Making Friends in New Places

This time of year always brings back memories of my first semester in college and the social adjustment I hadn’t anticipated. As a small town guy who knew everyone, being surrounded by a sea of strangers instead of my “regulars” was a brutal reckoning that life would never be the same. In those days, we lacked technology to keep us connected, and phone calls were simply too expensive. I remember resorting to writing letters to my friends who had scattered and were experiencing the same case of the “lonelies.” Then, like now, simply being surrounded by loads of others didn’t make me secure… any more than having 1,000 Facebook “friends” does for people today.

The good news is that new environments offer a great opportunity to make new friends, some of whom may prove more durable than the ones we left behind. Sure, it’s a “trial and error” thing, but provided we approach it with the right attitude and methods, we can develop a new layer of friends and support system.

Borrowing from What I Wish I Knew at 18, here are our best ideas for winning great new friends in new places and avoiding poor choices that often derail college (and other) experiences:

  1. Set a high bar. In the young adult years, peers can have a tremendous impact on our lives. So, be choosy and only surround yourself with people who: 1) share and respect your beliefs and values, 2) lift you up with positivity, 3) enjoy similar interests, 4) allow you to be your authentic self, and 5) demonstrate motivation and trustworthiness.
  2. Consider your current “BFFs.” Your best friends aren’t your best friends by accident. Your relationships developed over time and with testing. Take time to reflect on what, specifically, you value most about them. This, together with the first point, will allow you to create a “friend filter” in your mind that you can apply to new acquaintances.
  3. Be uncompromising about values. So often, our friend-making mistakes come when we hang out with people who don’t share our values. This is especially common when we’re lonely and want companionship. One way to prepare is to review the Positive Traits and Values list that you can find here. Which qualities are most important to you? They’re important to include in your friend filter.
  4. Remember, it’s all about quality. Quantity matters in many areas, but when it comes to friend-making, it can’t compete with quality!
  5. Be patient. It helps to remember that your current best friends were made over a lengthy period of time. Resist the temptation to rush it. Relationships develop in a progression (at LifeSmart, we describe it as going from acquaintance to prospect to friend to VIP). Most of the people we meet in life will stay as acquaintances, and that’s fine.
  6. Seek out “common denominator” settings. One way of making a big place seem smaller is to find opportunities to meet people with similar interests. In the college scene, you can find them in specific courses, clubs, organizations, intramurals, the arts, and various affinity groups. What do you enjoy doing most? Are there organized opportunities to meet similar-minded people to give you a head start?

Finally, as important as it is to make new friends, it’s even more critical to avoid destructive people. Often, these are folks with a different value system and who attempt to lure you into comprising yours. In the college scene, there are many students who are clearly not there for the academics—even if the price tag is expensive! Be sure to take the following story to heart:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” 

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Be choosy, be patient, and enjoy your friend-making journey.

A Call for Love, Harmony, and Forward Progress

These last few weeks have been profoundly heartbreaking. My emotions have run the gamut, including anger, pain, grief, disgust, frustration, weariness, and a deep sense of loss for the families, friends, and communities of George Floyd and the many other victims who have perished in this horrific and unjust tragedy. At LifeSmart, we join the peaceful cries for justice, pray for the hurting, and stand for meaningful solutions that allow all people the opportunity to flourish.

Just so you know, incidences of injustice are personal, professional, and now, familial to me. I have many dear African American friends who I consider mentors and role models (Mike James, Willie Stewart, Bea McLeod, and Antwine Jefferson to name some). And, at LifeSmart, we are blessed to serve many racially diverse schools and regions and have special regard for the incredible dropout prevention/career readiness program at Jobs for America’s Graduates, whose teachers and students we serve are often minorities. Finally, I’m excited to mention that we have a new addition to our family—a son-in-law, Bruce Spencer, who is an Army officer, a true gentleman, and who happens to be African American. We love him dearly and are starting a wonderful new relationship with his family, too.

As I reflect on 2020, I’m struck by how many of us have experienced injustice in one way or another. Small business owners deemed “Non-Essential” and shuttered even when we could have operated safely, if given the chance. Churches who are facing tighter restrictions than other organizations. Speakers banned from campuses because of their political or religious philosophies. I bring this up not to diminish the injustices from racial mistreatment in any way, but to call us to be vigilant to the many injustices surrounding us—and to be the comforters, advocates, and change agents on their behalf. To be warriors against injustice whenever or wherever we see it.

So, where do we go from here, and how can we be part of the solution? Let me offer three themes for you to consider today: Love, Harmony, and Forward Progress. I recognize there may be some views with which you disagree, but please know my intentions are from the heart for universal good, and through the imperfect filter of my beliefs and experiences. I hope it’s as helpful to you as writing it has been for me. Now, let’s talk about LOVE.

Love is at the Center of the Solution

Love is the answer to many things, and in my opinion, it’s the foremost ingredient to resolving issues of injustice, discrimination, and reconciliation. Sure, we can find ways to “get along” or “peacefully coexist,” but shouldn’t we be challenged to a higher standard? In my Christian faith, I am called to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself. For me, these are inextricably linked, and they’re not mere suggestions. I realize my readers have diverse beliefs on the God part, but I suspect we can agree that IF we were able to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, our world would be a much better place, and injustice would diminish. The bottom line is this: love should be the overriding principle and motivator in our relations. Only good can flow from this.

How can we as individuals demonstrate love in a way that combats injustice? Here are some examples: through affirmations of worth and value, dignity, respect, acceptance, appreciation, empathy, compassion, and encouragement. I have always found word opposites to provide extra clarity, especially when dealing with the subjective. To that end, I developed a one-page summary of word opposites that relate to love and harmony you can find here.

I encourage you (and your families, students, etc.) to carefully reflect on each line, because they clarify what love is and isn’t. In doing so, you can gauge your personal “love quotient” and perhaps identify ways to strengthen your game. Trust me, if you stay in the left column of the document, you will be fostering justice and a whole lot more.

