The “Sweet Spot”: Where Passion, Purpose, Production, & Happiness Intersect

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Earlier this week, I came across this extremely insightful podcast from KQED Public Radio’s Forum program about finding your “sweet spot”. During the program, Christine Carter, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, describes the sweet spot as the place where personal passion, purpose, high productivity, and low stress intersect, which leads to a happier & more mindful life. Audio streaming at the top of this page:

http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201502241000

My thoughts keep returning to this concept this week as I spend time on my back porch in the morning or ride my bike in the afternoon. I have really enjoyed pondering how I am facilitating the activity of my unconscious mind, reflecting about what routines I have built for myself in order to foster a creative life, and planning for how I can share this teaching with my youth and colleagues.

Take a listen if you get a chance! Or at least check out the following tips for living in the “sweet spot”, taken directly from the interview and the Forum website:

1. Foster Your Social Side

“What we know from hundreds of years of research in sociology and psychology is that that ease, health, longevity, well-being overall, is best predicted by our social ties and our connections to other people.Our friendships and our positive relationships create incredible ease for us in that they relieve stress. They tell our nervous system that everything is okay, and that we can be creative and innovative. And they create strength for us. We we get most of our power really from learning from other people, from other people’s support, their love.”

2. Take Breaks

“We know that our brain can function at a higher level when you honor its natural rhythms, when you allow yourself to play, when you allow yourself to exercise, to do things that we don’t typically put into the busy-ness categories. … For every about 50 minutes of work that I do, I take 10 or 15 minutes of a brea. I might just go outside and throw the ball for my dog. It might look idle, but I know that my unconscious mind is chewing on a problem and that this is the best way to reduce the feelings of tension and stress.”

3. Map Out Mini-Habits into a Larger Routine

I have mapped out my whole morning routine in five minute increments and I make those decisions one time about what I’m going to do. That’s the first step of getting into any sort of habit or routine where you can do it on autopilot — is to really decide once what you’re going to do. I’m not making decisions usually about whether or not I’m going to make coffee before or after I shower, when I’m going to do my exercise or when I’m going to meditate or even really what I’m going to wear. All of that happens without using up any sort of decision making power.

4. Focus on Functional Emotions Rather Than Gratification

“People conflate happiness and pleasure, or happiness and gratification, and that’s not what I’m talking about at all. I think of happiness or a life that is happy as one that’s full of a lot of different types of positive emotions — gratitude or inspiration or awe or compassion or love. And those positive emotions are incredibly functional.

Even if you’re only interested in being more productive and more successful at work, know that those positive emotions that will lead to what we think of as a happy life or to greater meaning and fulfillment, will also make you more productive. … when we are feeling happy, when we feel inspired, or a sense of elevation, or hope or any other positive emotion, our nervous system changes in a measurable way that can make us more organized. We think more clearly, we can plan for the future, we can control our emotions better. We remember social information better, we can control our impulses, we make better decisions, all these things that we need to be productive and successful happen more easily when we’re primed with a positive emotion.”

5. Find Your Groove. Then Lose it Again.

“This is about learning how to get to your sweet spot, how to find your groove, because you’re going to lose it again. Otherwise you never grow. If you’re not, if you’re not losing your sweet spot, if you’re not losing that groove, you’re not necessarily growing. And so it’s all about finding it, losing it, finding it again, losing it, and each time you end up in a slightly higher place.”

6. Say No More Often

You have to be well practiced at saying no. You have to have go to ways to say no and feel comfortable doing it.

Star Crossed By a Rose: The End of an Era for the Chicago Bulls?

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I am a lifelong Chicago Bulls fan. The vast majority of my childhood memories consist of the either Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Chuck-E-Cheese, or the Jackson-Jordan-Pippen teams. Or all three combined. What can I say, I had good taste as a child. And I’ve been hooked on the NBA ever since, in large part, thanks to my father’s super effective brain washing methods.

Like many other Bulls fans, I was devastated Tuesday by the news of Derrick Rose suffering yet another knee injury requiring surgery and likely having to miss the remainder of a promising season for Chicago.

I should say, I was devastated and I remain devastated.

