Three Simple Ways To Write To A Better You



Working through a rough patch? Tangled in a tough problem? Stuck? One of the most powerful strategies to sort things out is literally at your fingertips.

Numerous social scientists, including Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas and Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan, suggest that our narratives shape our outlook then our outlook shapes our behavior. Our behavior shapes just about everything under our control. These three social scientists, among others, believe that to change our outcomes, we start by changing our stories.

The first step is to get the narrative out of the running dialogue in our heads and into the light by writing it down. If you would like to try, the three exercises included below are a good place to start. There are simple ground rules:

1)   Find 20 to 30 minutes in a place where you will not be distracted or interrupted.
2)   Do the same exercise for a minimum of four consecutive days.
3)   Be honest.

That’s it! You don’t need to show your writing to anyone, don’t need to proof read, don’t need to buy anything. It doesn’t matter if you write or type. The only thing that matters is that you do the exercise consistently for four days. Ready? Read more.

Pennebaker Writing Exercise

James Pennebaker is a psychology professor at the University of Texas and a pioneer in  “Writing to Heal.” His research suggests that short-term focused writing provides benefits for those suffering trauma. His results include improved immune systems, better grades and clearer goals. Read more here. His basic instructions for working through nagging “stuff” follow.

Write about your problem in an uninterrupted fashion for at least 15 minutes a day for a minimum of four days.  Pennebaker suggests writing at the end of the day. Write in first person about something emotional or important, but deal with topics that you are able to handle right now. Write for yourself: no editing or sanitizing.

Wilson Best Possible Selves Exercise

Timothy Wilson is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He’s used the Best Possible Selves exercise with a set of students to determine its effect on outlook and optimism. Compared to a control group, the students who completed this exercise reported higher levels of satisfaction and optimism that lasted for weeks, and had significantly fewer visits to the University Health Center. Seem good to you?

Follow these instructions for four consecutive days. (Wilson also suggests evenings).

“Think about your life at a certain point in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Write what you imagine and what you did to make it happen.”

Quinn Lift Exercise

Robert Quinn is an Organizational Behavior professor at the University of Michigan. He is a cogent thinker and prolific writer about creating positive organizations. In his book Lift, he defines “lift” as a psychological state in which we are 1) purpose centered 2) internally directed 3) other focused and 4) open to ways in which we can improve. Quinn makes the case that when we experience these states; we feel uplifted and lift others. In other words, lift begins with us.  Start by responding to the four questions below.

  1. What result do I want to create?
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  3. How do others feel about this situation? (Emphasis is on feelings of others.)
  4. What are three (or more) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?

personal development
I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  My intuition tells me there is a reason why I was drawn to writing about writing today. I’m on the second day of the “Best Self” exercise; think it will help me sort out some near term uncertainty.

Have you tried writing to change your stories and your outcomes? What happened?



Wilson, T.D. (2011) Redirect: the Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Quinn, R.W and Quinn, R.E. (2009). Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation.

San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Someone Exactly Like You



Today is our 18th wedding anniversary. I could write so much about the wonderful person who is my life partner; I’ll stick with the essay below. I wrote it a few years ago after a sudden and scary illness caused my hospitalization to help me remember what “in sickness and in health” means.

I spent the decades of my twenties and thirties in a search for “The One.”  My pattern was to choose potential partners who didn’t see me in their future, and then invest my effort, energy and self esteem in convincing them to view me differently. I came to believe that my God was a Woman when She intervened on behalf of my better judgment. These relationships now only have the shelf life of lessons learned.

“The One” entered my life. He was so true to my list it was almost like he was a design from central casting. And, he was into me. He was so perfect that I didn’t see it immediately.  This time, She and a good friend intervened when I was ready to bolt.  I stuck with the relationship that stuck.

Even though I described myself as “winning the spouse lottery,” I took note of grievances and annoyances over the years. Maybe I noticed the small things missing because the big important things were already there. In the unconscious routine of normal life, I invested more in my list of grievances and annoyances than they merited.

We were married for 16 years when “The Monster” struck.  Our last conversation before he left for work on that President’s Day weekend ended with his anticipation about the welcome respite of a rare day off. Our first conversation on his arrival home that same evening started with “Let’s call your doctor.” Instead of the respite of promised of a holiday weekend, The Monster took him for a ride, too.

