As though college admissions weren’t maddening enough already.

Many of you know by now that the University of California changed its Personal Statement requirements for the upcoming 2016-2017 application cycle.

After something like a decade of the same two topics, we’re now looking at a four-prompt approach. The new framework does have shorter word limits. So if they’re a student’s only essay-based target, it’s a relatively minor adjustment. If, however, the student is going for the UC’s and private (Common Application) schools, the game gets more complicated.

First, let’s look at the prompts themselves as a point of reference.



>> Both prompts required, with a combined limit of 1,000 words.

  • Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
  • Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?



>> Choose 4. Limit: 350 words per essay.

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
  • Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  • Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  • What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?



There are three main points to hold onto for now.

>> The new name offers an initial clue. Formerly known as The Personal Statements, the writing section is now called Personal Insight Questions.

Right off the top, UC Admissions tells us:

We hope this new format will give you clearer guidance and more flexibility in the kind of information you want to share with us.

The questions are certainly more specific, cover more territory than their predecessors, and thus offer a wider range of opportunity. The app itself provides both a worksheet and extensive contextual guidance for each question to help get students onto the right path.

>> They prompts are noticeably more concrete.

Another clue emerges in the Writing Tips section, where the list of “common mistakes” includes the following:

Asking philosophical questions. Get to the point and tell us what you mean.

UC Admissions is facing truly daunting numbers. Unlike private schools, the campuses employ corps of readers who do nothing but evaluate student essays and report back to Admissions. When UCLA is looking at 80,000 applicants, they realistically don’t have the time and manpower to closely assess each candidate the way a small liberal arts college can.

Result: having grumbled about a trend toward what some label “literary” writing, the UC’s are mandating shorter, simpler responses that in turn demand less reader effort.

>> The new protocols also discourage another common habit: carelessly copy-pasting the primary Common App Personal Statement into one of the UC prompts.

The emphasis here is on “carelessly”. This is a legitimate complaint: too often the Common App essay fails to specifically address the UC topic (or vice-versa, if a student is copying in the opposite direction). It’s obvious, in an age of such intense competition, that making a school feel neglected simply in the interests of easing your workload can be a fatal misstep.



Content.         From a counselor perspective, I don’t disagree with the UC position on overly elaborate prose (nor do I allow it among my clients). Bigger words don’t impress sophisticated readers; neither do excessively elaborate constructions. Remember: first and foremost, this is about CLEAR COMMUNICATION. We’re always looking for a well-calibrated balance of complexity and accessibility.

Having said that…. while students are busy cultivating their writing through AP English classes and the SAT/ACT, the UC is to some extent pushing against that. They want thoughtfulness, of course. But not too much? It’s a bit frustrating. There’s a hint of over-simplifying here which is more about serving the Admissions office’s needs than the student’s full self-expression.

Personally, I place great emphasis on building writing and thinking skills throughout the course of my work, and strongly believe those hard-won capacities should be allowed to shine. I will strive to ensure the new format doesn’t limit that.

Overlapping.   The new structure won’t change the practice much. Given the increasingly complex applications students now face, a savvy degree of efficiency is more important than ever.

As always, I’ll stress choosing personal, individualized topics with great care. Once we have an approach that completely satisfies both the Common App primary and one of the UC questions, we’ll go after the Common App first. Why? It’s considerably easier to cut a 650-word piece down to 350 than it is to expand the shorter version.

Of course…. whereas before, this step left us with only one additional UC essay to handle, now we have three. So the change essentially adds two additional pieces of writing to an already jam-packed process, which does make things more challenging.

Given the range of possibilities the new UC prompts are designed to cover, it shouldn’t be too hard to forge appropriate overlaps. With some creativity (and, to be honest, a bit of serendipity as well), we should be able to line one or more UC prompts up with private schools’ written Supplements, and thus keep the workload under control. This will simply require more careful creative exploration, strategizing, and attention to detail….

…. which have, in any case, always been a core element of my approach.

Do bear in mind, please: since the Common App withholds next season’s Supplements until its annual August 1 reboot, we won’t know for certain until then.



DON’T PANIC. It’s a pain, yes. But as long as you keep a clear head, it’s absolutely a manageable pain.

As you’ve often heard me say in the past: with smart, attentive, empathic guidance, conscientious students will end up with solid choices come April. All it takes is dedication, a sense of adventure, and trust that in the end, they’ll land somewhere terrific.

I suspect I’ll be writing more as we get further into the landscape. Until then…. looking forward to diving into a new season.

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility

Chapter 3     HUMANITY, ANYONE?   
University Admissions & The Battle of the Brains — Part 2

Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.

— Martin Luther King Jr.

In Part 1 (scroll down to review), we dipped a bit into Descartes, and a few of the levels where our culture’s over-emphasis on pure intellect has distorted the world around us — including, especially, the human/empathic dimension of the U.S. educational system.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it.

Now: take heart. Some helpful insight emerged a few years back. Daniel Pink’s extraordinary book A Whole New Mind blew the roof off the well-guarded temple of post-Enlightenment intellectual supremacy. Its subtitle tells us a lot of the story:

Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

Pink writes:

While scientists have long known that the brain is divided into two distinct hemispheres, up until the mid-20th century it was assumed that the left hemisphere — which controls logic and language — was the key to what made us human. The right side was dismissed as something of an evolutionary throwback, a more primitive version of us that the modern mind had finally (and thankfully) overridden.

In the 1950’s, the first hints of the right brain’s importance began to emerge. A researcher by the name of Roger Sperry came to a startling conclusion: the right hemisphere wasn’t only not a waste of space; it was in some ways superior to the left. As Pink notes:

The left hemisphere reasoned sequentially, excelled at analysis, and handled words. The right hemisphere reasoned holistically, recognized patterns, and interpreted emotions and nonverbal expressions.

Pink goes on to acknowledge the doubt you might be experiencing right about now:

All that stuff that the right hemisphere does is a side dish to the main course of true intelligence. What distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to reason analytically.

There is, no question, a strong element of truth here. Our analytical capacities have been central to our rapid evolution as a species. But: does that mean Pink and Sperry are off-target?

Pink proceeds by charting a set of differentiations:

  • the left hemisphere is the thousand words; the right is the picture
  • the left hemisphere handles what is said; the right focuses on how it’s said
  • the left hemisphere zeroes in on categories; the right assesses relationships
The Plot Thickens….

Huh. Might there be more in play than we initially suspected? Since we are, clearly, far more complex beings than our purely cognitive aspects….

Then, just when it seems like Pink is going all-in on Right-Directed Thinking — after all, the subtitle IS “Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” — he alights suddenly on the critical concept, the Whole New Mind his title is actually speaking about:

However tempting it is to talk of right and left hemispheres in isolation, they are actually two half-brains, designed to work together as a smooth, single, integrated whole.

Ahhh. A meaningful stab at harmonizing these disparate drives that live at the core of us…. at integration instead of separation…. which is a core of my intention in undertaking The Yearning Cynic’s Guide.

Can you see where I’m heading with this? Dr. King’s “intelligence plus character”? In a whole-person approach to education and admissions, Right-Directed Thinking is anything but an afterthought.

Why? Because it contains the entire spectrum of capacities that allow us to actually put our learning to use.

And before you dismiss all of this as vaguely interesting, but not terribly relevant to your immediate college ambitions…. do please consider a few things:

  1. Pink’s research points to a global shift from Left-Directed Thinking to Right-Directed Thinking, which is already having a radical impact on human society. This runs the gamut from undergrad admissions to grad schools to, of course, the working world itself.
  2. Roger Sperry — Professor Roger Sperry of Caltech, that is — did earn a bit of recognition for his work. Can you say Nobel Prize in Medicine?

In essence, there’s something here that’s far too urgent to dismiss out of hand. GPA and test scores are, yes, crucial in the pursuit of the almighty Acceptance Letter. However: when nearly 70% of the students applying to Stanford with 2400 SAT’s are NOT getting in….

…. Yup, you heard that right, folks: nearly 70%….

…. We have no choice but to re-examine our assumptions regarding the centrality of the numerical.

Translation: the top campuses are, of course, about seriously strong students. Virtually no one getting in has a less-than-spectacular academic profile.

And yet: spectacular academic profiles, by themselves, hardly guarantee a YES.

So it becomes safe to engage a pretty intense paradox:

Obviously, numbers matter in competitive admissions.

Yet in a strange way, they don’t matter at all.

Make sense so far? Good. In Part 3, I’ll be diving into the admissions-oriented repercussions of this shift, where questions like emotional maturity and grit have acquired serious new standing alongside important but less illuminating measures like I.Q. I’ll be looking at both undergrad and med school applications, the way those arenas effect life after school, and exploring a subtle revision to the fabled Cogito that might lead us toward a richer, more fulfilling educational frame. Stay tuned.

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility

Chapter 3        HUMANITY, ANYONE?   Part 1:

University Admissions & The Battle of the Brains


Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.

— Martin Luther King Jr.


If I had a dollar for every time clients expressed utter bewilderment with the current state of admissions…. I’d be writing this post from my retirement in the Scottish Highlands.

