calls No a “tiny word, but tough to say.” Many years ago former First Lady Nancy Reagan had an anti-drug campaign with the slogan “Just Say No.” Sounds like a great idea but it’s very difficult to comply when any of us is surrounded by peer pressure urging us to say yes.

Saying no is especially difficult when the request is legitimate or when we want to please the person who asks. When asked to help with a worthy cause, donate money to charity, or help a friend – or even a stranger, many of us say yes because we feel uncomfortable or guilty if we decline. We value kindness and being helpful. We don’t want to reject others or risk hurting a relationship. Some of us are people-pleasers who want to be liked so we make ourselves available to anyone who calls. These may be admirable characteristics but they can create problems. I have a friend who rarely sets boundaries. He revels in the opportunities and projects that he has been offered and accepted. This is affirming and ego-building. But periodically he gets overwhelmed because he failed to say no. Sound familiar?

None of us was created to meet everyone’s requests. Even Jesus set boundaries (e.g. Mark 1:35-38). Each of us hasJust say no 2limited time and energy. These need to be rationed. Saying yes to one thing means that we are forced to say no to another. Our families, closest relationships and health all suffer when we let other people set our agendas. How, then, do we say no?

  • Set your priorities. I don’t accept committee assignments or speaking invitations apart from my specialties.
  • Clarify your values. Never agree to something that you think is wrong or unwise.
  • Delay your answer. This gives you time to think how to say no.
  • Avoid peer pressure situations.
  • Give reasons for saying no, but avoid debates about your decision. These often lead to more pressure.
  • Don’t say “Maybe later” unless you mean it. These words insure that you will be asked again.

What would you add? How do you help yourself or others to say no?

Newsletter 568 – Should You Care About Biographies and Novels?

Vernon Grounds BookHave you ever heard of Vernon Grounds? He was a theologian, dynamic speaker and (Denver) seminary president. Born in 1914, he died four years ago but only last month did I read Bruce Shelley’s biography subtitled The Vernon Grounds Story. Vernon wrote a PhD dissertation on Freud’s view of love, spent much of his life counseling and mentoring younger leaders and professionals, and was a leader in the early debates about theology vs. psychology. It seems that everyone he met admired him and he profoundly influenced countless lives and careers, including mine.

12 years a SlaveI rarely read biographies and probably have only read eight or ten novels in my whole life. But should mental health professionals, pastors, leaders and others be learning from stories, real and imaginary? Surely these can teach us about life, leadership and helping in ways that no formal journal article or bullet point presentation can do. All except one of last week’s Academy Awards best picture nominees were stories of real people’s lives. Last month Relevant Magazine published a list of eight recommended biographies (for the list, click here) and I have committed to reading all eight. This includes Solomon Northup’s autobiography 12 Years a Slave, which was made into this year’s best picture Oscar winner. I’m reading Northrup’s book now. The March 2014  APA Monitor published an article on psychologists and novelists. Titled “Fascinated by People, On and Off the Page,” the article interviews four psychologist-novelists including one who has done research showing that reading fiction can impact readers’ personalities, increasing their empathy and social skills.

In addition to this is the recent fascination with narrative therapy in its various forms. This can include helping counseling and coaching clients, among others, imagine and seek to live out their hoped-for new life stories. Much older is the use of bibliotherapy in which appropriate books and other written materials, fiction and biographies included, can supplement leadership and care-giving.

Are any of you writers, users of narrative therapy or recommenders of biographies and fiction? Please comment. Also, what is the best biography that you would recommend? Click on Comment to let us know.


Newsletter 567 – Should You Care About Mindfulness?

If I tried choosing the two hottest emerging topics among mental health professionals these days, probably I’d select the focus on how the brain works (see last week’s newsletter) and the fascination with mindfulness. Two very different publications recently featured articles on Mindfulness. Time (February 3, 2014) suggests that “we’re in the midst of a popular obsession with mindfulness as the secret to health and happiness.” Harvard Business Review (March , 2014) describes “mindfulness in the age of complexity,” then shows that “by paying attention to what’s going on around us, instead of operating on autopilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and boost performance. Neither article has much depth but they show how mindfulness has become something of a fad in the places where we live, work, lead, teach and seek to impact others. Even the U.S. Air Force has a recruiting advertisement for clinical psychologists with these prominent words: Meditation, Relaxation. Deep Breathing. Your Arsenal is More Powerful than you Think. That suggests mindfulness. (American Psychologist, March-April, 2014, Back cover.)

Mindfulness 1Mindfulness is the process of focusing on the present moment, giving full attention to what you are doing in the present and being less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come. The HBR article mostly is a listing of all the magical implications and effects of meditation and other mindfulness methods. Time suggests that the popularity comes, in part, from those who promote and market the mindfulness revolution. But the movement keeps growing because an increasing body of respectable research, including studies of the brain, gives evidence that mindfulness does, indeed, live up to many of its claims.

Initially I shied away from mindfulness because of it’s Buddhist roots but then I thought of other apparently useful fields and methodologies that spring from humanism, secular research, and other foundations that in no way are Christian. Some of the mindfulness commentary on meditation sounds like biblical commands to meditate. But biblical writers tell us to meditate on God and his word whereas secular approaches have a different focus. We can use secular based approaches providing we keep aware of the reasons we use them. What are the Christian implications of all this, especially relating to counseling and to leadership? Please comment, including your recommendations for further study or reading.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,424 other followers