“Life” at 22

AnxietyLast week, a student came into my office and sat on my couch with a completely frazzled look on her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she preceded to tell me how she was “way behind everyone else.” I asked her why. “Because I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life yet, and I only have a couple years to figure it out.” I asked her how old she was.

“I’m 19.”

When I was 19 years old, the only thing I cared about was where the party was that night and whether my grades would suffer too much after I skipped classes the next day.

Unfortunately, the student I described above is not an anomaly. Instead, it seems that more and more students are coming to my office, completely anxiety-ridden. A report published by Dr. Jean Twenge a number of years ago supports this observation. Twenge found that children in the 1980s and early 1990s showed levels of anxiety that were equivalent to child psychiatric patients in the 1950s (and I’m sure the level of anxiety has probably increased even more in the last 20 years). Although her study did not focus on the causes of this increase, Twenge speculated that decreases in social connectedness (because we can’t put down our iPhones, maybe?) and increases in certain environmental threats (like pressure to figure out life, perhaps?) might be responsible. She even suggested that the race to “get ahead” could partially explain the increase:

“When everyone is doing well, there is more pressure to succeed, leading to anxiety” (p. 1018).

Today, more and more students are going to college, which, for many reasons, is good. But it also means that there is more competition for jobs and more perceived pressure to have things “figured out” as soon as possible.

I’ve heard students (and their parents) say something like this before: “If I don’t know what I want to do with my life, then I’m not going to get a good job. And if I don’t get a good job right away, then I’m not going to make any money. And if I don’t make any money, then who will want to marry me? So basically, then, I’m going to end up penniless and die alone.”

This notion is becoming so pervasive that it’s starting to filter down into our elementary schools.

Last year, my son came home from kindergarten one day and said that, “Tomorrow is career day at school. We’re supposed to dress up like the job we want to have.”

Are you kidding me? He’s 5 years old! He should be playing in the dirt, riding his bike, and getting scraped knees, not thinking about what job he wants to have in 20 years (as if he can even fathom that idea right now).

Fortunately, when we asked him what he was going be, he said, “A superhero!” Knowing that society will beat that idea out of him soon enough, we said, “Great! You be the best superhero you can be.” Later that day, he told us that some second-grade girls made fun of him for dressing as a superhero; they told him that’s not a real job. I didn’t think “society” would come so soon and in the form of second graders.

If 5-year-old kids are already being forced to think about what jobs they want to have, then no wonder my college students are freaking out. Multiply that “what-are-you-going-to-be-when-you-grow-up” pressure by another 15+ years, and I can understand why anxiety levels are sky-high.

But the idea that life should be “figured out” by the time you graduate from college–by the time you’re 22 years old–is, to me, ludicrous. For whatever reasons, some people are under the impression that life is supposed to progress in a straight line, moving undisturbed from beginning to end, with no roadblocks or hurdles in sight. Plans that you make at age 22 get carried out without interruption over the next 45 years, and it finally culminates in a great retirement that includes lots of golf, traveling, and eating dinner at 4 PM. But in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Life, without exception, is unpredictable.

Life:

Life is not linear

When I think about my life, there have been many–MANY–times when my plans and predictions didn’t pan out. For example:

“No, I am not going to be on academic probation in college.” (Yep, I was.)

“No, I am not going to be a psychology major.” (Yep, I was.)

“I’d never want to be a college professor.” (Umm…)

“No, I am not going to live in Auburn, Alabama.” (Yep, I did.)

“No, I’m never going to gain THAT much weight.” (Yep, I did.)

“No, I am not going to live in ‘Deep East’ Texas.” (Yep, I did.)

“I’ll never stop playing guitar.” (In my early 30s, I rarely touched it.)

“I’ll probably be married by my late 20s.” (I was 33).

“I’ll probably have kids by the time I’m 30.” (I was 35.)

“I’m never going to own a minivan.” (Fortunately, that one hasn’t happened yet.)

The reality is this: Life is not linear. I have no idea what’s going to happen to tomorrow. You have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Even your parents and your all-knowing professors can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone 5, 10, or 20 years from now. So to prepare for life in 30 years is nearly impossible.

I certainly couldn’t have predicted that my life would turn out the way it has. And I’m fairly certain that anyone who happens to be 30 years of age or older would tell you the same thing. In fact, I might go so far as to say that many, if not most, of those same people–me included–still don’t have life figured out. And you know what? That’s okay.