The disarray is pretty astonishing. Start with 5 – 6% admit rates at the most selective campuses. This is due, in part, to:

  • A dramatic uptick in internationally-based students applying to US campuses.
  • More and more high-performing American students cranking out 25+ applications, instead of the usual 10 – 12, in a desperate attempt to raise their chances.
  • Together, these factors are skewing already-inflated acceptance numbers even further, and having a significant trickle-down effect into the larger college-bound population.

Underneath it all…. I’m coming across something even more disturbing: an increasingly pervasive feeling among my high school students that, no matter how well they perform, it’s just never good enough.

Can you hear the startling lack of optimism, especially in such young people? As a counselor, I so want to have something to offer in response — something reassuring, of course, but more importantly, something helpful.

Meaning: it’s critical to address the underlying causes of our collective anxieties around this huge life transition. Not just the symptoms.


Framing The Discussion

In truth, there may be as many theories about the unraveling of our educational systems as there are cornfields in Iowa. And yes, theories matter. But what matters far more:

How do we manage to coax usable information from them?

So I’d like to do two things, over the course of this series of posts:

  1. Present one particularly compelling theory.
  2. Explore the impact it can have on the ways we guide our children toward college, and beyond.

First, a brief set-up. One of the most famous lines in philosophy belongs to a 17th-century Frenchman by the name of René Descartes. Emerging as he did at the end of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the potential of the individual human being, he’s best remembered for what’s known as the Cogito:

Cogito, ergo sum.

I think, therefore I am.

The phrase may seem banal to a contemporary reader. But it was a landmark which laid the foundation for the Enlightenment, and thus the Industrial Revolution and the modern world. Descartes helped sparked this era, in part, with his unprecedented focus on the power of the rational mind.

As is often the case, however, revolutionary change carries unforeseen price-tags. What, for example, does an over-emphasis on intellect and rational self-interest imply for the ways we interact with one another on personal levels? What room does it leave for, say, compassion? or even love?

To my eye: while our minds are, no question, central, the Cogito unintentionally encouraged the kind of broad communal disconnect I described in the Intro to The Yearning Cynics Guide:

a weakening of the crucial sense of empathy that leads us to experience the impact of our actions on others as a concrete emotional reality.

Consider everything from mass hunger to environmental degradation to political oppression. If you examine such phenomena closely, they may be viewed as nothing so much as a denial of long-term human consequences in service to immediate “rational” drives such as position, profit, and influence.

Now let’s be clear: position, profit, and influence are all entirely legitimate goals. It’s when they’re pursued without a sense of their impact on others, however, that we get into trouble.

It’s also worth noting, as we turn our gaze toward the academic world, a relatively common-sense principle:

Societal dysfunction of this kind cannot survive in the presence of a well-developed sense of empathy — something our classrooms are fostering less and less.


Data’s All You Need?

It’s not hard to make the leap from the legacy of the Cogito to contemporary education. I’m hardly the first to argue that our prevailing logic of numbers-above-all-else — the insistent reduction of our children to mere data — underlies major problem zones such as the Advanced Placement program and No Child Left Behind, both of which have manacled legions of highly-dedicated teachers to little more than exam results.[1]

Such oversimplified approaches can’t begin to assess the true impact of education from the only perspective that truly matters — students — who are all too rarely allowed the time and freedom to actually make sense of what they’re studying, and to apply that in any kind of meaningful way.

Scores offer no insight into the individuals themselves: a sense of who each student is, and how she may use her education to contribute to the world. Nor do they shed light on critical “soft” factors such as passion, resilience, and cooperation. In a strictly empirical universe, these dimensions remain a complete blank.

Put another way: we’re obsessed with number-crunching, but sadly neglecting the living, breathing generations who need not only information but, at least as crucially:

The wisdom to make proper use of what they learn as they enter the world.

So the question becomes:

How do we, as parents and educators, impart meaningful knowledge and critical thinking skills while still cultivating the whole person?

Because, looking ahead to Part 2, please don’t kid yourselves, folks: that essential balance is precisely what Admissions offices are really seeking……………


[1] For a striking examination of this from both the teachers’ and students’ perspective: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/opinion/teach-your-teachers-well.html?emc=edit_th_20160113&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=28140718

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility


Community Service and University Applications  

He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.     — Lao Tzu, TAO TE CHING

Over the past two posts, we’ve explored some of the unexpected ways outreach to others can support us when we’re in difficult life transitions. Now I’d like to reframe the discussion around the Admissions process.

It’s no secret. A strong service background can exert a beneficial effect on your application prospects. Schools definitely favor awareness of the world beyond your own immediate needs, and what that says about you as a potential member of their communities.

Having said that…. the game is a little more nuanced. There are two critical factors you have to take into consideration as you think about where and how much to volunteer:

1) It’s not, ultimately, as life-and-death as you may believe. Why?

Precisely because everyone thinks it is.

Which leads too many candidates to emphasize quantity over quality, and pad their resumes to the bursting point. The parental logic I hear often runs like this:

  • We want to make sure they think he’s a good kid.

(Honestly, folks: if you have to try to convince Admissions of this, I’m nervous about your odds of succeeding.)

  • Everyone else is doing it, so if we want to be competitive we have to keep up.

(On the contrary: if you really want to be competitive, start by doing less of “what everyone else is doing”. That will always make you stand out more in a crowded marketplace.)

2) Service work has to be absolutely sincere if it’s to have any significant impact on your chances.

How do complete strangers reading your application know when you’re being sincere?

Well…. let’s start with the obvious: it’s their job. In Triumph of the Number-Crunchers: What is Happening to the Soul of American Education? (1/17/16), I called attention to a simple fact: people working in college admissions are anything but dumb. If you, as a parent or student, seriously think you can con them or outsmart them…. I beg you to please think again. One whiff of dishonesty or exaggeration can all-too-quickly derail an otherwise strong applicant.

Never forget:

at the competitive levels there will always be a lot more of you

than there are available spaces.

A LOT. So as much as humanly possible, we have to stay relaxed and mindful through the whole process.

We also have to keep an eye on the cynicism here. It’s really quite startling.

How, you ask, can something as selfless as community service ever be cynical? Because in situations like this, volunteerism tends to become a way to get something you want, more than a way to help others.

Is it just me, or doesn’t that kind of miss the whole point of service?

The quote up top from the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu — He who does not trust enough will not be trusted — might initially sound judgmental to you. But I see a gentler dimension to the idea, where it’s not just a question of our faith in those around us.  

The individual we have to trust most in life is, first and foremost, ourselves.

I know that any time I personally feel compelled to oversell myself to others — to brag, to hype, to exaggerate the truth — I’m feeling insecure because I’m no longer believing in everything I genuinely have to offer.

Put it this way:

Colleges are far less interested in who you’re not than in who you are.

Therefore: If you don’t trust their judgment, how can you expect them to trust yours?

That YES letter candidates are so desperate for is, as much as anything else, an invitation to a community. A gesture of welcome, and confidence in your potential. Think of it like your family debating whether to take a relative you don’t know very well into your home. You make the best judgment call you can, then hope you’ve done the right thing.

Just like every single college and university does with every single student it admits.

So…. if you want your favorite schools to make that leap of faith in you…. you have to take the risk of letting your guards down a little. Which means:

You have to look at the process from a less panicked perspective,

assess what really makes you the person you are,

and discover the most authentic ways to express those things.

TRUST that, if you present yourself clearly, honestly, and passionately, people making the admissions decisions will see what you have to share with their community.

TRUST that the campus you need to call home will embrace you based on your true merits.

TRUST that somewhere out in the vast academic universe, there’s a home for you where you will thrive.

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility


Giving Back (Especially When You’re Struggling Yourself)


It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
 — Chinese Proverb

In Part 1, we explored the challenges of creating and maintaining a genuine service commitment, and the positive impact such a commitment can have for Job Seekers. Now, to take that a bit farther….

For People in Prolonged Career Transitions

The space between jobs, especially if it’s financially difficult, can represent a seriously unsettling moment in our lives. Think: existential reboot.

It’s my experience that an extended service project can bring a certain “RESET” quality — recharging the emotional batteries, revivifying confidence, as well as wiping the slate clean in preparation for whatever comes next.

It can thus exert a dramatic clarifying effect on goals and priorities.

I frequently observe clients in transition who are languishing in their day-to-day: stuck in that disheartening zone of feeling unseen, unappreciated, and just generally less-than. And make no mistake: I’ve been there myself. In situations like this, I’ve learned to lean on volunteer work. It gets me out of the house and into society again. It stimulates the interactive muscle, and primes a return to a more external dynamic.

Moreover: it’s one of the more strategically legit ways to fill those maddening resume gaps. So don’t be shy about including significant interim volunteer work in your self-presentation. And don’t be shy about noting any concrete impact you’ve made, exactly as you would for a paid position.

Example: A recent client faced the challenge of several years outside the workforce due to her child’s illness. Her extensive hands-on time at the hospital eventually led to a formal role as a volunteer coach for parents in similar straits, until her child’s condition was stable enough for her to return to full-time employment.

