Sunday, August 29, 2010

Helping Kids to Practice Mediocrity and Still Get Things Done

Mel Levine wrote a book about students, The Myth of Laziness, and you don't have to read it to agree or not (it is a good book, though, so I recommend you do read it.) Think about it for a minute. Do you ever describe yourself or your children or a student or colleague as lazy? If so, and you truly believe it, that these people would rather -xyz- than do what they know they are supposed to do, then you believe laziness exists.

I don't, especially when it comes to kids, but I would extend my belief that laziness is a myth to all of us. Beginning with the belief that we each have impeccable reasons for our behavior (one of my favorite mantras as you may know) we can start to unravel our own, and others, "lazy" behavior.

For those of us who work with kids, it's important to help them see the reasons for their seemingly self-destructive behavior, such as procrastination. There are always reasons. In my first blog entry on this site, I spoke to the pay-off of procrastinating. What about other self-defeating behaviors? Why would a girl stay up so late that she is exhausted in the morning? Well, if she is an adolescent there is some gain to that night time that is more important than avoiding the drudgery of the next morning. Figure out what the gain is, replace it in some other way, and the night owl may be somewhat subdued, if not turned into a lark. Why would a boy refuse to clean out his backpack, locker, desk, room, whatever, even though you know it will help him keep track of his assignments? My guess is, he knows it, too, but there is some pay-off to the chaos and finding it will unlock the mystery. Boys tend to be highly averse to shame beginning in upper elementary school. This boy may feel overwhelmed by the disorganization, ashamed of feeling overwhelmed, and resistant to asking for help. A quiet conversation and some private instructional support for organizing might be the solution.

In addition, having a visceral feeling associated with the consequence of our behavior either reinforces or extinguishes the behavior. Some consequences feel like touching a hot stove, others feel like an uplifting pat on the back. Helping kids to experience and recognize those visceral feelings is a lesson in emotional intelligence and can be a building block for their future accomplishments. We generally need help with initial visceral experiences but, eventually, we'll predict the outcome feeling and guide our behavior toward the outcome we desire. This is not Skinnerian purity but a strong belief in the empowerment that comes with self-reflection and self-determination.

So, what does this have to do with Practicing Mediocrity? Well, for some kids, mediocrity becomes their calling-card, like labeling themselves as lazy. When we recognize the impeccable reasons for our behavior, recognize our potential, and then choose to stop when we have completed a task, rather than scramble toward perfectionism, we have mastered the self-awareness, self-acceptance, and love of our constant core goodness, that underlies truly Practicing Mediocrity.

Until next time...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Embracing and Letting Go

Today, I made a mistake. This summer, we ran out of time.

The mistake was missing an appointment of my daughters. The running out of time was bigger-- it was for an application my husband and I had planned to complete by August 1st. I don't think it can happen. I have to let go. Part of PM (practicing mediocrity) is embracing imperfection. Imperfection is making the mistake on the appointment and not working enough ahead of time to complete the application (or not realizing it was biting off more than we could chew.) It hurts and I feel like a dork... like we failed.

I use the word "embracing" with intent-- it's not that we should accept imperfection, rather we should embrace it. Being imperfect is human and real and it is part of what makes us accessible to other humans. Think of someone you have met who seemed perfect. You knew, cognitively, that they couldn't really be perfect but they sure seemed that way-- in other words, you felt that they were perfect. That feeling overrides your cognition that they are not and you probably responded to them as if they were actually perfect.

It's a loaded relationship at this point, weighted heavily on top of you. I don't know how you responded to them but I would bet it directly reflected your emotionally-based belief that they were perfect. In my experience with this kind of relationship, I either worshipped, felt inferior, looked for chinks in the armor, or abandoned it all in search of someone who I didn't use as a yardstick. What a waste of time, energy, and a potentially wonderful relationship. It could be that I deemed them perfect and it could be that they worked to come across that way. Doesn't matter. The loss is what it is.

On the flip side, you've probably had a friend who was deliciously, openly, heartwarmingly human about an imperfection and I bet you loved and connected with them on a deeper level because of it. You could probably have emotionally wounded them in the process but you didn't. You sheathed your knife and opened your arms when they presented themselves transparently. Their vulnerability brought out your compassion because it was authentic.

In embracing imperfection and letting go and saying "I can't" or "I goofed" we put out our most vulnerable and human self. Interestingly, though, in that act of transparency and human-ness, we feel very strong and right (direction/balance, not correctness) with the world. It's not a small thing. If you check in with yourself, you'll feel it.

Try this at a tiny level. Practice Mediocrity by embracing a mistake or letting go of something you've assigned yourself and see how it feels. Be transparent and vulnerable. Embrace your human self.

Lata Alligata...

Monday, June 21, 2010


In the 1975 book, The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff, the Yequana of South America are described in detail. Their culture is different and, therefore, so are their assumptions:
Perhaps as essential as the assumption of innate sociality in children and adults is a respect for each individual as his own proprietor. The notion of ownership of other persons is absent among the Yequana. the idea that this is "my child or "your child" does not exist. Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. there is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence- let alone coerce- anyone. A child's will is his motive force.
As you read that last sentence, those of you with children may shudder. If my four sprites were motivated by their will, they would be swimming in a vat of chocolate while playing X-Box and purchasing online products with my money. If, however, they were raised with the Yequana, they would be doing none of that and it would all work out... so, don't go the vat-of-chocolate route in your thinking.

Instead, consider the idea that we are each our own proprietor. We run our own general store. We are the CEO of our lives. Now, add to that the idea that others telling us what to do or using coercion to influence us is not part of their vocabulary. What freedoms would we have to be who we are? We wouldn't need to measure up because there would be no comparison. Competition? No. Bitterness? Probably not. Living our unique life supported by the interest of others? Yes.