In my book/curriculum, What I Wish I Knew at 18, I share a life success pointer, “Demonstrate Your Capacity to Love.” It is such a powerful (and timely) nugget and bears repeating:

“Can you imagine what our world would be like if our lives were defined by the love we demonstrated toward others? What if—instead of by our winning percentages, job titles, or personal wealth—we were measured in terms of units of love, kindness, generosity, compassion, and encouragement offered to others? One thing’s for certain. The world would be a far better place and, amazingly, it wouldn’t cost us anything. 

People with the most admirable character traits demonstrate an incredible capacity to love. It’s woven into their very existence, and you can recognize it in an instant. In addition to their inherent kindness, they have a special way of showing others that they’re worthy of being loved. This is an extraordinary gift to give others. It simply requires a mindset (and “heart set”) and a commitment to use every opportunity to show you care. After all, isn’t that how you would like others to treat you?”

Friends, let’s renew and strengthen our commitment to love. Let’s do this first.

Harmony as a Relational Goal

Our backgrounds, experiences, families, characteristics, values, philosophies, personalities, and passions are so different. They each make us wonderfully unique, which is a good thing. However, as we all know, this produces challenges and conflict, too. It’s always been this way.

Given this, I think harmony is a wonderful aspirational word for our time. When discord, division, suspicion, and harsh rhetoric seem to rule the day, harmony is a great rescuer. Consider these synonyms: unity, peace, friendship, tranquility, understanding, cooperation, and togetherness. Oh, how we could use more harmony today! Like love, I believe the more harmony we have, the less injustice we’ll experience.

One way to promote harmony is to model the left-hand column of our Love and Harmony Word Opposites resource. Another way is to actively avoid some alarming and prevalent sources of disharmony that are harming many relationships today:

  1. Politicizing almost everything. Honestly, I think this is just dumb. Please, let’s stop this.
  2. Holding biased and entrenched views. Depending on one’s key media and information sources and experiences, it’s easy to develop extremely biased views and interpret opinions as fact. When our sources are consistently one-sided, our views can easily become entrenched. This compromises our perspective, decision-making, and communications. Let’s be more open to diverse views.
  3. Overly focusing on our differences. I am all for appreciating our uniqueness, but it can overshadow what unifies us if we’re not careful. We need both.
  4. Generalizing and judging. Often, due to identity politics run amok, people assign blanket generalizations about each “bucket.” “If someone is a ___, then I don’t want to associate with them because they believe ___.” Huge and unfortunate assumptions are being made, and it is caustic and divisive at the core. Let’s first give everyone the benefit of the doubt and focus on the individual… we will likely find more common ground than we think.
  5. “This, not that” rhetoric. Partly a downside of social media, we are increasingly seeing critical, dogmatic expressions of opinion with an underlying arrogance. Many are viewing complex issues as black or white (not racially), when they are more likely gray. This “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach to communicating shuts down conversation and inhibits what ought to be our chief goal: mutual understanding. Excessive virtue signaling and shaming people who hold different opinions are alarming sources of disharmony today. We’re seeing too much coercion and too little conversation. For harmony’s sake, this needs to change.

In James 1:19, we are encouraged to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This is wise advice for today.

Finally, in my book, What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead, I share several life success pointers that foster love and harmony. If you have the book, I encourage you to revisit these sections because they are so relevant today:


Direct your life toward others * Don’t define success by riches * Demonstrate your capacity to love * Live to serve * Be proactively nice * Give everything your best * Take responsibility for your mistakes and shortfalls * Choose humility over self-pride * Be an inspiring team player * Be an encourager rather than a critic and always look for the best in people * Don’t say something about someone else you’d regret if they heard * Steer clear of destructive people * How you say it can matter more than what you say * Solicit and embrace constructive feedback * Talk it out, don’t write it out * Regularly show appreciation and gratitude toward others * Strive to be an agreeable disagreer * Choose reconciliation over grudges whenever possible 

Harmony makes for beautiful music and beautiful relationships. It means wanting the best for everyone and having their back. Trust me again: more harmony means less injustice.

Moving Forward

Oh, how I wish I could just snap my fingers and make all the injustice and division go away! I’m sure you do, too. The fact is, each of us has unique settings, roles, and opportunities to make a difference. Ultimately, though, it begins with each of us looking in the mirror, honestly assessing our heart, repenting where we need to repent, asking for forgiveness when we need to be forgiven, forgiving and extending grace when we need to forgive, and vowing to live a life of love. We may not be in positions to influence policies or practices, but we can control what we can control: our commitment to loving others and being a part of the solution.

However, beyond us as individuals, some solutions to improving justice and harmony and reducing disparities involve our systems: government, business, education, family, media/entertainment, and the faith community to name a few. To that end, here are a few suggestions that immediately come to mind:

  1. To the extent we are in positions and organizations that have a national, regional, state, or local role, let’s review policies and practices from a perpective of fair treatment. Are there overt or subliminal biases that need to be corrected through constructive reforms? Are we seeking out and listening to people who might have special perspectives to offer?
  2. For our policing communities, what are the best opportunities, policies, and practices that allow you to protect citizens, provide fair and equitable treatment, and reduce risks of excessive force and mistreatment? What barriers (e.g., union representation) are necessary to modify to ensure that officers with behavior risk are removed from service? What enhancements can be made to hiring practices (e.g., emotional intelligence testing) as a prevention measure?
  3. For our educators, let’s strengthen our leadership, character, and life skills training so that all young people are better equipped to flourish in adulthood and to avoid poverty and other derailers. Often, racial disparities have economic and other roots, so this “upstream” training can have significant benefits.
  4. For all of us, let’s vow to strengthen families which are so vital to the health and well-being of children and society. There is excellent research on the impact of family on socio-emotional wellness and life success, and this should be applied in both preventive and responsive contexts. This is universally relevant and beneficial information that gives everyone the best chance to flourish.
  5. Let’s promote “best ideas” thinking and diversity of opinion regardless of political persuasion. Unlike the business community where it is easier to solicit best thinking toward common goals, it is sadly more challenging in the political arena. When it comes to many issues, our political parties often seem more focused on their power and receiving credit than on best solutions from diverse perspectives. Perhaps an increased use of independent commissions/task forces can offer better solutions to polarizing issues or those with divergent policy prescriptions. No one party has a monopoly on best ideas when it comes to issues like justice and economic opportunity! 
  6. Let’s promote diversity of opinion in media and on campuses. Related to the preceding point, we’re witnessing significant ideological bias in these contexts. In the media, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gauge objective truth versus opinion. When we have diverse perspectives, we are better informed, make better decisions, and understand each other better. The same is true on our college campuses where conditions are becoming more polarized and students are not always receiving diverse perspectives. We have certainly made strides on campuses with respect to tangible diversity metrics, but worldview diversity could stand some strengthening. Again, no one political ideology has a monopoly on best ideas—on issues of justice, or any other.
  7. Let’s increase our investment in non-profit mentor programs to provide support, guidance, and leadership building. This can significantly help address disparities and allow more people to thrive.
  8. Let’s welcome faith-based organizations to be a part of the solution.

So, these are our thoughts for the day—straight from the heart and mind. At LifeSmart, we remain committed to be a part of the solution. As always, please let us know if there are ways we can support your efforts to improve lives and society.

With love,

Is Your Parenting Style Affecting Your Teen’s Behavior?

group-of-people-sitting-on-stairs-2124916How would you describe your parenting style? And, how would you characterize your child’s attitudes and behaviors? The truth is, they’re connected in more ways than we realize. Although parenting isn’t about “picking a style” and running with it, we do have some tendencies that stem from our background, experiences, desires, and beliefs.

Borrowing from our latest book, Wings Not Strings: Parenting Strategies to Let Go with Confidence, let’s delve into three of today’s most common parenting styles which are creating “strings” and attitude issues in many emerging adults. You might recognize some of your own habits here—we all will to some degree—but the goal is becoming more self-aware of how our parenting can affect our children in unexpected ways.

Helicopter Parenting

Most of us have had that boss. You know, the one who is always looking over your shoulder, making endless suggestions, asking for status reports on the hour, constantly correcting your work, nagging you when you’re not perfect, taking credit for your work, making decisions that are rightfully yours, and micromanaging you to death. That hovering boss who is all about control. The boss who drives you crazy!

Yes, as parents, we can be that boss to our teens and adult children! And, frankly, they don’t like it any more than we do when we’re treated this way. The fact is, when we go overboard in pursuing helicoptering strategies with our children, it stunts their social-emotional growth and skill development, and it robs them of the joy of learning and doing things themselves. Meanwhile, it deprives them of learning from their mistakes—arguably the best character and resilience builder of all. Finally, it causes major relationship strains that are difficult to overcome.

Here are some common behaviors and telltale signs of this parenting approach:

·     interfering with their child’s homework to the point of doing it themselves

·     micromanaging chores/household responsibilities to the point of doing it themselves

·     texting their kids constantly, even during school hours

·     frantically managing their children’s schedules and giving endless reminders

·     making decisions that rightfully belong to their teen

·     overly protecting and rescuing kids from failure or minor risks

Why is helicopter parenting so common? Here are some root causes:

·     our desire to control or manage outcomes

·     a lack of trust and confidence in our children’s abilities and judgment

·     fear of failure

·     perfectionist tendencies (we can do it better/faster)

·     a desire to be helpful without fully taking into account the long-term consequences

It is no surprise that we are observing the following unfortunate consequences in many emerging adults:

·     low self-esteem and self-confidence

·     weak decision-making and problem-solving skills

·     poor motivation and work ethic

·     lack of resilience and ability to cope with challenges

·     difficulty handling conflict

·     co-dependency

Helicoptering is a self-confidence destroyer in our children and places severe strains on our relationship with our children.

Performance Parenting

Although we naturally want our children to succeed, some parents take this to such an extreme that they appear to value performance more than the person. They can view their child’s outcomes (especially their accomplishments) as a direct reflection of their parenting and apply intense pressure to perform to unreasonable standards. This style is especially common among professionally and economically successful parents who desire the same (or better) outcomes for their children.

Here are some typical behaviors and strategies of the performance-driven parent:

·     perfectionist tendencies; excessive emphasis on minor shortfalls

·     unrealistic expectations, regardless of the child’s ability, interest, personality, etc.

·     verbal pressure to perform and harsh responses when the child fails to deliver

·     competitive comparisons to siblings or other children

·     complaints to teachers/professors when grades are lacking, or to coaches for inadequate play time (these are viewed as blemishes on their child’s resume)

·     defending their child’s misbehavior to authority figures

·     placing pressure on their children to pursue the same colleges or careers as their parents (an unfortunate and unhealthy desire to create a “mini me”)

It is truly painful to listen to teens who are on the receiving end of this parenting style. These kids feel devalued. While not generally the intention of the performance parent, this is often the consequence—and it feels very real to their children.

Here are some root causes and motivators behind performance parenting:

·     parental pride and ego taken too far

·     excessive and misplaced identity in their child’s outcomes

·     the philosophy that pressure maximizes motivation and performance

·     the belief that parents can/should control their childrens’ outcomes

Predictably, here are some telltale signs of children who are living under the guidance of a performance parent:

·     lacking self-worth

·     anxiety, depression, or worse

·     risk aversion and fear of failure

·     narrow interests

·     isolation

·     inability to cope with underperformance or disappointment

·     sibling rivalry

·     resentment toward, and distance from, parents

While all of us should have high standards for our children, we need to be mindful of the risks when taken to excess. The consequences can be, and often are, devastating.