The unexpected silver lining: the experience she gained, and corresponding personal and professional development, represented a serious addition to her skillset which has made her a more compelling candidate for future pursuits.

So: How Do We Put That Pessimist To Rest?

And still, you may be wondering: Volunteer work as significant morale booster?

I’m just going to say it: ours may be the most cynical era in human history. It’s become so easy to let doubt and disconnect overwhelm us, to fall into that corrosive “life’s an incomprehensible mess” mindset and watch our true inspirations evaporate.

Worse, our inner skeptic can be too strong to simply ignore. It’s a canny opportunist, forever waiting to take advantage of any lapse in our sense of optimism and purpose.

Come back to the Chinese proverb I cited at the top of this post:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

I love the quote because I’ve struggled long and hard with the principle myself. I’ve gotten snared too many times in complaint, self-pity, and bitterness, while somehow forgetting again and again what I know all too well:

That cynical, self-absorbed voice in me has never, ever produced anything constructive.

But even more than that, I love the quote for its ruthless clarity. Can life really be this straightforward? Can finding time for others in the middle of our bleaker periods really make us feel more human again?

The answer, from my personal and professional experience, is an unequivocal YES.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy. Sometimes getting out of the house to volunteer requires the will to drag my butt off the couch when I’m at my lowest, and spend serious time sitting in traffic so I can go counsel young people in under-served communities across LA. The result, however, is invariably the same:

The act of supporting someone else in need lifts me out of my own blahs, and brings me home surprisingly refreshed.

And refreshed? That’s how we need to feel when we’re sitting in front of the umpteenth job search or LinkedIn query or cover letter we’ve had to get through this week. Refreshed is what we need in order to fire on all cylinders so we can reach out and create possibility where a few days earlier there may have been none.

Add a potential resume boost to this? Repeat after me, friends: win-win.


Part 3: the way our collective anxieties around competitive university admissions can lead us to lose sight of sincerity in community service, and fall into that self-diminishing more-more-more trap….

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility


The Beauty of Giving Back (Especially When You’re Struggling Yourself)

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
 — Chinese Proverb


      I’ve always been a big proponent of giving back. Because of that, I know it’s not always easy. Even when I do have time to spare, there always seem to be a dozen other urgencies clamoring for my attention.

      And then there are the myriad levels of internal resistance — some legit (like realistically limited energy), and some more self-created. For instance, I frequently come across a con many of us play on ourselves:

“I’ll give back more once I’ve made more money, and have more time and space in my life.”

      Have you ever caught yourself with that thought? I know I have. And for the record: sorry, I don’t buy it. Can’t you smell the cynicism? The way we reassure ourselves that we really are good people (“it’s my intention to contribute to the greater good”), all the while giving ourselves permission to shirk the responsibility of actually doing anything?

      As someone who made the commitment some years back to split his life between paid consulting and volunteering, I need to say something obvious: giving back is pretty straightforward. Translation:

Selflessness isn’t complicated. We make it that way.

      Whether it’s serving food in a homeless shelter, keeping company with the elderly, or tutoring underprivileged kids, we do it because there’s never a lack of need. Anywhere. We do it because we’re not, each of us, living in a tiny deterministic universe separate from everything and everyone around us. And we do it because such applied compassion ultimately makes us, as givers, feel stronger and more alive….

      …. which in turn has a lovely way of fostering more generosity all around. It’s a perfect virtuous circle.

      By this point some of you may be wondering: With so many people struggling just to find steady work, why is a Life Coach with a specialty in Career Counseling running his mouth about volunteerism?

      (Let’s keep an eye, here, on the subtle sabotage that can come from our inner cynics….)

      Because — beyond simply doing the right thing —regardless of where you are in your career arc, a consistent volunteer program may also exert a distinct influence on your possibilities.  

Job Seekers

      It’s no secret that recruiters respond favorably to those who are demonstrably less self-involved.[1]  A genuine community orientation is often seen as indicating emotional maturity, which can translate into applicants more likely to make positive contributions to their professional milieu.

      I’ve done hiring. I can attest that when someone speaks to their love of service in an interview — not from a need to impress, but from a place of real sincerity — it just fills the room.

      So yes, this broader orientation is a powerful tool for illustrating one’s larger sense of care and commitment. And the deeper it runs in a candidate’s profile, the deeper its potential impact. Look at it from the organization’s perspective:

Would you rather hire someone who’s very talented and self-interested, or someone who’s very talented and community-driven?

      Let’s be clear: if you’ve done a lot of charitable work, that doesn’t mean you’re a shoo-in. You’re not the only one with such background. But when interviewers do, in fact, ask a community-oriented client about the ways volunteerism has shaped her vision and professional life, it’s a gorgeous payoff. Even more than that — since in any interview you’re hopefully scoping the employer as much as they’re scoping you — pronounced interest in your charity work is a strong sign of an organization worth investing in.

In Part 2, we’ll be addressing the landscape for People Transitioning Careers, and some thoughts on putting our inner cynics to rest…. which will lead us to Part 3, where we’ll examine the role of community service in university applications. Stay tuned.

[1] Please see the two articles I’ve shared on LinkedIn:

>> http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-horoszowski/world-positive-leadership_b_7004476.html

>> https://www.devex.com/news/how-to-showcase-your-skills-based-volunteer-experience-85044

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility


What’s Happening to the Soul of American Education?



            As a teacher and counselor, I’ve always emphasized a passionately holistic approach to clients. Whether I’m working on college selection, application essays, career goals, or general life coaching, I’m committed to addressing the whole human being in front of me.

            For example: if, after months of working on personal statements, a student has not become a more effective thinker and writer on her own, that feels like a failure on my part. Sure, we’ve developed great essays. But will the student be able to navigate complex college writing requirements better as a result of our efforts? Will she be more comfortable with the creative/critical thinking that fosters the best resumes and cover letters, and defines deeper, sustained success in most professional arenas?

            No one will dispute the benefits of an educational system that creates clear, capable, self-aware human beings. Still, it will come as little surprise that American public schools are doing a less-than-stellar job when it comes to students’ individual needs. This week, The New York Times published “Teach Your Teachers Well”, a smart, thought-provoking critique of the damage excessive standardized testing is doing to both students and teachers in American education.[1]

            Yes, testing is important on many levels. And yes, this struggle is in some ways unavoidable, given the size of our country. But the overwhelming reliance on purely numerical measurements like No Child Left Behind assessments and AP’s, which tie teachers’ jobs directly to their students’ exam results, removes that crucial element of humanity from the process. It’s also sadly cynical: a throw-your-arms-up-in-the-air-and-sigh “What else can we do?” situation, while generation after generation of kids is deprived of the personal, usable learning they need.

            It’s not a long jump from here to the numerical mania that’s slowly taken over college admissions. Year after year, I see students and parents trapped in an obsession with MORE: more prestigious applications, which (they believe) demand more AP’s, more test prep, more extracurriculars, and more volunteerism.

            The reality: Admissions offices aren’t stupid, folks. They do know the difference between resume-padding and the real thing — between people who, for example, desperately cram in endless community service hours and those who have a true calling to help improve others’ lives.

            Which is to say: sincerity is a lot harder to fake than you may think. 

            It’s really quite simple: the competitive landscape is far more focused on QUALITY than quantity. They’re looking for passion and emotional maturity. They’re looking for inspired creative thinkers, not people who think they have to run and join every club on campus. 

           What makes a great student is anything but simple. And as I’ve argued for years: the same applies to what makes a great college applicant.

Where Do You Start?

            Trust yourself. Trust that the right schools for you will see what you have to offer their community (as well as the world after college), and come knocking. Trust that they will provide the style of education you require to reach your goals.

            And perhaps more than anything: trust that your future will be dictated far less by a university’s ranking than by what you do with the education it provides.


WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND:    Giving Back (Especially When It’s Not Easy)

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/opinion/teach-your-teachers-well.html?emc=edit_th_20160113&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=28140718

THE YEARNING CYNIC’S GUIDE: An Exploration of Resistance and Possibility

Introduction: Hope

Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.    — Earl Gray Stevens


Like everyone, writers have good days and not-so-good days. The good days…. energy blazes from our fingertips as though nothing in the universe could be more normal. The not-so-good days…. it’s a mistake to even get out of bed.

So today I’m sitting here wondering if it’s going to be a good one. Then I wonder: what actually makes a good day? My cats, as they often do in the morning, are sprawled on the couch next to me. What, for them, constitutes a successful day? Is today really any different than yesterday? Is their food better, or their napping more luxurious?

Out in nature they would largely be solitary hunters. Here, they’re loving and sweet and playful, with the occasional pang of jealousy or fright. Beyond that? The truth is I have no clue. From my (admittedly ethnocentric) vantage point, it doesn’t seem enormously complex.

Which brings us back to the human. As a species which no longer exists solely at a binary level — find enough to eat, don’t get eaten — humanity maintains an intricate relationship with the world around it. It’s not enough that we just survive and reproduce. Success, in our reality, is a fairly nuanced affair.

