Leading a Purposeful Life

          I’ve been spending some time covering the importance of purpose these past couple of months. It started with Vic Strecher’s book, On Purpose,

which documents his painful but ultimately fulfilling journey following the death of his daughter, and how his realization that having a purpose could help him to lead a healthier life. I wrote about Strecher for The Wall Street Journal. Then, my editor at Michigan Today asked me to write a piece on the same topic. Last week, I was approached by another editor about writing an article about the way that having a purpose can help those involved in the care of others to live healthier. The reaction to these pieces from readers sharing their stories of how purpose helped them to be happier was overwhelming. It lent even more support to the theory, now being proven out by a variety of studies, that when you have a meaningful purpose, one that is transcendent and not self-involved, you’re motivated to engage in behaviors that help you live longer. Strecher believes this is a far better model for health care. You won’t quit smoking if someone tells you that it could kill you. But you’re inclined to quit smoking, exercise, reduce stress and sleep better when you’re motivated by a greater focus, beyond yourself, one that ultimately helps others. With so many of us engaged in worry and ruminating about our own issues and often selfish endeavors, this seems to make sense in so many ways. It’s now spurring a rethinking of what we need to live a healthier, happier life, amidst the craziness of our fast-paced, technology-filled society. In the end, getting back to basics, and spending our time in the simplest of pursuits that contribute to making the world a better place, seems to hold significant merit. It certainly is some great food for thought.

Two Brave Teens Taking the Sting Out of Mental Illness


Okay. A mother can brag, right? When my 16-year-old daughter and her co-editor approached me about the possibility of writing an editorial for a mainstream newspaper after the Dean of her school would not allow the school newspaper to publish stories where students revealed their struggles with depression, I thought it was a great idea. But I never envisioned that what transpired would have such a significant impact. The result of their efforts was this editorial that ran in The New York Times. The piece was the top third emailed article on The New York Timeswebsite of the day. It generated over 200 heart-wrenching, thought-provoking comments on all sides of the issue. The girls received numerous messages, as did I, from those who have struggled with depression all of their lives, thanking them for bringing this issue out of the closet. I’m of course proud of my daughter for having the courage to take on her school administration and speak out about an issue that she feels is so important. But I’m just as gratified that this has sparked such a significant discussion about how to address mental health. The girls articulated their reasons for writing the article in an interview that ran on National Public Radio Schools seem to be struggling on how to handle this situation. But one thing is clear: the answer is not to sweep depression under the rug and make people feel ashamed for their suffering. Let’s hope this article, which has inspired so many to speak up about depression, begins a crucial dialogue about how to help the many struggling teens, and to prevent the rash of suicides we’re seeing in young people.


The Recipe for Less Stress on Modern Parents? Relax

I’ve been intrigued with two new books focused on the challenges that modern parents face. I’m in the midst of reading Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun, which was featured on NPR recently. I feel a bit validated, as many of the issues women are facing today, and their problems, were highlighted by their own mothers in the book I wrote with Deborah Carr, Making Up With Mom: not enough “me” time and too much time invested in their kids. Senior says that women today are stressed, primarily because they’re in the service of their children. In our book, the mothers of these women complained that they brought the pressures on themselves. They don’t let their children entertain themselves. They should be less indulgent and less scheduled. They helicopter parent them until they lose the ability to be resourceful and self-sufficient. We wrote that these types of complaints were cause for a generational rift. I’m curious, if we went back, seven years after interviewing these mothers of young children, whether they would agree that Mom was right. In her book, Overwhelmed, also featured on NPR, Brigid Schulte, makes many of the same arguments that Senior does: that women today feel compelled, more than ever, to do it all, to be the perfect career woman and the perfect mom and in doing so, are super stressed.
When my children were young, I found myself on the same treadmill as those featured in both of these books. A type A person by nature, I scheduled my kids in scads of extracurricular activities, booking them with a lineup of summer camps that made them busy as a corporate CEO. With my oldest child, now 22, I was slightly obsessed with ensuring she get into a college with the most prestigious name. I poured money into standardized test tutors. I sweated over ever B that came home on a report card (though there were rarely any.) I worried about my kids’ welfare and their future. I worried about my job. But, listening to the authors on recent NPR interviews — who themselves are the parents of young children caught up in the rat race — I realize that I’m no longer that person. With the benefit of time, I have changed. Now the parents of three almost grown-ups: ages 22, 19 and 16, I have a very different view. I’m not obsessing. And I’m no longer overwhelmed. With my third child beginning the college search, I’m not focused on pushing her to apply to the most competitive schools. Instead, I want her to attend a place where she’ll feel comfortable and happy. She’s decided, to reduce her own stress levels, to apply to several schools where she has a strong chance of being admitted. That’s lifted the pressure on her to agonize over scoring high on the standardized tests. She’s bright, resourceful and delightful and I’m sure she’ll make the most of her education and be successful — wherever she goes. And I’m taking a cue from my oldest. As she embarked on babysitting before finding a full-time job, she remarked that the only qualification of a mother these days is to be a cook and a chauffeur. She sees the craziness of parents’ lives today and has sworn that she’ll do it differently. Should she have children, her time will not be spent in the car. A recent college graduate, she’s looking to surround herself with a community of supportive friends. Instead of slaving away at a low paying internship or punching a clock at a nine-to-five office job, she got a position on a farm. Money isn’t the priority for her; the chance to be outdoors in nature makes her far happier, at least for now.
If anything good is to come out the intense lifestyles of today’s middle-class parents, and their musings about the negative impact it has, it’s that our children will likely do things differently. I’m already seeing that in the millennials who are focused on meaningful passions and non-profit work, on changing the world for the better, on protesting round-the-clock hours spent at work, on leading a balanced life. This all makes a great deal of sense to me. Instead of getting caught up in such matters that ultimately will seem trivial: sports trophies, long discarded report cards and a bevy of college acceptance letters, my wish for my children is simple: to have people in their lives they love who love them back. That support can get you through the toughest of times. I’m sure that mothers today will continue to complain about how they’re falling short and how insanely busy their lives are. I hope that this discussion will ultimately lead to moderation, to giving kids — and with that adults — less to do, so they learn how to be bored and even work at a minimum wage job and perform household chores. In the end, these years will fly by and many of us will wish we spent less time agonizing over the challenges, and more time embracing the true joys that come with parenthood.


Elementary School Reunion, 11/29/13

Elementary School Reunion, 11/29/13

When I hear that word, I don’t think of a punishment that my parents levied when I was young. Instead, it takes on a far positive connotation, one of gratefulness this time of year, when I have the chance to reconnect with my childhood friends and family. Last night, one of my long-time friends hosted a reunion of my elementary school class. While I remain in close touch with several of those I have known since I was five-years-old, there were many that I remembered fondly and had not seen in forty plus years. It’s an odd feeling seeing someone when that much time has passed between you. But I found conversations to be effortless; the childhood memories we shared so vividly allowed us to easily bond decades later. A common theme among this group was the simple lives we led, unencumbered by adult intervention. I recalled sleepovers where my friend and I played endless rounds of “Mystery Date,” the board game where you pick a card (or is it spin the wheel? I forget) and hope that the photo of the handsome man in a tuxedo will be there, instead of the “dud.” How would parents of today react to such a board game? We played that game in my friend’s attic in a tiny residence that housed a family of eight. It never seemed particularly cramped to me, but instead full of vibrancy. We reminisced about riding our bikes or walking to each other’s homes without keeping our parents apprised of where we were. In this city of one square mile, a historic neighborhood with sidewalks, we all lived within blocks of each other. And we were raised in humble surroundings. Many parents were working class; the houses were often 1,000 square feet or less. As the family size and incomes grew, many, mine included, moved to larger homes in the same city or left the school district entirely. But I think the common thread, based on this evening spent reconnecting, was that we had a firm foundation, a place full of supportive friends and family who were there when we needed them. It was a situation that allowed us all to try out independence and charting our own course. Many people are eager to shed their childhood skin, moving far away from where they grew up and happily never returning for reunions or to see old friends and family. I feel grateful that I was launched in such a supportive environment. A village raised me and I welcome the chance to return to that place whenever the opportunity arises.

Taming the Stresses of Teenage Life

My daughter was sitting at the kitchen table recently, overwhelmed with school work and keeping up with her many tweets and texts when she had a revelation: “Mom,” she said, “I think it’s much harder being a teen today than it was when you were my age.” I replied, “Yes, I couldn’t agree more.” Between the rigorous demands of schoolwork and extracurricular activities required to get into any respectable college and the relentless intrusion of social media that prohibits teens from ever unplugging, it’s rough being a teenager today. Young people feel the pressure to be perfect that they see manifested in Twitter feeds that show everyone else having a great time. Media image of coifed models greet them at the persistent click of a button. Online bullying has become commonplace. All of this is taking a huge toll on our teens. I repeatedly speak with other parents who share their stories of children in desperate need of mental health services. High school was once a time to be carefree. But so many teens spend these years engrossed in worry. It’s no wonder that many indulge in dangerous alcohol abuse as a response to the pressure. My daughter, an editor of her high school newspaper, plans to write an article about how teenage life today compares to that of a generation ago. I hope, in doing so, she’s able to shed some light on what we’re doing wrong, so we as a society can figure out ways to do it right before our youth are further compromised.

How Much Is An Article Worth? Writing For Free Is Not the Answer


         I wanted to stand up and shout a resounding “amen!” after reading Tim Kreider’s article in The New York Times that exposed the way publications try to get experienced writers to offer their services for free. This was also exposed by Nate Thayer, who blogged about being approached by The Atlantic to write an article without being compensated even one penny. In an e-mail, Thayer told me his post received thousands of responses. It clearly struck a chord. This is a huge pet peeve of mine as well. Like Kreider, I’ve been approached numerous times by publications – including many upstarts – to write a blog for free. Like him, it astounds me that journalism is one field where editors feel no qualms about exploiting labor. There’s no question that so many publications are taking full advantage of the fact that there’s a plethora of inexperienced writers out there, many of whom are eager to see their name in print. And the promise of “exposure” is a great lure. As Kreider does, I also use the offers as an opportunity to enlighten editors on how I earn a respectable living as a freelance journalist and can’t possibly afford to work for free. The one exception is blogging for The Huffington Post, which I do feel reaches a large audience. Still, I oppose in principle their model, which does not compensate bloggers, so I don’t contribute often to the site. I also go a step further. When an editor asks me to research an in-depth article and offers a meager amount of money, I don’t hesitate to turn them down. I let them what a fair rate is for such an article, written by an experienced writer, I know that my responses often fall on deaf ears, as there are plenty of other writers out there happy for the work. I was intrigued by a recent discussion of freelancing on the Diane Rehm Show, which discussed a freelancers union. It will take some formal measure like this to get freelancers to unite and challenge the slave labor trend.