Permissive (Buddy) Parenting

As parents, we have a natural desire to raise happy children and provide a harmonious home environment. But, as those of us who have launched children can attest, the teen years can be especially challenging as our kids express their independence and the sparks start to fly. So, it’s not surprising to long for the years when our children were more compliant and respectful when they needed (and seemed to like) us more. This can creep into our parenting if we’re not careful.

In response, many parents are pursuing a child-centric approach to life and inadvertently raising children who think the world revolves around them. At the extreme, these parents abdicate their authority and let their children effectively run the show.

Here are some common examples of this lenient parenting style:

·     treating their children as their friends, with an intense desire to feel liked

·     failing to enforce discipline, standards, and consequences; enabling

·     catering to their child’s desires; making excessive time allowances for technology and other forms of entertainment

·     tolerating disrespectful behavior

·     doing their child’s chores

·     living vicariously through their children

·     being unable to move beyond the nurturing stage and treat their teen as a future adult

What are some underlying causes of this parenting approach? Here are several:

·     disrespect of one’s parental authority

·     overly prioritizing their child’s happiness and a “peaceful” household

·     limited interests other than parenting (placing identity primarily in their role as mother or father)

·     feelings of guilt, perhaps due to a divorce or a busy career; overcompensating

·     lack of energy, especially in light of demanding careers and multiple-job situations

·     overreaction to one’s own authoritarian upbringing (“I’ll never be like my parents!”)

·     co-dependency

And, here are some telltale signs in children affected by permissive parenting:

·     entitlement mentality; viewing the world as all about them

·     lacking motivation and work ethic

·     deficient leadership and life skills

·     disrespect for authority figures and rules

·     addiction to pleasure sources

·     poor time management and productivity

Of course, we want our children to do well and be happy. However, in the teen years when the clock is ticking and we receive more pushback, parents often respond by giving in or controlling to an unhealthy degree. Striking a proper balance is every parent’s challenge.

Clearly, our childrens’ attitudes and behaviors are the product of many influences. That said, when ours are demonstrating some of the qualities described above, it pays to consider whether our methods are contributing in some way. A healthy dose of parenting self-awareness can lead to some valuable, mid-course corrections and position our families for an even brighter future.

Fun Conversation Ideas for Your Students and Children

two-women-dining-on-brown-wooden-table-2040747Let’s face it. We’re all getting a little restless with these lockdowns. We miss the direct, face-to-face contact with our family, friends, and teachers. And, depending on the state in which we live, it can feel like we’re attached to a ball and chain. When we’re lonely or bored, it easily puts a strain on our relationships—especially when our world is scary.

In light of this, we created a list of fun conversation topics to share with the children in your life. Whether in your classrooms or homes, we hope they add some much-needed levity and enjoyment during these challenging times. Here goes:

  1. What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen or experienced?
  2. What has been your happiest moment? Why?
  3. What’s the greatest compliment you’ve ever received?
  4. What three words best describe you?
  5. What has been your proudest moment and why?
  6. If you could solve one problem in the world, what would it be?
  7. What are the three most important qualities you look for in a friend?
  8. Name five things you are grateful for.
  9. What do you consider to be your best character quality?
  10. What’s the kindest thing you’ve ever done? How did it make you feel?
  11. If you had $1,000 to give to a charity, which one would you choose and why?
  12. What is your favorite song, movie, food, book, holiday, and game?
  13. If you could be any character from history, who would you choose and why?
  14. What do you consider to be your greatest skill?
  15. If you were in a job interview, what three reasons would you give to convince them to hire you?
  16. If you could have one job in the world, what would it be and why?
  17. If you could travel to any place in the world, where would you go and why?
  18. If you could live in any era in history, which would you choose and why?
  19. What is your happiest vacation memory?
  20. What do you appreciate most about _________ (list family members and teachers)
  21. Who is your all-time favorite teacher and why?
  22. What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
  23. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
  24. What’s the most amazing coincidence you’ve ever experienced?
  25. What’s your all-time favorite dream?
  26. If you owned a business, what three qualities would you seek most when interviewing job candidates?
  27. How do you define success?
  28. Which person from history inspires you most and why?
  29. If you could cook your favorite meal, what would it be?
  30. Describe what you’d like your life to look like when you’re 30.

Enjoy! And, take good care.


The LifeSmart Team

Can One Conversation Change Your Life?

Being cooped up has given me more time to reflect on the people who have impacted my life. Usually, they’re the family and friends that stood with me for a long time, sharing experiences and support when I needed it. Without them, who knows how things would have turned out. It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries.

Meanwhile, there are others who are placed in our lives for a fleeting moment. Maybe someone you befriended or who gave you a pearl of wisdom when you faced a pivotal decision. Or, in the case of Jan, someone who was both to me.

It was 1978, and I was 24 and on the fast track at General Electric in Milwaukee. Their Financial Management Program fit me like a glove, to the point where they took me off this two-year program early to manage a department I had joined eighteen months earlier as a trainee! (Now that was a challenge!)

One day, my supervisor called me into his office and shut the door behind him. Naturally a little nervous, I was nonetheless comforted by his demeanor. “Dennis,” he said, “you’ve been nominated by senior management to join General Electric’s corporate audit staff.” Unaware of the meaning of all of this, I learned that the audit staff was the ticket to top financial management at the company. It would involve a four-year commitment to conduct quarterly audits at GE locations around the country. At the end of the term, your perspective was unmatched and the opportunities endless. It was clearly an honor to be chosen, and on the surface, it sounded like a slam dunk decision—one I would need to make in two weeks.

About two months earlier, I was introduced to Jan. She had just joined the Financial Management Program from an elite East Coast university and relocated to the Milwaukee area. Having just experienced this move myself a few years before, I had great empathy toward her transition, and we became fast friends. I could tell this move wasn’t easy for her and that she was experiencing some culture shock in her relocation to the Midwest. I could help with that.

Now, back to my decision. For the next week, I grappled with this audit staff decision unlike any other. From a career standpoint, it seemed like a slam dunk. The “prize” was obvious. And, because this was a by-appointment-only opportunity, I was haunted by how a “No” decision would be perceived. An affirmative decision appeared to be the logical choice.