One important indicator: We rely on a set of vivid emotional markers to tell us, especially in the midst of life’s frequent challenges, that all is still well. Love. Laughter. Belonging.

And just as essentially: Hope.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define hope as the capacity to envision possibility ahead of us, even when that doesn’t make logical sense (in the midst of ongoing hardship, for instance).

Without it, we can’t be alive —committed, connected, inspired — in any meaningful sense of the term. Without it, we become automatons.

From there, it can be argued that hope isn’t just a capacity, but a necessity. Yet I’m hardly the first to note something obvious: There are few things with which I see so many people struggle so intensely.

Strange, isn’t it….

Groping for Constants in a New Era?

Hope is based on trust: the scent of an underlying benevolence in the world. Difficult times can improve. Disease can be cured. Heartbreak can give way to new light.

The trouble starts when our footing gets shaky. I’m hardly alone in my belief that our unique, hyper-accelerated era is making this trust harder to maintain. The borders between things —national, cultural, personal — are increasingly volatile. Belief systems that once endured for ages can now dissolve in a matter of years. 

Now throw in the environment…. the political landscape…. rampant student debt…. the job market…. even the question of a secure retirement, which is for millions of individuals a source of serious anguish.

Am I really surprised, then, that I’m experiencing more and more trouble sustaining my faith in constants? So much of what our parents could count on mere decades ago seems to be unraveling beneath our feet.

Sound at all familiar? If it does…. I invite you to take a deep breath.

Then I invite you to take a moment to notice the way disconnection, in all its various guises, becomes our safe haven. Social media, endless sources of entertainment, food, shopping…. the list goes on and on.

Think: how much more comfortable is it to endlessly distract ourselves than it is to slow down and let ourselves truly experience our uncertainties?

I know that, for me, a deep vein of helplessness often underlies this tendency to unplug. In the world according to Kevin, the voice sounds like this:

What can I, all by myself, possibly do to change any of the crazy stuff going on all around me?

Ring any bells?

I’d also argue that helplessness has a close cousin: futility. Futility definitely numbers among our more dangerous companions. It invites us into dismay. It encourages us to grab whatever we can before the whole house of cards comes crashing down, and leave others to fend for themselves. Which is to say:

It disempowers empathy as a key social foundation, and breeds cynicism.

Empathy is as complex as it is essential. It implies a critical element of identification, as in: 

“I don’t just feel sorry for you; I get your suffering because I’m aware of how such pain affects me.”

And, by extension: “I can’t do X awful thing to someone else because I know how it would make me feel.”

And cynicism? It’s what remains when the idealist in us has been thrashed one time too many — when our innate embrace of possibility has been beaten into submission. It’s that protective inner voice which tells us over and over again: Life isn’t safe. Never drop your guard.

And once cynicism sinks its claws into us…. well, let’s just say there are few mental habits that are tougher to dislodge.

So Where Do We Go from Here?

From where I’m sitting as a teacher and counselor, cynicism is Public Enemy #1. It’s a close ally to intolerance and self-righteousness. It brings out the darker, suspicious, tribal side in us — life doesn’t give a damn about me, so there’s no reason to view the world from any perspective other than what serves my immediate needs

— when what we need most is precisely the opposite:

Openness. Curiosity. Compassion

God knows I’m not making any claim to mastery here. But as I move through the varied arenas of my life, I keep running into a quiet, unrelenting hunger. So many of us seem to be searching not just for momentary relief. We’re also after a glimmer of something more nurturing.

A teacher of mine calls that something a deeper confidence. It’s not only trust in ourselves as individuals. It’s trust in life itself — in a universe that’s designed to help us face challenges, grow, and then pass what we’ve learned along to those around us.

So I’m dedicating this new series of posts to the yearning so many of us reluctant cynics experience:

How to stay rooted in a sincere, yet realistic, vein of optimism.

Translation: the ongoing struggle to sustain the better angels of our nature.

Some of the shorter posts ahead will address this via career issues. Some will explore education. Some will be more personal. But it’s the unifying factor I want to emphasize most closely:

Embracing the tsunami of doubt life brings with courage, tenderness, and grace.


Welcome to the frontier.  


The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

— Marcel Proust

I know we’re in the middle of a series of posts on passion, conviction, and interviews. But just to break things up, I’d like to share something that happened to me recently that illustrates in more depth what my work involves.

I was at a dinner party when a gentleman, having heard me mention my practice, turned with a mixture of curiosity and puzzlement on his face. He introduced himself, then laughed a bit self-consciously. “So…. I just gotta ask. Career Counselor…. Life Coach…. What exactly do you do?”

To his surprise, I laughed with him. “Truth is, it’s not exactly a clearcut assembly-line kinda thing. But if I had to try to sum it up, it’d go something like this….”

On the simplest level, the Career Counselor gig seems obvious. I support clients in several ways:

1) First-time career seekers. This population includes recent grads, as well as people who’ve been occupied in non-professional contexts (for example, full-time moms looking for a new post-empty-nest direction). Think of the process like hunting and gathering:

Where’s that passion hiding? What’s going to get you out of bed every day looking forward to what’s ahead?

Which leads us to a kind of flow:

Locating specific professional fields >>

Defining base realities (salary, benefits, location/commute, schedule) >>

Research (ideal targets/what’s currently available) >>

Articulating all of this via resume, cover letters, interview prep, and interview follow-up (how did it go? what did you learn so you can do better next time?)

2) Transitionals. There are three main populations here:

  • People who have lost jobs
  • Retirees seeking a new gig to occupy their days/supplement their pensions
  • People who are employed, but who have hit the wall and need a change.

My dinner companion, as an example, turned out to be in the third category: not hating his current gig, but acutely aware that at 40 he’s not really fulfilled either. And while the job market isn’t easy these days, he’s sensing that he’s too young to just throw in the towel and drag himself numbly through the next 25 years.

With both First-Timers and Transitionals, the discussion spins invariably around the integration of passion and paycheck, and involves the following possible scenarios:

  • Those who don’t know what their passion looks like (which requires a more detailed discovery process)
  • Those who are uncomfortable acknowledging it (which usually implies lack of permission to “dream” early in life, and/or someone else who tagged dreaming as “impractical”)
  • Those who know their passion, but are either A) unsure of how to integrate it more fully into their living; or B) aware that it doesn’t represent a ready salary, and so need to create a viable day-job which still preserves enough time and energy to pursue what they love.

As usual in life, of course, there’s quite a bit that’s less obvious. This is where the Career Counselor and Life Coach merge. If Career Counseling is largely an arena of practical problem-solving, and Psychotherapy is more geared toward dissecting and disempowering older, deeper traumas, Life Coaching lives somewhere in between.

I’m not a therapist. I won’t spend months dialoguing about childhood and upbringing. While it clearly helps to learn a lot about clients fairly quickly in order to address their particular needs, my work lies more than anywhere else in surfacing present-tense points of resistance.

If an individual’s professional existence is stagnant, that often speaks to some larger personal stuckness which is inhibiting a sensible solution like stepping back, reassessing, and instigating appropriate adjustments (whether within the same job, or in pursuit of new possibilities). Think, for instance, of people who talk for ages about getting out of dead-end careers, but never act…. 

Unchecked, such a dynamic carries a more subtle price: discontent of this sort has an insidious way of deepening, and can morph into pervasive cynicism and bitterness. So it becomes essential to identify these stumbling blocks in order to lay the foundation for a more harmonized life.

Ah, there it is. Harmony. No question: it’s a big, elusive concept. And it’s also, with some sincere effort, more attainable than you may think.

Come back to the quote from Proust we began with: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” New landscapes will almost certainly show up in our lives if we do our personal work faithfully. But surprisingly, the core of the process — that without which nothing will truly change — is less about external transformation (better job, more money, new relationship) than about gentle internal shifts toward greater self-awareness, so we’re better equipped to recognize and act on what meshes more fully with the truth of us.

This requires patience, self-honesty, courage — and, at times, someone else to play the role of candid, compassionate guide.

That’s what I do.


As a new year looms, let me ask you to travel back about 10 years with me, to a moment from my college counseling days.

Alex was a particularly impressive scholar-athlete. She had strength across the boards, from humanities to sciences to math, and truly enjoyed them all. She was an accomplished artist. And she was also, paradoxically, quite shy. In our first meeting, when I asked about professional aspirations, her mother immediately stepped in and announced: Chemical Engineer. While there was no displeasure on Alex’s face, my alarms quietly went off.

As we moved through our initial one-on-one sessions, playing with possible colleges and avenues for essays, she began to drop her guards. At an appropriate moment, I slipped on my Fairy Godfather hat and popped the question:

Poof. I’ll sign over Paris Hilton’s bank account to you. The only condition: you can’t take the money, throw on a bikini, and move to Maui. You have to choose a career. But money is no longer a factor in that choice. Do you still take the same path?

She hesitated, a bit uncomfortable. Then, almost in a whisper, she said it:

I want to be a Dreamworks animator.

Ahh. There was the mission statement, and there was the love: what a young woman dreamed about late at night once all her obligations were handled. By 10th grade, Alex confided, she’d capitulated to the academic juggernaut, and stowed her beloved pens, paints, and computer drawing programs.

