If Money Didn’t Matter…Turning a School Project into Real Life Advice

This week was Back-to-School night at my younger daughter’s high school. Walking around campus, I was painfully aware that all of the fresh-faced parents I’ve known since our teens were just tots in elementary school have become, well, to put it mildly, older.  And that if I’m calling them “older”, I have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I’m there, too. I was also mindful of the fact that this was the second-to-last time I would ever go to a back-to-school night. EVER.

My daughter had told me ahead of time that her history teacher was one of her favorites and that he coincidentally had a great deal in common with me (UCLA grad, fan of music) and her Dad (back-packed through Europe in his younger days). As expected, his classroom was my favorite: as we walked in, we could smell fresh-brewed coffee, the lights had been dimmed and the John Mayer Pandora station played in the background. His presentation did not disappoint and the parents were given one of the same assignments he’d given to the students that week: to watch a popular, short video making the rounds on YouTube and social media called “If Money Was No Object” and write a response to the video focusing on advice, hopes and dreams for our student’s future.

Naturally, my engineering/math-brained husband looked in my direction and my eyes lit up at the prospect of a creative writing assignment.  I’m not sure if I was the first parent to turn in their paper the next day….but it’s very possible.

I don’t know if youth is truly wasted on the young, but I certainly felt a small pang of longing when I read my own words and realized that I could have been better at taking my own advice, say, 35 years ago. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’d like to believe that there are still a few nuggets here that apply to us older and wiser folks.  In case I’m right, here are a few excerpts from my response to “If Money Was No Object”. These were the pieces of advice I crafted for my daughter, with a little commentary plugged in for us older folk…

  • Explore your options now, while you’re young. While I don’t regret the path I took, I do have the “what ifs” from time to time. What if I’d gone back to school right away and pursued an MFA in creative writing? What if I’d studied a semester abroad and done more traveling? What if I’d parlayed my college tutoring job into a teaching job or, early in my career, moved from marketing and PR in the technology realm into an area I was more passionate about like music or sports? Explore the things you are passionate about now, while you’re in high school and for as long as you can in college and early in your career. It’s hard to change direction when you’re 40 or 50.

Ok, so for those of us who are getting up there in age, admittedly, it is hard to change direction entirely. But not impossible. And if you can sprinkle just a little of what you love or do just one thing each day that keeps you in touch with those earlier passions, you’ll still be exploring those options, if not making a radical move towards them.

  • Find ways to travel early on. See the big, wide world. Look for opportunities to study abroad in school. If you’re a dual citizen, as my kids are fortunate enough to be, go to school or work abroad. Grab the opportunity and see what’s out there.

Great advice for the young, but of course, easier said than done once you are settled into a career (unless it happens to involve world travel) and have a mortgage and college tuition to pay for. But when those opportunities arise, take them.  Add a few days onto that business trip and see the city you’re working in.  Plan to use that bonus money for a weekend somewhere you’ve never been instead of upgrading those bathroom floors. I truly believe that travel is the best education there is. I can’t tell you how many people make comments about Sweden, its culture and system of government to me and my Swedish-born and raised husband without ever having stepped foot in that country. Not surprisingly, they are usually all wrong. Go, see, and learn for yourself – there’s nothing like it.

Quick illustrative story: I was once on a press tour in New York City with the CEO of a start-up I was working with. He told me that he’d been to New York numerous times in his career but had never been to the top of the Empire State building or seen a Broadway show. I asked him why not and he couldn’t answer, but for some reason, on this trip, he decided to change all of that. We went to the top of the Empire State building after our meetings and looked at the glorious view. We saw not one, but TWO Broadway shoes on that business trip!  A few months later, he passed away unexpectedly; while on his regular, early morning walk/run with his dogs, he had a heart attack. He was only 51 and left behind a wife and two young kids. I felt fortunate that I got to accompany him on that very special trip to New York.

  • Rekindle and/or nurture your love for reading. Reading expands your mind, opens new doors, and teaches you empathy. Beyond that, as I advised my daughter, reading improves all of those great communications skills you need in virtually every college class you’ll take and every job you’ll ever have.

This is advice that applies to anyone, at any age. There is always time to read a book, just like there is always time to fit in a workout – you just have to want to find that time. 10 minutes here and there – waiting in the car to pick your child up from school, while dinner is in the oven, on your lunch break from work, 10 minutes before turning out the light at night.  I truly believe that reading is the single easiest thing to do to keep your mind active, continue learning, expand your horizons and visit new places virtually. Bonus: it’s enjoyable and relieves stress!

  • Remember that there are trade-offs. This is where we have to acknowledge that money does matter and that means there are compromises and trade-offs to be made. If you’re passionate about traveling, find a job that allows for it, or be prepared that you’ll be backpacking through Europe and sleeping in youth hostels, not four-star resorts. Living in this area and having so much, our children sometimes get the message that having the latest iPhone or the coolest car are things that matter more than what you spend time doing each day. Some jobs don’t come with a big paycheck, but my message would be, try it when you’re young. If you truly love it, it will be worth the trade-offs.

As adults, we are always making trade-offs.  The hope is that when you’re in the rocking chair at 80, looking back on your life, you’ve made the right ones. I live in an area where people seem to “have it all”. They don’t have to decide between that expensive vacation, redoing their kitchen and paying for private college tuition. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made trade-offs. To afford that lifestyle, one or both parents may not be spending as much time with their families as they’d like.  Maybe the wife gave up a great career that she misses to stay home so her husband could have a job that involves a great deal of travel. Or maybe they are both working at jobs they really don’t love just to keep the wheel spinning. We all make trade-offs and compromises. The key is to figure out which ones you can live with.

  • What will your verse be? The famous line from Whitman’s poem and the words that Robin Williams famously spoke in “Dead Poet’s Society” are words that haunt me a bit every day. Make sure that something you do in life makes you feel that you’re contributing, giving back, adding something to your community, to society, to the world at large. Find something that has meaning not just to you, but to others.

While I haven’t figured this one out completely, I’ve taken little steps here and there to be sure I’m moving in the right direction. Is there a specific cause or issue you believe in passionately? Give your money and more importantly, your time to it.  Write about it.  Or to come full circle to the assignment and “If Money Was No Object”, make a video about it and share it with the world. Someone might listen and be inspired.

What advice would you share with your kids in response to “If Money Didn’t Matter”?  And do you think that advice is helpful for all ages for just for those of a certain, youthful age?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

New Year’s Resolutions for Even the Most Non-Resolute

imagesI’m not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve always thought that if you really want to do something in life, make time for or accomplish something, you’ll eventually (to coin a Nike marketing phrase) just do it. There’s no time like the present and New Year’s Day or not, if you truly want to do something, you’ll do it and if not, well, maybe you don’t want it as badly as you’d originally thought. That said, there’s something about a new year, a fresh start, a clean white board, that gives one a tiny bit more motivation, that extra push to get a long languishing project moving.

In goal-setting, it’s always important to break big goals into smaller, more realistic steps and the same holds true for resolutions. You could resolve to be a better person….but specifically, how? You could resolve to be more organized, but what steps can you take to get there?

Pushing aside the notion that resolutions need to be daunting tasks that can only be thought of once a year, I’ve made a small, starting list for myself that I hope will have some impact.

1) I resolve that each time I want to curse silently – or not so silently – at an impolite or even dangerous driver on the road, I will take a deep breath and remind myself that they win when I feel stress.

2) I resolve that every time I think about calling, emailing, texting or otherwise reaching out to a friend or loved one I haven’t connected with in awhile that instead of saying I’ll do it later when I’m not busy (as if!), I will take five minutes to actually reach out or, at the very least, I will put it on the to-do list with an actual deadline so it becomes a priority.

3) I resolve to focus more and multi-task less.  The phone doesn’t need to be constantly in hand, the texts can wait and no reason to try to “save time” by responding to emails while on conference calls. Constant multi-tasking creates more stress and even more work. Better to focus on one thing at a time…unless of course it’s folding laundry while watching TV!

4) I resolve to walk past the mess and clutter in the house at least once a week without stressing out, picking it up or yelling at someone about it.  Life’s too short, right?!

5) I resolve to have books, music, writing, exercising and conversation add up to more hours each day than any time spent on social media. I’m talking to you, new Pinterest addiction!

6) I resolve to put forth energy and action for at least one cause I believe in, rather than just ranting about it or reposting rants on Facebook and Twitter. Action speaks louder than words.

Are you making any resolutions this year? Do you think it’s a useful practice. Happy New Year and all the best to you and yours in 2013!

Is “Follow Your Dream” Good Advice?

“Follow your dream.” Maybe your parents gave you that advice when you were in school. Or maybe you read it in a self-help book along the way. Following your dream is certainly a deeply rooted idea in American culture – the idea that if we just do what we love, we’ll be rewarded – if not with riches, than with self-satisfaction and happiness.  Think of Olympians who say that their parents always supported their dream or Broadway stars who say that living just barely above the poverty line for many years was all worth it because they were following their dream.

When I was little I was convinced that my dream was to be a writer. I had a romanticized view of what that might entail and like most kids had no idea what the day-to-day reality of being a writer might really be, how difficult it was to be published and obtain some level of success at writing. Economic realities meant that I always had a job during my college years, seemed to always owe someone money and upon graduation with a Bachelor’s in English, was faced with the same question repeatedly from well-intentioned friends and family: “What kind of job can you get with an English major?”

Turns out, there are many jobs out there for good communicators, but the one I dreamed about, penning the great American novel, seemed awfully naive in the face of mounting bills and debt. After taking the summer to go home to San Diego and think about what I should do, I resolved to return to L.A., resume my part-time job of English tutoring at UCLA and search for “real” jobs.

After a couple of months of interviewing, I was rewarded with a job offer that I thought wouldn’t entirely compromise my dreams. A technology company wanted to hire me – an English major with no technical background – to write their user manuals. How bad could that be? I would be paid to write, albeit, about the ins and outs of test equipment and communications protocols. I was thrilled that I could pay my bills, pay off my debt and enter the real, working world. My writing dream wasn’t completely sacrificed, I thought.

But writing user manuals became tedious and un-fulfilling, to say the least. Fortunately for me, the head of the marketing department noticed my writing skills, my youthful enthusiasm and my desire to be more involved in the external-facing aspects of the company and offered me a job where I could apply my skills to public relations, event management, advertising, collateral and many other aspects of marketing communications. 25 years later, I’m still working in technology PR and marketing, but for myself and from the comfort of my home, with my own consulting practice that I’ve built over the past 19 years.

Did I follow my dream? Not exactly. When people ask me if I like my job, I always say that every job has good days and bad days, fun parts and frankly, soul-sucking parts. There is the reality: 25 years later I have a mortgage, one child in college and one heading there in a few years and a lifestyle that requires both my spouse and I to contribute. There is also another reality: I’ve quietly pursued my original dream, fiction writing, on the side and discovered something important – while I still love to write, I am probably not cut out for the life of a full-time writer. The reality is that even my so-called dream job has good days and bad days, enjoyable activities and those that are painful.

So what do you do when you discover that your dream isn’t truly what you had in mind? You move on. There are parts of my day job that I still enjoy and parts that I don’t, but all in all, it continues to reward me both financially and intellectually. Separately, I continue to pursue the parts of my childhood dream that fulfill me – taking classes to improve my creative writing skills, penning the occasional short story, continuing to work here and there on the novel I “finished’ a few years ago, when the mood strikes me, and writing this blog.  Outside of work and writing, there are other passion-fueling activities: family and friends, music, sports, great books, food and wine, watching my daughters imagine, explore and wrestle with their own dreams.  Some might say I didn’t follow my dream and I guess I didn’t follow the track exactly. Still, I can’t help but wake up some mornings feeling blessed and lucky, that despite it all, I am living the dream – maybe not the one I’d imagined, but one that fulfills me, nonetheless.

How about you? Did you follow your dream?  Or find another along the way? Do you encourage your kids to follow their dreams? How do you support them in their quest to pursue a dream while still preparing them for the realities of the world?

Rejecting the Kindle: Why I Still Need Real Books

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...
Cover via Amazon

Having been both an avid reader and a fan of technology most of my life, it would seem that jumping on the e-reader bandwagon would be a no-brainer for me. I’ve worked in technology for more than 20 years and have embraced it all the way. Between all of us, my family owns five Mac laptops, four iPhones, a desktop Mac, an iPad and a PC (only because I have to for work). We all use a variety of social media and applications including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In other words, there is no technology resistance around these parts.And yet, I just can’t seem to bring myself to make the jump to e-readers.

I figured that owning the iPad would bridge that gap. I wouldn’t have to switch to purchase a reading-specific device like the Kindle; with the iPad, I could use all of my familiar applications and start making the transition to downloading and reading books on that beautiful device. I’ve tried it exactly twice and while I did manage to finish the two books I downloaded, the experience left me…well, cold.

There’s something about the feel of a book, the smell of the paper – whether it’s bookstore-new or an old classic that has been handed down and sitting on a shelf for years. The weight of a the hard cover, the examination of the artwork, the reading of the inside flaps and back-of-book blurbs. Even paperbacks have a charm totally lacking from the sterile screen of its e-reader cousins.

I can’t quite give up the thrill of browsing a bookstore and picking up each title, trying to decide which one to read.  I still love having my own library of books at home, browsing the shelves that hold both new and old. My worn copy of  Gone with the Wind, spine still intact, but pages yellowing, brings back memories of learning to love books at the ripe age of 10. My collection of used paperback classics with their highlighted passages and folded corners recall hours spent in Royce Hall classrooms and Powell library, dissecting characters, motivations and themes. Each spine on the shelf  represents not just the story contained within, but a story that is uniquely mine.  I can’t quite get that same feeling from a collection of electronic files residing on a mobile device.

I know, I know…the Kindle and its ilk are the future. It’s great for traveling, you can pop it conveniently into your purse or bag and take it anywhere. If someone gives you a great tip on a new book, there’s no ordering from Amazon or driving to the Barnes & Noble or heading to the library to see if it’s available – in just a few clicks, it’s all yours. Immediate gratification.

I guess in this world of fast-paced, 24×7, mobile and always-on living, it seems silly or quaint to want to curl up on the couch with an old-fashioned book. And I’m sure eventually, the e-reader will win me over. For now, I have a stack of books to turn to, each one ready to tell me a story. So call me old-fashioned. Or call me Ishmael. I’m just going to keep turning real pages for now.

Getting Used to the Big Numbers…or 50 Things I’m Grateful For

At the end of this year, I will have to face a large number, a number that means I have reached five decades of existence. Why is this so difficult? After all, they say 50 is the new 30, a milestone, to be sure, but certainly not considered old age anymore. And as my husband is fond of saying, “it beats the alternative”. Maybe I fear it because I never imagined getting to this number. Like all kids, I couldn’t wait to be 16 so I could drive a car, 18 so I could go to college, become an adult and vote, and 21 so I could drink (ummm…legally). While I wasn’t anxious to reach the age of 30, I imagined where I would be and what I would be doing at that age (the year my first child was born, as it turned out –didn’t figure that!) and I could even see beyond that horizon to where I might be at 40. But 50? That’s just not a number I ever imagined.

So I’ve decided in an attempt to get used to that frightening number that I ought to start making lists of 50 that are not so scary. Like 50 things I’m grateful for, 50 things I’ve accomplished, 50 things I have yet to do, that I’m looking forward to doing some day.  50 places I’ve traveled and 50 I have yet to visit, 50 great novels (definitely won’t be including 50 Shades of Grey), 50 songs I can’t live without (maybe “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” should be on there), and maybe 50 posts I want to write. By making these lists maybe I’ll become accustomed to that scary-looking number by the time I get there….or maybe I’ll just have to drink a lot to hide the pain.

My inaugural list is 50 things I’m grateful for. Here goes:

1)   My health and that of my loved ones.

2)   My husband and the fact that his personality is the opposite of mine.

3)   My daughters.

4)   My Mom and Dad.

5)   My friends who are still my friends.

6)   My friends who are no longer my friends, but who helped shape me.

7)   The people who loaned me money in college.

8)   Every teacher who told me I could do “it”, whatever “it” was.

9)   My first love.

10) Being able to attend, and graduate from, UCLA.

11) Working from home for almost 19 years now.

12)  When I was still commuting to work every day, getting to drive down PCH every morning.

13)  All the clients who have hired me, those who have referred me and most especially, those who have hired me repeatedly to do work for them.

14) A good night’s sleep, when I get it.

15) The fact that my husband likes to cook.

16) The fact that one of my daughters has already taken after him in the cooking department.

17) The unconditional love of dogs.

18) Getting to spend part of my childhood in La Jolla.

19)  Music, music, music.

20) Books, books, books.

21) Daffodils in the spring.

22) Good wine.

23) Good, strong coffee.

24) Mint chip ice cream.

25) The scent of fresh lemon.

26) Pilates, without which I would be an injured, aching mess.

27)  Nordstrom’s customer service – can you beat it?

28) Getting to sit in the front row of the David Cassidy concert when I was 9 years old.

29) Getting to sit third row and front-row, center, respectively, at two Dave Matthews concerts as an adult and experience it with each of my daughters.

30) Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

31) The beach.

32) Sunsets, especially at the beach.

33) Bangs…without them I might have to resort to Botox.

34) Online shopping.

35) Being able to live in California.

36) Not having to live in Texas.

37) Watching sports on a big screen TV.

38) Sunday’s Los Angeles Times…in print

39) The trip to England, Scotland and France I took with my best friend for high school graduation.

40) The opportunity to spend time in my husband’s native Sweden.

41) Dishwashers.

42) The advice of friends and colleagues who experienced things before me and shared their wisdom.

43) Clothes that don’t wrinkle.

44) The iPhone.

45) Summer.

46)  The Hollywood Bowl.

47) Writers.

48) Getting to watch my older daughter swim at Olympic Trials.

49) Friday evenings.

50) Getting to watch both my girls mature, follow their passions, learn from their failures and enjoy their successes.

When it comes to reading, does anything go?

I have always been an avid reader and am a huge believer in the power of the written word.  One of my earliest memories, when I was maybe four years old, is of sitting on my family’s couch, literally surrounded by massive piles of books, all of which I was sure I was going to read that very day.  I know that I owe part of my passion for reading to my mom who modeled good reading habits for me and always seemed to have an Agatha Christie or other such mystery in her hands.

As a parent, I have always tried to instill this love for reading in my two daughters with, admittedly, mixed results. While I read to them both from babyhood until beyond the time they could read for themselves, and while I continued to model good reading habits with my own reading, my older daughter really never adopted a passion for pleasure-reading, but merely read what she had to for school. My younger daughter, on the other hand, does enjoy reading and has always reserved time in her schedule to do so, but as the burden of school-reading increases, I can see that this passion could cool over time, if we’re not careful to continue modeling and encouraging.

Given this passion for reading, I’ve always believed that “any reading is good reading”.  While I want my kids to read challenging works, classic stories and thoughtful literature, I’ve never discouraged them from picking up less intellectually demanding material like The Clique series or Pretty Little Liars books. These books serve a purpose, as well – they provide great escapism, simply story lines and again, they count as reading time (and time spent away from the computer and phone).

But I recently read some disturbing news that made me question whether any reading is good reading. A recent article in the Huffington Post about the results of a Renaissance Learning report, revealed that American high school students are primarily reading books that are designed for a fifth-grade reading level.  The most popular book among high schoolers last year was The Hunger Games – a book that is ranked at a 5.3 level, meaning it is just above a fifth grade level.

While The Hunger Games is a great story that both teens and adults have embraced (see my previous blog post on this topic; in short, I loved it), the repercussions of the study’s results are clear: if kids aren’t reading material that is challenging enough for high school – much less college – how are they to improve their reading and writing skills enough to think critically and to synthesize and analyze higher-level curriculum?   Unfortunately, the article points out, this study reflects trends in national reading scores which remain low and have dropped significantly between 1992 and 2009.

So do we let our kids read whatever they want – comic books, tween “chick lit”, Seventeen magazine?  Or do we push them to read books that are indicated for their grade level and challenge them?

I admit, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, since students are and should be expected to read works of literature in the classroom that are “at grade level”, I’m inclined to let mine choose what they read for pleasure. On the other hand, I’m cognizant of the fact that a steady diet of Pretty Little Liars is certainly not going to expand their horizons (much less their vocabulary) substantially. In a perfect world, they would choose to read much more challenging works during their free time, but even I am tempted to pick up the occasional People Magazine at the hairdresser’s or the latest pop culture phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey because it gives me a respite from some of the deeper and more thoughtful works I usually read (side note: don’t bother with “Grey” or at least, don’t spend any money on it. My take: it’s poorly written, the plot is old and tired, and the dominant/submissive thing was done so much better by Anne Rice in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and Exit to Eden years ago. Sorry, but poor writing, no matter how sexually explicit, turns me off).

So, should we try to encourage our kids to reach more intelligent and stimulating works? Should schools do more to encourage the reading of classics and weightier modern-day works?  Or should we just focus on encouraging the act of reading – regardless of the material? What do you think?