And, yet, I remained surprisingly and persistently unsettled about it. Knowing myself, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would enjoy spending the next four years in three-month stints in industrial locations around the country. Despite the obvious benefits, I questioned whether this was me and whether I was willing to pay the social price at such a pivotal time in my life. Needless to say, I kept going back and forth in my thinking. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

With a week remaining, I finally decided to bite the bullet. Enough agonizing. Enough vacillation. I would accept and tell my boss that afternoon in a meeting we just arranged.

I entered my supervisor’s office ready to announce my decision. But, inexplicably and much to my consternation, I simply couldn’t get the words out. It was as if there was a muzzle placed on my mouth. Embarrassed, I changed the subject and left some five minutes later. I was utterly frustrated and disappointed in myself.

Within an hour, I was at the copy machine and my aggravation must have been apparent. Jan needed to make a copy of her own and noticed something was wrong. Curious, she asked what happened. Little did I know that the next minute would completely change my life.

I explained to her that I’d been vacillating about this decision and completely choked with my supervisor. This wasn’t like me and time was of the essence. Jan looked at me and in her delightfully direct way, asked, “Well, what do you want to do?” I paused and replied, “If I had my way, I’d be an investment manager. I love picking stocks! But, GE doesn’t offer that.”

In an instant, and with a hint of “duh,” Jan responded with her $10,000, life-altering question:
“Well, why don’t you?!?

 Her words hit me like a ton of bricks. I left work that night committed to doing crash research on what it would require to become an investment manager. A call to my broker. A visit the following day to my undergraduate finance professor who also worked for an investment firm in Madison. Thursday night, on the eve of my deadline, I finally made my decision with total peace and conviction. I would respectfully decline the audit staff offer and prepare to attend graduate school in the fall to earn an MBA in Finance and pursue my dream as an investment manager. And, that’s what I did. All courtesy of Jan’s pivotal questions at just the right time.

Jan didn’t last much longer at GE. She hated the corporate environment and moved back east to pursue a different course. Although we completely lost touch, I often think of her and our conversation at the copier. Clearly, she was placed in my life for this fleeting moment for a reason. In a way, I’ve always felt that I honored her questions with the decision I made. All because she challenged me to consider what I would truly love.

We never know at the time the impact that specific people will have on our life. Or, the people whose lives we affected by our words and deeds. Sometimes the effect is immediate and other times down the road—perhaps when a key decision needs to be made with the benefit of a nugget of wisdom.

And, when it does happen, it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

From Lemons to Lemonade: Turning a Trial into a Triumph

woman-in-gray-knit-cap-and-beige-coat-3962212No matter who we are, we eventually face trials and crises. They usually happen to us individually (death, sickness, job loss, divorce), but in rare situations, like now, it affects us all. Although the degree and nature of our burdens vary, in generalized crises no one goes unscathed—especially in one that involves both our health and finances. That’s a double whammy that hits extra hard, and we’re all hurting.

The question isn’t so much whether we’ll face adversity, but how we handle it when it’s our turn. For any number of reasons, some deal with it better than others. Whether you, or someone you know, struggle mightily during trials, know that there are strategies that will help you react constructively, especially when a crisis is global. To that end, and in light of the coronavirus crisis we’re all navigating, we offer these suggestions to you:

  1. Envision the other side of the valley. During times of crisis, it’s more natural to stay in the valley and despair in the moment. Yes, we need to fight our battles today, but we also need to remain hopeful. We have faced many crises in our nation’s history and came out stronger each time. Hope is an incredibly powerful antidote to fear. When this crisis has run its course (and it will!), you’ll be able to look back with new perspectives and position for an even brighter future.
  2. Focus on what you can control and leave the rest to faith. When we’re faced with highly complex and unpredictable situations, it’s easy to get bogged down in worry about things we can’t control. The “what ifs.” Granted, we want to prepare for different scenarios, but once we’ve done that, our efforts are best spent on working our plans—doing our best, day-by-day, to move forward. Then, to the best of our ability, we rely on our faith for the outcome.
  3. Invest in yourself, your relationships, and in others. In difficult times, it’s especially important that we allow ourselves quiet time to reflect and/or pray. As a person of faith, I can’t possibly describe how beneficial this is for me. My prayers and petitions provide a sense of peace and perspective like no other. At the same time, it’s essential to ramp up our investment in our friends and loved ones. The at-home time and togetherness we are now experiencing is providing endless opportunities to take our relationships to new levels. So, let’s make the most of it. Finally, there is nothing more meaningful to the spirit, or more impactful to your community, than helping others. However you can, find ways to offer your compassion and talents to those who can benefit.
  4. Set, and abide by, your highest priorities. It goes without saying that our distraction factor during trials rises exponentially. Sure, we need to be flexible, especially with our kids, but the more attuned we are to our priorities, the more we’ll accomplish and the less anxious we’ll be.
  5. Consider what brings you peace, joy, and gratitude. Crises have a way of clarifying what’s really important. And, they’re usually the simple things, aren’t they? Our loved ones. Cherished memories. Our dreams. The beauty of nature and art. The inspiring stories of people who have impacted the world. What music, books, or movies lift you up? What, and who, makes you laugh? What encourages you most? What environments allow your spirit to soar? What scrapbooks or albums capture your greatest memories? What picture books or clips show your favorite scenery? Whatever they are, immerse yourself in them. Stay positive with all of your might.
  6. Teach your children valuable life skills. With schools suspended or out for the year, parents have an unusual opportunity to teach children practical life skills they’ll eventually need for adulthood. Examples include banking, budgeting, laundry, cooking, nutrition, landscaping, housecleaning, changing a tire, self-defense, career exploration/surveying, resume writing and interviewing, identity theft prevention, time management, and manners. Trust me, one day they’ll thank you for it.
  7. Heighten your discernment. It’s sad, but true, that many people and media sources use crises to instill chaos and fear to advance an agenda, rather than focus on objective facts and information that is beneficial to the public. They subscribe to the “bad news sells” philosophy. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to trust media outlets and articles, especially in this election year. So, here are some tips to help you identify red flags of bias and disinformation in the media:
    1. Is the headline/commentary designed to alarm or inform?
    2. Are the sources balanced and credible or skewed in favor of an agenda?
    3. Are the questions/commentary/stories trivial or substantive?
    4. Are sources named? (Be on guard for any article or interviewer question based on “sources say” or “some people say.”)
    5. How much of an article/interview is based on objective facts or opinion/politics?
    6. Are they generalizing an unusual occurrence to incite fear?
    7. Does the media outlet report the good and the bad?
    8. Do interviews/articles feature supposed experts who have highly extreme viewpoints that are ill-supported and designed for personal gain/exposure?
  8. Be aware of human behavioral tendencies. As a former analyst and investment manager, I was fascinated by studies of human behavior that impacted financial decisions. Here are a few relevant examples:
    1. Fear is more powerful than greed. Stock market declines are much swifter and sharper than corresponding increases. Investors are more prone to panic selling than panic buying.
    2. The more frequently investors look at their portfolios, the more risk-averse they become. This is because they react more strongly to losses than to gains.
    3. Investors are heavily influenced by emotion when making decisions. They have a notoriously poor record of timing their investments because of a “buy high, sell low” mentality.By now, you can see how these tendencies also apply to our lives beyond finances. Translated: 1) we become more fear driven and often focus on negative news during crises, 2) we become more distressed and anxious the more frequently we consume news and social media, and 3) our decision-making objectivity can get compromised when we’re driven by our emotions. So, consider whether/how these human tendencies might be affecting you, and whether your emotions are being influenced by how frequently you consume news.

