Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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On Languages

Languages. I love them. I want to speak many of them. And yet, it’s hard for me to set aside the necessary time and narrow down the focus to one language to really learn it well. So, I dabble. And I let the kids dabble. I used to feel bad about that, and still think about which modern language to really drill down on with them, but I’ve mostly decided that, for now anyway, fostering passing interests in various languages and cultures is part of broadening their viewpoints and giving them a taste of the world.

learn-any-languageThat said, I do love to read about languages and the pedagogy of learning and teaching them. If you’re also interested in those topics, you should definitely read Learn Any Language by Janina Klimas.

Unlike some other language books that I ultimately found difficult to implement, I really clicked with Klimas’ approach. She advocates a strategic framework that meshes well with how I think: figure out why you want to learn your target language and what you want to do with it, be realistic about how long it’s going to take you to achieve that level of fluency, and tackle the language in a low tech but high impact way.

Klimas makes strong points about why classroom language instruction often leaves students unable to communicate after several years of study, and offers an alternative path that involves creating your own sets of necessary words and phrases for different situations (you might need a set for talking to a babysitter more than a dialogue on picking up drycleaning, or vice versa), reading, and writing in the target language daily. I think her approach to writing is particularly sound, and I wish I had known these tips when I was floundering gracelessly in my college Russian classes.

Full of helpful, concrete examples and inspiration to learn languages for a variety of applications, Learn Any Language is a great resource that I highly recommend, and will certainly return to for myself and to help the kids.

language-hacking-italianThis fall, the kids and I previewed Benny Lewis’s Language Hacking course. Jack had gotten the bug to learn Italian (possibly fueled by his gustatory preferences, but hey, you have to start somewhere) so we gave it a go. We checked out some Italian picture books and made it through the beginning lessons of the course, but ultimately found it didn’t gel well with our style. That said, the program has some significant strengths that could make it excellent for others. If you’ve read Benny’s book Fluent In Three Months, you’ll remember that he’s big on speaking from day one. So his course emphasizes creating dialogues and mastering key phrases to practice in speaking. You use the phrases to record videos of yourself speaking and share with an online community. That’s far easier and cheaper than other online tutoring options, and could get you into a good groove quickly. Since we try to minimize screen time for the kids and don’t really do a lot of things on the computer for school, the program didn’t line up too well for us, but again, could be excellent for others.

These days, our language notes include Korean, French, Italian, German, and Dutch. We play Latin card games. Hannah and I are slowly working through Visual Latin together. And we dabble on.

Have you chosen one language to focus on for yourself or your family? How did you decide which one to learn?

Disclosure: I received review copies of both products mentioned in this post in exchange for an honest review. This post also contains affiliate links.

Playing Big

bigLike many self-help books for women, Playing Big covers topics like dealing with your inner critic, figuring out a way to break out of your self-protection to take big steps in your life and career, and so forth.  You’ve probably read a lot of similar stuff.  Mohr’s main difference is in her application of vaguely spiritual angles on familiar subjects.  If you’re the sort of person who likes vaguely spiritual stuff, that might work for you.  As someone who’s spiritual life is more defined by specific faith and beliefs, it seemed silly to me.

For example, it’s common for this type of book to suggest getting perspective by considering yourself 20 years from now.  Thinking in terms of your 20 years down the road self, what will seem most important?  What will you be glad you did, or sorry you missed?  It’s a helpful point of view.  Mohr takes this further by suggesting you do a guided meditation into the 20 years from now you and see what her/your hairstyle is, what you/she eats for breakfast, and what her name is.  Wait, what her name is?  Isn’t this me, 20 years from now?  Why would I have changed my name?  Maybe I read too many Frank E. Peretti novels as a kid, but that is veering a little weird.

However, that said, I did find some extremely helpful advice in the book about how I communicate.  Mohr points out that, as a woman, you will not be liked or trusted if you don’t seem warm.  Seem too clever or competent without balancing it with warmth and people will dislike you or brand you as abrasive or worse.  I have seen this over and over again in many contexts.  The key, Mohr says, is to watch your wording and walk a fine line between warmth and competence.  And in my experience this a really, really fine line–I need clients to think of me as a competent expert because I don’t work for cheap, but I also need them to really like me so they want to keep working with me over the long-term.  Mohr lists ways women dumb down or try to soften their competence in what they say.  Several that stuck out to me as things I often do, especially in work emails include:

  • Use qualifiers like “just” and “almost” as in, “I just wanted to ask if you think you might be able to get me those files by Thursday” or “I almost think we need a different graphic here.”  I thought about it, and decided that I use qualifiers to try not to offend someone I’m disagreeing with, especially when I’m actually telling him how to do his job.  But in collaborative, creative work like I do, that’s really part of the process. I should just own it.
  • Over apologize.  I can’t tell you how many emails I end with some version of “sorry” in another bid to make myself seem less intimidating.  I’ve been told about a million times that I’m intimidating, so somehow I think that saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “I’m sorry if I missed it, but…” or “I’m sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner” makes it more palatable that I’m asking for information I need or pointing out a missing piece or turning something in early.
  • Ask “does that make sense?” or “do you see what I mean?”  This sort of question is a bid for connected response when you know you’ve been giving a lot of information.  But that type of question does tend to diminish your authority on the subject.  So it’s better, Mohr says, to ask, “what do you think?” to get the other people involved.

After reading the book, I was inspired to get into different work email habits, adding in more warmth by softening openings and closings so that I don’t have to play down my main points.  For me, this is primarily an email problem, but if you also have these issues in person, the book contains ideas for that too.

Overall I’m not sorry that I read Playing Big because I did get such a helpful take-away for my work life.  Other aspects of the book may appeal more to others, and self-help books are such different products for different types of people that it’s hard to know whether to recommend something else.  Personally, I got a lot more out of Make it Happen for things like goal setting and callings and taking big next steps, and Lean In resonated more with me on the women-succeeding-in-spite-of-being-women front.  But again, these books are personal, so the tone and focus of this one might be just what you need to hear.

What do you think about the email language idea?  Do you find yourself using those words and phrases too much?


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2014’s Third Quarter in Books

This quarter I had an uptick in work, which resulted in a downtick in reading, to my chagrin.  However, I did still read 27 books in July, August, and September, and also read 20 long/chapter books (of around 100 pages or more, not picture books) aloud to or with the kids.  I broke the titles down into categories of Fiction, Life Management/Creative Work, Communication/Relationships, Parenting/Education, History, Memoir, and Faith.  The links below are to my longer reviews, starred titles were my absolute favorites.


  • The Night Circus – An incredible fairy tale set in a Victorian circus that begs to be read on a rainy day, The Night Circus was excellent in audiobook version, and I might skim the print version too.
  • Speaking From Among the Bones – A Flavia DeLuce mystery.  Enough said.
  • The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches – Another Flavia DeLuce mystery. Really, if you haven’t read these, do.  Impeccable plotting, fantastic characterization, funny and smart writing…the entire series is excellent.
  • Children of the Jacaranda Tree – The author used a dissonant writing and narrative style to convey the dissonance of Iranian post-Revolution culture, but those aspects of the book wound up detracting from the story significantly.  Mostly I felt the book suffered from lack of setting and descriptive voice.  Read A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea instead.

Life Management/Creative Work

  • What Should I Do With My Life? People who are perpetual reinventers and tryers-of-new-things will like this book.  People who never ask themselves the title’s question should skip it.
  • Manage Your Day to Day – If you’re a creative and/or flex-worker you should read this book.  I’ve especially benefitted from the advice on how to be the boss of your technology (sorry Facebook, it had to end sometime).
  • *Essentialism* – This exceptional book is not about maximizing your life in 15 minute increments, but more about how to untangle confusion, busy-ness, and triviality to get at what’s most important to you, and then how to protect your time and focus so you can really give your best efforts to those priorities.  The book is excellent and I highly recommend it.
  • The Accidental Creative – Normal time management advice doesn’t always work for creative workers.  This book explains why and gives tips for how to work around that.  I felt affirmed in that I already do many of these things, but also got some new tips.
  • Die Empty – By the same author as The Accidental Creative, this book covers how to be more focused and gives some really helpful advice on curating your information flow.  Curating is a modern requirement I find very interesting, and this book helped me realize that I do have a choice about it.
  • The Art of Small Talk – A light but helpful book about small talk and how to use it, I found this one particularly helpful for business contexts and have been using tips about meetings all summer.
  • Difficult Conversations – This very helpful book not only walks you through how to handle difficult conversations on big and important topics, but also helps you to reframe hard topics for yourself, even if you never have the touchy discussion with someone else.
  • *Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work* – If you’re engaged or a newlywed, put this book back for a couple of years.  If you’ve been married for 5 years or more, read it.  The book is written by a researcher who studies marriages and relationships, and so the findings are based on real data, profoundly interesting, and very hopeful.  I have given this book a lot of thought after reading it, and highly recommend it.  (Note: it’s a secular book, not at all from a Christian perspective, and yet you’ll find that the conclusions are very much in line with Biblical direction on relationships and relating to other people. Fascinating.)