“The One” was never far from my side in the hospital. He snuck in contraband lemon ice after he noticed that it was the only thing I’d eat from the meal tray. He presented every variety of tea he could find so “I’d have a choice.” He arrived at my bedside with care packages of little necessities he thought would make me more comfortable. He brought my favorite pillow from home.  He held my hand when needed. He hugged when needed. When I was searching for “The One,” someone expressed hope that I’d marry someone who would help me with my bedpan, because in the end that’s what commitment might come down to.  I know for a fact that I did.

Wise people remind us that our prayers are always answered, just not in the way we expect. Today, I thank God that She knew better when I sent up my desperate devotionals during my single years.  The right ”One” did come along. Occasional storms, like The Monster, remind me that I am lucky enough to love the best person I know.

Happy Anniversary, Peter.


Light from a Dark Night


Image from istockphoto

We met in the middle of the night in a nearly empty parking garage at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.  My boss and I were returning from a weeklong business trip to the West Coast, laden with materials and personal stuff.  Our flight landed at about 11:30 PM; it was approaching midnight when my boss offered to escort me to my car.

After picking up loads of stuff from the baggage claim, I rented a pushcart for the trip to my car.  You were standing in the deserted elevator vestibule of the parking garage.  I assumed that you were among those who scrape together the round trip train fare to O’Hare for your night job of collecting  $.25 for each baggage cart you returned, hustling for tips by assisting travelers, or just hustling.

You were a teenager at the time; I’d guess about 16. We didn’t acknowledge each other when we met.  I noticed that you wore the uniform of a Black urban youth when you waited for my boss and I to empty my cart so you could claim its bounty. I remembered to put my car keys in my pocket – handy for a quick retreat.

I first heard your voice when you yelled to us, “Hey!” I didn’t argue with my boss when he said, “ Just keep going.” We did, moving a little faster. You moved faster, too, then summoned us again,“Hey!” Once more, I ignored your call. I felt better about having my keys handy and remembered their potential as a self-defense tool from my street safety class. We moved fast, but you moved faster. Your call never changed, “Hey!”

I remember my relief when we reached the safe harbor of my car, followed by fear when I looked in my rear view mirror to see you directly behind my car. It was my boss who first noticed that you were pointing something towards us. I was the one to recognize this object as my briefcase. You were following us to return the briefcase I left in the luggage cart.

I can’t remember the words exchanged in our only conversation.  I muttered something like “ Thank you” as I pushed a few dollars into your hand in exchange for my fully intact briefcase. But I will never forget the way you looked at me the only time we made eye contact. It wasn’t with resentment or anger or hostility. These would have been easier to accept than the resignation I saw. Your eyes expressed what you expected. Of course, you’d ignore me. Of course, you’d run away. Of course, you’d be afraid of me. Of course.

I think of you sometimes. I thought of you this weekend.  I think of you every year when I listen to the Youth Award Winners from UCAN. Some of these remarkable young leaders look like you. They’ve been labeled. They’ve watched people cross the street when they come by. They’ve lived in danger.  They’ve suffered trauma. They’ve been written off before they’ve even started. And, they are determined to prove doubters like me wrong about them.

I hope you’ve had a good life. Like our future leaders from UCAN, I hope that you’ve opened your heart to forgive and give the world another chance. And, if necessary, to give yourself another chance.  Because we need you to live the meaningful life you deserve. We need your hope. We need your talent. We need your dreams. We need you to make a future where we do better.

Fighting Ghosts



Loved the column by  Shozan Jack Haubner, A Zen Zealot Comes Home, from the Sept. 2011 issue of The Sun. Here’s an excerpt to show why:

Finally my mind caught up with my mouth…My apoplexy ceased. My fury lost its redness. And, for the first time that trip, I really took them in: Dad’s once- chiseled face, collapsing with age. Mom’s hair, pinned up in a bun, one step closer to hoary and desolate white. How old they’d become. How many more visits would I even be blessed with? How many more chances to make things right?

These were not the same people who raised me. Those people existed only in my head, caged and rotted behind my tight, unhappy grin for decades while my actual parents got older, gentler, wiser; while their bodies fell apart and their souls grew deep.

Those darn Zen monks. They always write the stuff that hits closest to home.

Have the Fries


I was new to the neighborhood. The first time I stopped into the cozy Greek diner a few blocks away from my new apartment, a man in a Hawaiian Shirt greeted me enthusiastically. We chatted over my “to go” order. Yes, I was new to the area. No, I have never been in his restaurant before. As he considered my order, he instructed me that I must have the fries. Considering the caloric indulgence, I declined. “Ah, you’ll change your mind when you taste them!,” he said confidently as he handed me a sample. They were decadent. Plump, golden potato slices, perfectly brown, treated with a splash of vinegar and sprinkled with oregano and salt. My mouth still waters when I think of them. I declared them to be delicious yet still declined. “Next time,” he ordered. “Get the fries the next time.”