The look in her eyes nearly killed me. She was too young to be crammed into such a cage. And yet, she was my student, not my daughter. The realpolitik of the job said war with parents was never an option.

Still — I couldn’t bring myself to sit idly by. The dynamic screamed for some out-of-the-box thinking. Eventually, we discovered two solutions which would support her admissions goals, respect the confines of my mandate, and at least wedge the window to her creative side open a bit:

  1. Since as a general rule I always counsel against essay topics that largely rehash what’s already central on a student’s school record, art suddenly became a strategically valid angle. To make the most of this, of course, it would behoove Alex to quietly re-engage that part of herself.
  2. While Alex had no objection to Chemical Engineering, neither did she display any major enthusiasm. It felt counterproductive to lock her into so cut-and-dry an arena. A week of research yielded gold: several prestigious schools had recently unveiled programs in Digital Modeling for Nanotechnology. The innovative, high-visibility aspects pleased Mom, and we couldn’t have asked for a happier marriage of engineering and art. It was a perfect win-win, and would officially allow her to continue developing her more aesthetic passions.

At the core here, the issue came down to a distressingly common phenomenon:

Conflicting definitions of success

For Alex’s loving but highly pragmatic mother, security was paramount. All she could see was the rock-solid, well-renumerated career whose appeal no one can fully deny — that drive to make sure her child would be equipped to survive a harsh and unforgiving world. The potential for economic suffering trumped luxuries like the heart’s desire at every turn. But that attitude was grounded in the kind of fear we discussed last time: a culturally pervasive, semi-conscious litany of what-ifs and nightmare scenarios that left no space for the soul of a gifted young woman to express itself. The question, for me, was not where Alex ended up working; it was allowing free rein to all her potential so she could chart her own destiny as truthfully as possible.

As you know, it’s my strong contention that we ignore those deeper voices in ourselves at our grave peril. We run a significant risk of repression and frustration that will, more often than not, generate very real trouble later. Among some of my peers who were pressed too intently into lives they didn’t truly want — including some of the most visibly “successful” ones — I’ve observed unsettling patterns of existential disharmony: depression… marriages crumbling… even substance abuse…. in short, all the hallmarks of serious mid-life crises. And I’d argue that much of this pain could have been avoided had the individuals been given a greater voice in the shaping of their lives early on.

I will also contend that, in our relentless pursuit of academic perfection and security, we risk disempowering young people’s higher potential no matter their ultimate professional destination. Even if Alex had ended up a straightforward Chemical Engineer, isn’t it obvious how the ongoing cultivation of her creativity would only make her more effective? It’s safe to venture an assertion here: the great scientists are great not because of their analytical muscle and empiricism, but because of their capacity to reframe existing knowledge and generate new ways of seeing things.

To whit, pop quiz: who spoke the following sentence?

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Surely some great artist. Michelangelo? Beethoven? Baudelaire?

Try again. It was an obscure 20th century physicist by the name of…. yup…. Albert Einstein.

Please allow me, thus, to propose a gentle, end-of-year, personal mission statement inquiry:

  1. Is the definition of success you hold as fully-fleshed as it could be?
  2. Are there unexamined assumptions about financial security, prestige, and social acceptability that might be guiding your decision-making process?
  3. Are you doing everything you can to fully empower yourself in the pursuit of your true potential?

I will obviously never suggest something cavalier like wiping out the retirement fund to become a starving artist in Budapest. But after so many years as a counselor, I’d say it’s a fair bet that, for many of us, there are neglected pathways that may produce rich possibilities we haven’t examined. I’d also argue that we have very little to lose in undertaking some healthy exploration of those untapped resources.

A baseline concept to which I keep returning:


Mob psychology, American Idol, and professional wrestling are pretty good clues. By extension, however, the converse holds equally true: if you’re less than enthusiastic about your pursuits, you can’t reasonably expect anyone else to get excited about them either. This applies nowhere more than with the people behind the desk in Human Resources, who spend their days slogging through an onslaught of excruciatingly bland candidates. Bore them, and you’ll be getting a whole lot more rejection letters than you bargained for.

I know this may sound radical, especially to those who subscribe to the prestige principle, but the underlying query here is pretty straightforward, folks:

How can you hope to create a vivid, compelling job application —

or for that matter a vivid, compelling LIFE —

without engaging your heart?

So how do we spell SUCCESS? As in the kind that might, ironically enough, get those all-powerful denizens of H.R. to consider your candidature seriously? Consider trying what Mozart said up top:



Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go to the making of genius.

Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Let’s be honest, folks. It’s hard to imagine most people actively choosing professional passion if it involves living on the street.

I’m fortunate to never have known what I’d call existential poverty — no roof over my head, no food from day to day — the nightmare where our very lives come into jeopardy. But when I was younger I endured a few years where I was deeply in debt and couldn’t keep up. Had it not been for a very understanding landlord, things might have gotten ugly.

One person suffered even more acutely than I did: my Mom. She had to witness her child in a horrible phase, and could offer no material aid thanks to financial problems of her own. All she could do was watch and offer moral support. To this day, I doubt that I can ever really understand the depths of her helplessness and despair.

So I very much get why parents can become so intense when it comes to their kids’ futures. We’re driven by two powerful, and sometimes conflictual instincts:

  1. To ensure that our offspring are equipped to fend for themselves
  2. To protect them from suffering

And it’s here, perhaps — in the way we each define suffering — that some of the most pronounced differences in notions of success emerge.

Which is to say: We need our kids to succeed. And we tend to greet perceived threats to that with all the ferocity we can muster. The “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua gave a face to in 2011 is nothing more than a culture-specific version of this primordial impulse. Her daughters were going to succeed no matter the cost — up to and including the sacrifice of a harmonious relationship with them. There was simply no other option.

While I may not agree with Chua’s approach, as a long-term counselor I do understand her intent. It’s all about goals. And the question this raises lives at the center of my work:

How do we define, respect, and implement each individual’s true goals?

As I write this, I keep thinking of classic stories that have shaped our world — cautionary tales from Macbeth to The Great Gatsby to Citizen Kane. Each protagonist ascends to great heights, racks up power and wealth. And yet each is miserable, forsaken, lost.

Why do we hear this particular tragedy over and over again? Most cultures encourage us to believe that money will solve all our problems…. or at least provide enough insulation to allow us to comfortably ignore them. And while again, I’d never suggest we opt for starvation over physical comfort, too many recent studies are refuting the long-held causal relationship between wealth and happiness.[1]

Take it another step. We have only to refer to pervasive reality TV scenarios like Real Housewives of [Wherever], and the incomprehensible discontent of all those wealthy, beautiful women who actually have what the vast majority of the population is so desperate to obtain. Or try googling “lottery tragedies” to see the startling percentage of major winners whose lives have subsequently imploded. It’ll blow your mind.

How is all this possible? Sort through it carefully and you end up with a simple distinction….

Economic Suffering


Existential Suffering

…. which of course is anything but simple. Is our overriding concern mere security? or is there something deeper at play? And while yes, I’m creating an artificially exaggerated disparity, the emphasis we choose here says a great deal about our fundamental attitudes toward success.

Now I’m not suggesting you run to the extreme and go join a commune. What I’m seeking is to challenge the way so many people think about this critical question, in the hopes of shedding some light on the less obvious variables in the equation. My core assertion:

It’s not so much what each of us hopes to become.

It’s who, and the ways that all-important personal dimension shapes our choices.

In introductory meetings, I always ask clients about their true aspirations — those early-life passions we so frequently neglect. My target, in essence:

Where’s the love? What makes you come alive?

The initial responses often circle predictably safe, conventional areas like law, business, and medicine. And just as often, I know I’m not hearing the whole story.

Not shockingly, we learn a lot in that session. This is the client’s truth, as opposed to some preprogrammed familial/societal vision, and thus has the possibility to emerge with a whole new level of conviction. And as we’ve discussed, conviction is one of the great secret weapons of the most successful individuals.

This is the genesis of any strong sense of mission: that focused declaration of, in essence, why you’re here. Make no mistake — it’s not an easy thing to generate. But if you’re sincerely after anything more than a simple paycheck in your life, it is so worth the effort.

Stay tuned for more details in Part 2….

[1] Overview: Arthur Brooks, “A Formula for Happiness”: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/opinion/sunday/a-formula-for-happiness.html?src=me&ref=general&pagewanted=all&_r=0


Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

— Neale Donald Walsch


I’d like to take a moment and offer something of a more personal nature. It’s my hope that this small experience, and the thinking it sparked in me, may shed light on an area where so many of the people I meet founder.

One of the most heartbreaking refrains I hear, as both Life Coach and Career Consultant, goes like this:

I don’t know where I belong.

I say heartbreaking because the line invariably arrives from a client with a degree of sadness, yearning, and even hopelessness that I don’t notice in other common themes (I’m not sure what my passion really is, for example, or I’m afraid to step out of the familiarity of my current life, unsatisfying as it may be).

