Self-help books won’t change you

untitledA recent google search for “self-esteem books” revealed approximately 1.5 million results.  A search for “books about happiness” showed 11 million results.  Finally, a search for “books about stress” provided almost 12 million links. 

Despite the fact that the publishing industry is moving swiftly in the direction of ebook and digital self-publishing, self-help continues to remain the world’s bestselling genre.  In fact, I would wager to bet that anyone reading this article has purchased at least one self-help book in their lifetime.  If you’re like me, you have been a repeat purchaser, perhaps looking for the book that will change the course of your life.

You would think that with the enormity of these types of books to choose from, many of which guarantee the secret formula for change, we would live in a much happier world.  You could also make the assumption that self-help books should influence (in a good way) the amount of stress we feel.  The list of positive effects from the self-help movement is countless, but the fact remains that it’s not the books themselves that are going to create change; it’s the reader.

Gary Zukav, a New York Time’s bestselling author of several self-help books, including The Seat of the Soul, is quoted as saying, “The longest journey that you will make in your life is from your head to your heart.”  No truer words have been spoken, especially as it relates to reading a self-help book.  While the words in these books are often poignant, it’s only when they resonate in your heart that true change can occur. 

As you know, I recently joined the ranks of self-help authors with my book Seriously, Dad?  While I’m certainly humbled to know that teens and parents throughout the country are beginning to read the book, I know full well that it is not my book that is going to create positive change; it’s the reader.  Remember Mr. Zukav’s quote?  You see, my book contains a lot of great concepts, tools, and strategies that are designed to empower the reader, but if the person reading the book is absorbing the content on a head level only, it will soon be lost in the enormity of other information in their mind.  However, if the reader is transforming the content to a heart level, real change begins to occur.  So, how do you get from head to heart, you might ask?  The answer is simple.  It’s the difference between reading the book and doing the book.  When you incorporate the tools and strategies into your own life (doing the book), they resonate in your heart and become part of who you are.  This is the case for all self-help books.

Here’s my advice to you.  The next time you read anything that is self-help in nature (books, magazine articles, etc…), ask yourself the following question, “What will I do as a result of reading this book that will allow the content to resonate in my heart?”  Perhaps you can find an accountability partner that will read the book alongside you.  Maybe it’s a house full of sticky notes that serve as a reminder of important concepts.  Remember, reading the book and expecting the words on the page to change you is an unrealistic goal.  You must create the change.  I believe in you.   

This a "drop for my bucket" that a student recently wrote.  Seems very fitting given the nature of this blog.

This a “drop for my bucket” that a student recently wrote. Seems very fitting given the nature of this blog.

Failures can teach

imagesWhat would you say if I told you that I was going to start a school where grade reports were non-existent and failure would actually be rewarded?  Your gut reaction might be, “I’d never enroll my child in that school.” 

Unfortunately, in an education system that relies heavily on standardization, the word failure is ripe with negative connotations.  As a parent, it may be hard for you to stomach the notion that it’s actually healthy for your child to fail.  I’m not just talking about an “F” letter grade, but rather any circumstance where we fall short of a certain expectation.  The fact is that each of these experiences can be tremendously valuable.

Below is an excerpt from my book, Seriously, Dad?, which outlines a discussion between a father and daughter about using  failure as a teacher.


Dad:  I’m so thankful for your willingness to use these tools.  I’ve really noticed a difference in you lately; a very positive difference. 

Daughter:  Thanks Dad.  I’m ready to talk about Tool 6 now. 

Are you sure?  I don’t want your tool belt to be too heavy.  It might fall off.

Oh, Dad.  Even though you try, your jokes aren’t very funny.

Well, your mom laughs at me, so at least someone thinks I’m funny!

Okay, here we go.  Tool 6 is: Use your failures as teachers.

But I’ve never failed.

Have you ever made a mistake?


Okay, then think of your mistakes as minor failures. 

Well in that case, I’ve failed a lot. 

I’m glad you have.

What?  You’re glad I’ve failed.  That’s not very nice. 

Hold on.  Let me explain the tool first and hopefully you’ll realize that mistakes are a good thing.   

I want you to think for a moment about the last time you failed at something.  Remember, I’m not necessarily talking about getting an F—I’m talking about a time you made a mistake or failed to meet your own expectations. For example, maybe you said something rude to a friend, and you realized later that you hadn’t said what you would have liked to have said.

Oh, I’ve got a perfect example.  Do you remember that persuasive paper I wrote about how we should have less tests in school?

Yes, I do remember it. It was very well written.

Well, I didn’t tell you this, but my teacher was so impressed by it that she decided to enter it in a contest for an education magazine.  There were thousands of other applicants and I didn’t win.  I was so proud of the article but I felt like a failure when I got the letter saying that it hadn’t been selected.

So, the letter made you feel like a failure?


Do you remember earlier when we talked about circumstances and how they are separate from us? 

Oh Dad, can’t you just let me wallow for a minute.

Sure, you’re allowed to wallow all you want.  I wallow sometimes as well.  Your mom always reminds me that she isn’t accepting an invitation to my pity party, which helps me to realize that I’m choosing to wallow.

But here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that wallowing is not really an emotion you want to feel. 

You’re right.  And yes, I remember when you talked about circumstances being separate from us.

Perfect.  So, in this case, the letter you got was a circumstance.  Because we are not our circumstances, we have the power to interpret our circumstances in any way we want.  You can probably guess what I’m going to tell you next.

Yep.  You’re going to say that I can choose my lens in any situation.

I’m glad our conversation is sinking in!  Your powerless lens would encourage you to see only the failure and consequently dwell on all that went wrong.  You might blame the people at the magazine for their poor choice or you may even sabotage yourself for not being good enough.  Regardless, the powerless lens will reinforce the idea of failure.

Your curious/creative lens, however, will allow you to see the letter as a teacher.


P.S.  I recently received the following testimonial from a teacher in Indiana who just finished reading my book.  He will be ordering a class set to use with his high school students as a means of teaching social and emotional intelligence. 

“Mike Sissel has created the “Who Moved My Cheese” of Social/Emotional learning pedagogy.  This little gem uses a conversation between a 13 year old girl and her father to share current psychological and neuroscience research in an easily applicable set of 6 tools.  A must read for anyone that deals with children.”

To order a copy of my book, please click here.  


Have you ever noticed how important it is for people to be right?  Regardless of how someone else is choosing to see a particular person or life event, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of assuming that our lens is the right one.  I refer to these situations as a bad case of rightitis (I made this up, so you won’t find it on WebMD).  The question I often ask students is – What’s the cost of always being right?  I can think of countless times when I’ve tried to assert my rightness on others, only to find that I had, in effect, alienated myself from them.  Sorry, honey.  I’m sure I’ve done this a time or two with you.  I love you.    

Let’s do a little experiment to test your rightness.  To begin, please read the sentence below.  After you have read it a few times, count the number of F’s in the sentence.  How many F’s are there?  Look as many times as you want.  Are you coming up with the same answer?  




Now that you’ve determined the number of F’s, I want you to choose another number (on a scale of 1-10) which represents the level of confidence you have in your answer.  Let’s just call it the rightness scale.

Okay, are you ready for the actual answer? 

There are six F’s in the sentence. 

The majority of people will only see three of them.  In fact, when I first completed this exercise, I only saw three.  Less than 20% of people will see all six of the F’s. 

“Wait a minute,” you might be saying.  “There are only three.” 

This is your rightness talking.  Go ahead and look back at the sentence.  I’m guessing you overlooked the word “of”.  There are three of them. 

Regardless of how many F’s you saw, it’s safe to say that when we see something (our lens), we often assume that it must be the only way there is to see it.  As you are well aware, there is always more than meets the eye.  If we apply this principle to our relationships, for example, imagine the authentic communication that would take place.  If we could simply acknowledge the fact that we MAY NOT be seeing the whole picture, the entire dynamic of the relationship would change.  Rather than being stuck in our rightness, we would actually be exercising creativity and empathy. 

Below is an optical illusion that serves as a great illustration of how easy it is to fall into a pattern of being right. 


Here’s my suggestion.  The next time you find yourself suffering from rightitis, take a step back and try to see the entire picture.  After all, it’s better to be happy than to be right, right?.


The media ripple

untitledIt used to be that when I tuned in to ESPN Sports Center each night, I could get my daily fill of sports related stories in a matter of minutes.  Whether it was highlights from a game I wasn’t able to watch, or a simple run-down of the day’s scores, it served as a wonderful time management tool for a recovering sports junkie.  Unfortunately, times have changed.  Today, ESPN, along with every other news channel, seems to be littered with depressing stories of professional and/or collegiate athletes who have made horrendous mistakes. 

I’ve written in the past about the power of the ripple effect as it relates to leadership (click here). Simply put, everything we say or do creates an invisible ripple, which in turn influences the people around us.  When I work with students, I constantly remind them of this principle and their inherent potential for positive, sustainable change as a result of their own ripple.  In addition to the ripple that we create, we are also heavily influenced by the ripples of others.  One such influence, which we often fail to recognize, is the mass media (television, internet, etc…).  Each time we watch something, read something, or hear something, it shapes (or influences) the way we think.  Unfortunately, the powers that be in the world of media know that “bad news” sells.  Therefore, they aren’t interested in how their stories might negatively influence our minds; they are more concerned with the bottom line, which in this case is how a particular story might affect their ratings. 

Imagine a 10-year-old boy sitting down with his dad at night to watch Sports Center.  Instead of leading off with game highlights, a giant BREAKING NEWS sign sweeps across the screen.  What follows is a detailed account of a crime, committed by an athlete, complete with video footage and several graphic still images.  While there is no way of knowing how this boy may interpret what he saw or heard on the television screen, the fact remains that it did influence his thinking.  I would argue that it did so in a negative way.

I am well aware of the fact that this blog alone isn’t going to change the “bad news” reporting practices of the major networks.  However, that won’t stop me from creating my own ripple of positive influence by encouraging you to seek out “good news” stories and to share them with your kids.  If you are interested in providing your child with an empowering lens, then it’s absolutely critical that you counter all of the “bad news” they are already subjected to with messages of hope, resilience, and all that is right in the world. 

Below are a few of my favorites.

To see a powerful story of a group of middle school football players who conspired to do an unforgettable act of kindness for a teammate, click here

To see a post-game interview that is unlike any other, click here

To see the touching story of Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father/son team who have competed in multiple triathlons despite the fact that one of them has cerebral palsy, click here.

If you have a favorite “good news” story, sports related or not, please share the link below.  Together, we can change the world, one positive media ripple at a time.   


imagesOne of the things I enjoy most about the work I do is the ability to exercise creative freedom when attempting to describe various leadership concepts to students.  For example, last week, instead of simply sharing the dictionary definition for the word empower, I asked students to rearrange the first two letters of the word, which uncovered an entirely new meaning: ME Power. 

Below is an open letter I wrote to pre-teens and teens.  My goal is to change their lens with regard to a word that is often misused, or even misunderstood. 

Dear teen,

I’m sure you’ve heard the word “responsibility” a million times.  In fact, you may have been reprimanded by a parent or teacher for making an irresponsible choice.  Or maybe you’ve heard someone refer to another individual as either responsible or irresponsible in nature.  Regardless of the context, it seems that this word is often used as a blanket statement implying that someone is either doing the right or the wrong thing.  Unfortunately, it’s frequently used to point out the wrong choice.  Take for example the following statements.

Was that the responsible thing to do?

Why aren’t you being responsible?

You need to be more responsible.

I guess I can’t trust you because you aren’t acting responsibly.

If you were the recipient of any of these statements, would you feel empowered to act more responsibly?  Probably not!  You might be too busy beating yourself up for failing to meet someone else’s expectations (i.e. teacher, parent, coach, etc…).

As drivers in your lives, you don’t have to wait for others to tell you whether or not you are demonstrating this life skill.  It’s more important for you to grow from the inside out, which means that you are choosing to be responsible, not just because others have told you to do so.  The only way to accomplish this is to establish a definition for responsibility that supports the notion of inside out change.  So, here it is.

Responsibility = your ability to respond

If you break this word down into its root word and suffix, you end up with response + ability, thus the reason for the above definition.  While this may appear quite simple in terms of its relatively few words, the tremendous power that it holds, if fully understood, can completely change your life.

At this point, some of you might be asking,  “Okay, this definition makes sense, but what am I responding to?”  Herein lies the enormity of the power I mentioned before; you are responding to life’s circumstances.  Jack Canfield, co-author of the tremendously successful Chicken Soup for the Soul series, often says that life is just out there “lifing”.  While it’s true that all of us live very different lives, it’s safe to say that the circumstances (or “lifing”) we experience, good or bad, are quite similar.  Furthermore, it’s important to note that the majority of these circumstances are out of our control.  Take for example the weather.  While meteorologists can use the most technologically advanced tools to make fairly accurate predictions, the weather itself is ultimately beyond their control.  The same is true for our lives.  As much as we try to control or predict the kind of weather we encounter, it remains beyond our control.  In fact, the only thing we completely control is our response to the weather. 

Let’s go back to our new definition of responsibility for a moment.  If responsibility simply means our ability to respond to life’s weather, then it would only make sense to exercise effective responses, right?  In other words, to respond to life in a way that creates positive results.  For example, if I fail my test (bad weather), then an effective response would be to learn from the mistakes and carry forth this learning (positive result). 

Here are a few other examples…

Scenario 1

Weather Your parents ask you to finish up your chores around the house.                                 

Ineffective Response Why do I have to do these stupid chores?         

Effective Response – I’ll get them done quickly so I can enjoy my time later.              

Scenario 2

Weather – You are cut from the baseball (or softball) team, but you believe you should’ve made it. 

Ineffective Response – That coach doesn’t know anything.  What is he/she thinking?

Effective Response – Once I’ve calmed down, I think I’ll talk to the coach to find out what skills I can improve on for next year.                   

What do you see is the biggest difference between the responses?  It’s clear that the ineffective responses are directed at someone or something else.  They often are accompanied with blame or excuses.  Rather than being a driver, they put you firmly in the passenger seat as you relinquish all power to something beyond your control.  Effective responses typically include consequential thinking.  In other words, when you are responding to the weather, you are always considering the outcome or result of your response.

I encourage you to flex your response-ability muscle by thinking about the weather in your own life, then considering several effective responses. 

I believe in you.

Mike Sissel (a former teen)

From flood to faith

1534862_10204668655424371_4267830827580079616_oLast week, the city of Phoenix (and surrounding areas) experienced the most rainfall in a 24-hour period since the early 1900’s.  The resulting floods were so bad that many school districts in the area decided to cancel school for the day.  Cars on the I-10, the major freeway that runs through Phoenix, were completely submerged in some areas.  Needless to say, the flood left its mark on the city.  Thankfully, it also left a mark on many hearts, including my own. 

Although my family managed to avoid any flood damage, our church family wasn’t as fortunate.  On Monday morning, several of the church staff arrived to find the entire sanctuary (800+ seats) submerged in murky water.  After the rains subsided, the damage was assessed and massive clean-up efforts continue to this day. 

On Wednesday night of that week, I had the great fortune of volunteering, along with a few hundred other people, in an effort to remove each of the seats.  Screwdriver in hand, I made my way around the sanctuary, looking to help in any way I could.  In what would normally be considered two hours of menial labor, this was an experience that continues to resonate in my heart. 

After the church service on Sunday, which was held in a separate part of the building, my daughter witnessed what was left of the sanctuary for the first time (see picture above).  When we got in the car to leave, she asked me, “Daddy, how could something bad like this happen to our church?”

In what ended up being a perfect teachable moment, here is what I shared with her.

God can use any experience (good or bad) to teach us how to love.  

Sometimes it takes setbacks to strip us to our core, which I believe is love.  Perhaps you remember the days following September 11, 2001?  Do you recall feeling closer to complete strangers than you ever had before?  I certainly do. 

As I was working in the sanctuary that night, the loving energy in the room was palpable.  You see, there were no pretenses about who was doing what or how many more chairs I was able to remove than another person; it was just pure, raw love.  Everyone in the room (many of whom were from different church denominations) was working for something bigger than themselves, and it was all fueled by love. 

Just around the corner of a tragedy is an opportunity for a triumph.

I explained to Emerson that there is no “rewind” button in life.  We can’t go back and change past events, tragedies or not.  What we can do; however, is adopt a triumphant mindset and move forward in faith.  It would have been easy for the church (and its members) to adopt a victim mentality and commiserate over the damage, but they used it as an opportunity to triumph.  Because of this mindset, the collective focus quickly shifted from flood to faith. 

We can’t control the weather, but we can learn to dance in the rain. 

As a native Oregonian, I’ve experienced my fair share of rain storms.  I will admit; however, that over the years I grew to complain quite a bit about the frequency of rain.  In many cases, I would allow it to affect my mood.  What I failed to realize is that I had absolutely no control over the rain, yet I had complete control over whether or not I chose to dance in it.  You see, we all have rainstorms in our lives.  The purpose of a storm is not to discourage us, but rather to encourage and strengthen us in preparation for future storms.  This is the essence of spiritual and emotional resilience.   

I invite you to apply these lessons to your own storms.  The storms themselves are inevitable, but the way you respond to them will always be your choice.  Choose powerfully. 

Praise the process

untitledI’ve heard it said that parenting is a lot like surfing.  One moment we can be in the midst of serene, calm waters, peacefully floating in the sea of harmony; the next we are immersed in an enormous riptide, trying desperately to keep our heads above water.  I’ve actually never been surfing, but this sounds about right.  If you are a parent reading this, you know all too well the ebb and flow of the parenting journey.

While there are many facets to parenting, one of my goals is to empower parents with regard to their child’s education.  As you know, so much has changed from the time we were students.  Whether it’s the presence of alternative schooling options (charter, private, online) or the advent of the internet, the landscape of education is vastly different. 

Perhaps the biggest change has been the intense focus on standardized testing and the almighty letter grade.  While there are certainly benefits of these tests, I can’t help but think of one particular cost that is plaguing students nationwide.  In our quest to “Race To The Top”, we are focusing more on the result than we are the process. 

Several weeks ago my six-year-old daughter brought home her first ever spelling test.  Throughout the week leading up to the test, my wife and I each spent time helping her to prepare.  Whether it was spelling the words out loud or writing them on a whiteboard we have in the office, our goal was to teach her the core values of practice, persistence, and effort.  When I opened her folder on Friday afternoon, the first thing I saw was her spelling test.  In big blue numbers at the top of the page, I saw her score, a perfect 10/10.  Of course I was filled with pride, but I had to catch myself as the first thing I wanted to say was, “You’re so smart.” 

Herein lies the single most important piece of advice I could give to parents with regard to their child’s education – praise the process, not the result.  Let me explain by sharing two different parent responses to the same circumstance, a perfect score on a test.   

Response #1 – Praising the result.

“Wow, Emerson!  You are so smart.  You got 100%”

Remember earlier when I said our goal was to teach her the core values of practice, persistence, and effort?  What we often fail to recognize as parents is that our children are “meaning making machines”, just like we are.  In other words, they interpret everything we say according to a specific lens. 

In this case, it would be normal for Emerson to interpret my statement as – Daddy is proud of me because of my grade. 

As she continues to take tests, her obvious goal is to achieve a good grade, which would support the notion that she is smart.  Keeping with this interpretation, if she were to someday receive a score of 5/10, she would automatically assume that she isn’t smart.  As this pattern progresses, she may avoid taking academic risks in the future for fear of failure.       

Response #2 – Praising the process.

“Wow, Emerson!  I’m so proud of the hard work and persistence you showed this week.”

Notice how I didn’t say anything about the grade.  Why?  Because I don’t want her to associate the word smart with a number or letter grade.  I want her to celebrate the process (or journey) that led to her success. 

Now her interpretation might be – Daddy is proud of me because of my hard work.      

Let’s imagine that she scored a 5/10 on the very next test.  Instead of highlighting the result and belaboring the fact that she had failed, I could focus on the process, which is how she studied during the week.  Believe it or not, there is tremendous power in allowing your child to fail.  I’m not just talking about an “F” on a report card; I’m also referring to general mistakes.  The key, however, is not to highlight the failure, but to point out the various core values that can be used moving forward. 

I invite you to read a powerful article by Salmon Kahn, founder of the wildly popular Kahn Academy, which describes the reasoning behind his vow to NEVER tell his child that he is smart (click here).    

Your gratitude lens

imagesD7CXK5L0Several weeks ago I was talking with a student about the power of gratitude.  My intent was to help him change his lens with regard to a difficult circumstance he was experiencing.  After briefly outlining the countless benefits of his gratitude lens, he gave me a puzzled look and asked, “How can I be grateful for something that I didn’t want to happen to me?”

Here is the conversation that followed:

“I’m not saying you have to be grateful for the circumstance, I’m trying to help you choose gratitude in the midst of this circumstance.”

He was clearly confused as evidenced by the blank stare on his face.  “What does that mean?” he asked. 

“I understand your confusion.  It’s a difficult concept, but I can promise you it will be extremely helpful.  The first thing I’d like you to do is own the fact that the circumstance occurred.”  We had discussed the owner lens in a previous lesson, so I knew he would grasp the concept.

“Oh yeah, I remember you telling me that I can’t go back and change circumstances.  They are in the past.”

“That’s right.  Only when you’re able to own something can you free yourself to choose a new lens.  You see, when you allow the circumstance to dictate your emotions, you’re essentially giving all of your power to the past.” 

“Okay, I get that.  But how can I be grateful for it?”

“Remember, I’m not asking you to be grateful for it, I’m asking that you choose to be grateful in it.  It would be silly for me to ask you to express thanks for a circumstance that you aren’t happy with.  However, if you can find something you’re grateful for in this circumstance, you gain your power back.  Knowing full well that we can’t go back and change it, can you think of something you’re grateful for with regard to this circumstance?”

“Ummm…I’m grateful that I have a gratitude lens.”

“That’s perfect.  What you’re saying is that you are thankful for the power to choose your thoughts.”

“Yeah, but it still seems hard.  I keep going back to my negative thoughts.”

“That’s okay, it’s a process.  You just mentioned that you were grateful for your gratitude lens.  The good news is that it’ll always be available to you.  The more you use it, the more it uses you.”

“What do you mean it uses me?”

“It’s similar to your habits.  You have a lot of habits that you’ve created that essentially act on their own.  The same is true for our gratitude lens.  When you create a habit of using this lens, it’ll happen automatically.”

“Okay, I’ll try it.”

“That’s all I can ask.  Let’s talk in a couple of weeks and we’ll assess your level of gratitude at that time.”

This happened to be a teenager that I was coaching, but the message applies to all of us.  Everyone is going to experience unwelcome circumstances; however, the lens we choose in the midst of these circumstances will ultimately shape our feelings. 

P.S.  If this blog (or any of my other blogs) speaks to you, I invite you to share the following link with friends and family members who might enjoy reading these articles –  All they need to do is enter their email address in the top corner of the screen and future blogs will go directly to their email.  Thank you. 

The Dead Tree

photo (2)Several years ago, we landscaped our back yard and planted two trees in an effort to provide some much needed shade.  To make a long story short, I neglected to water one of the trees enough (it’s still a sore subject in our household) and it eventually died.  Although my wife didn’t fully agree with me, I tried to justify the death of the tree by saying that it was a “bad” one.  The other tree; however, is still flourishing, largely due to the fact that I learned my lesson and paid much closer attention to it. 

I realized the other day as I was reading the following story to a group of fourth and fifth grade students, that the method we use to change our habits should be similar to my approach with the trees. 

Below is a powerful story which provides a great metaphor for the power of our habits.

A wise teacher was taking a stroll through the forest with a young pupil and stopped before a tiny tree.

“Pull that sapling,” the teacher instructed the pupil, pointing to a sprout just coming up from the earth.  The youngster pulled it easily with his fingers.

“Now pull up that one,” said the teacher, indicating a more established sapling that had grown to about knee high to the boy.  With little effort, the lad yanked and the tree came up, roots and all.  “And now, this one,” said the teacher, nodding toward a more well-developed evergreen that was as tall as the young pupil.  With great effort, throwing all his weight and strength into the task, using sticks and stone he found to pry up the stubborn roots, the boy finally got the tree loose.

“Now,” the wise man said, “I’d like you to pull this one up.”  The young boy followed the teacher’s gaze, which fell upon a mighty oak so tall the boy could scarcely see the top.  Knowing the great struggle he’d just had pulling up the much smaller tree, he simply told his teacher, “I am sorry, but I can’t.”

“My son, you just demonstrated the power that habits will have over your life!” the teacher exclaimed.  “The older they are, the bigger they get, the deeper the roots grow, and the harder they are to uproot.  Some get so big, with roots so deep, you might hesitate to even try.”

Let’s go back to my justification that the “bad” tree needed to die.  Imagine that this tree was like a bad habit, which had grown deep roots.  By not watering the tree, I was essentially neglecting to contribute to the roots growing even deeper.  The less I watered it, the less likely the tree was to survive.  The same is true for our bad habits.  Simply put, we water our bad habits by continuing to do them.     

Now let’s imagine that the surviving tree was a good habit.  By choosing to water it and nurture it back to health, I was contributing to the growth of the root system.  With regard to our habits, we want to water those habits that help us to be productive.    

The moral?  Instead of trying to “break” a habit, try replacing it with a new one that is more productive.  That which you resist, persists.  That which you feed, grows. 

P.S.  Even though Ruth approved of this blog, she does not approve of my justification for the tree dying.  You win some, you lose some.  :-)

The Line Game

untitledIf you’ve seen the highly acclaimed film Freedom Writers, you may remember a specific scene in the movie where Hillary Swank (who plays the role of Erin Gruwell) asks each of her students to stand in two single-file lines, facing each other (see clip below).  She then proceeds to share several statements, some of which are quite personal, and asks the students to stand on the line if the statements are true for them.  The primary purpose of the activity, which is known as “The Line Game”, is to create a sense of community by breaking down perceived barriers. 

This activity happens to be the very first thing I do with any group of students I work with, young or old.  It also happens to be something they enjoy doing more than any other activity.  Considering the fact that I’m asking them to be vulnerable (i.e. Stand on the line if you lack self-confidence), this might surprise you.  Why is it that so many students, regardless of age, are so eager to share what would otherwise be considered un-cool things to talk about?  Why is it that a large majority of the thousands of students I’ve worked with are willing to admit that they often make decisions just to fit in?  Why is it that an even larger majority have no problem admitting that they lack self-confidence?  Because it provides them with a safe opportunity to remove the many masks they tend to wear. 

Below is an excerpt from a poem written by Charles Winn in 1966, which beautifully captures the power of the mask.

                 Don’t be fooled by me.  Don’t be fooled by the mask I wear.  For I wear a mask, I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them is me.  Pretending is an art that is second nature with me, but don’t be fooled.

                … I give the impression that I’m secure, that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without; that confidence is my name and coolness is my game; that the waters are calm and that I’m in command and I need no one.  But don’t believe it; please don’t.

                I idly chatter with you in suave tone of surface talk.  I tell you everything that’s really nothing, nothing of what’s crying within me.  So when I’m going through my routine, don’t be fooled by what I’m saying.  Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying; what I’d like to be able to say; what, for survival, I need to say but I can’t say.  I dislike hiding.  Honestly I do.  I dislike the superficial phony games I’m playing.

                I’d really like to be genuine, spontaneous, and me; but you have to help me.  You have to help me by holding out your hand, even when that’s the last thing I seem to want or need.  Each time you are kind and gentle and encouraging, each time you try to understand because you really care, my heart begins to grow wings.  Very small wings.  Very feeble wings.  But wings.  With your sensitivity and sympathy and your power of understanding, I can make it.  You can breathe life into me.  It will not be easy for you.  A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls.  But love is stronger than strong walls, and therein lies my hope.  Please try to beat down those walls with firm hands, but with gentle hands, for a child is very sensitive, and I am a child.

                Who am I, you may wonder.  For I am every man, every woman, every child…every human you meet.  

If you are a teacher, or work with groups of young people in any capacity, I encourage you to play this game with your students.  Contact me by leaving a message below and I will send you the list of statements I use with various age groups.