I became a regular at Cross Rhodes, the little neighborhood diner. Soon I learned that the happy man in the Hawaiian shirt that greeted me (and every customer) as a long lost friend was named Jeffery. He was the owner. We regularly repeated our little ritual.  He’d ask, “Going to have the fries today, Susan?” I’d decline, passing up the luxury every time.

One harried Christmas season almost twenty years ago, I rushed into Cross Rhodes in a blur of after work, after shopping, after shipping frenzy but before rushing home to pack for my holiday trip. Cranky and distracted, I delivered my regular “to go” order. In no mood for our usual back and forth banter; I just took my order and left. I wonder if I missed the twinkle in his eye.

I entered my apartment preoccupied and overwhelmed. There was no Christmas season this year. In the middle of a reorganization at work, I had just a few days off with family, and a few work related tasks during that visit.  Big decisions awaited my return; the anxiety and pressure weighed on me.  I was lost in my gloom until I lifted the lid on my food. Next to my regular order, there they were.  A mound of hot, crisp, Greek fries. A handwritten note on my receipt read “Merry Christmas!”  As I savored every last bite, I thought about the gestures of kindness that made it feel like Christmas.  I missed so many in my frenzy.

This year, my traditional Christmas Eve “to go” order from Cross Rhodes of a Greek veggie sandwich with fries will be especially poignant.  Jeffrey Russell died this year, suddenly and too young as a result of a terrible fall. Even though he won’t greet me in his Hawaiian shirt, the lessons he left me are present.  We touch so many people, ever so briefly.  Every encounter is an opportunity to spread joy. You never know who carries a secret burden that might be lifted even a tiny bit by a small, sincere gesture. And, our problems are often difficult but not impossible to resolve.  Step back, get perspective and give yourself a break. Have the fries.

Merry Christmas.

How Happy People Deal With Bad Stuff


In this season of list making, what’s on your list of what you really want? Happiness is likely to be at or near the top. We all want to be happy. Sometimes, happiness is a current state. Often, it’s a future state, as in “I’ll be happy when…”. If we’re perfectly honest (O.K., if I’m perfectly honest), sometimes setbacks are cited as the cause of our unhappiness. This shows up as “I’d be happy if it wasn’t for…”. Regardless of where we are on the happiness scale, the great news is that most of us can be happy, even if we’ve been dealt some bad breaks. Psychologists and social scientists have produced findings about happiness that we can all use to get there, despite our starting point.

Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia, is one of the researchers who explain how we create happiness. His book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, describes how to influence our happiness by editing the stories we tell ourselves. It offers several compelling examples, but one really stood out to me. What do we tell ourselves when things go badly?


Editing Our Stories About Setbacks

Wilson offers an example of the impact of our narratives using the greatest setback of all: early death. Suppose you were among a population that may carry a genetic marker for a disease that would kill you in middle age, but its symptoms would not appear until your thirties or forties. Do you want to know? How will this knowledge affect your happiness?

Wilson’s research followed a group of young adults who faced these questions. These young adults previously made a choice that placed in them into one of three groups:
A. took a genetic screen and learned that they carried the gene.
B. took a genetic screen and learned that they did not carry the gene.
C. refused to take the genetic screen; don’t know if they carry the gene.

Wilson studied each group to evaluate their happiness at three points: immediately after their decision, six months later, and one year later. Which group do you think reported being happiest? Which group was most unhappy?

The results surprised me. Group A – the group that got the bad news – was understandably the unhappiest immediately after the results. But, at six months and one year later, this group self reported happiness levels similar to those of Group B – the group who knew they did not have the gene. Even though members of one group got really good news and the other really bad news, after time, their self reported happiness levels were indistinguishable.

Perhaps the most surprising result is that the group members who were most unhappy over time were members of Group C- the group that chose not to know. Even though they reported happiness levels similar to Group B immediately after the decision, feelings of well-being deteriorated. Wilson reports that a year after the decision, group members who were uncertain about a bad outcome reported being more depressed and anxious than those who were certain of one.

