Winning Against the Wolf

Winning Against the Wolf

So this wolf comes knocking at my door.  He’s all earnest as he starts his spiel, but I see a sly glint in his eyes.  He says he’s there to warn me that a fellah down the road a piece is up to no good, and he has a big bundle of sticks and a bulging bag of rocks he wants to sell me.  I might need ‘em for protection, or I might want to join with my other neighbors to do the bad guy in before he makes more trouble.

If I buy his wares right now, he says, he’ll even throw in this super-duper sling shot at no extra charge.  He opens his trench coat to show it to me.

I tell him I’m not a fighter.  I have something better up my sleeve.  He selects a heavy stick from the bundle and kind of caresses it with his front paw.  “Better than this?” he asks.

“Yes,” I tell him smiling.  “But thanks anyway for your concern.”

He takes a round, heavy rock from his bag, slides the sling shot from under his coat, loads it up and fires the rock at one of my trees, hitting it.

“Hey!” I protest.  “That’s my tree!”

“Yeah, and look at the patch of bark I knocked off,” he growls.  “Listen, this fellah we’re talking about is a bad dude.  Evil through and through.  And he’s got a tribe of mean cronies, too.  But at least with this, you’d have a chance against ‘em.”

I walk over to my tree and pat it where the rock hit, telling it I’m sorry.  Then I tell the wolf I’m really not interested in his wares.

“Well then, tell me, Missy, just how you plan on dealing with this problem?”  He sneers at me.

“C’mon in,” I say to him.  “I’ll show you.”  I lead him into the kitchen, where the scent of chocolate chip cookies is wafting from the oven, and tell him to have a seat.   I pour him a big glass of cold milk, pull the cookies from the oven and place a few on a pretty plate in front of him.

“Here,” I say.  “Have some cookies and milk.  And tell me how you got into this line of work.”

He’s a little taken aback, but he slurps the milk and starts nibbling cookies and unfolds his story.  I ask about his family and where he’s from, and I tell him a couple stories of my own, and before long, we’re laughing and chatting like old friends.   As he finishes his sixth cookie, he pushes back the plate and says he’d better be getting on his way.  I thank him for stopping by and give him a bag with more cookies to take with him.

He’s two steps from the door when he turns back.  “Wait,” he says.  “You never showed me your secret weapon.”

“You’re holding it in your hand,” I smile, pointing to the bag of cookies.  He gets a sheepish look on his face—which is something for a wolf.  Then he turns, and with his tail between his legs, walks slowly down my driveway.

“I better think about getting into a new line of work,” he mumbles.  And off he goes, scratching his head, then reaching in the bag for a cookie.  And just as he turned the corner, I thought I heard him laugh.

The moral of the story is don’t buy the sticks and stones that the sly old wolves are selling.  We all have something far more powerful than conflict to offer.

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Focus on the Good

Focus on the Good

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m getting awfully tired of watching the violent protests that seem to be erupting almost daily around the globe. Sure, I understand that a lot of things need fixing in our world, and I appreciate dedication to promoting a worthy cause. But those who practice violence and destruction do nothing to further the betterment of our situation, especially when they utterly fail to carry any message proposing workable solutions to the problems they are railing against. What if, instead of focusing on perceived evils and shortcomings, we devoted ourselves to identifying and promoting the things that further the flourishing of humankind?

Almost 20 years ago, professional psychology asked itself the same question about its own direction. It had been focusing almost exclusively on illness and giving little attention to identifying the factors that promoted individual well-being. When it turned its attention to searching for the life-promoting traits in people, the science of positive psychology was born. And studies world-wide are now proving that we live happier, more productive, creative and satisfying lives when we focus on building our strengths than we do when we focus on trying to improve our weaknesses.

Remember the saying, “What we focus on expands.” Focus on what’s wrong and you get more of it. Focus on the good and it increases.