When this crisis eventually blows over, you’ll be able to look back and consider what you’ve learned through the journey—about yourself and the world around you. Did you make the most of it? What new perspectives and insights did you gain? How did it affect your relationships? Did it change your priorities?  What life lessons did you learn? Your children? How will your future be informed by this trial?

Friends, this is your opportunity to shine. Let’s make the best lemonade we can.

Be well,

The LifeSmart team

Parenting With Freedom or Fear: The Bicycle Test


When we wrote our new book, Wings Not Strings: Parenting Strategies to Let Go with Confidence, we chose our title based on the imagery it represents. At launch time, will we, figuratively speaking, release our “eagle” with wings to soar, confident, capable, and free to fulfill his/her dreams? Or, will we be releasing a “kite,” whose strings we control and maneuver out of fear, and whose freedom we inhibit?

Although our title was aimed at the teen being launched, it occurs to us that it also applies to parents. Let’s start with an illustration.

I’d like you to think back to when you were teaching your child to ride a bike. Your journey may have begun with a push balance bike that they scooted with their feet on the ground. After mastering this (with great pride!), they graduated to a small tricycle that they maneuvered with their hands and feet on the pedals! Your “big boy” or “big girl” was brimming with confidence and you were just as proud. The next step (or should I say, giant leap!) was a two-wheeler with training wheels. This was a big challenge for them, and you likely trotted alongside every step of the way. After a while, your child got the hang of it (more pride), and at some point, they probably snapped at you, “I can do it myself!” You backed off and they rose to the occasion. They were filled with pride, and by stepping away, you showed you believed in them. It was harmony.

Then came the final test: taking off the training wheels! Perhaps your child initiated it or maybe you needed to give them a nudge when you knew it was time. They took their position while you balanced the bike and ran alongside, holding on for dear life! You took your hands off for a few seconds so they could feel the freedom and stay upright and in balance. After enough practice, it was time. You let go and set them free, knowing there may be bumps, bruises, and falls along the way. Their pride was palpable. And, so was yours. You prepared them for the journey, and they were on their way. You showed them you believed in them. You trained them for independence.

And, so it goes with parenting for the launch. Are we parenting with a sense of freedom or from fear? Are we still, figuratively speaking, holding on to the bicycle as they face their new challenges, responsibilities, and decisions in the teen years and beyond? Here are some self-awareness-building questions that will offer you some clues:

  • Do we give ourselves the freedom to know that it’s their adult life to live? Or, do we feel we can and should attempt to control their outcomes?
  • Do we focus our training on building leadership, core values, and life skills for adulthood or more so on their performance today?
  • Do we encourage them to take healthy risks and experience varying outcomes and adversity or do we protect them from failure?
  • Do we teach them for independence as an empowering coach or micromanage them (do their chores, complete their applications, etc.)?
  • Do we prepare them as a future adult or still treat them as a child?
  • How much of your life is dominated by your role as parent and how often are your thoughts and activities related to your children?
  • Do you feel primarily responsible for your child’s happiness and success?
  • Do you find yourself succumbing to peer pressure from other parents regarding your child’s performance or accomplishments?
  • Do you perceive your impending launch as an opportunity for growth or with a deep sense of loss?
  • Do you even subliminally message to your child that you hope they stay close to home after high school?
  • Do you feel your relationship is at risk when you exert your parental authority and, therefore, hesitate to discipline your child?
  • Do you tie privileges to respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness or give in to keep them happy?

As with most arenas in life, effective parenting requires healthy balance and perspective. Unfortunately, many families are being managed out of fear today, especially when parents attempt to control their children’s outcomes. It not only stunts the children’s growth, but also robs them of the joy and pride of doing things themselves, and destroys their self-confidence. Sadly, it also causes near-and long-term relationship strains and resentment toward the parent. It’s hard enough to control our own lives, much less those of others, including our children. That’s a cross no one should bear. Parenting with a sense of freedom—preparing them for the journey and then taking your hands off the bicycle—is the better way to go.

For more information, we encourage you to check out Wings Not Strings. It will encourage and equip you to parent with the freedom you deserve.

