WHERE YOU GO IS NOT WHO YOU’LL BE

SafariWhere You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be:
An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
by Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s start with the anxiety around college admissions. What’s it all about? Why is it so much worse now than it used to be?

One reason is the mythology around “brand name” schools, the idea that entrance to a highly selective and well-known college validates a student’s worth and will automatically set them on a path to success. Additionally, the rise of college rankings has created a cycle in which schools that already have 10 times the number of applicants they can accept go to great lengths to recruit even more applicants, thereby driving down their acceptance rate while simultaneously driving up their ranking. And then there is the special consideration afforded to athletes, legacy students, current/potential donors, children of the famous and those of faculty, all of whom, in addition to an increasing pool of international students, decreases other applicants’ chances.

Not to mention all the trouble I personally am causing. Like I said, Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. According to Frank, I am part of the nefarious cabal known as Private Consultants who strip unwitting families of their last dollars while “prepping and packaging students … festooning them with all the right ribbons and all the prettiest bows.” There is oh so much I could say in response to this depiction, but before I get too snarky or defensive, let me explain why I became a college essay coach and why I think helping students with their college essays is not in fact the problem, but rather part of the solution.

A while back, I started volunteering as a writer coach in the Berkeley schools, where I worked (and still do) one-on-one with the same students all year as they navigated their various English assignments. I found that the relationships I developed with the students were surprisingly meaningful and in particular, I enjoyed the assignments that required the students to write about themselves. From my own experiences, I knew how empowering it was to write one’s own story and I loved being able to share that excitement by encouraging kids to tell their individual stories as only they could. It made me want to do more encouraging, more coaching. And what bigger milestone is there in a young person’s life than the transition from high school to college?

As one of the experts in Bruni’s book puts it, “[College is] supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and can use that information as your mooring and compass in a tumultuous, unpredictable world.” When I read those words, they spoke to me because, on a smaller scale, writing one’s college essays (and really the whole college application process) should entail the same goals.

Despite Frank’s one-dimensional generalizations about private college counselors, I’m going to let him off the hook because he has an important point to make, one that I wish more people would take to heart. What one does is a lot more important than where one does it. Checking off boxes and accumulating status symbols only gets you so far. But to be an engaged, aware and actualized human being will allow you to soar no matter where you launch.

Thank you to Mary Boyer, patron of the arts and many a liberal arts college, for sending this one my way.

Safari 2

Fly like an eagle

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

BTBF Flat

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo

Well, it’s official. I will not be asked to serve on the National Book Award committee anytime soon. I know you’ve been wondering. In fact, when it comes to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, not only am I in disagreement with the National Book Award judges, but I’m also in disagreement with just about every literary award committee on the planet, not to mention every reputable publication that bothers to put out a Best Books of the Year list.

By now you’re probably braced for what I’m about to say: I did not enjoy this book. Now I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, given that it came out a couple years ago and all the hoopla has moved on to other titles. And perhaps the fact that I didn’t rush out to read it right away was an indication, but when Supportive Husband procured a discounted copy a while back, I was more than happy to add it to the pile.

I’ve written previously about the conundrum of deciding when to put a book down and generally speaking, I’ve gotten a lot better about acknowledging when I’m not enjoying something. Yet I still found myself plowing my way through this one even though it wasn’t speaking to me.

I think there were two main reasons for this: 1) the overwhelming acclaim the book and its author have received and 2) the subject matter. Regarding the acclaim, I like to think that by this stage in my increasingly long life I’ve managed to develop a decent amount of critical thinking and feel confident enough in my own judgment that I am free to like or dislike things, regardless of others’ opinions. It looks like I might still have a cool kids complex. The cool kids just so happen to be The National Book Award, The New York Times, The Guardian and other snooty literary bodies. As for the subject matter, I don’t know a lot about India and I definitely know less than that about the slums of Mumbai, so Boo’s book seemed like a good educational opportunity.

And besides, isn’t there something politically incorrect about not liking a critically exalted piece of journalism about people living in a level of poverty that is almost beyond my ability to comprehend? In other words, by rejecting the book, am I rejecting the people it depicts or the issues it raises? The obvious answer is no. What I rejected was the storytelling. It simply didn’t compel me. I wasn’t invested in the people or situations being described because of how the author described them.

But think about it. Are you ever swayed to forge ahead with a book you’re not really enjoying because a lot of smart people liked it and you figure maybe you’re just not getting it? Do you ever read things because it feels like the “right thing to do?” Or because you feel a little bit guilty about everything you have and perhaps reading about those with less somehow relieves that burden? Do you ever feel a certain socio-political pressure in your reading choices? Or perhaps you avoid unpleasant topics altogether when it comes to your reading/leisure time – I can respect that.

(For an amazing piece of journalism that touches on similar themes of poverty and opportunity but had me riveted throughout, check out Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.)

 

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP

goat IIThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
By Marie Kondo

I love this little book. And I’d recommend it to the tidiest and un-tidiest among you. Whether you become a true convert to the KonMari Method or not, I think there’s a little something for everyone in Marie Kondo’s philosophy.

Becoming a KonMari acolyte was easy for me because I agree with her primary premise: clutter is distracting. I’ll even go so far as to say I find clutter depressing. It saps my energy and steals my focus. Marie has a simple solution for this: only keep the things that spark joy.

Now, I’ll warn you, Marie has a whole system for how to go about doing this and what she’s recommending is pretty intense, even for me. One category at a time, Marie wants you to pull together every item throughout your house that falls into a particular category (for instance, tops) and place every sweater and shirt you own on the floor. Then, pick up each top individually and consider, “does this shirt spark joy?” If it does not, you should discard it. Marie wants you to do this with every item in your house until you are left with only the things that spark joy in you. As you can imagine, many of her private clients end up parting with a good 50% of their possessions this way. Only after you have completed the discarding part of the project are you to consider where you will store the items you’ve decided to keep.

As someone who’s moved a lot over the past few years, I’ve been using a variation on Marie’s system for a while, the conscious criteria being, “Is this item worth the effort to pack, unpack and pay someone to transport?” So while I don’t necessarily have a lot of possessions at this point, Marie had some very interesting suggestions for me regarding folding (yes people, I said folding) and my elaborate storage systems (bottom line: I don’t need them, fancy storage systems are for hoarders with resources).

But here’s what I really want to emphasize to those of you whose finger is hovering over the mouse, a half-click away from shutting down any more references to the perfect fold or drawer dividers. Even if you don’t follow Marie’s systems to a T (no pun intended), she has some valuable insight to offer. By putting our house in order, we clear the physical clutter and the mental clutter lifts as well. Sometimes a lack of distraction forces us to face things we’d rather avoid, but it can also allow us to find focus and clarity. And through her particular method, Marie’s clients find that they have strengthened their decision-making skills. In some cases, this has led to greater professional success and even improved health.

Beyond these quantitative measures, I liked what Marie had to say about gratitude, letting go, learning to live without, and balance. And it is on this last note that she truly won me over because, I have to admit, by the end of the book I was starting to get a little concerned that maybe Marie was going just a little overboard with this whole tidying thing. But then I came across her final message, in which she stresses that her obsession with helping others tidy is really about helping them move to the next stage of their lives. “Your real life begins after putting your house in order,” says Marie.

What do you think? Is this just the latest craze of a privileged class that has time to consider what household items spark joy in their hearts or is Marie on to something here?

Note From The Land That Invented Curbside Recycling: While my adoration for Marie burns bright, during the reading of this book, I did grow increasingly concerned about the lack of references to donating, recycling and composting discarded items. From what I can gather, I think Marie is pretty much fine with people tossing half their worldly possessions into the landfill. Please consider responsible disposal options if you decide to follow Marie’s advice.

goat I

 

THE POWER OF HABIT

habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg

After being completely devastated by We Are Not Ourselves, I needed a break from drama for a while, so I picked up Supportive Husband’s copy of The Power of Habit. Even though it’s something he’s been reading for work (and much of it focuses on how business uses information about human habits), I figured this book would be self-helpy enough to feed all those aspirational cravings that tend to pop up around the first of the year. (Note: the following turned out to be more of a summary than anything else, but you may still find it interesting)

According to Charles Duhigg, our brains create habits (and many of them!) in the form of a habit loop that satisfies a particular need. A good example is snacking. Perhaps you get peckish around 3pm everyday. With little conscious thought, you may get up from your desk around this time each afternoon and wander down to the cafeteria for an afternoon nosh. If you want to stop this habit loop, Duhigg says that first you have to figure out if it is really hunger cueing you to snack or if it’s something else. Often people discover it’s actually boredom, in which case, wandering over to a co-worker’s desk for a quick 10-minute chat may carry the same reward as that doughnut (I know, hard to believe).

And so we arrive at the discussion of willpower, a trait most of us probably consider a skill. Some people have a lot of willpower, others just don’t – right? Well, it turns out that willpower is actually more like a muscle, so when we exercise it, it grows stronger.

Duhigg points to a research study that put two dozen self-professed couch potatoes on an exercise program that increased in intensity each week. As the program wore on, the researchers found that the participants were pushing themselves harder and harder at the gym, using increased willpower each time they worked out. But what’s particularly interesting is how this increased level of willpower impacted other parts of their lives: their cigarette, alcohol, caffeine and junk food consumption all went down, they did more homework and less TV watching. Great outcomes, though as you can imagine, the researchers wanted to make sure that the effects they were seeing correlated with overall willpower, not just physical activity.

So they enrolled a different group of people in a second study involving money management. They gave participants savings goals and instructed them to avoid luxury spending, including dining out and entertainment. They also had to keep a log of their expenses. This is pretty fascinating: as the participants became more disciplined about enacting these habits, they also experienced the same benefits as the exercise group, which included healthier living and better work habits. “As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives … that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked.”

That said, like our body’s muscles, our willpower muscle gets fatigued and needs recovery time. If we have a particularly challenging day at work, it’s going to be harder to go on that run when we get home. On a broader scale is the issue of autonomy, which is crucial for willpower. For when people don’t feel they have control over their lives, their willpower isn’t as strong, no matter what they are trying to do.

Now that my own willpower has been renewed (kind of, this post wasn’t very creative), I’ll be back with a fiction selection soon, courtesy of this blog’s original patron, my dad.