After 30 years of teaching and counseling adolescents, I have long experience with the ups and downs of belonging. But contrary to what we may believe, it doesn’t end with the teenage years.

This is something I’ve struggled with in my own life. As anyone who knows me well will confirm, it’s not like I’ve tended to choose smooth, conventional paths. So I’m not surprised to wake up occasionally from a dream with strong overtones of dislocation and isolation.

I’m a bit of an insomniac, so I don’t relinquish my sleep easily. But once it became clear last night, as I emerged from one of those dreams, that I wasn’t going back down anytime soon, I surrendered to the possibility that there might be something I needed to wake up and examine.

The moment I relaxed into the situation, something strange happened: a question began pulsing through me. But it wasn’t, as you might be imagining, Where do I belong? What surfaced was considerably sharper:

Why don’t I seem to belong anywhere?

And with that came the second, jolting, more punch-to-the-gut query that sits at the center of this little exploration today: Why on earth do I care so much about this?

I quickly realized that while I was of course relating to myself, I was also vibing off similar quandaries a few clients have been facing lately. Allow me, thus, to rephrase:

Why on earth do WE care so much about belonging?

Because make no mistake: we do. I have no problem whatsoever asserting that this is one of the core concerns driving all human societies. Why, you ask?

You have to remember, first and foremost, that we haven’t always lived in civilizations like 21st Century America. In fact, as a species we almost never have. Our current societal configurations are, framed on the scale of our broader history, so recent that they barely rate a spot on the timeline. The vast majority of humanity’s presence on this planet has transpired not in our densely populated, highly organized structures, but in smaller, mobile, hunter-gatherer cultures.

Remember, as well, that until the past few hundred years, we weren’t the absolute apex of the food chain. There were lots of creatures out there who actively viewed us as prey. Add in a life that wasn’t buffered by electricity, insulated shelter, and the relative abundance of food more recent agricultural practices have provided, and existence was a startlingly touch-and-go matter.

How did we survive such rigors to become humanity as we know it today?

In part — you guessed it — by belonging.

If you’ll indulge me in a small oversimplification, animal life on Earth can be divided into two categories: things that exist in isolation, and things that exist in collectivity. Some predators/prey function on their own (leopards, bears, moose), and some function in groups (lions, wolves, herd animals).

We very clearly fall into the second category, and this is one notable source of our rapid success as a species. At our earlier hunter-gatherer stage, numbers were an essential component for both accumulation of critical resources and protection from danger. This also sparked a development that’s unique to a very rarefied cluster of species worldwide: active communal nurture. In most other cases, a weak or injured solo animal would generally perish, or, if a member of a herd/pack, be left behind. If you couldn’t fend for yourself, the group had no room for you.

Humans, however (along with certain higher primates, elephants, many whales and porpoises, and a few others), evolved a distinctive capacity: compassion. And compassion, in its purest form, says: If you’re not quite as fast or strong or robust as the rest of us, you’re still one of us. Even if that makes things harder for everyone.

Belonging, from this vantage point, can be seen as an ancient key to survival. As long as you were accepted, you had far more latitude survival-wise than most other animals.

But crucially, of course, the converse held equally true: if the group for whatever reason decided to disavow you, it wasn’t simply an emotional trauma. Your days were almost certainly numbered.

So when people today feel they don’t belong, I always experience this dynamic as freighted with an ancestral, if largely unconscious, element of primordial survival anxiety. And so, it should come as no surprise that the whole arena of belonging is often one of the most urgent dimensions any Coach/Counselor has to address. This is nowhere more true than with clients who are in states of radical transition or loss. The moment frequently echoes with a sense of dispossession, and even existential dread, as in: Without X constant in my life, I don’t know who I am anymore. For example, I can certainly encapsulate my own divorce, as peaceful as it was, in one sentence:

My sense of belonging has been violated, and I’m scared to death.

Loss is loss, and life is full of it. How we face those losses is the true measure of us. Realizing that the intensity of our response can be significantly heightened by patterning that goes back tens of thousands of years can begin to ease the sense of emotional overwhelm. This in turn makes it easier to begin to navigate whatever landscape we’re up against, and to move toward the discoveries that can lead to meaningful resolution.

Think of this as a prelude to the mission statement discussion I mentioned last time: in order to truly articulate what you’re here on this planet to do, you need to be aware of those subtle underlying trigger fears that can derail the best of us. And belonging, no question, is one of the most potent.

Stay tuned.



There’s something really, really important you have to remember anytime you’re facing the potentially intimidating prospect of an interview. Ready?

You actually got the interview.

“Duh” you say? I beg to differ. An interview says you survived the first serious lines of defense: dodged the arrows, sidestepped the lancers, didn’t go face-first into the moat. For many positions, H.R. starts with 500+ candidates, and will interview 10, maybe 20.

Take the compliment. Someone was impressed.

Now: that emphatically does not mean “get cocky”! Your odds are still 1 in 10, maybe worse. So fire up your courage, gather your wits, and let’s get cracking.

Like everything else we’ve covered up until now, of course, a successful interview requires careful thought and preparation. There are three primary initial stages.

1) Research, Research, Research!

If you don’t invest some real time studying a potential employer, you’ve essentially wasted a good cover letter. More than that…. to speak a slightly unpleasant truth: if you don’t care enough to make the effort to dig in, you really don’t deserve the gig. It’s imperative that you acquaint yourself far more closely with each target in order to assess the ways your goals and aptitudes mesh with their needs. Read:

It’s not up to H.R. to figure out why you’re a great match;

it’s up to you to show them in no uncertain terms that you are.

One of my favorite techniques is to assemble a list of 5 – 6 questions you’d like to put to the H.R. person. These can cover anything from the position’s particulars, to the company’s culture and way of doing business, to benefits and working conditions. They can also address any curiosity you may have as to how your personal profile meets the company’s objectives.

**Pro Clue**

  • Write those questions down on an index card. Commit them to memory as though your life depended on it. Then stick the card in your pocket or purse. Do not take it out initially.
  • Actively seek opportunities early in the flow of the discussion to make use of your questions. Let the person see how interested you are not only in the paycheck, but in the prospect of this particular job.
  • If you wait til the end, when the interviewer asks if you have any questions, you may well miss important opportunities. What you should do at the end: take a moment to check in and make sure you’ve covered everything. You can even take a quiet peek at the card to verify that. Implicit message to employer here: I’ve done my homework, and I’m taking you really seriously.

2) Getting Yourself in Gear

The Cardinal Rule: never ever go in cold!

Interviewers obviously have a deep pool of questions and tactics, and there’s no way to prepare for everything. But as you gear up, the second task is clear: practice. Get someone you trust to ask you questions and help you gauge the quality of your responses. The best person for this is either a Career Counselor, or someone who’s done extensive hiring.

A major part of that practice should include trying to put yourself into the interviewer’s shoes. As in:

The secret is to conduct yourself almost as though

you were conducting the interview.

Think of it this way. If your job were to discover as much as you can about a candidate in a very short period of time, what kinds of questions might you pose? How might you go about evoking as truthful a portrait as possible? Be creative. Remember: the exercise here is to look through someone else’s eyes. The better you learn that before you go in, the better you’ll fare when you step through that door.

3) Attitude

This is the key, folks. A successful interview comes down to the single daunting task of assuming a more proactive stance. This entails strengthening your capacity to remain cool under fire — to get a handle on your racing pulse and recognize a truly radical notion:

In many cases, success is yours to lose.

Which is to say you have to cultivate deep belief in the mission statement you’ve articulated for yourself, and reinforce that with serious effort and persistence. And while I won’t promise you’ll never be rejected — all the great ones have, usually over and over again — I can promise that this attitude was a primary characteristic of every single individual who’s ever rocked the world.

As I’ve hinted, this show isn’t taped. There are no retakes. It’s live, in front of an audience. Worse, perhaps: that audience is comprised entirely of critics. And while, in the end, they really do want to like what you’re doing, they’re highly trained in the art of zeroing in on the slightest misstep.

Think of it this way. The performing arts, in general, are all about creating a representation of reality. For the time the curtain is up, any well-executed live piece should make you forget the critical fact that you’re sitting in a theatre watching a bunch of actors run around on a stage. The moment a serious crack appears in the illusion — a technical glitch, or a performer visibly goofing — the audience is jerked abruptly back into its own universe. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know it’s not a pleasant experience.

I don’t mean to suggest that your interview is nothing more than an elaborately constructed fiction. On the contrary! But it shares with theatre a tightly-limited timeframe during which you need to take this intimidating stranger in front of you on a journey through your world. Every minute counts, and any mistake (i.e. loss of momentum, and thus of your listener) can be costly.

*     *     *

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I glossed over something pretty important a few paragraphs back. There were two words that sit quietly at the core of everything we’re trying to accomplish:

Mission Statement

How to get to these all-important few lines of self-expression will be a subsequent stop on our tour. Til then……….


This is your world. Shape it, or someone else will.

— Gary Lew

Like me Like me Please please like me!

Sound like anything you’ve ever heard swirling around in your head? It’s definitely made me nuts a few times too many over the years.