We’re Busting These Nine Career Myths

grayscale-of-woman-in-black-flat-sandals-walking-803951Over the years of mentoring 17-24 year olds, we’ve been struck by the numerous misconceptions that are causing anxiety, disillusionment, uncertainty, insecurity, strategic mistakes, and regret as they plot their career courses. Whether due to incomplete training in high school and college, lacking self-awareness, or mistaken assumptions, their progress is being thwarted by several career-related myths.

This blog is designed to help you debunk these myths with the teens and young adults under your guidance. It will not only give them greater peace of mind, but also instill valuable career savvy in positioning them for success.

  1. Success is all about smarts. So many young people are misguided into thinking that you need a 4.0 GPA or an Ivy League degree to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Employers routinely cite soft skills (aka: leadership/character skills) as more important. This was confirmed in the 21 Workplace Readiness Skills identified by Virginia employers in an extensive survey. Employer comments such as, “We hire for attitude and train for skill” are becoming more commonplace. This is an especially important message to share with students who are less academically gifted.
  2.  You need to know your future career while in high school. Undecided high school students can become insecure or feel pressure when their friends are more certain of their future career/major pursuits. This is deeply unfortunate because: 1) many students haven’t conducted extensive career surveying or are lacking in self-awareness and 2) many “decided” high school students eventually change their minds in college (or elsewhere) when they are exposed to a variety of courses; most change their major at least once. This is why we encourage high schools to emphasize the career process(and extensive surveying) rather than career adoption, where possible. We do recognize, however, that for certain majors, a definitive choice needs to be made while in high school—hopefully after vigorous analysis.
  3. College is automatically your best route. Fortunately, more schools are realizing the downside of “college for all” messaging. High college dropout and low completion rates, significant costs/debt, difficult job acquisition in certain majors, and the availability of many well-paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree are having an impact. We need to guard against even subliminal messaging that paths other than a four-year college are somehow inferior.
  4. Choosing your major is a sufficient career strategy. With a recent Gallup survey indicating that the greatest regret of college graduates is the major they chose, it’s clear that students need to be more strategic in their selections. This includes: 1) researching the realistic job prospects in that major, 2) strategically selecting their minor, and 3) not choosing their major until they’ve spoken with practitioners with jobs in the majors they’re considering.
  5. It’s STEM or bust. Whether overt or subliminal, one message that is being promulgated in schools and universities is that STEM is where you need to be for an excellent career. Importantly, even though many of today’s most successful companies are in tech-related industries, by no means do even a majority of their jobs require technical degrees. For example, tech companies still need marketers, communicators, human resources professionals, attorneys, accountants, client service representatives, and the like. Those who are not analytically, technically, nor mathematically inclined should by no means feel insecure if their skills and interests lie elsewhere.   
  6. Your professors and counselors know best. One of the most common regrets of college graduates is that they gave too much credence to the career advice of professors and counselors who: 1) often lack a real world understanding of the job market and 2) don’t know their students that well. College students are impressionable when it comes to advice from professors and assume counselors know more than they do about actual jobs. As a result, students can overly rely on the advice of others who don’t have all the necessary information or perspective. When 40% of graduates with Bachelor’s degrees regret the major they chose, you know we have a problem. It is painful to see how misguided so many students are as a result of this myth.
  7. Your degree is your guaranteed ticket to a great job. Many college graduates falsely (and regrettably) assume that once they earn their degree, the job offers will magically follow. They quickly learn that they gave their college and degree too much credit in the job acquisition department! This is especially problematic when, unlike accounting or nursing for example, one’s major is either broad (e.g., communications, economics) or not necessarily linked to jobs (e.g., many humanities or ____ Studies majors). It is critical that students have a definitive job acquisition strategy before they choose their major and before they graduate. Many don’t and live to regret it, especially when their loan payments are due!  
  8. A good resume will automatically get you into the game. While an excellent resume is a must to land interviews and win jobs, it is only one piece of the puzzle. These days, employers rely heavily on online applications where it is not always easy to stand out from the crowd. It is extremely valuable to also have: 1) a great cover letter and application and 2) an insider going to bat for you. Here is where networking becomes so important. Also, it’s critical to know the job-posting platforms, regularly screen job openings of interesting employers, and have outstanding interview and follow-up strategies. It’s all about persuading the employer that you are the best person for the job. That means knowing your value proposition for the job opening at hand and effectively communicating that throughout the process.
  9. You should hold out for the perfect job. Young adults are naturally idealistic, but this can be a severe impediment when it comes to the job search. Some are so specific and demanding about their first job that they severely limit their choices. By holding out for perfection, they forego a good job that positions them for their dream job when it becomes available. Given that employers generally give preference to current employees when recruiting, it can pay off to land a related position and compete when the desired position becomes available. Many young people are floundering because they let their egos get in the way of landing their first job.

Finally, we encourage you to share What I Wish I Knew at 18 with your children and students. Our career chapter offers these, and many other insights and strategies.

Ten Verbs to Start Your Parenting Day

love-scrabble-text-wood-208099Although it is certainly our desire, sometimes it’s not easy to be at our parenting best. The busyness and challenges of life, and our children’s dependence on us, can leave our tanks near empty at times. Stresses in our own lives are not always easy to compartmentalize, and they can easily spill over into our parenting. And, during the teen years, when our relationships often experience greater strain and conflict, it’s common to carry our frustrations and irritations into the next day. Sound familiar?