What Goodness Is

Don’t fall for the idea that goodness is relative, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The good in life is what supports it, what lifts burdens and alleviates suffering. What’s toxic is action that produces suffering where it doesn’t have to exist.

When the founders of positive psychology got the idea to identify what things contributed to the Good Life, they looked at the qualities that people found most worthwhile across cultures and across centuries of time. They ended up finding six general categories of time-tested values that were held in high esteem all over the world:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

These virtues form the pillars that uphold civilizations that give rise to the Good Life.

Under these virtues, the positive psychologists identified character strengths that were linked to each category. (See: The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview)

Strengths and Virtue

These strengths are the vehicles by which we creatively and productively move forward in the world, the means by which we bring the six universal virtues into existence, both in our individual experience and in the world as a whole.

When individuals become aware of their signature strengths, they can use them as a channel for joyfully pouring energy into work that contributes to the well-being of all. Strengths such as curiosity and “street smarts,” for example, are expressions of the virtue of knowledge and wisdom. People who possess them invent new and unconventional ways to get things done. They value practicality and look for ways to make things work in the real world.

Instead of bowing to the mob or basing their choices and actions on currently popular slogans and memes, people who use their strengths to foster the expression of universal values discover genuine depth and meaning in their goals. They focus on creating the Good Life for all, and they work to understand more and more clearly what the Good Life truly entails. They look for ways to increase the deliciousness of life, to promote the things that make living worthwhile. The torches they carry are the torches of truth. The fires they build are the fires of freedom.

If we want to build a better world, one that is just, and balanced, and wise, we need to hone our focus on the Good and to promote it, each in his or her own way, each with his or her own strengths. The wrong is all too evident. The way out is to focus on the Good.

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Slaying the Dragons of Chaos

Dragons of Chaos

I’ve been listening lately to lectures by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson,  a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, whose complex thoughts attract me with their depth and insight.  When you listen to him, you need to stop doing anything else and truly listen.  He speaks quickly and packs each sentence with layers of meaning.  But listening thoughtfully is worth the effort it requires of you.

One of the ideas he conveyed in the lectures I heard this week is that dragons, in mythology, represented (among other things) chaos.  And that slaying them makes you a hero.

Our own lives are a constant battle between chaos and order, and to be a hero in your own life means you slay the dragons that are bringing chaos to it so that you can have less confusion and greater clarity and competence in your life.

The first step in battling your dragons is the toughest.  You have to face the fact that they’re there.  You know that they are, and that they’re keeping you from being all that you can be.

Dr. Peterson says that the secret of overcoming your dragons is to take responsibility for them.   Taking responsibility builds you character and gives your life meaning.  It allows you to aim for a living on a higher level than you are now.

Here’s how he says to do it.  You know there are things in your life that aren’t in order, where you’re not together, and they’re causing you some discomfort or suffering.   Every morning, or every night, ask yourself what those things are.

Ask as if you’re asking someone you really want the answer from, not telling yourself or preaching, but sincerely asking what need to be put in order.  You can easily name five of them he says, “Bang. Bang. Bang.”  These are the little dragons of chaos.  “And they’re just little, but that’s good, because you’re not much of a hero warrior, so maybe little dragons are all you can put up with right now.”  So you name them and the begin sorting them out.

You ask yourself which one you’ll put some work into, even if the work is tedious or boring, or whatever it is that’s been allowing you to put it off.  And you do the work.  You sort those things out.

And what happens is it will bring more order into your life and when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be just a little more focused and together.  Then you ask the same question, and the next problems will be a little more complex and challenging, and you sort those out.  And you keep going with this, and you become stronger and more clear-headed for the next set of dragons you take on.

If you continue to do that, you’ll find that your room gets cleaned, your health improves, and your house gets put in order, and then maybe you can stick a finger out and begin looking at the dragons in your community.  By that time, you’ll have some real personal power and self-confidence, and some practice at identifying dragons and taking them on.