I may be going out on a limb here but I'm guessing none of my readers are Yequana so the challenge for us non-Yequanans is to adopt this concept in our own lives and see if it spreads like the ripples from the stone thrown into a pond. If we let go of our ownership of others and our culturally-taught tendency to try to influence their behavior, AND we take the position that they do not own us and we are proprietors of our own lives, we may start something.

If Grayson Chance can go viral and get a record contract (he's awesome, BTW) with Ellen, then perhaps we can start small and things will change. The irony is that the change we may want cannot be pushed... but we can be interested in it happening.

Live and let live. It's all good.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Pesky Visitors

Have you ever considered the role emotions play in practicing mediocrity? If pm is about acceptance and practicing wellness, then our ability to accept and potentially embrace the messiness of emotions is certainly involved.

I don't like to cry. It feels out of control and the more I hold back the more the controls slips down my cheek in salty tears and the more my face contorts into an ugly grimace. Control may be the key word here. Whenever I open to the uncomfortable emotion, whether it be sadness, anger, shame, happiness (yes, that can be uncomfortable, too) -- the emotion loses its power over me and I don't feel out of control, I just feel sad, angry, ashamed, happy...


I remember learning the concept of welcoming the unwelcome and asking the emotion we most want to push aside what it is here to teach us. Here's how it goes: Identify your most uncomfortable emotion and a situation where you remember feeling that way. OK, got it in mind? Do you kinda feel it? Good. Next, imagine that emotion as a visitor to your house. Rather than drawing the shades and pretending you aren't home, throw open the door, extend your arms and say, "Welcome, _____ ! I'm so glad you are here. What do you have to teach me?" If you aren't into this imagery, make up your own, but make it fun and easy.

Emotions tell us about ourselves and our discomfort with them tells us even more. My avoidance of crying tells me that feeling deeply and authentically sad is not an emotion I easily welcome. That tells me that I want to remain in control and I don't want to be emotionally messy any more than I want my closet out of order. Yea. Fits.

So, if I am to practice mediocrity with regard to my emotions, I need to let it get messy once in a while. Being deeply and authentically sad means I care deeply and authentically about someone or something. That's a wonderful quality to recognize in myself and a quality I appreciate in others.

This week, I am sad. I've thrown open the door and welcomed her in and she's planning to stay a while. I'm sure she'll want herbal tea and chocolate-chip cookies and sheets with a high thread-count. Blue.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Finding Motto

When I started graduate school, I knew it would be an uphill battle. I'm a procrastinator. I don't like to hand in anything until I feel good about it. I had a new baby. I was living in China. I worked full time. I thought and thought about the attitude I needed to get through graduate school. I knew I loved my subject (developmental psychology) and I knew I could think well enough to do it but I didn't know how to get myself motivated.

Just keep swimmin' swimmin' swimmin' like Dory says in Finding Nemo? No. That's all fine and good but it didn't address the underlying reason I procrastinate-- it's scary to put out your best work and have it criticized so, by procrastinating, I never actually put out my best work and any criticism can be blamed on my not doing the assignment thoroughly... didn't have the time. It's a devilish fairy goblin, Procrastination. It is birthed from Perfectionism and is the grandchild of Fear of Failure.

Already somewhat studied in human psychology, I knew honesty was key to my finding just the right attitude to adopt for grad school. I was going for my Ph.D. My parents both have theirs, which doesn't help because they either "did it in only two weeks, was the first in my field, amazed all who came within my orbit" (Dad) or "suffered for nine decades, 34-hours per day, and was bored the whole time" (Mom). I was afraid I would fail. I was afraid I'd never measure up. What I didn't realize is we are all going by different yard-sticks...and, anyway, who really cares? Comparing will only leave us vain and bitter... so says that Desiderata thing I had on my wall in Middle School.

Attitude Attitude... I needed a motto...Motto Motto... then it hit me. I needed to get the job done. I needed to stop thinking that this was going to define me. It was a ticket-punch (thanks, both Mom and Dad for helping me remember this) and whether I do the best job ever or do the worst job ever, what was important was doing the job. Do The Job, however, did not become my motto.

Motto Motto... I needed a motto that reminded me of my tendency (OK, I'll admit it, my deeply refined art) toward procrastination. If procrastination came from a slight perfectionist side of me, which actually comes from a fear of failure, then I must learn to accept, no embrace, less than perfect from myself. I must practice mediocrity. Ah, grasshopper... Practice Mediocrity.

That was it. I typed up Practice Mediocrity on a nice piece of paper and only went through 15 fonts before choosing... and pasted that sucker every place I worked. It was on my wall, on my desk, in my folders, peeking out at me from a textbook. I stopped short of making laminated bookmarks but I still think it's a good idea if someone wants to go for it.

As often happens in life, the stars align. Several years later, when teaching 10th-grade Wellness under the guidance of the amazing Dr. Chuck Fisher, I read a quote, "Perfection is the antithesis to Wellness." True. My practice of mediocrity was, for me, a practice in not being perfect. It was a practice of acceptance. I was practicing Wellness all the time.

Since then (and since finishing YES! my Ph.D.) I have shared my motto with those who may have never considered the idea of embracing and accepting a less-than-perfect self. I don't think of "mediocre" as "not good" because practicing Wellness, avoiding perfectionism, and releasing yourself from ridiculous external definitions of success and failure is a GREAT THING! Trust me on this:
Practice Mediocrity and you will set yourself free.
I'll be posting here when I want... nothing planned. Nothing perfect. I promise.