Don’t Underestimate the Resilience and Resourcefulness of the Homeless

You can say (people do say) many things about homeless people. But a fact that is under-appreciated is just how resilient and resourceful they often are.

There’s a woman who lives on an overpass near Atlantic Station. For some time, I assumed the poor woman needed help or aid of some kind, so I brought her things on a couple of occasions. And often when driving home or driving to the grocery store, I’d see her camped out next to the solitary tree on that overpass.

She has lived on that bridge for at least over a year now. She’s acquired a tent, goes around the area scavenging with a shopper’s cart, and otherwise can be seen sitting in a chair watching the traffic. Rather than being in an emergency state, she (almost) seems to be OK with it.

It does seem to me that of her available options, this is what she considers the best. Without what I’ve learned about her own resilience and resourcefulness, I might assume I need to “help” her find a shelter or something. I’m sure she’s already made her decision to go it alone.

There’s a lesson in here.

Be compassionate to a difficult challenge. But never patronize by assuming that homeless people are helpless and in need (or want) of full rescue. Leave some room (if merited) for admiration: some of the world’s homeless people are also some of the world’s hardiest and most resourceful.

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Why so Many College Students Are In Mental Distress—And What Parents Can Do about It

With college classes underway for the fall semester, parents may worry about how their children will navigate campus life, balance academics and social pressures, and find their pathway to a meaningful career. While parents of college students have long shared these common worries, they now confront new concerns.

The number of college students experiencing mental health issues has soared, with survey findings from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors suggesting that 41 percent of college students are anxious and 36 percent are depressed. So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people?A 2018 survey by the American College Health Association found that 63 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety over the previous year, 42 percent said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function over the previous year, and 12 percent seriously considered suicide. Add to these findings the data showing that the suicide rate for US teenagers and young adults is the highest on record, and parents are right to be worried.

So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people? There are undoubtedly many contributing factors. Greater awareness of mental health issues and more willingness to seek help are positive steps forward that may drive some of the increase in reporting, but there could be other, less favorable explanations, as well.

Too Much Coddling

Some of the emotional turmoil of college students could be linked to a coddled childhood and adolescence that limits young people from developing the resilience necessary to deal with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt trace some of the increased fragility of today’s college students to padded playgrounds, constant adult supervision and structure, more screen time and less authentic, in-person interaction, and an overall emphasis on safety. They write:

On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations. (p. 160)

More supervision and less autonomy, combined with social media influences, could be making college students more prone to anxiety and depression in young adulthood. According to Lukianoff and Haidt:

Both depression and anxiety cause changes in cognition, including a tendency to see the world as more dangerous and hostile than it really is. (p. 161)

In other words, the normal stressors of college may be perceived by some of today’s students as disproportionately dreadful.

Campus Victim Culture

A key focus of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book is that the fragility of today’s college students leads them to demand protection and security on campus, including the call for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Discomfort may be confused with harm, leading more college students to report emotional distress. In his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, Robby Soave explores the victim culture on college campuses in greater detail. He explains that on some college campuses, the focus on mental health has reached an extreme.

Soave describes a visit to the University of Arizona campus, where signs such as “Breathe in. Breathe out. You got this,” and “44% of ASU students report having difficulty managing stress,” are ubiquitous and direct students to the college’s mental health services. Soave explains:

People who need help shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. But at so many campuses, it has begun to feel like mental instability and trauma are the norm—that students are encouraged to see themselves as sick and vulnerable, and so they do. They have fully appropriated the language of mental illness. (p. 495)

Encourage Self-Empowerment

Given the trends and statistics on college students’ mental health, it may seem like there is little parents can do to help their college-age children. But a key step parents can take is to shift the narrative of victimhood and helplessness and encourage their grown children to take control of their own happiness and success. Borrowing the language of FEE’s Director of Entrepreneurial Education, T.K. Coleman, parents can help their children to see themselves as the “dominant creative force” in their own lives.

These students can set their own path. They can avoid dwelling on obstacles and instead embrace possibilities. They can find their passion, incubate innovative ideas, and build new enterprises that are personally meaningful and societally valuable. They can see themselves as agents of change in the world rather than victims of it. They can be the Revolution of One, as the following brief video spotlights:

It is a scary time for parents of today’s college students, as this cohort experiences rising rates of mental illness and a prevailing college culture that emphasizes fragility over self-empowerment. Fortunately, parents can encourage their college-age children to be strong, resilient, and focused on being active change agents and value creators in their own lives.

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Transforming Overwhelm & Burden to Something Powerful

How many of you have felt overwhelmed recently by everything you have to do?

How many of you have felt something you have to do — or everything you have to do — as a burden?

Many of us feel everything we have to do as burden, as overwhelm. It stems from how we look at the world: it’s hard, it’s difficulty to bear, and things are crashing down around us.

This is not said judgmentally, but with compassion — almost all of us see things this way. It feels like it’s programming that’s hardwired into us.

But it’s changeable. It starts by shifting how we see the world.

Instead of seeing the world as burden, can we see it as gift?

Instead of seeing the world as difficulty and struggle, can we see it as possibility and opportunity?

Instead of thinking we have too much to do, can we see the joy in each task? And see that a pile of tasks, then, is an abundance of joy and possibility?

Because yes, we have a huge amount of tasks to do, and we feel like we don’t have enough time to do them all. But we all have the same amount of time, and all we can do is one task at a time. There’s no way around this.

We can get better at choosing which tasks to do (prioritizing), but in the end there’s never any certainty that we’re doing the exact right tasks. We can expand our capabilities through automation, delegation and outsourcing, but experience tells us that even doing all of that, we still have too many tasks to do. The problem doesn’t go away with these kinds of tricks.

The amount of tasks isn’t the problem, because we’ll always have too many to do. The problem comes partly from overcommitting to too much, but even if we get better at that, we often still feel overwhelm and burden.

The only real solution is a change in mindset. To see everything we have to do as a gift, as possibility and opportunity, as an abundance of joy.

We can implement systems, get good at prioritizing, get more focused, outsource and delegate and simplify and commit to doing less … but in the end, burden and overwhelm won’t go away until we shift the mindset.

So here’s the practice:

  1. When you experiencing overwhelm, burden, or fear, pause and feel it. Let yourself be fully with it, experience it, feel it fully, and open up to it. Can you be curious about it? Can you find a way to love this feeling?
  2. See if you can see the tasks in front of you as a gift. You choose to do these because you want to. They are benefitting you and others. Do them with love, and be grateful for the gift of each one.
  3. See if you can see the possibility and opportunity in each one. What can be done with them? How are they more open and vast than you feel them to be?
  4. Can you experience the abundance of joy in your pile of tasks? If each one is a joyful gift, then isn’t there pure abundance in this pile? You can reach into the pile and pull out an opportunity for joy, growth, and giving your gift to the world.

Mindset shifts aren’t something we can just flip like a switch. They need to be consciously practiced. Can you see the possibilities in this practice?

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How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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Questioning the Back-To-School Default

Back-to-school time is upon us. My Instagram feed is starting to fill with first-day photos as a new school year begins this week in some parts of the country. For those of us who homeschool, we often get asked, “So, why did you decide to homeschool?” We respond with various personal and educational reasons, including the top motivator for homeschoolers on national surveys: “concern about the school environment.” What always strikes me, though, is that parents who send their kids to school never get asked this question. When was the last time someone asked a parent, “So, why did you decide to send your child to school?”

Societal Expectations and Defaults

Schooling is the default. It’s the societally expected thing to do. It’s also mandated of parents under a legal threat of force, so they may not think much of it. The trouble is that schooling is beginning to take on a much larger role in a child’s life, disconnecting children from family at much earlier ages and for longer portions of a child’s day and year. Even compulsory schooling laws are expanding in many states, to begin at age five and extend to age 18.

I wrote an op-ed about this trend in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are benefits to delaying early schooling for most children and potential harms with sending children to school early, such as increased ADHD diagnosis rates. It can be worthwhile to question the default.

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes that a hallmark of originals and change-makers is their tendency to question, and often reject, societal defaults. Grant writes:

Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (p. 7)

Better options than compulsory mass schooling do exist, and many more would be created if more parents challenged the default. We should be outraged that schooling has seized so much of childhood and adolescence, particularly when the results of all this schooling are lackluster at best and concerning at worst. We should be outraged that government schools increasingly look like prisons and that students are being schooled for jobs that no longer exist. We should question whether a system in which only one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, and only a bit over one-third of them are proficient readers, should be given greater influence and authority over young people’s lives. We should really wonder if it makes sense to place our children in this swelling system, whether they are toddlers or teens. Surely, we should “consider alternative ways that the world could work.”

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Alternative Options

What are these alternative ways? Jessica Koehler has a great article this month at Psychology Today where she lists some of these alternatives and also explains her own journey of shifting from schooling to homeschooling for her children. In addition to homeschooling/unschooling, parents can delay preschool and kindergarten, explore various co-ops and learning centers, take advantage of one of the many micro-schools that are sprouting nationwide, and explore alternative programs for teens, like community college enrollment, travel, or apprenticeships. Or they can build their own alternative to school with other like-minded parents. Other options are virtual learning programs, including public ones, and nearby public charter schools or private schools that can sometimes offer flexible learning and attendance options.

Questioning the schooling default, and acting upon that doubt, can be difficult. It is much easier to put a child on a school bus and be just like everyone else. It is easier to go along. But it may not be better—for you, your child, or the world you could help to create. As Adam Grant says, it’s the non-conformists who move the world. These originals are the ones who question the status quo, refuse to tolerate discontent, and imagine new possibilities. Grant writes:

Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward….They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. (p. 28)

We all care deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It’s time we question if compulsory mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, for our children and others, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It’s time to challenge defaults.

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Finding Groundedness in the Age of Anxiety

We live in uncertain times.

Actually, things have always felt uncertain to the people who live in those times, but these days it might feel even more heightened, with the hyperconnectivity of the internet, social media and constant messaging, comparing ourselves to everyone else, and a very tense, divisive political situation (not just in the U.S., but in many countries).

It’s enough to drive anxiety through the roof for many people. I coach hundreds of people through my Sea Change Program and Fearless Training Program, as well as 1-on-1 … and anxiety seems to be a huge problem for many people I work with. I’ve seen it in my extended family and friend circle as well — anxiety seems to be on the rise, or at least it can feel that way to many.

So what  can we do to deal with this anxiety?

There isn’t one simple solution, but there are some habits we can form to help us cope — even thrive — in the middle of chaos and uncertainty.

The Causes of Anxiety

In short, our anxiety is caused by uncertainty. It’s a feeling of alarm, of stress, of fear or even slight panic, when things feel unsettled, constantly shifting, out of control.

We feel this kind of groundlessness, this out-of-controlledness, all the time at some level. But there are times when this feeling is heightened:

  • We lose our job or feel like our job is unstable
  • We get into deep debt or feel like our finances are out of control
  • Someone we love has a crisis (like health crisis)
  • We get sick
  • There’s a death in the family
  • Someone we can’t stand gets elected to the leadership of our country (this has happened in multiple countries, I’m not talking about anyone in particular)
  • You move to a new home in a new city

You get the idea — they’re all times of heightened uncertainty, and so the feeling of anxiety starts to increase.

The thing is, if you go through just one of these things, it’ll increase stress and maybe anxiety … but then if things calm down, you have a chance to recover. But if you’re constantly going through these kinds of things, it doesn’t give you a chance to recover. You’re constantly in a fragile state, and everything becomes more stressful.

The key is not to eliminate uncertainty and stress in your life … but instead to increase your resilience by allowing yourself to feel grounded even in the middle of a stressful, uncertain event. Then things become not such a big deal. They might stress you out a bit, but they won’t be the end of the world.

Six Habits that Lead to Groundedness

The basic habits that lead to this kind of resiliency, and a feeling of groundedness, are things you can practice every single day:

  1. Let ourselves feel it. When we’re feeling uncertainty, instead of rushing to solve it … or to distracting ourselves or comforting ourselves with food or shopping … we can let ourselves feel the uncertainty. I’m not talking about engaging in a narrative about what the uncertainty is like and why it’s so bad — but instead feeling it physically in your body. Where is the feeling located in your body? Can you give it some attention and curiosity? Can you stay with it for a few moments? This habit of letting ourselves feel the uncertainty and stress is transformative — every bit of anxiety becomes a place to practice, an opportunity to be present with ourselves. It becomes a chance to create a new relationship with our experience.
  2. Learn that it’s OK to feel groundlessness. You are feeling anxiety because of the uncertainty of your situation. But that’s because uncertainty becomes a reason to freak out. What if, instead, we learned that this groundless, uncertain feeling is actually just fine? It might not be completely pleasant, but it’s nothing to panic about. In fact, it can be an opportunity to find joy and appreciation in the groundlessness — what is there to appreciate in this feeling of complete openness? Start to shift how you see and react to this groundlessness, embracing it rather than panicking about it.
  3. Give ourselves love. In the middle of stress and uncertainty, instead of engaging in our old habits of shutting down or avoiding, of worrying and fretting … can we try a new habit of giving ourselves love? This is a way of being compassionate and friendly with ourselves, no matter what we’re doing. It’s like giving love to a child who is in pain — the compassion and love pour out of our hearts. Can we practice this for ourselves?
  4. Simplify by being fully present with one thing. We have so much going on that it can all be overwhelming. Can you simplify by focusing on just one thing right now? Trust that you’ll take care of the other things when it’s needed. Instead, be fully present with this single task. It can be something important, like working on that writing that you’ve been putting off for days. Or it can be something small, like washing this one dish, or drinking this one cup of tea. Be fully with it, and savor the experience fully. This leads to a feeling of groundedness, and helps us to not feel as frazzled.
  5. Find the joy in being fully present and savoring. The item above, of simplifying by doing one thing, can feel like quite a shift for many of us. It might feel like sacrifice, not constantly switching tasks and being on social media and checking phones. But it can be a way of opening up to the moment, treating yourself with a little focus, joyfully savoring whatever you’ve chosen to do with this moment of your life.
  6. Learn to love being resilient. Resilience is a matter of saying “No Big Deal” to any kind of uncertainty that arises, of savoring and being present, of giving ourselves love and being present with whatever uncertainty is coming up for us. Resilience is not blowing everything up to End of the World level, just because it’s not under control. Resilience is feeling grounded in the middle of chaos (even if there’s stress present), and finding a joy in being in that uncertainty. Resilience is taking a breath and then savoring that breath. It can be a wonderful thing, if you learn to love it.

Try these habits today, whenever you notice stress, anxiety, uncertainty. They take practice, but with time, they lead to a feeling of being centered and grounded.

If you’d like to practice with me, try my new Fearless Training Program — we’ll train together.

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