  • The Artful Parent – A helpful book that expands the definition of the artsy parent so you can feel better about not being someone who allows glitter in your environment, and which also contains interesting art projects to try and advice on good materials.
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – This amazingly helpful primer on drawing will change how you look at things, even if you don’t take the time to try the exercises.  It also seems that the book would be profoundly helpful in teaching children to draw.
  • Real Learning – Without a doubt this book is the most helpful resource on artist study and composer study I’ve read so far.  If you’re a Charlotte Mason fan or homeschooler, this book will be helpful for you.


  • Fever – Although it’s a historical novel, this book illuminates an interesting historical figure and period of change in medical history.
  • The Great Influenza – Although it’s too long, this history of the flu of 1918 is fascinating really illuminated my understanding of geopolitical events surrounding World War I.
  • The Professor and the Madman – An oddly compelling history of the Oxford English Dictionary, with wild stories and the sort of excellent vocabulary asides you’d expect in a book about the OED.
  • Tallgrass – Another historical fiction book that wound up in the history section rather than fiction, Tallgrass have me unique insight into the Japanese interment camp facet of World War II, plus showed me how the experiences of the Dust Bowl and World War I, which I’ve also read about this year, influences people’s perceptions of the home front in World War II.  Not notable fiction, but notable history.
  • The Long Shadow – This wide-ranging book covers the lead up to World War I, an analysis of popular views on the war itself, and then a discussion of the lingering impact World War I had on political, cultural, and social developments up to the present.  Really fascinating and illuminating.
  • The Big Fat Surprise – Fat is not the enemy.  If you really need to be convinced that fat is not bad for you, especially if you need very detailed discussion about just about every study and research project related to nutritional topics, this book may be for you.  It’s interesting as a history of nutritional science (and I use that phrase optimistically).  Otherwise, read Gary Taubes’ book Why We Get Fat instead.
  • Eiffel’s Tower – This interesting history of the making of the Eiffel Tower, the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, and the fascinating historical figures who converged there is well worth a read.
  • Stitches – I don’t usually like graphic novels, but this one was very thought-provoking and the format fit the subject matter quite well.
  • *How the Heather Looks* – Probably my most favorite book of the year so far, this is a travel memoir of a young family who toured England looking for the sites in all of their favorite books.  I adore that concept and just loved the descriptions and the author’s evident love for literature.  An utter delight for this Anglophile and bibliophile!


  • His Word in my Heart – If you need some inspiration for memorizing longer passages of Scripture, or even entire books of the Bible, this book is for you.  I got a lot out of this short book, although ultimately I realized that my memorizing style is different than the author’s (don’t feel tied to the index card thing).
  • The Family Worship Book – Although I got some helpful ideas from this book, A Neglected Grace is a far, far better resource both in terms of casing a vision for family worship and in providing practical helps.
  • Sabbath as Resistance – Not a complete reference on Sabbath-keeping, but written around a helpful and thoughtful exposition of the Israelites in Egypt, this book has made me mindful of ways that I keep the Sabbath in outward form, but am inwardly still “making bricks” on Sunday.  I wouldn’t say this is the only book you need to read on the topic, but it is a good one.

Long/Chapter Books Read Aloud to the Children (or read to discuss with the children)

What were your favorite books this quarter?

Some Books on Communicating

I think the most helpful piece of advice I’ve ever heard about communicating came from Gretchen Rubin (sadly I can’t find a direct link): If you’re talking and are interrupted by a child or loud noise or whatever and the other person doesn’t ask you a follow up question about what you were saying, drop the topic. I’ve tried to keep that in mind, and also I’ve tried to notice it with others–when someone is interrupted I now make a point to ask a follow up question about what they were saying.

Communication is filled with little things like that–small cues to keep in mind or ways to remember to show someone else that you’re interested in what he or she is saying. In The Fine Art of Small Talk, you’ll get tips for when and how to engage in small talk, but perhaps more helpful for most people are the interesting asides about how to leverage small talk in business situations, and how to handle it when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know how to make small talk.

For example, the book has lots of helpful tips on how to structure questions to avoid getting one word replies.  Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “Tell me about…[your weekend, your project, whatever]” rather than “How is…”  I’ve been using that idea with good results so far–it’s amazing what changing the phrasing of a simple question can do.