If there’s one part of the job application process where people most tend to degenerate into polite and passive drones ready to spit out preformulated soundbytes on cue, it’s the interview. Resumes…. cover letters…. we can revise them til the cows come home. Which is to say we can sculpt the presentation of every detail to the point where it reads precisely the way we want it to.

Unfortunately, when you’re sitting one-on-one in someone’s office, there’s no rewind button. This kind of do-or-die pressure, no surprise, tends to push most of us into a heightened state of vulnerability. We know there’s major competition coming and going through that door before/after us (although we don’t generally know who our competitors are); we feel scrutinized down to the microscopic level (although we don’t generally know exactly what the “right” profile for any given position looks like, and thus how to respond); and we have little idea of how the interviewer is truly perceiving us.

Talk about grounds for agita.

There’s an umistakable moment of truth quality here. And if we’re not very careful, this particular combination of elements has a way of nudging us into a subtle kind of victimhood. Needless to say, as soon as we slide into that corner (if I may borrow a phrase from myself): can you say “not hired”? Because, to come back to another line I used several posts back:

If passion is contagious, so unfortunately is doubt.

The brief quote from Gary Lew at the top of the page is one of my all-time favorites. It cuts to the core of so many critical themes in our lives: emotional maturity, responsibility, and most critically, capitulation versus self-sovereignty. Lew is telling us with haiku-like precision that either we forge our own paths, or others will do it for us — with the clear implication that the second option will not be a happy state of affairs.

This brings me back to one of the strongest and most consistent threads in my practice. While we can of course never dismiss the wildcard of right time/right place, neither can we dismiss the deeper truth that transforms the fairy dust of good fortune into sustained success:

The people who truly shape the world around them are always — always — creating their own destinies.

The interview offers an employer a singular chance to see into a candidate’s heart and mind in a spontaneous, unscripted context. When I listen to clients describe previous experiences, I don’t so much hear about things going drastically wrong. What kills me are the missed opportunities: those brief openings life presents which, if you don’t seize them while they’re right in front of you, rarely if ever resurface.

Translation, if you’re the candidate: you don’t get second chances. So this is your one moment to lay it all on the line and shine.

From here, there are three main concepts to start:

1) You must learn to approach interviews not as unavoidable nightmares but as brilliant opportunities.

Everything else will emerge from this. Anxiety is an inevitable part of the game; succumbing to it isn’t.

You won’t get all the jobs you go up for. But I can promise you one thing: you won’t get any job you go up for with anything less than (to come back to some other old friends) serious passion and conviction.

Moreover: your interview skillset will boost you, or torpedo you, throughout your life. It’s a more pervasive factor than you may think. Success in everything from jobs to marriages depends on your ability to be as clear as possible about who you are, what you need, and what you have to offer — to stake out your own turf at any given moment and hold fast in the face of whatever comes along to challenge that.

And make no mistake: you will be challenged. For many younger job seekers, especially, the job process is one of the biggest personal obstacles they’ve had to face. It may well be the first time they’ve had to articulate a distinct vision of their personal value in a high-stakes face-to-face scenario.

What’s tricky is that the correct response to such challenge is completely counterintuitive. Our instincts scream “DUCK!” when, in fact, the answer is to take the risk of showing up in force.

Passivity — a lack of initiative, resourcefulness, and poise — will more often than not prove fatal.


2) In order to move through any interview successfully, you must take a new degree of control and responsibility for the process. You must make it yours.

If you’re really catching my drift here, this stage in your preparation can actually be fun. And that sense of play will instantly transform any interview. In fact, the single most salient piece of advice I have to offer goes back to the beginning of this piece, and leads us to Concept Number Three:

3) The sooner you can stop overthinking whether the interviewer will like you, the sooner you can nail this.

As always, the devil is in the details. And the details will be coming in the next parts of this post. For now…. just take a deep breath and trust me. If you’ve managed to read this far, you’re already halfway home.



How many times in your life have you heard the saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”? How many times have you been reminded that if you’re not persistent about asking for what you want, you’ll likely never get it?

If like me you’re someone relatively soft-spoken, the answer is probably way too many.

I’ve definitely struggled at moments with the kind of assertiveness I associate with more successful people (defining “success” here more conventionally, as anything from money and professional stature to artistic achievement).

Which is to say: I’ve faced my fair share of self-doubt.

Last time, in Learning to Navigate Your Passion Part 1, I proposed that conviction is the key to effectively conveying passion: that your belief in what drives you, and the discernment with which you wield that belief, exert a major influence on the way others will respond.

I was struck by a recent New York Times Op Ed (“My So-Called Opinions”) in which a current NYU undergrad argues that comfort with conviction seems to be a particular challenge among the Millennial segment. The author charts the ways his generation struggles with staking out strong positions. His pitch: our current educational structures are doing such a good job teaching respect for multiculturalism that young people are increasingly gun-shy about issues where real judgments about difference matter.

It’s not a huge leap from here to the “too-shy-or-too-loud” interview quandary my colleague Ken described in Part 1. His argument implies that the sociocultural pendulum has swung from an extreme like the 1980’s “Looking out for #1” mindset well past center toward “Isn’t looking out for #1 kinda selfish and insensitive?”

Let’s imagine a scenario. Our pal Kevin has applied for a staff writer/editor gig at a major educational publication. The applicant pool as usual runs well north of 500.

Great news: his resume, references, and samples land him an interview, where the H.R. Director suddenly asks about his position on the thorny question of for-profit colleges. In truth, as a long-term educator Kevin has very strong opinions about the way certain for-profits have exploited economically marginal populations, forcing students to take on enormous debt while failing to provide the necessary support to help them complete their degrees.

He takes a breath to respond, but it catches in his throat. While the publication itself hosts a range of opinions on the subject, he knows nothing about the H.R. Director herself. What if she emerged from a for-profit? Will the strength of his opinion offend her? He’s made it this far; should he gamble it all on a moment of unfiltered self-revelation?

Within such a frame, it’s easy to fear that if we imbue our passion with enough conviction to move it successfully across the table, we risk coming off as arrogant — or worse, guilty of trampling on someone else’s cherished beliefs.

Which suggests it’s more prudent to strike a neutral stance.

But alas, interviews aren’t that simple. What if the H.R. Director’s goal is to test his leadership potential by seeing how well he can hold his own ground while also entertaining different viewpoints? In playing it safe, he might sacrifice real distinctiveness and thus endanger the whole point of the undertaking: to stand out from the crowd enough to get hired.

How on earth do we navigate this minefield?

  1. Self-honesty
  2. The quiet conviction we explored last time.

To attain this balance, we need the other concept I invoked: authenticity.

From the Greek authentikos (genuine), authenticity speaks to the courage to be nothing other than who we truly are. We’re neither overselling nor underselling. At its heart, in fact, authenticity says we’re not selling at all. Over time we come to trust ourselves enough to worry less about what others may think — which, paradoxically, tends to bring the unexpected benefit of reducing doubt in others because:

If passion is contagious, so is doubt.

Think of it this way. If quiet conviction is the engine that propels passion, and discernment is the gauge that keeps conviction in balance —

Authenticity is the touchstone of discernment,

the yardstick that says we’re assessing and behaving correctly.

The primary factor here is having enough self-awareness to recognize and corral the compulsion to over- or under-articulate before it takes over the conversation.

For this, we need first to get to the core of why, as individuals, we’re relinquishing our authenticity. Then we need to develop an internal dialogue we can carry into any interview process — a kind of built-in thermometer for our conviction.

Some sample questions we might ask ourselves:

  • Am I overselling? (which might = I’m nervous about not being heard, so let me storm the barricades before they figure out I might not be as interesting as I sound)
  • Am I underselling? (which might = I’m uneasy about whether my accomplishments are truly worthy of attention, so let me take refuge in a thoughtful, soft-spoken, non-threatening posture)

In other words: Am I worrying more about my projections of what the interviewer might be thinking than about what I actually have to contribute? At which point the immediate query becomes:

So how do we get to this state of simple, direct clarity?

In short: practice. Mock interviews to test the waters, and explore the shores on both sides.

This leads us into a whole new discussion about the core dynamics of the interview process…. which will be the subject of my next outing.

Until then, my friends.


Fine, Zachary. “My So-Called Opinions.” The New York Times, April 6, 2014.



After reading my blog of May 25 — “Seeking Inspiration (And Maybe Even Creating Some)” — a former nonprofit educational colleague raised a particularly compelling question. Ken, about 30 years old, points out:

Thought your assertion that contagious passion is always going to get you noticed, and hence represents an asset, was interesting and mostly true. I guess one thing that hassles me (and it must be a pain for some though certainly not all of my peers) is determining how to carry that passion when we have moved beyond entry-level professional seeking (not to bragging about our experience, but being realistic after a couple years in the workforce), and when we worry that our enthusiasm comes off as green, unacquainted with hard realities, or more-style-than-substance. In an interview, it’s a balance a lot of us are still learning to strike.