This study offers conclusions for any of us who face setbacks far less ominous than early death. The secret to editing our stories is to find meaning and purpose in what happens to us. As Wilson states, “making sense of negative outcomes is the first step to recovering from them.” Those who knew for certain that they carried the marker had the certainty to come to terms with it. They created narratives about what their life could mean and a sense of urgency to make the most of it. They dedicated themselves to a purpose for their lives. Those who were uncertain didn’t have this framework for sense making; they lacked a basis to adapt and move on. Their narratives likely represented the anxieties of “What If’s” instead of “What Could Be’s.”


How To Be Happy After the Bad Stuff

Wilson suggests an approach to help us make the setbacks in our lives more understandable and predictable: the Pennebaker Writing technique or the “Step Back and Ask Why” approach. It’s simple, anyone has the tools to do it, and if you are like others in Wilson’s research, you’ll find that it works.

This writing exercise requires two conditions. First, enough time has passed between the bad experience and the present that you can think about it without being overwhelmed with negative emotions. Next, you can analyze why the event occurred instead of ruminating over the fact that it did occur.

Once you can get to this place, write about this experience for at least fifteen minutes on three to four consecutive days. Importantly, write about the experience as a dispassionate observer reporting on the experience, rather than rationalizing the case for your feelings. As Wilson states, “Don’t recount the event, take a step back, reconstruct and explain it.”

The Pay Off

If you get the same results as the research, you’ll find the basis of sense making: clarity and understanding. Wilson offers examples. College students who previously ruminated about a bad grade got the clarity that they didn’t prepare well, so had a better understanding of how to change study habits. Employees scarred by an ugly confrontation with a boss understood that difficulties in the boss’ life that produced the outsized response. This clarity and understanding changed perceptions about a negative event and created new narratives. Participants reported that they had fewer negative emotions, ruminated less and experienced less stress.

Happiness is the gift to give yourself this season. I hope you recount many blessings in what you tell yourself. (If you don’t talk to yourself, start now. Just be careful about what you say and don’t do it out loud in public.) But, the real opportunity is to change the way you talk about the bad stuff. Give it time, report it rather than ruminate, and write down what caused it to happen. Then move on. There’s too much good stuff ahead to be happy about.

Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Twelve Questions for 2012


iStock_000021472307SmallIf January is about resolutions, how about using December for reflection? Next month, we’ll invest energy looking ahead in anticipation, making resolutions for the best use of 2013.  I suggest we use December to look back on who we were and what we accomplished in the eleven months since our last resolutions.

The following are twelve questions I’ll use to close out 2012. If you are game, answer them all or just a few. The answers will prepare you for 2013.

1.  When were you at your absolute best?

2.  What skills showed up when you were at your best?

3.   What did you learn in those moments of excellence?

4.   Who deserves an overdue “thank you” before the year closes?

5.   Who deserves an overdue apology before the year closes?

6.   Who is better off because you were in their life?

7.   What was your most challenging experience?

8.   What did you learn?

9.   When did you think about what you really wanted?

10.  What did you do to move toward it?

11.  What left you in awe because of its beauty, grace and power?

12.  What do you think is possible that you didn’t at the beginning of 2011?

The Time Machine: Go Back to Go Forward


I have a hard time remembering names. I spend way too much time looking for my keys or my glasses. So, the dozen documented Highly Superior Autobiographical Memories (HSAM) amaze me. These gifted people can recount what happened on every day of their lives in fine detail: where they were, whom they were with, what they experienced. Name a date and they can play back that day like a movie.  The actress Marilu Henner is one of the documented cases of HSAM. In her book, Total Memory Makeover, Henner guides us through memory research from the University of California, Irvine and practices she follows to develop a better memory.

My first reaction to this phenomenon was that there are many days I don’t want to remember.  Henner’s opening point is that to have a great memory, one first needs to appreciate its benefits. The key benefit of developing a better memory is to allow your past to improve your future. Use memory not to just relive our experiences, but to examine the choices that got us to that place, then recognize these same choices when they are presented again.

Use an  Extraordinary Memory

Convinced there are more benefits of an excellent memory than winning big on Jeopardy, I completed several of Henner’s exercises in the Anticipation, Participation and Recollection categories.  Most were more challenging than learning mnemonics strategies or doing brainteasers because they required deep self-exploration and reflection. Three of the exercises from the book, and my results, are described below.

This is an easy one. Memory is like a muscle; the more it is used the better it gets. One memory exercise is to remember yesterday in great detail, without edits. Play everything back like a movie in your head from the time you awoke until the time you turned in.   Recall your morning routine, your activities, your companions, your conversations and your wind down time. Don’t evaluate – just remember.