I was devastated over the impact of Rose’s injury on the team’s chances to win the East this year. I remain devastated because it feels as if the injury marks the end of the Thibodeau/Rose prime in Chicago. I can’t totally explain why it feel so fatalistic, so dire, so definite. It just does – ask any other Bulls fan. The era seems over. It’s not just this season that’s over, but the next. And probably the next.  Ask them. They’ll agree, I guarantee it.

My friends who are not Bulls supporters have tried to re-assure me: it’s not season-ending necessarily, he could come back in six weeks.  In time for the playoffs!

I tell them, ‘He may be ready physically, but he won’t be ready mentally’. I don’t mean that as a knock on Rose’s toughness. He just needs more time to get his head right & confidence up after injury. We’ve seen that each of the last three seasons now.

It pains me to say it, but I tell them, ‘He’s not coming back this season and he’s never coming back as the player he was. He never was back as the player he was.’ Now, I’m perpetual optimist. But that’s what I feel, deep in my bones. And I am definitely not alone in thinking this.

This most recent injury marks another chapter in the strangest love affair between an athlete and a fan base that I can recall in modern American sports. Explosive and hard-working on the court, soft spoken and well behaved off it, and “…Ffffffrom Chicago…” What a player he was, and how us Bulls fans fell for him, defended him, and backed him…the tear in Philadelphia and the sixteen month recovery, Reggie Rose, botched press conferences and ” I’m thinking about after I’m done with basketball. Having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to.” What poor luck & terrible communication strategy on the part of Rose & the team amidst the injuries, and how us Bulls fans lost that love, hardened our feelings, even turned on him…..

I remember exactly where I was & what I was doing when, on May 20, 2008, I heard my Bulls landed the first pick in that year’s NBA draft. Fullerton El station, Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.

In the months leading up to draft night, I remember debating with my college roommates about whether or not we should draft Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose. Miller High Lifes in hand, dark & narrow “garden” apartment, Kanye’s Graduation blaring I’m sure, Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.

During the raucous aftermath of winning the lottery in which we had a 1.7% chance of getting the top pick, I am ashamed to say I wanted Chicago to take Beasley. Various undisclosed locations, Chicago.

That lasted about 36 hours, max. My fellow Bulls friends swiftly convinced me that it was a point guard’s league and D. Rose would be the prince of it. Plus, he’s from the South Side. He’d only left for a few months to play ball at Memphis and had promptly returned at the conclusion of the college season. A Chicago boy through and through. A city product to lead the Bulls back to glory. United Center, west side of Chicago.

I was overjoyed when we drafted him and the rest has been this incredible, star-crossed history. There have been stars of many different sizes, colors, & types, that’s for sure: From his rookie campaign culminating in the legendary Bulls-Celtics series to  his ascendancy to all-star point guard under the tutelage of Thibodeau…..From the failed “courtship” of LeBron during summer 2010 to the Bulls’ loss to Heat at the conclusion of our magic but fated “Fuck Miami” season featuring MVP D. Rose and a legendary team defense….From the Tear Seen Round the World to the next year without him and the media fiasco about his return and the next knee injury and the promising recovery this season with a new-look Bulls cast and now the third knee surgery in four years….

….(deep sigh)…..

It’s getting late here and I don’t have the energy to fittingly reminisce about the golden years of Rose & early Thibodeau Bulls at the moment. It’s difficult for me to think back that far because it was a long time ago, nearly five years.  Nor do I have the energy or patience to dig through stats to flesh out comparisons of him to Penny Hardaway and Brandon Roy or to analyze his advanced metrics the last several seasons in order to construct an argument about the way he was trending statistically or to examine the medical histories of the injury to ponder the likelihood of successful recovery. I do have the energy to share how grateful I am for getting to cheer for him and those teams over the years, though admittedly it’s hard to appreciate what was considering what might have been.

D. Rose had/has one of most unique offensive games I have ever seen. When he’s on, there’s not a better penetration guard in the league. But it feels like he’s entering a different phase of his career and the franchise is entering a different phase of it’s history. And us Bulls fans are ready for the change, strange as that might sound as we sit in third place in the Eastern Conference standings.

For Bulls fans, the dominant emotion this week in the aftermath of the injury news has been frustration or anger more so than sadness or resignation. Seems like a weird or even inappropriate response considering a hometown, superstar athlete with an exciting style of play is involved, right?

But that’s where the fan base is at with the Derrick Rose era. We’re downright exhausted. We’ve had to live through the same season for three years in a row. It’s a season in which we’re good, but not great. A team full of coachable guys and hard workers with no real chance to win the title because our franchise player is on the sidelines. Or up in a sky box. Or rehabbing elsewhere. We’re once again back in the position of having to wait for Rose to rehab, to come back, to maybe be almost as good as he once was against all odds, and for a narrow-at-best title window to open.

If we are to continue with this as our plan A, it feels like we’re waiting around for a moment that’s not going to happen, and that is perhaps one of the least empowering feelings in spectator sports. Plan B is to rebuild a portion of the roster by offering up Rose and other veterans for picks or young talent, in hopes of landing the next transformative NBA player (since that is an absolute prerequisite for winning the Finals in this day and age). With Chicago fans, plan A will breed cynicism and plan B will breed hope. Derrick Rose once was a transformative NBA player who, with another year or two of playoffs experience and some luck, could have led the Bulls to a title or two. Unfortunately, he is no longer such a player. The sooner the Bulls acknowledge this and start making front office/coaching decisions accordingly, the sooner the next title window will open in the Windy City.

Scooter & Schools: A Primer on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Education Policies

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The Sunday political magazine shows (Meet the Press, Face the Nation, etc.) would have us believe that the 2016 presidential race is just around the corner. While no viable major party candidates have declared yet, the field of potential Republican and Democratic nominees is certainly taking shape.  In the months to come, I hope to review candidates’ records and statements on education policy. And what better place to start than with my home state’s dunce, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R)!

Oops, I let that zinger slip. My bad. I will try to remain as even-keeled as possible in this series of posts, which will be a challenge for me when discussing our friend Scooter, the hard-working, tax-paying, college degree-lacking executive of America’s Dairyland. I am astonished that he is being considered a front runner for the Republican nomination. I’ll admit from the start that I believe Governor Walker is a mercenary for the monied interests of the new right wing and rarely acts in the best interests of the citizens and public institutions of Wisconsin….which is kind of his job, so….yeah….

Anyways, below is an examination of the major pieces of legislation Walker has supported or passed, as well as public statements he has made, about education since becoming Wisconsin’s governor in 2011:

Act 10 (March 2011)

After weeks of workers’  protests & political turmoil, the state legislature and Governor Walker passed the state budget repair bill to address a projected $137 million budget gap for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year and a $2+ billion shortfall for the following biennium. Included in the bill was an increase in state worker contributions for pension and health benefits and the near elimination of collective bargaining rights for most state employee unions, including teachers and University of Wisconsin workers unions.

My take: This is by far the most high profile education policy-related law passed under Walker and many before me have documented the dubious process and detrimental effects of the passage of the budget repair bill, so I’ll keep it brief. By passing the budget repair bill with the above union-related provisions, Walker and the state legislature effectively removed two of the best incentives for entering and remaining in the teaching profession: increased job security & robust pension plans. The severe restriction on collective bargaining rights for teachers unions and requirement for educators to contribute more to their benefits packages will make it much more difficult for Wisconsin schools to recruit the brightest & best undergraduate students, retain passionate & skilled teachers, and professionally develop effective & experienced educators.

Senate Bill 95 (October 2011)

SB 95 authorized school boards to use standardized test scores as a reason to discharge, suspend, or formally discipline a teacher or to fail to renew a teacher’s contract, whereas existing law prohibited the use of such test scores during evaluations of teacher performance.

My take: This bill was designed to create a teacher accountability system tied to unreliable metrics for learning and pave the way for merit-based pay. Another Walker-sponsored law that shows antagonism towards and a mistrust of teachers. In my opinion, standardized test scores can (and should) play a important role in conversations about educational equity, curricular planning, and teacher professional development. However, perverse incentives to serve some students (over others!) can emerge when tests are used as a central component of teacher evaluations.

UW Flexible Degree Program (2012)

Governor Walker and the UW System announces plans to offer a flexible, competency-based degree program in which students may take online courses and earn academic credit for outside-of-class experience in several specific fields after passing an exam.

My take: I’m very cautiously optimistic about this policy. I’m happy that UW decided to create its own system and program for competency-based degrees rather than contracting with Western Governor’s University as many other states have done. I work at a high school in which all students participate in internships during 11th & 12th grade, so I have seen the benefits of linked learning. The flexible degree program isn’t exactly linked learning, but it promotes the idea of outside-of-the-classroom and technology-centric learning, both of which I strongly support. I also like the idea of Wisconsin experimenting with methods to address the cost disease of higher education.  However, the rigor of the competency tests and the strength of the connection between academic and occupational learning remain big question marks. I also doubt that Walker has the best interests of the UW System at heart. His legislative record indicates he saw this policy primarily as a way to save money for the state to spend on other things.

Act 20 (2013)

The 2013 state budget bill passes and is signed by Governor Walker for fiscal years 2013-2015 and includes a provision to expand the statewide school voucher program by providing income tax deductions for private school tuition of up to $4,000 (elementary) or $10,000 (secondary) per student per year.

My take: Income tax credits or deductions for private school tuition redistributes revenue from public schools to upper-middle and upper class families. Wisconsin public schools serve the vast majority of the state’s low-income, special education, handicapped, and ethnic minority students, employ the most experienced and expert teachers, and feature the most innovative teaching practices. Act 20 is a win for those in favor of privatizing public education and a loss for those who believe in K-12 education as a public good or schools as mechanisms for promoting equity. A 2014 report found that over 70% of families receiving vouchers already sent their children to private schools, which lends credence to the argument that Walker’s expansion of school voucher programs in Wisconsin is more of an economic policy that benefits the affluent than it is an education reform designed to address the opportunity gap for historically underserved students.

Call to Repeal Common Core State Standards (July 2014)

Following the lead of many other Republican governors across the country, Walker calls for the state legislature to repeal Common Core math and language arts standards and proposes to replace them with standards created by Wisconsinites.

My take: Walker’s views on Common Core are perfectly aligned with nearly every other Republican leader backed by a legislative majority. This is not an original thought or idea – he is simply towing the party line. I believe the higher level thinking and skills which Common Core promotes (and the tests are designed to assess) are a step in the right direction and could influence classroom teaching & learning in a positive way eventually. It will take time, though. I also like the idea of having similar standards across the country because it will inform conversations and planning around educational equity and opportunity. However, I do not like the idea of tying Common Core (or any other) test results to district/school funding or teacher evaluations in a punitive way.

Alternative Teacher Licensing Proposal (January 2015)

Governor Walker advocates for an alternative teacher licensing program in which aspiring educators could skip traditional certification programs as long as they attain a bachelor’s degree, accumulate “life experience” in the content area, and pass a test. No student teaching necessary.

My take: I’m interested in proposals to rethink teacher education and preparation programs, but Walker’s idea totally neglects pedagogical knowledge and overrates content area knowledge. This is the newest iteration of Walker’s signature move: de-professionalizing the teaching profession. If this proposal were to pass, he still would not be able to be a classroom teacher in Wisconsin due to his lack of a bachelor’s degree.

Proposed Budget Cuts to University of Wisconsin System (January 2015)

Walker framed the $300 million decrease in funding for the UW system as a way to promote more efficient state government and offered increased autonomy for the Board of Regents to create systemwide policy as a benefit of the proposal.

My take: The cuts come at a time when many other states are investing more in higher education. This will surely lead to a steep tuition increase for UW students across campuses. It is an extremely short sighted idea and, unfortunately, is further proof that Walker does not value education as a worthwhile investment for a democratic society.

Central Questions for Films of 2014-15

I love framing matters in terms of central questions. Whether the topic at hand is a political issue, a musical group’s catalogue, or a friend’s career ambitions, my educator tendency to create and debate central questions takes over.

To form and grapple with central questions is an intellectual exercise through which one can examine a specific situation, piece of art, or seemingly eccentric narrative, pare it down to its essential being, and connect it to a larger set of observations about human nature & life on earth. I find the zoom in-zoom out, synthesis-extraction, and part-to-whole relational aspects of central question analysis facilitate fun and revealing conversations.

Without further adieu, here are what I see as worthwhile central questions for some of my favorite films released in the cinematic year 2014-15:

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-What is the most effective method for encouraging artistic greatness?

-Can genius be taught?

– Is it possible for an individual to be a “great” at his/her craft and also lead a “balanced” life?

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-As a society, what level of civil liberty infringements should we tolerate in the name of national security?

-What are the consequences of eliminating or significantly decreasing privacy?

-Who is protected by (or benefits most from) national security programs?

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-What is (or should be) the relationship between activism and politics?

-How does “dissent within the ranks” of a social movement affect its overall effectiveness?

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-How much value should we place on others’ opinions of ourselves in determining self-worth?

-In what ways is an individual in control of her/his reputation?

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-How much agency/control does a young person have over his/her life during youth?

-What are the most prominent variables in identity formation? Specifically, how does the passage of time figure into the process of becoming?

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-Where is line distinguishing free speech and hate speech?

-Is it ethical to kill one in the name of saving many others from violence and oppression?

Note: I’ll update this page in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards as Erica and I see more of the critically acclaimed films.

Selma and the Power of the Clear Ask

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My wife and I saw Selma last night. I was impressed with many aspects of the film:  David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as Dr. King, the simultaneously vivid yet nebulous cinematography during scenes of violence, and the portrayal of the three-way chess game between demonstrators, the White House, and local authorities to name a few.

That being said, I found it difficult to focus solely on the artistic choices & narrative present within the film. Like many others with whom I’ve spoken who’ve seen the film in recent days, I found it impossible to resist the urge to draw connections between the civil rights movement as it was represented in the film with present day race relations, activism, and politics in the United States. I believe Dr. King would be proud of us for refusing to resist such an urge.

There are countless angles one could take on Selma and its relevance to today’s United States and its social movements, but I’ll take up just one here: the Power of the Clear Ask.

As portrayed in scenes with Lyndon B. Johnson early in the film, MLK had a clear ask:

  • Pass a law containing the right for African-Americans to vote unencumbered
  • Specify a protocol for how this law will be implemented
  • Enforce the protocol

Dr. King and his allies designed the package above as a concrete goal for their movement and thought of creative ways in which to non-violently demonstrate and put pressure on authorities in order to draw attention to & further this goal. Sure, it took countless hours of internal debate, years of effective activism, a plethora of false starts & failed attempts, and continuous, often vitriolic disagreement amongst the SCLC, SNCC, Nation of Islam, and other groups before this ask was refined to the point which Dr. King could deliver it pithily to the President and other power brokers. But, again, the ask was both clear & concrete and I believe this helped energize & focus the movement in a beautiful way.

Now, let’s pivot to the present day: I have been extremely interested but rarely directly involved in the Occupy Wall Street and #blacklivesmatter demonstrations of recent years. I totally agree with what these movements are against but have rarely been a participant in their actions because I struggle to articulate what, concretely, they are for. I am in spiritual solidarity with these groups generally yet don’t 100% identify myself as a member of these activist communities because they seem to lack what I see as a proactive or practically progressive approach. The ask isn’t clear.

These movements are relatively young , are addressing complex issues with powerful forces on the other side, have engaged many people from a variety of backgrounds since their inception, and can point to progress as a result of their efforts on several fronts. Lots to be proud of for sure. My critique of their lack of the clear ask may not be entirely fair. It could be that I am not speaking with the right members of these groups, am not listening carefully enough, am not being adequately patient, etc. But, again, my impression is that they haven’t achieved their full potential because organizers & participants haven’t effectively molded their clear ask(s) yet.

I’ll be excited to become more involved in direct actions related to such movements  if and when the asks become more clear. Call me a bandwagon activist, a Johnny-come-lately, a follower, whatever. In some arenas of life, I have a clear vision for what change, success, equity, and fun should look like; education and music being two. I know I can be a leader in these corners of the world. I love collaborating with others to think of what could be next in these fields and live for recruiting others to the cause. In other arenas of life, like income inequality, police-community relations, and institutional racism, I want to be a long-distance runner for justice and peace, a soldier for truth, but need some support. I’m confident I can contribute to the cause, but I need strong mentors and teachers to show me the way. I need an image of success, a benchmark for progress, a light in the dark, and I know I am not alone. We need a clear ask. And once we have it, it will be that much easier to fight for the right and just answers.