To help get your parenting day off to a good start with a fresh attitude, we’re sharing our top ten parenting verbs (with definitions courtesy of Think of them as words to live by as you parent to the best of your ability. They will grow your children and strengthen your relationships when you live them out. Here goes:

  1. Inspire:to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence. Children do their best when they are intrinsically motivated and inspired. Share inspirational stories and people and help them discover what inspires them. Set high standards and challenge your kids to be the leader they can be. 
  2. Empower:to give power or authority to. One of the most powerful motivators is to be respected, and it applies to children, too. Although they are still under our authority, the more we can place them in situations where they can demonstrate leadership, the more motivated and growth-minded they will become. This becomes even more important in the teen years.
  3. Encourage:to inspire with courage, spirit, or confidence. One of the surest ways to build self-confidence in children, and a strong relationship, is to be an encourager rather than a critic. Many children today are exhibiting a fear of failure due to parental overprotection or undue performance pressure. Instead, place your children in situations with uncertain outcomes and be their biggest cheerleaders whether they win or lose. It’s huge.
  4. Understand:to perceive the meaning of. One of the best relationship builders is to “listen to understand.” Often when we communicate, we are so focused on proving our point or convincing the other party, that they inevitably shut down. Mutual understanding should be a key goal of any communication, and it is made possible by empathetic and active listening. Your kids, and especially your teens, will appreciate you for it.
  5. Affirm:to state or assert positively. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our affirmation of their uniqueness, virtues, strengths, and worth. Kids need to know they matter and to be valued more for their person than their performance. Make it a point to compliment their character and leadership qualities whenever you can, and it will pay huge dividends.
  6. Value:to consider with respect to worth, excellence, usefulness, or importance. We all need to know that we matter, and this is especially true when our children exhibit self-doubt or have disappointing outcomes. They can feel like they are letting us down. Parents, this is your greatest opportunity to shine, whether through spoken or written words of affirmation.
  7. Engage:to occupy the attention or efforts of a person.Because of overscheduling and technology, today’s children and parents are suffering relational disengagement. We see it everywhere. Children need our undivided attention when we’re together, especially in the teen years when their interest in communicating with parents is more sporadic. Be all in.
  8. Enjoy:to experience with joy; take pleasure in. There’s nothing like seeing parents and children have fun together. It builds memories and relationship capital. However, when we overschedule our children or ourselves, or predominantly focus on academics and performance, we squander opportunities to truly enjoy one another. Be fun. Be playful. Enter their world.
  9. Coach:to give instruction or advice in the capacity of a coach. As children grow, our “maturity differential” with them gradually diminishes. So, when they enter the teen years, it becomes increasingly important to communicate as a coach and influencer rather than as an authoritarian. This mind-shift enables us to move from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat in our child’s life and position for a flourishing adult-to-adult relationship.
  10. Believe:to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something. Aside from unconditional love, our belief in our children and their future is one of the most important gifts we can give. It’s like having the wind at their backs. How can children be optimistic and hopeful when it’s not expressed by their parents? When you’re their cheerleader, and their believer, it’s gold.

Well, what do you think? Which of the above come naturally to you and which are more challenging? How might your children rate you on these verbs?

We encourage you to live out these verbs to the best of your ability and strive to begin each day with a renewed spirit. To help out, we created a special handout that you can access here. Be sure to print it off and keep it in a place where you can see it from time to time. To all of you parents out there, we salute you and believe in you!

Three Tips for Lasting Love

man-carrying-woman-standing-on-the-ground-and-surrounded-by-853406As many of you may have noticed (and many of you may have not), the hit NBC show “The Bachelor” is back for its 23rd season this winter. That is 23 seasons of one man (this year, it’s Pilot Pete) dating a couple dozen women, with hopes of proposing marriage to one in less than two months. The show has a cult following, but it’s no wonder only a very small percentage of the outcoming relationships make it long-term. The whole premise is very unrealistic and doesn’t make sense for relationships in the “real world.”

Why do so many love to watch this show? Maybe it’s because people can relate to the drama of trying to find that “special someone,” and watching someone else go through it has some sort of twisted, vicarious appeal?

Dating can be the best of worlds and the worst of worlds, particularly for older teens and young adults. There are so many new, fun, and interesting people to meet as one’s circles expand (hello, college!), but it’s also a mystery because you never know what will become of the people you meet. I recall feeling like I was on an emotional roller coaster at Six Flags at that stage of life, wondering if this new prospect was Mrs. Right. (Eventually, I would find her seated next to me in a finance class at Grad School.)

Do you (or does the teen/young adult in your life) have a random or a strategic mindset when it comes to dating? Do they have solid ground rules and strongly-held values guiding them, in contrast to the ones displayed on “The Bachelor?”

Although true love can happen opportunistically (e.g., when my undergraduate college sweetheart and I were successfully matched at a computer dance!), it pays to lay down some personal ground rules in your dating life.  One way is to become a “3D dater!”

Here are the 3 D’s:

Be Discriminating 
Be highly selective with your choices of dates. Sadly, so many people define their self worth by whether they’re dating someone that they “date for dating’s sake” and often compromise their values along the way. It always pays to be choosy by strategically focusing on people who share similar interests, values, and goals. What are your “must haves” and “nice to haves?” If a prospect is lacking in anyof these respects, it pays to move on. Trying to force a square peg into a round whole doesn’t work for most things, but especially when our goal is a forever relationship!

Be Discerning
Be wise when you date. Many people approach dating so impulsively and emotionally that they simply don’t think clearly. (“Love is blind” comes to mind.) Understand what you want in a relationship (your expectations) and have the courage to move on if it’s not a great fit.

Be Deliberate
Be patient. This is often the hardest thing to do when the infatuation is intense (or when a computer matches you!). However, if the relationship is truly meant to be, it needn’t be rushed. If you’re feeling pressured, have the strength and self respect to put on the brakes. If they’re not willing to, they’re probably not the best choice for the long term and you’re only delaying the inevitable.
By being a 3D dater, you’ll set yourself up for long-term success rather than settling for short-term, superficial gratification that’s so common today (ahem, reality TV dating). You’re much more likely to find lasting love with fewer peaks and valleys (and heartaches) along the way!

If you are a teacher or parent, this would make for a great discussion topic with the teens under your purview. What are their must haves? Nice to haves? If they’ve dated thus far, what have been the biggest lessons they’ve learned? Don’t be shy about sharing your experiences. They’ll love it!