The Pro/Con List
This one is not easy. Like everyone else, I’d rather bury painful experiences. That’s the problem. I can’t bury them. My subconscious, like yours, throws everything into a cognitive pile. It pulls up a choice when it recognizes a circumstance, even if it’s a dud. The best and fastest way is to pull the duds into the light of our conscious so we can recognize potential wrong turns.

Henner suggests several exercises to use painful memories to find clues for future decisions. Bring up one memory that you typically avoid. Instead of immediately burying it again, keep it around. Make two columns -pro and con. The con side may be easy- list the negative outcomes from this memory. This is the list you probably think about the most from bad experiences. The pro list is more of a challenge. List what you got out of that experience that kept you in that situation. If we stay in a experience, we’re getting something out of it.  See if any of the outcomes repeat in current circumstances.

My exercise was like a good Patsy Cline song – it involved a man and a bad relationship.  The con list came up easy- I have recited it many times. The pro list was illuminating.  I persevered – If I was patient and understanding enough, something good would eventually happen. I was flexible – I could make “good enough” acceptable. Well, well. Even though I’m with a great man in a wonderful relationship, these beliefs still show up. Do I expect others to tolerate crap so they can hang in for good moments? Do I still rationalize that “good enough” is acceptable? Ouch. Do I have to answer these questions?

Develop Sense Memory
Henner suggests calling up the turning points in life, the ones that taught important lessons, then recall a sight, sound, texture or smell associated with them. Keep this sensory symbol around to remind you of the lesson when you face similar circumstances.

I went way back with this exercise, recalling the first time that I understood something really, really bad happened that no one could fix. It was 1968. My brother was a Military Policeman assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; I was a grade school student in a small Ohio town. In 1968, people watched something called the evening news to get information.  This evening, Walter Cronkite described a surprise attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon resulting in many U.S. casualties.

I still feel the fear from the little family room where I watched the broadcast with my parents. My mother started to cry. My father, who normally took the role of telling me everything was going to be O.K. and “stay in there and pitch,” was silent.

I didn’t know what to do. I was angry that we watched the evening news. I wanted it to be a mistake. I wanted it to go away. The TV remained on as my parents left the room. Not knowing what else to do, I stayed and watched a variety show – The Jerry Lewis Show – that came on after the news. This evening, someone performed the Nat King Cole song Smile. It felt like it was just for me. When you don’t know what to do- smile and keep going.  I could do that! The smiles were forced for the two weeks before the two-word letter from my brother came in the mail: I’m Okay. Then the smiles were real.

I rediscovered this old gem of a song as a result of this exercise. I’ll keep this gift around to remind me the next time I am scared and confused that I am tough enough to come out better on the other side.

I don’t know if my memory will ever get to the point where someone can name a date and I can recall exactly what happened.  Before reading this book and doing the exercises, (there are far more than the three described) I would have just been happier to find my glasses with greater frequency.  Henner’s book has helped me to understand that memory improvement is self-improvement. A better memory can lead to a better future. And that’s worth remembering.


Henner, M. (2012). Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. New York:  Simon & Schuster.

Tell New Stories: 5 Questions to Climb Off a Ladder of Inference


Our stories shape our experiences. This isn’t a bad thing. Our stories carry our history – reminding us of lessons we don’t have to painfully relearn and sharing accomplishments that inspire confidence. Personally, I like my stories. They are the mental cryptograms that help me to sort information, make decisions and just plain figure out life.

How we use our stories can get in our way, especially when we encounter experiences and information incompatible with our stories. In fact, marketers and campaign managers count on our stories acting as barricades to new information and perspectives that might change us. Yes, our stories remind us of who we are. And left unchecked, our stories keep us where we are.

Chris Argyris developed a classic model, the Ladder of Inference, which describes how our stories influence our interpretations of experience, and how our interpretations ultimately influence our actions. Argyris points out that we often act not on complete data and experience, but of data we select from an experience. We select data that supports our stories. From there, we proceed through a series of self-selected meanings, assumptions and beliefs that lead us to a self-justified action. An example of how we can climb the Ladder of Inference to the wrong place is below.

To avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference and tumbling over the top, keep your stories in check with these questions:

1. Am I working with all the relevant information I can get?

2. What other possible interpretations can I develop?

3. Who do I trust to help me challenge my assumptions?

4. What would happen if I didn’t believe this?

5.  Can I suspend judgment until I know more?

My stories are my treasures. So are yours. But we are both best served when we can look at new situations and understand that it’s not necessarily like the last situation, nor are we. Let’s open ourselves to new experiences – and new stories.