While the book is a little light, it could be really helpful if you don’t know where to start with small talk, and would probably be at least moderately helpful for anyone.  We can always get better at communication.

If you’re the sort of person who feels like small talk is a waste of time and superficial, consider that small talk paves the way for relationship building and for establishing a friendly tone before bringing up big topics. In a sense, you need small talk in order to make big talk. Heap big talk, I sound like Disney’s Peter Pan, good grief.

At any rate, once you’ve got small talk down, you almost certainly could use help navigating more touchy or in-depth topics. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is an exceptional resource from the Harvard Negotiation Project that covers common reasons why difficult conversations go awry, and how you can reframe your perspective and tactics to really understand the person you’re talking to in order to have a productive conversation.

The book is, happily, not a manual for how to manipulate or browbeat the other person into agreeing with you until you get your way.  Rather, it presents a method for understanding a competing point of view, emphasizes respecting the other person, assists you in understanding your own weaknesses and hot buttons, and gives very helpful steps for changing your phrasing and your objectives to arrive at a better result.

I noticed these tips working almost immediately.  In one particular conflict, I realized I was inwardly thinking in terms of “they always…”  Instead, as the book suggests, I began to frame the problem around “I feel…” and asked myself what information the group had that I did not and tried to disentangle the impact of the action from the intent.  Although I didn’t actually have a difficult conversation about the issue, just reframing the matter in my own head helped me tremendously.

One particularly helpful exercise in the book involves discerning patterns in when you tend to get knocked off balance and lose your cool in a situation.  These, the authors say, are times when your identity is being challenged and reveal some of your fears.  By identifying these things, you can more calmly talk to yourself about the situation, and not lash out.

I could go on and on about the myriad ideas and concrete action points contained in this book.  Difficult Conversations is an excellently thought out, well written, eminently helpful reference and I highly recommend it.

What do you find tougher: small talk or difficult conversations?


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A Passel of Books on Parenting

I recently realized that I had accumulated a sizeable backlog of parenting books on my TBR shelf, so I embarked on a mini-course of professional development. I usually try to mix up my reading across genres, but sometimes concentrated focus on one topic is instructive and worthwhile. Reading a bunch of parenting books in a row helped me to evaluate the books in light of each other, and also gave me a good list of really good ideas to try out on my guinea pigs children.

Love & Respect in the Family offers a helpful framework for thinking about how parents and children interact in families and how to foster a healthy atmosphere of communication, love, and respect.  I like how the author identifies the different unspoken goals parents and kids have in relating, and how we as adults can build a calm and supportive household environment, and help our kids to grow spiritually and in their ability to communicate and live in community with others.

A big strength of the book is the exhortations to parents.  The reminders that we, as the adults, set the tone in our homes, and are responsible for our reactions even if our kids are being disrespectful or sinning, is very, very helpful.  I thought the advice in the book was realistic and practical as well as being scripturally sound and inspiring.

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind is a really interesting and readable book on child development and neuroscience, but apart from that I recommend it for it’s excellent and, dare I say, game changing ideas for how to talk to your kids about how they can take control of their thoughts and emotions and learn to react and communicate better.

I tried this with Hannah with excellent results.  She’s eight, and the explanation of how our brains have two levels and she can use her “upstairs brain” to help her control her “downstairs brain” rather than flipping her lid has been so helpful for her.  I’ve seen an incredible improvement in her ability to calm herself down and handle her emotions.

Again, like so many things, this comes down to “change your thoughts” but the presentation in The Whole-Brain Child is really excellent.  I thought it was helpful that at the end of each chapter the authors tie the concept in to how parents can use it too.  Certainly we can all use tactical ideas for how to change our attitudes, improve our self-control, and communicate more effectively.

Written in the 1800s but still fresh and compelling, H. Clay Trumbull’s very helpful Hints on Child Training casts a great vision for a coherent philosophy/theology of parenting.  If you’re looking for something that balances vision with practical suggestions, this book would be a great choice.

I thought Trumbull’s book was an unusually coherent presentation of how to cultivate a calm, loving, supportive environment balanced with how to help children be self-disciplined, respectful, and courteous.  The section on helping kids learn to be courteous rather than just well-mannered, and the detailed thoughts on how to make bedtimes smooth and soothing for kids AND parents were excellent.  I also appreciated how Trumbull, himself a father of eight, held parents to a high standard without being flippant or condescending about the very real struggles of parenting.