So. Where in that blog I addressed the tricky process of connecting to ourselves internally and laying claim to what truly moves us, today I’d like to take an initial swing at the next stage Ken so accurately evokes: the challenges of externalizing those discoveries in order to carry them into the world around us.

As many of you know, I’m a great fan of calling things by their names (are those winces crossing the faces of a few former students?). To wit:

Deep honesty is by definition an enormously vulnerable landscape.

Deep self-honesty can be even more daunting.

Think about it for a moment. It’s hard to expose ourselves to ourselves, in all our unpolished, awkward uncertainty. That inner judge can be brutal. Think, too, about how much energy we tend to invest in curating our self-image. So much so, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for the line between that persona we’d like to embody, and the person we actually are, to get a little blurry at times.

Read: it takes strength and perseverance to maintain a firm grip on ourselves when we’re up against our relentless projections of how the world expects us to be.

As an analogy, imagine being at a really crowded, really loud party, and trying to stay totally focused on the friend across from you. There are so many other voices ceaselessly vying for your attention…. music…. people dancing…. familiar faces. How do you manage to filter it all out and honor your companion with your complete attention?

Now: reposition this dynamic to the moments we need to bring that tender true self out into the clamor of public view. Like…. say…. hunting for a job? There’s a vast array of conscious and less-than-conscious pressures to fit into those external models that besiege us nonstop (this is how a banker/lawyer/nurse/teacher/Ivy League student is supposed to be). This phenomenon, as Ken implies, can become seriously disorienting. Worse, it can distract us from whatever, and whoever, we originally set out to be.

In the end, I don’t accept that it’s a question of whether we emphasize our passion. It’s a question of how. And I’d offer that the solution resides in the quality of translation, the authenticity with which we convey that essential internal us to another human being.

Never forget that a prospective employer — or, for that matter, prospective collaborator, romantic partner, or even friend — can never truly see the world through our eyes. As I harangued students for years: it doesn’t matter how clear an idea is in your head. You have to learn to step back far enough to make the idea intelligible to someone else.

Which is to say: it’s not an employer’s role to track down the core of you. To put it more directly:

The burden of clear communication is 100% yours.

Here’s where it gets interesting. What’s the essential co-factor needed to best communicate your passion? I’d argue for conviction. Absent that, you land in one of two traps: either no one sits up because you’re not articulating yourself with confidence, or you come off as hopelessly naïve.

Can you say: not hired, and not hired?

And yet, as Ken reminds us, overkill isn’t the answer either. Too much can be just as bad as too little. You start to sound either showy and narcissistic, or desperate.

You guessed it: not hired again.

So where’s the magic here? How do you find that meaningful balance? Many of you know I’m a great lover of etymology. The history of a word so often reveals deeper aspects of its linguistic universe. In this case let’s look at conviction, which echoes through convict and convince from the Latin convincere (to prove, to demonstrate), which itself derives from con- (against) and vincere (to overcome).

Thus: to convince is to overcome, as in to overcome resistance. We do this by demonstrating the rightness of our position in the face of opposition. This can subsequently produce a conviction (in the criminal sense)…. or, in the spirit of our discussion here….

…. it’s conviction — a profound belief in the rightness of whatever we’re proposing — that actually triggers a potential transformation in another person’s perspective. If passion is the message we’re trying to transmit, then conviction is the vehicle of that transmission.

Coming back to Ken’s quandary once more, the secret may lie in quiet conviction — the kind that needs no bullhorn to make itself heard, that’s compelling enough to make people lean in even when they’re not conscious of doing so.

This, of course, brings us to the $64,000 Question —

HOW do we accomplish that?

— which will be the subject of Part 2: Some Thoughts on Implementing This New Understanding in the Real World.

Stay tuned.

© Copyright 2014 Kevin Kreiger. All Rights Reserved.



When the world goes crazy around us, sometimes we have to look a little harder for those silver linings. I was privileged to come upon one recently: several New York Times articles that raised unexpected optimism in the middle of this challenging employment landscape.

Let’s begin with an interesting statistic: over the past 7 years, the U.S. has seen a 30% rise in new nonprofit businesses. You read that right: 30%. That’s a startling number of people who are deciding to put others first.

Next step: the first of the articles, “Millennial Searchers”, offers a surprising portrait of this current college/post-college generation, which has been caught in the crosshairs of our economic downturn. Here’s the fun part: when surveyed on their primary career motivations, the Millennials — notwithstanding their ostensible reality-TV, social-media-driven worldview — prioritized not wealth…. not even happiness, as the researchers had anticipated…. but meaning. As in making a difference.

Chew on that.

And yes, the cynical side of us might chime in (as one of my clients did): “Sure, that’s great, but what it really says is all those people aren’t landing real jobs, so they’re doing this Good Samaritan stuff out of desperation.”

I don’t doubt there’s an element of truth to this. Ivy League MBAs and lawyers, as a glaring example, are for the first time seriously struggling to find jobs in the public sector, never mind the more lucrative Wall Street banks and private law firms. So some of this altruistic renaissance could, yes, be stopgap solutions.

But then we come to the second article, “No Six-Figure Pay, but Making a Difference”, which offers a perspective that’s more surprising still: significant numbers of students graduating from prestigious colleges are actively refusing substantial job offers in favor of humanitarian endeavors, from environment to education.

Let me say that again: actively refusing.

Now hang on a second. Economic instability doesn’t typically invite selflessness, since if anything it triggers a core-level instinct to minimize vulnerability. Doesn’t it seem more logical that such times would produce a reflexive shift towards security, not away from it?

Yet here we are. Put the two articles back-to-back, and it’s hard to ignore the implications: we seem to be witnessing a new wave of belonging.

I find this very heartening. We’ve handed a generation of young people an incomprehensibly difficult world to navigate, and instead of running like hell for reassurance and safety, here they are demonstrating some impressive courage, vision, and maturity.

There’s something else I’d like to examine: the notion of “real jobs” my client voiced. This article is in no way intended to suggest that everyone should leap onto this sacrifice-laden path. It’s no secret that work in nonprofits is never easy, rarely secure, and almost invariably underpaid.

And no, the Millennials in question certainly aren’t first in line for WhatsApp-scale billion-dollar cha-chings. Neither can we forget that so many have mountains of debt, not to mention eventual mortgages and families to support. So I don’t think we can just dismiss this phenomenon as some pollyanna “We Are The World” fantasy.

Don’t forget: it’s becoming abundantly clear that my generation (can you say 50+?) hasn’t managed to enact solutions to so many of the problems the Millennials are inheriting. If they don’t step up to the plate (and pronto), who’s going to build a livable world for their kids?

More people waking up to what’s around them…. sidestepping the culturally-ingrained reflex to what’s in it for me…. asking questions about the ways we can connect our fiscal realities to our larger capacity for empathy and community. Whatever our differing politics and ideologies, can we ultimately see this as anything but good news?

Those of you who know me get that I’m a pragmatic idealist: a firm believer in the greater good tempered by a firm grasp on the here-and-now. From my nearly two decades in college admissions through this newer chapter in career counseling and personal coaching, I’ve always been all about practical passion: discovering what makes each individual tick at the deepest levels, then working to help integrate those truths in a way that’s harmonious with the dictates of reality.

Because let’s face it: most of us weren’t born into families with names like Walton, Rockefeller, and Hilton. We have to work, and work isn’t all about daisies, smiley-faces, and long walks on the beach. It’s work.

But it’s also way too easy to go from there to tossing meaning out the window with the rest of our “silly” childhood dreams. As anyone who’s been around for a while can tell you, that’s often a far more expensive long-range choice than people realize.

I’m not presuming that a meaningful life can’t be found doing marketing for a multinational, or serving as a corporate litigator. If that’s what you’re called to, and you can move through those worlds with grace and integrity, do it. When people connect to whatever brings them most alive, they cultivate a kind of harmony you can sense the moment they step into the room.

And it’s those people — whether they’re blockbuster movie directors, international CEO’s, Special Ed teachers, or gardeners — who sit at the center of this article. I’m often surprised by how much inspiration I can derive from individuals who are leading lives closer to the ideals I hold for myself than I may be — that quiet recognition of: Oh, that’s how you do it. Cool.

At the moment, a large population of people half my age is providing me with a vivid reality check about living into my most closely-held values, especially when doing so entails real sacrifice.

I experience all of this as a living, breathing demonstration of one of my long-held core principles:

Passion is contagious.

From an opportunity perspective: it’s always passion that will make people sit up and notice your application, whether you’re going after an internship, a new professional situation, or a promotion. And it’s always passion that will make you an effective interview candidate. (Stay tuned. We’ll be coming back to interviews in a forthcoming post.)

From a larger community perspective: we can’t coerce the people we love into embracing what we each might consider a more heart-centered life. All we can do is invest in our own truth, and trust that others may be inspired by our example. In the end, it’s not about oversimplified dichotomies like corporate versus philanthropic. It all comes down to a simple fact: we never know whose life we might impact just by finding the courage to live more honestly ourselves.



“Millennial Searchers”, The New York Times, December 1, 2013:

“No Six-Figure Pay, but Making a Difference”, The New York Times, July 14, 2013: