Category Archives: Opportunity

Brain Bugs, Behavior & Boehner

In his book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives neuroscientist Dean Buonomano gives some fascinating reasons for why our memory, beliefs and behavior are subject to serious flaws…even if we’re unaware of it.  Simply put, our brain evolved for a different time and place.  He uses the example of a skunk’s effective defense mechanism: When attacked they turn around, lift their tails and spray.  Very effective for scaring off a coyote, not so much against an oncoming car.

It’s somewhat comforting to know that there’s an evolutionary bias (i.e. I can’t help it) for eating naughty food and blowing my budget when I know these behaviors aren’t helpful.  So my brain’s operating system is outdated. Is there an upgrade?

Luckily there is: behavioral priming.  Buonomano cites an NYU study using word puzzles to illustrate how we create “behavior nodes”.  In the study,  subjects were asked to complete word puzzles.  Some had to come up with words associated with kindness while others had puzzles with words biased toward being rude.  After finishing this task, subjects were told to talk to a research assistance pretending to be on the phone.  In measuring how long each subject waited before interrupting the on-going phone conversation, it was found that those who completed puzzles using more rude words waited less time to interrupt the phone conversation.

If the words, images, and sounds surrounding us constantly influence our thoughts and actions,  what are we subjecting ourselves to on a regular basis?

How often are we bombarded with images of war, famine and Beohner?

More importantly, how do we prime our brains to turn it off without turning away?

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How Earning More Keeps You Poor

191,000 kids live in poverty in Colorado


Why can’t poor people just “get a job”?  Hell, they get food stamps, free child care, tax credits, welfare checks…what else could they need?

I’ve heard variations of this question; truthfully,  I used to ask it myself.  What I failed to recognize (and now try to increase awareness of) is the unintentional negative affect of the 1996 welfare reform laws: the Cliff Effect.  Consider the real-life scenario of Shari (not her real name):

Shari began working at McDonald’s 15 months ago.  She is eligible for a raise, yet she refuses to ask for one or accept any promotions that McDonald’s may offer. If Shari got even a 75-cents-per-hour raise, it would trigger a cut in food stamps, childcare assistance, and medical assistance. She cannot afford to earn a little more. In order to escape poverty, Shari must earn considerably more. Like others in poverty, Shari is often stuck in survival mode, unable to imagine a better future and trapped without the support systems that families who are middle or upper class take for granted. It feels impossible for Shari to plan for the future or make long-term decisions because she is dealing with today’s crises.

Shari’s work supports are supposed to provide her family a means for climbing out of poverty.  These include the minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit,  food stamps, health insurance, and child care.  But as Shari’s earnings increase, she begins to lose these benefits, negating any increases in income. The result? Hard-working individuals climbing to reach the American Dream of prosperity end up falling off the cliff…back into poverty.

Just another Shari

We’ve all seen Shari:  at the Wal-Mart checkout counter, at the bus stop, waiting on us at McDonalds.  And we think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Is that it?  Do we stop there?  Or, do we wonder, “Is there anything I can do?”

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” ~ Mother Teresa.

Schools as a Brand

Just this week I noticed an interesting Next!: urban charter school start-ups leveraging a well-known brand, in these cases, famous athletes.

This leaves me wondering: Will schools be marketed to kids like cereal?  In their efforts to attract students will charter schools, already serving a disproportionate number of low-income students, fall into a de facto means of school segregation?

Grateful on Memorial Day

Seemingly incongruous, today we honor our fallen soldiers and kick off the official start of summer.  So, while praying for the souls of those who lost their lives in service to our country, I’m so grateful to spend the day with a very special man who, long before I met him, returned safely from the Vietnam War.

How to Grow Where You’re Planted

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”  Tao Te Ching

"Grow where you're planted!"

What do a real-estate agent, advertising exec, medical student, B&B owner, teacher, development consultant and non-profit professional have in common?  They’re all roles that at some point in my adult life I’ve assumed.  Each has taught me something valuable and helped me make the most of my life at a particular moment.  As my sister, a Navy wife, says, “Grow where you’re planted!” Aphorisms aside, how does one do this?  Or, as a newly-divorced, single-mom friend asked me, “How do I reinvent myself?”

Most of us will come to a transition point:  a change in location, family situation, or career opportunity.  Perhaps we want to to take an interest/hobby to a new level.  I’ve found this process goes more smoothly and produces better results if you know your strengths and use them in this new endeavor.  But how do you go about this?

Several years ago, I became intrigued with Dr. Martin Seligman‘s positive psychology theory.  I took his VIA Survey of Character Strengths which helped me identify key positive character traits.  (This is not to be confused with the Myers-Briggs test, also helpful, which identifies personality styles.)

The VIA Classification System’s goal is to identify what’s best about us and how we use those optimal characteristics to build our best lives.  Why is this important?  Well, research shows people enjoy their work and life more when they are using their strengths.

Success = Energy + forward momentum of strengths

So, are you ready to find out what your unique strengths are and put them in action?  If so, click here.  Please let me hear back from you once you’ve taken the survey to share what you found!  If you’re already using your unique strengths, please share how it’s going!

Healthcare Reform 101 – Changes Coming Our Way

Are you aware of the healthcare issues the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seeks to address and how it plans to do it?  Do you know how this will affect you and what the timing for roll-out is?

Health Care Reform Hits Main Street

For a simplified way to get up to speed, check out the Kaiser Family Foundation’s video.  If you’d like to get a sense of timing, check out their Implementation Timeline.

What neither tells you is that for those of us who have private insurance right now, our premiums are already going up despite the fact that most of us, strapped with higher gas and food prices, are using our health care services less.  Huh?

According to the NYT, insurance companies keep jacking up premiums “even though their reserve coffers are flush with profits”.  Eventually laws require insurers to adopt changes, like forcing them to cover expensive pre-existing conditions and provide free preventive care.

Gosh, maybe they’re ahead of schedule on that last one because I feel like I’m already getting a colonoscopy.

Simple exercise to improve your mood!

Years ago, my prankster grandfather put a plaque outside my bedroom door.  It read, “Warning!  My moods change without notice!”  Did I mention I was only 6?

This started an early awareness of my moods, what affected them and how to improve them.   I’ve followed, read, practiced and thrown out a lot of theories which, of course, put me in a bad mood.  However, I’ve been a devotee of Marty Seligman for years now since he pioneered the notion that psychologists focus too much on the pathology of disorders.  Seligman’s construct of Applied Positive Psychology has shown that cognitive exercises can help us overcome depression, anxiety, etc.  For more info, check out Penn’s Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology program or read his latest book, Flourish.

Now I implement simple exercises to improve my mood and feel happier.  Here’s one I use daily:  Write down three things that went well and why they went well, or why it means so much.  That’s it!

Here are some real-life examples to get you going:

1.  J got the job in NYC!  She moves this summer!  Why?  She’s so awesome and was really intentional about manifesting a more meaningful job for herself.

2.  Dinner tonight: wine and cheese with Jack.  Why?  Relaxing end to the day.

3.  A student told me today I was an “excellent teacher”!  Why?  Because I love my students and hope they feel I’m valuable to their success.

If you don’t have a journal, print this WhatWentWellExercise and put it next to your bed with a pen.

Teachers can use this as a “ticket out the door” exercise at the end of class or day.  Not only does this work on students’ metacognitive skills, it should improve the classroom environment.

The Other 99% of US

After reading Joseph Stiglitz’s article on America’s social inequality (in Vanity Fair, just under the hyperlink to the International Best-Dressed List) I wondered what is it that allows us to maintain this idea of America as the land of opportunity?  Are we truly a nation that believes in equality and the American Dream?  Or is it an ideal we clutch on to like a worn-out teddy bear to give us a semblance of  comfort while equity vanishes from our homes, our jobs are shipped to other countries and our kids’ academic performance continues to decline?  Are we a nation of equal opportunity or a society functions on survival of the fittest?

“While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.” Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” in the North American Review, June 1889

Andrew Carnegie

And if social darwinism is the driving force for opportunity that concentrates our country’s wealth into the hands of a few, what does that mean for the well-being of the other 99% of us?

A sign of things to come?


Repairing Our Opportunity Society

In a video excerpt discussing their 2009 book, Creating an Opportunity Society, Brookings Institute Fellows Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill propose that poor public policy, a broken education system and “the behavior” of the poor themselves sustain our vicious cycle of poverty in America.

While I hate the “blame the victim” argument, they highlights critical points: a) Americans believe in an opportunity society where everyone deserves a chance to realize their full potential; b) Some kids are born with distinct disadvantages; c) Low-income kids attending sub-par schools are at risk for poor academic outcomes unless they benefit from positive educational intervention; d) Our education system needs higher quality programs and teachers especially with respect to Head Start.

While reading the research I though of my work with adults who grew up in poverty, did not complete high school now struggling to get a job providing a livable wage.  Clearly there’s some truth to the quote by Frederick Douglass, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

During his State of the Union Address, Obama says, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher.  Your country needs you.”  I’m afraid it will take more than that.