Hints on Child Training is an excellent book, highly recommended, well worth owning, and it’s only 99 cents on Kindle so quite affordable!

I didn’t agree with everything in Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, but overall I found it to be an incredibly helpful reference on the different developmental stages of boys and parenting boys in general.  The authors offer a lot of great practical guidance for how to interpret and handle boys in various stages, things to watch out for, and ways to encourage boys and equip them for adulthood.  At some points in the book I felt a little panic because the authors described some attitudes and actions as foregone conclusions, but overall the tone of the book was helpful and hopeful.

Because we have three girls and one boy, I feel like it’s important for me to know how to treat Jack differently and parent him effectively and lovingly, and Wild Things gave me a lot of great tools for doing so.

The first half of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting was very helpful.  I found the author’s premise that parenting problems often stem from the parent’s need to self-regulate as much as from problems with the children insightful.  That’s a great point, and quite true, at least in my experience.  When I’m calm, the kids are calm(er), but when I’m stressed and tired and hungry and distracted, they get wound up too.  The first half of the book offers a lot of great insights into how parents can cultivate calm and defuse situations, as well as how to help kids learn to deal with big emotions and intensity in a positive way.

The second half of the book was less helpful, at least for me. I found I disagreed with many of the author’s opinions and conclusions about children, her thoughts on what the goals of parenting ought to be, and so forth.  I thought she threw the baby out with the bathwater a lot, and was reminded that our underlying philosophy and theology really do impact our practical decisions in life.

I’d recommend the first half of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, but I think you could probably stop at around page 100 and be none the worse for it.

The Key to Your Child’s Heart, by Gary Smalley, didn’t stick out to me as being particularly noteworthy in the sea of parenting books.  Most of the topics covered are covered better elsewhere, and on a few topics (such as punishment) I found I disagreed strongly with Smalley’s conclusions.

One point I did take away from the book, though, was Smalley’s encouragement to really communicate with children about their own goals before pushing them into activities.  In some sense, kids aren’t equipped to make decisions about spending their time (“Long division is not in line with my goals” probably shouldn’t carry water) but in other areas it’s useful to talk this through with your kids.  Smalley gives the example of playing a musical instrument.  He suggests asking the child, “From zero to ten, how good do you want to be?”  That way, if the child really wants to be a concert pianist, you can support that goal, but if she just wants to be able to play Heart and Soul you won’t waste as much time, money, and energy on it.

My mom, who has her masters degree in gifted education, recommended Jim Delisle’s books on gifted kids and although When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answersis really geared toward teachers in a classroom setting I did find it a helpful source for conversation starters.  After reading this book I feel even more respect for teachers who handle rooms full of gifted kids of different types and levels, and was glad that I only have to focus on my three scholars for now!  If you’re reading it from a parenting perspective, the book does have several great ideas for how to talk to your kids about things like perfectionism and goal setting.


What great parenting books have you been reading?  Have you had any parenting breakthroughs or epiphanies lately?


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I Thought It Was Just Me

In I Thought It Was Just Me, sociology researcher Brene Brown examines the concept of shame–both how it impacts us and how we can develop resilience to it.

Shame, as Brown defines it, is different from guilt or indignation.  When you hold up something you did against your values and you think, “that was wrong, I need to work on that or change that” you have guilt.  When someone else says, “you are wrong!” and you think, “that’s a false accusation, I didn’t do that” you have indignation.  But when you or someone else accuse you of being wrong and you think, “yes, I’m a bad person, I’m a person who always does ____” and it defines you, that’s shame.

Shame causes feelings of confusion, fear and disconnection, like you want to hide or escape.  Reactions to shame are lashing out in anger, being silent and hiding your real self, or seeking to appease and please the person who shamed you. Understanding how to recognize shame was helpful for me both personally and in thinking of how to relate to other people and to my children.

Most people have certain shame triggers, and it was interesting to me to read about the common reactions to shame so I could identify what some of those are for me.  I found it helpful to think of shame as the concept of someone (either someone else or me) giving me an unwanted identity.

For example, in reading this book I realized that the first time I can remember having this shame reaction was on my 4th birthday.  I had gotten a new outfit and told my preschool teacher, “This is my birthday suit!”  She laughed and explained what birthday suit meant.  I’m sure she wasn’t unkind, but what I heard was, “You think you’re smart but really you’re clueless and a fool.”  I wanted to crawl into a hole.  This is still a shame trigger for me three decades later.  It was really helpful to me to identify a few major triggers–things that cause me to lash out or have that feeling of wanting to hide–because once you identify the feeling you can start getting through it in a rational and healthy way.