Now that, he says, is an interesting and exciting game.  “If you started doing the things that you know you should do and you did that diligently, what the hell would you be like in ten years?”  You might not reach the very pinnacle, but you’ll be a lot better off than you are now, a lot less self-pitying and resentful, with a lot less suffering in your life, a lot less cruel to yourself and other people.  “And that’s a pretty good start.”

So here’s to slaying dragons.  Which ones will you start with today?

Wishing you a sharp sword and hearty determination!

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8 Powerful Questions for Discovering What You Really Want

Discovering What You Really WantThe key to living a life that’s brimming with satisfaction, happiness and meaning is discovering what you really want.

And yet few of us know how to get to our core desires.  We end up letting life live us instead of living according to our own intentions and designs.

I’m writing this article in December, and every year at this time, I watch people grapple with the New Year’s Resolution dilemma: To resolve or not to resolve?  And if so, what?

Most of us have learned from experience that making resolutions doesn’t change our lives.  If we decide to make one anyway, thinking this year we mean it, we pick something we think we should do to be a better person:  Lose weight, quit smoking, find a better job.  But in the end our resolution turns out to be just so much wishful thinking.

Deciding to enhance your life is a noble act.  But will power burns up quickly.  Temptations and distractions loom large.  And setbacks can send your  whole effort  crashing to the ground.

To create a life that excites you and lets you unfold your true potential, you need to begin with identifying what you really want in your life.

When you know, deep in your heart, what you want to have, and do, and be, you have authentic guidelines for living.  You wake up in the morning with a sense of direction and purpose.  

When you know what truly matters to you, you’re alert for opportunities; you know when to say yes and when to say no to things; you’re not pulled by momentary distractions, temptations, or setbacks. You’re living intentionally, in alignment with your own purposes.  And that’s a powerful way to live.

Ask Yourself These Questions

To get started on discovering what it is that you really want in life, take time to consider the following questions and to answer them for yourself.

You may want to print them out to keep them where you can see them.  Then set aside some regular time for working out your answers – even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day.  Pay attention to the thoughts and signals that come to you during your day that give you clues.  You have all the answers inside you.  And the process of discovering them can be life-changing—and great fun.

1. Which parts of your life interest you the most? What are your priorities?  Rate each of the following areas on a 1-10 scale, where 1 means you don’t really care about that aspect of life very much at all, and 10 means it’s one of the most important parts of your life.  Then decide, if you could focus on only 3 – 4 areas this year, which would you choose?

  • Health
  • Job/Career
  • Finances
  • Significant Other/Romance/Family
  • Friends/Social Life/Community
  • Personal Growth/Spirituality
  • Fun/Recreation/Hobbies
  • Physical Environment

2. How would the key areas of your life look if they were ideal?  How would an ideal day unfold if you were giving this aspect of your life your best?   Take time to imagine it.  Who kinds of things would you be doing? How would you feel?  Who would be with you?  What would people be saying about it?  A clear vision of what you’re aiming for is a dynamite motivator.

3. In what ways do you want to develop more mastery or competence?  What are you curious about learning in each of the priority aspects of your life in order to make it better?  What new behaviors would you like to begin practicing?  How might you go about it?

4. What stops you?  What barriers stop you from being more?  In what ways, or in what activities or environments, do you feel insecure?  How might you begin to practice more courage in this area?  How can you take more risks?  In what new ways can you respond when you feel fear?

5. What resources do you need?  What information, materials, time or support might you need in order to develop priority areas of your life?  Where might you get them?  Who can help you?  What are you willing to trade or give up in order to get them?

6. Do you know  your personal character strengths? (Learn more here.) How might you use them with greater focus and intention in your daily life?  How can you apply them to move you toward your ideals?

7. What tools do you have for reducing the stress in your life?  How regularly do your practice them?  Would it benefit you to add a favorite or two to your daily routine?  Would you like to learn new techniques?  How might you go about it?

8. How can add more happiness into your day?  What pleasurable activities might you do more often?  Happiness comes in different flavors.  Which of the following positive emotions most mean “happiness” to you?  How might you choose to experience them more often during your day?

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest/Engagement
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

Set aside time during the next two weeks or so to play with these questions and see the new sense of direction that develops.   Then work out a plan for applying the ideas you generate into your real life.

Yes, it takes some concentrated attention.  We’re not used to doing the kind of digging-for-inner-gold that these questions require.  But the reward is living a rich, satisfying, self-directed life and worth every second that you spend on it. Why not get started today?

If it feels like it’s more than you can do alone, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a call. We can talk about what you want to achieve and the ways that personal coaching might offer you the clarity, confidence and support to move ahead.

Illustration by svilen001

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The Practical Wisdom of Prudence

PrudenceSome time back, I decided to give all my inner voices names.  I thought that would make my dialogues with them more intimate.  There’s the brave one, Sally Forth, for instance, who encourages me when my confidence is drooping or I’m feeling shy.  And there’s May Bull with her soft, deep drawl, who coaxes me on when I’m tired or the going gets rough.  “Come on, honey,” she’ll say.  “Just a little more.  You can do it.”

For the most part, they’re a good bunch, valued players on my team.

The only spoilsport in the bunch was Prudence.  She’s the strict one who’s always pulling back the reins on my free spirit.

For a long time, I thought of Prudence as “the nag.”  She watches my spending like some green-shaded accountant.  If I reach for a second piece of chocolate cake, she’ll cluck.  She believes in regular bedtimes and exercise, and being prompt.  And any time I’m facing some moral dilemma or mulling some point of etiquette, she’s right there with her two cents in hand.

It took me a long time to appreciate her worth.  It’s something you have to grow into.  But now that I see the genuine value and practical wisdom of Prudence, I’ve crowned her Chief of Staff.

Let me tell you why – because you have an inner Prudence, too, whether you’ve named her or not.

What Prudence Does

Prudence brings with her quite a heritage.  Her name, according to Wikipedia, “comes from Old French prudence (14th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity). “    Prudence is considered one of the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity.   The other three are Justice,  Temperance (or Self-Control),  and Fortitude (or Courage).   Among them, she is foremost, because her knowledge is necessary to direct the remaining three.

Despite her grand history, her name has gone out of fashion these days.  Mostly we refer to her now as “Practical Wisdom.”   But personally, I don’t think that has the same ring.

If you took the VIA Character Strength Survey,  you would see Prudence defined as “caution, prudence, and discretion,” and if you have this personal strength in good supply, the Survey report would tell you that “You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.”

But while that’s a neat little overview, it doesn’t really tell you about Prudence’s worth.  She does so much more for you than that.

Prudence upholds your true values.  She’s your inner moral compass, “that still, small voice” that urges you to seek for and choose the higher path.

Prudence believes in goodness, both as a means and an end.  She asks you to imagine the best possible outcome in every situation and then to move toward it in the most effective way for the benefit of all concerned.

She challenges you to listen both to your heart and to your head.  She asks you to look at both the big picture and at the details involved.

In other words, Prudence requires you to be mindful, to thoughtfully consider both your actions and their potential consequences in terms of what you genuinely value.  Then she expects you to implement them with courage, and strength, and efficiency.  She helps you live from a place of true authenticity.

“Are you doing your best?” she asks.  “Is this who you want to be?”

It takes learning and experience for her voice to mature.  You can cultivate it by paying attention to the wisdom and errors that you see others using in the world around you, and in movies and literature.  She takes on more authority as you go through your own life experiences and learn from your own triumphs and mistakes.

In time, you learn to listen to her counsel a kind of reverence.  Instead of seeing her as a nagging shrew, you learn to turn to her and trust her when you need to be wise.  And in the end you come to appreciate why, since time immemorial, Prudence is considered the mother from which all the other virtues spring.

*            *             *

This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

If you found this article of value, passing it on would be a prudent thing to do.  Just click a button.

Illustration by Cieleke at stock.xchng
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