Another helpful distinction Brown draws is between empathy and sympathy.  When someone is experiencing shame, it’s most helpful to offer empathy.  Shame is a shared experience, even if our triggers are different.  In contrast, sympathy makes the person feel even more isolated.  As Brown puts it, sympathy says, “I’m over here and you’re over there.  I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you, but let’s be clear: I’m over here.”  I definitely know people who give sympathy rather than empathy, and I avoid them when I’m having a problem.  It’s awful to go to someone with a problem and hear the equivalent of “wow, you really ARE a weird and bad person.  I’m nothing like that.”  Thinking through this distinction helped me to think about the ways that I respond to people who are hurting or dealing with problems, and also helped me to identify people in my life who offer more support and empathy.

In the course of her research, Brown noticed trends of how some people can successfully cope with shame and are resilient to it.  She compiled these strategies and writes about them in the book.  Some of these include having the belief that you can always change or improve, being grounded in who you are and what you believe, not pinning self-worth to things you can’t control, and building a support network of people who offer you empathy.

I thought the concepts in I Thought It Was Just Me  were interesting and offered excellent insight into relationships.  It was not only helpful to me in thinking through how I respond to certain triggers, but also influenced my perspective on how I relate and respond to other people.  If you’re interested in these sorts of issues, I’d recommend the book.


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Mind in the Making

I recently heard a parent opine that someone else’s kid should go into nursing.  Perhaps the kid has a genuine interest in nursing, but the implication was “if your child becomes a nurse, she will always have a job and be ok.”  I didn’t say anything because the conversation moved on quickly, but I wanted to shout “No!  You can’t predict the economy!  Your kid needs transferrable skills that can work in all sorts of careers no matter what happens in the job market!”

You can read about that in all sorts of adult-focused career books, but in Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, Ellen Galinsky applies the research to children, identifying skills and character traits that help prepare children for life in our fast-paced, unpredictable world.

The skills/traits are not surprising–if you sat down to think about it you might come up with a similar list.  But Galinsky describes the research associated with each one, especially studies involving child development, and suggests ways that parents and educators can guide children toward these goals.  I found that many of the suggestions are things I already do just by chance (reading out loud a lot, encouraging imagination play, allowing time for free play, sorting/categorizing/counting activities, not using baby talk or talking down to kids, etc) and several of the skills are character traits we have on our list of habits we’re working on (I find we circle back around to habits again and again or else we lose them).  However, I also found that the book helpfully articulated some problem areas and offered suggestions I hadn’t tried.

The seven skills Galinsky writes about include:

  • Focus and self-control
  • Perspective taking
  • Communicating
  • Making connections
  • Critical thinking
  • Taking on challenges
  • Self-directed, engaged learning

If you read that list and think “whoa, I have no idea if my kid knows that stuff” fret not, you probably have more of it in the bag than you think.  And if you think “yeah, we have all of that under control” you might find that the book suggests aspects of the skill/trait that you hadn’t considered before.

Overall, I found this book helpful and interesting.  The writing style is accessible, not overly academic, and practical, and would probably interest parents, teachers, and other people who are interested in habit formation and core skills.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

What Stresses You Out?

My husband forwarded this interesting infographic to me last week.  It uses the Myers-Briggs types but inverts them to describe what stresses different types out.  Josh is an ISFJ and I’m somewhere between an ENTJ and ENTP.  Once we got started talking about it of course I pulled out my handy copy of Please Understand Me (I feel like everyone should own this book–it’s an indispensable reference).

I know that some people deplore personality types as an indulgent way to excuse bad behavior, but I see them as a helpful means of understanding tendencies so that you can communicate and work together better.

For example, the infographic highlights that two things that stress Josh’s type out are indecision and last minute changes.  His type likes established routine.  However, my type really dislikes established routines, and is known for constantly trying new ways to improve systems (I think this is why I read so much in the time and life management genre).  I doubt that I’ll convert him to the joys of constantly tweaking in pursuit of efficiency, and he’s not likely to make me like mundane tasks, but somehow knowing these things about each other is really helpful.

If you’re interested in personality types, really the best and most exhaustive resource I’ve found is Please Understand Me (link is to my longer review).  It gets at a lot of the nuances of types that simplified overviews can’t cover.

Do you know your personality type?  Do you find the concept helpful or annoying?