So, why are we pressuring students to have their lives figured out by the time they’re 22?

To me, that’s the same as telling two people who have been dating for a month that they have to decide on marriage after 6 months of dating. Most likely, that type of pressure would not make for a relationship of rainbows and butterflies.

To make things even worse, though, let’s think about what often happens to students when they don’t have things figured out by 22. They get ridiculed and called “unsuccessful.” Others wonder why 4 years of college wasn’t enough for them. “Everyone else knows what they want to do with their lives,” critics (incorrectly) complain. “Why don’t you?”

So rather than admit they haven’t quite figured it out, students make hasty decisions: “I’m going to graduate school because my mom and dad want me to” (something I’ve heard more than one of my students say). Or they take jobs so they can show how “successful” they are.

And unfortunately, the pressure to have life figured out only gets worse as the years go by. Maybe some people can accept a student who hasn’t quite figured it out by 22, but god forbid if someone doesn’t have all of her ducks in a row by age 27. There’s no hope for that person (or so many people believe)!

Maybe this is why less than one third of people are engaged at work. Maybe this is why “work” carries such a negative connotation. Maybe the reason people live for the weekends and despise Mondays is because they’ve been pressured to make decisions without really knowing what they want to do with their lives.

Maybe this is why more and more students are coming to my office and feeling incredibly anxious about their futures.

We shouldn’t be pressuring students to decide what they want to do with their lives by the time they’re 22. If anything, the early 20s is a prime time to go out and try new things, to find who you are, to figure things out–to screw something up. I know that the person I was at 22 was completely different than the person I was at 26. And that person was completely different than who I was when I was 30. In fact, I’m not even sure I was mature enough to make life decisions in my mid 20s.

As social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk put it, the early 20s is a great time to be impractical, to try things that might not be what you’re “supposed” to do, to take a risk and see if it works out. At this point, students have graduated and have the rest of their working lives in front of them. But if that life is going to last, on average, for another 40-50 years, does it really matter whether it starts now or a few years from now? In fact, if students take some time now to “find out who they are,” I would argue that, in 4 or 5 years, they’ll actually be ahead of their peers who rushed into life decisions for the wrong reasons. They’ll be more certain of what they want to accomplish whereas their peers might be wondering whether they made the right choice. Of course, the “right choice” can only be determined in hindsight. But having some time to figure things out, to have some freedom, to explore, to make some mistakes and learn from them, to find what lights them up, is likely to make students feel more confident when it comes time to make “big” decisions in life.

Life doesn’t have to be figured out by 22. Let’s stop telling students it does.

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Enough is Enough

Enough-is-Enough-2015For as long as I can remember, I’ve been overweight. When I was young, I remember shopping in the “husky” section at our local clothes store. All of my friends were small compared to me. But I was good at sports and had a good sense of humor and had lots of friends, so I didn’t think much about it.

Then, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I started to realize that weight was one way that others judged you. I started to become more self-conscious of how big I was. But I was still good at sports and had a good sense of humor and had lots of friends, so I didn’t think much about it.

Enter junior high school–that time in life when “image” becomes really important. Maybe not coincidentally, it was about this time that I became interested in dieting. I wanted to lose weight quickly, and rather than change my poor eating habits, I looked for fast fixes. I lost weight, but inevitably, I always gained it back. And even though I was still good at sports and had a good sense of humor and had lots of friends, I started to think about my weight more.

Fortunately, playing sports year round (along with a hefty dose of puberty) had me growing up more than I was growing out. I certainly wasn’t thin, but I probably pulled off “husky muscular” fairly well.

Once my upward growth came to a halt, though, my poor eating habits eventually caught up with me. I still had a good sense of humor and a lot of friends, but my sports performance started to suffer. One instance, in particular, really sticks out in my mind.

Throughout high school, I was on our varsity hockey team (and it’s probably vital to mention that we won the North Dakota State Hockey Championship my senior year . . . but I digress). I was proud to have made the team as a sophomore. But during my junior year, my increasing weight slowed me down so much that I wasn’t able to make plays that I had always been able to make.

The day before one particularly important game, my coach told me that I would be playing in the junior varsity game the next day. I was crushed! The next day, I played in the JV game and then immediately went home without watching the varsity game. I was embarrassed and hoped no one would notice my absence during the big game. After that, I worked extra hard to make sure I was on the varsity squad for the rest of the year. The season ended with us taking 4th place in the state tournament. Even though we had done well that year, I vowed never to be on the JV team again.

It took me awhile to tackle my weight issue, but early during my senior year in high school, I started dieting in an attempt to lose weight before hockey season. Once again, I wanted a quick fix, so I adopted a very low-calorie diet and upped my exercise (I played varsity football during the fall, which helped a lot). By the time hockey season rolled around, I was about 25-30 pounds lighter than I had been the previous year. I remember feeling really good when my coach complimented my weight loss and said that I was playing well. That definitely motivated me to keep going. Maybe not surprisingly, I had my best year of hockey ever. I was in the starting line-up all year, and our team won the state championship. To this day, it’s still one of the highlights of my life.

I lost another 15 pounds after hockey season ended. I was the lightest I had been in years, and I felt amazing. I even started to think of my body in a positive way. For the first time in several years, I was able wear clothes without being concerned about whether they effectively hid my fat rolls.

The following fall, I headed off to the University of Minnesota for college. At first, I did a good job of exercising and eating healthy food. The ‘U’ has a huge campus, and I walked miles every day. But eventually, the “fun” of college caught up with me, and I started to gain weight once again. By the middle of my sophomore year, I had gained back every pound I had lost during high school along with about 30 pounds more. I was well beyond husky, and my confidence plummeted.

Then during my senior year, I decided to lose the weight. I adopted another low-calorie diet and started engaging in intense exercise. Over the next few months, I lost about 60 lbs. I was starting to feel good again, and my confidence sky-rocketed.

After earning my bachelor’s degree, I took a year off and then decided to go back to graduate school to work on my master’s degree in psychology (at St. Cloud State University). After that, I began working on a PhD in experimental psychology (at Auburn University). Academically, I was happy, because I had found a career path I enjoyed. But the busyness of graduate school and a mantra of “work hard, play hard” brought the weight back once again.

While in my third year at Auburn, I came across a program called Body-for-LIFE. I was intrigued and decided to give it a try. Importantly, I thought it was something I could follow without getting overly extreme about things. I exercised and ate well 6 days per week and then had one “free” day every week to take care of my cravings and to rest.

After several weeks, it was obvious: The program was working!

Over the course of a year or so, I ended up losing about 80 pounds and gained a good amount of muscle. More importantly, I felt amazing! I was able to tuck in my shirts without having my stomach “roll” over the top of my pants.

I vowed never to let myself go again…

I finished my PhD and took my first academic position in the Department of Psychology at Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas. I dove in with both feet and was soon working 70-80 hours per week. Although I tried to exercise consistently, the long hours made for less-than-healthy eating habits. I would frequently convince myself that I didn’t have enough time to cook healthy food. Instead, it was easier to take a quick walk over to an eatery on campus and wolf down some junk food. And as you might guess, within a relatively short period of time, I was gaining weight once again.

The next few years–which included a move to James Madison University–consisted of yo-yo dieting. Mostly, though, I was able to keep my weight in check. I even lost a good amount before getting married in 2006.

In July 2008, my wife and I welcomed our first son. As any new parent can attest, the next few months were rife with sleepless nights. (And as many of you may know, lack of sleep is associated with weight gain.) In addition, I was taking on more work in an attempt to further establish my career. Ever so surely, my weight began to creep up.

I eventually came across a blog post that talked about the Paleo diet. I was intrigued. It made sense, so my wife and I decided to give it a try. I spent a month “going Paleo” and felt fantastic. I was sleeping better than I had in a long time, and I had energy for days.

But the bane of my existence has always been lack of consistency. When I am following the Paleo diet, I feel great and inevitably lose weight, but too often I convince myself that I need a “free” day to deal with my cravings. And more often than not, one day turns into two or three.

In March 2011, our second son was born. Having two sons was (and continues to be) amazing, but it also made for a busy life. In between work–which continued to consume more and more hours–and home, I was getting stressed out. And what better way to combat the stress to than to engage in emotional eating? When I was tired or stressed out, pizza and ice cream tasted so good. After my wife had been Paleo for awhile, junk food began to hurt her stomach. I, however, had no such luck: When I ate junk food, my body said, “Hey, that’s pretty good. Let’s have some more.”

Although my weight has gone up and down over the past couple of years, it’s overall trajectory has continued upward. I am once again heavier than I want to be, and I am not happy about it.

Maybe more importantly, though, I’ve realized that my health habits have the ability to greatly impact my family. My wife takes good care of herself: She eats healthy and does CrossFit a few times a week. She’s emotionally strong, and if something happened to me, she’d eventually be okay.

But my boys.

There are so many ways my bad health habits could impact them. What if they learn bad eating habits from me and have to struggle with their weight the way I did? What if I get so big that I can’t run around and play baseball or football with them?

What if something even worse happens?

I couldn’t handle that, and I don’t even want to think about it. It’s more than I can stand.

So, today is April 1, 2015, and it’s time to make a change. It’s time to put myself “out there.” It’s time to do something where I’m held accountable for my actions.

Which is why I’m making this public and promising to provide updates on my progress.

One of the biggest things you can do when you are trying to change your own behavior is to make a public commitment. Let others know your plans; let them help you. It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength–you’re taking advantage of the power of social support.

Knowing that others are watching my progress motivates me to make the changes that I know are necessary at this point in my life.

So I can lose weight. So I can be around for my family. So I’m happier. So I have more confidence. So I can tuck my shirts in.

Enough is enough.

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Welcome to Life as Effect

WelcomeSome of you might be wondering why I chose to title my blog, “Life as Effect.” Ultimately, it goes back to the fact that I am an experimental psychologist.

The goal for most experimental psychologists is to understand why people behave the way they do. Specifically, they use the scientific method to identify cause-and-effect relations: the reasons (causes) for people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions (effects).

CandE

Ultimately, our lives, as they currently stand, are the combined effect of three causes: our genetics, our past experiences, and our current conditions. Imagine Life as a game of cards. Our genetic make-up (Cause #1) dealt us a set of cards. Our past experiences (Cause #2) determined which cards we played in past rounds. Our current conditions (Cause #3) affect which cards we are about to play.

Of these three causes, though, there’s only one we can change. We can’t change the cards we were dealt, and we can’t change the cards we’ve already played. We can, however, take into account what cards our opponent might have, what card our opponent just played, what cards might still be in the deck, and what cards we currently have in our hand. In other words, our current conditions.

Our current conditions determine what card we will play next. If any of those factors change–whether we have the ace of hearts in our hand or whether we think our opponent does–then so will the card we play.

Notice, here, that the focus is not simply on what card we eventually play. Rather, the focus is on identifying what causes us to play that card. If we can change those causes in a positive way–if, for example, we can “bluff” our opponent into playing a certain card–then we can produce the best possible outcome, or effect, for ourselves.

So, what does playing cards have to do with Life?

Ultimately, we can’t change our genes or our past experiences. What’s done is done. But what we CAN do is change our current conditions. Which means we CAN change the effect; we CAN change where our Life goes from here.

My goal with this blog is to show you some ways, based on psychology and on the scientific method, that I am trying to improve my Life. More importantly, I want to inspire and help you to do the same.

I plan, at least initially, to focus on some topics that I’m passionate about:

  • Helping others find and pursue their passions (a topic I’ve been researching for the past 2-3 years)
  • Showing others how to modify their current conditions (the cause)
  • Showing others how to use self-experimentation to verify that their Life is improving (the effect)

I might even throw in a post or two about playing guitar, another passion of mine. And who knows where things will go from there.

So, here’s my question for you: I’m ready to play cards. Are you?

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My Story

StoryFor nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed music. I remember going to bed at night and falling asleep to Johnny Cash (on 8-track tape) when I was 4 or 5 years old. When I was 6 or 7, I started playing piano. Trombone came when I was in 7th grade, and piano eventually made way for guitar when I was 14. By the time I was 17 years old, all I wanted to do was play guitar. Most days, I sat in the basement of our house and played for hours; I even worked at a small music store where I gave guitar lessons and was able to practice when no customers were around.

Shortly after I started playing guitar, I joined my first band. Then, a year or two later, I started my own band with three high school friends. There were few things I enjoyed more than practicing and playing gigs. In fact, I enjoyed playing so much that I briefly considered going to college for music.

Why only briefly? Because, in time, “reality” set in, and I started hearing the voices. Voices from others who told me that “Music isn’t realistic,” “You can’t make any money playing music,” “You need to get a well-paying job,” “You can do better than that,” and so on. Eventually, others’ voices became the voices in my head, voices telling me that pursuing a career in music was just silly. So just as quickly as I considered music, I stopped.

I went to college at the University of Minnesota and started out as an electrical engineering major for all the wrong reasons: engineering is for “smart” people (I got good grades in high school), engineers make lots of money, I was good at math and physics, there would be lots of jobs available. None of my reasons for pursuing engineering, however, included interest, enjoyment, or prospects of long-term happiness.

By the middle of my sophomore year, my interest in engineering was low, and my GPA was even lower. I remember getting a letter from the university saying that I was on academic probation. My poor performance stemmed not from inability, but rather from indifference. But because I had chosen to be an engineering major and because others expected me to be “successful,” I trudged on. In an attempt to lift my spirits a bit–and because I was already scheduled to repeat an engineering class I had failed the previous quarter–I added an introductory music class and an introductory psychology class to my spring quarter schedule. This was just what I needed: an easy quarter, one that would boost my GPA and get me back on track.

I ended up with an A in the music class (which I, of course, really enjoyed), a B in the psychology class (which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would), and a C in the engineering class (which I disliked almost as much as the first time I took it). My GPA for the quarter was 3.00, the highest I had earned in a year. I was happy because my GPA was up (because, you know, that’s all that really matters. . . or so I thought at the time). But down deep, I still knew I didn’t want to be an engineering major.

That summer, I moved home and worked for my dad’s business.  I was able to save some money for school, and I was also able to put the band back together. We played a few gigs, and I enjoyed them as much as ever. But the next school year was looming–and so was the displeasure that would inevitably come from taking more engineering classes.

Then, one weekend, fate intervened. Not surprisingly, I was in the basement, practicing guitar. My parents were upstairs, and I heard them call my name. I went upstairs, and they told me they wanted to chat for a bit. My mom asked me if I enjoyed what I was pursuing in college. After hesitating for a minute, I answered, “No.” They said they weren’t surprised, because they knew I was capable of more than what I was showing. What happened next was life-changing.

Like many parents who want their kids to be “successful,” they could’ve urged me to stick with it, knowing that it would take only 2 more years (which seemed like a lifetime to me) to finish my degree. After that, I could get a job, make decent money, and move on with my life. (That also would’ve meant spending 40+ hours a week doing something I seriously disliked.)

But much to their credit, rather than telling me to stick it out, they were supportive and asked me if there were other classes I might enjoy taking. I told them I had enjoyed my introductory psychology class. (The voices in my head said that music was still out of the question.) So they urged me to go back to school, drop my engineering major, and take some more psychology classes to see if I liked them, which is exactly what I did.

(On a side note… A few months ago, while visiting with my parents, I recounted this story to them. Interestingly, they had no recollection of it. Isn’t it funny how seemingly insignificant interactions can have a huge effect on others? It’s just something to keep in mind…)

After a few more psychology classes (and some excellent teachers who really piqued my interest in the subject), I was certain I had found a major I truly enjoyed. I decided that a career in clinical psychology was the way to go: I liked psychology, and clinical psychologists make a lot of money. So, why not? Obviously, I was still listening to the “external” voices, which were telling me that money was the key to happiness. But at least I was taking classes I enjoyed.

Over the next 2 years, my interest skyrocketed and so did my GPA. (It’s amazing how your performance improves when you go to class consistently and actually pay attention!) I graduated on time with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an interest in pursuing graduate school. But I was burned out, and knew that I had to do a few things to increase my chances of getting into graduate school. I also wanted to be sure that pursuing graduate school in psychology was right for me.

So I decided not to apply for graduate programs right away. Instead, the following fall, I took two graduate-level psychology courses, which allowed me to stay in touch with professors who would later write me letters of recommendation; I also wanted to show that I was capable of performing graduate-level work. In addition, I worked full time at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in the Department of Epidemiology. Much of the work I did centered around collecting data (usually by phone interview) for different research projects. I really enjoyed my colleagues, and I was good at my job, but I seriously hated the 9-to-5 grind. Every day was the same, and I quickly realized how badly I wanted to go back to school.

I applied for several graduate programs and ultimately ended up in the Department of Applied Psychology at St. Cloud State University, where I decided to pursue a master’s degree in behavior analysis. Within a semester, I knew that I was in my element. I was working hard, but I was enjoying every minute. I also started to realize that a career in clinical psychology might not be for me. At the end of my first year, I attended my first professional conference and got to meet some of my psychological “heroes.” Over the course of the weekend, I decided that I wanted to become a college professor. I imagined a career in academics where I had the opportunity to influence students the way my professors had influenced me.

In the fall of my second year, I applied for a number of PhD programs. After interviewing with several, I chose Auburn University, the place where my interest in pursuing an academic career would be solidified (and where I would meet my future wife). Over the next few months, I finished my master’s thesis, taught my first psychology class (which was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be), and readied myself for a move across the country.

I arrived in Auburn, Alabama, not knowing until then what real heat felt like. I remember at one point thinking to myself, “This doesn’t feel right. It can’t be this hot every day.” Much to my midwestern chagrin, this was summer in the southeastern United States. Over the next 4 years, I would acclimate to the weather. In fact, a year or two later, I remember putting on jeans one morning, because it was “only” supposed to be about 85 degrees that day.

During my third year at Auburn, I also started spending more time with Tracy. She and I had been friends since I arrived at Auburn, and we had a lot in common. One day, she ventured down into the basement research lab where I spent most of my days. She lamented that it was too loud in her office upstairs (which she shared with several other students), and I invited her to bring her stuff into the lab, where we could work without distraction. We quickly learned that we enjoyed being in each other’s company and started spending more time together. Over the next year and a half, our friendship blossomed into romance, and we decided that we were going to give “us” a shot.

As we completed our time at Auburn, we decided to look for jobs together (Tracy also wanted to pursue a career in academics). Somehow, we were able to obtain jobs together in the Department of Psychology at Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas. Knowing that dual-career couples are a rarity in academics, we felt fortunate to be in the position we were. Over the next 2 years, we worked upwards of 80+ hours a week getting ourselves established. We enjoyed our colleagues and students immensely, but within a year or so, we decided that SFA and “Deep East” Texas might not be the best place for us.

Around that time, we learned about two job openings in the Psychology Department at James Madison University (JMU), a place with a reputation for outstanding teaching and where we happened to know some people on faculty. Although getting jobs there (and together!) would be a long shot, we felt we had to take the chance. Somehow we were offered the positions, and we jumped at the opportunity to be back in an area of the country that was within driving distance of Tracy’s family. We bade a sad farewell to our friends and students in Texas and made our way across the country to the state of Virginia.

Over the next few years, we once again worked hard to build our careers and to earn tenure at JMU, a goal we achieved 5 years later. During that time, we also got married. It was not long thereafter that we began talking about having kids. Although I always assumed I wanted kids, it was hard to think about. I kept wondering, “I wonder how having kids will interrupt my career?” I felt like I had worked hard to establish my career and (selfishly) believed that having kids might derail my momentum. We asked colleagues how they “dealt” with having kids. Over and over, we heard that there was never a good time and that once we had kids, it wouldn’t make a difference.

In the fall of 2007, we discovered that we were going to be parents the following summer. We prepared as much as possible for what would be, presumably, a life-changing event.  Then, on July 30, 2008, Rylan was born, and I suddenly realized that my concerns about career development no longer mattered. I loved being a dad and wanted to spend as much time as possible with my family. Interestingly, although I scaled back at work, I was more productive than before. It took a conscious decision on my part to decide what was and was not important for my career (and my family) and to spend time doing things that mattered.

Over time, we figured out how to be parents (if one ever really figures that out), and we were able to establish a fairly consistent rhythm. But over the next couple of years, I started to add more and more to my plate. I started giving more professional talks on a new topic that I had been studying, and this required me to travel more. I also accepted the position of assistant editor for a professional journal. Around that same time, our department experienced a shake-up that required me to take on more responsibilities, one of which included coordinating a regional psychology conference, a real time consumer. In the midst of this all, I was offered a position at another university. It was a great professional opportunity, but it would’ve required Tracy to leave a job she very much enjoyed, and so I declined the offer. All of these things together created more professional stress than I had ever experienced before, and at one point, I wondered if I even wanted to continue being a college professor. I remember talking to Tracy after one especially horrible day and telling her that I would give it one more semester, and if things didn’t improve, I really felt like I had to do something else with my life.

By the way, did I mention that during all of this, we were expecting Baby #2? In March of 2011, we welcomed Dainen to the family. He was happy and healthy and made our lives even better than before. What more could we ask for than two healthy boys who have brought us such joy?

Although things had calmed down a bit, I was nevertheless still reeling from the stress. I wasn’t enjoying my job, and I’m sure that many of my students were not enjoying me. It was around that time that I started engaging in some serious soul searching.

At first, I thought it was an issue of productivity. Maybe I simply needed a way to get more done in less time. Eventually, I realized that wasn’t the answer.

Next, I came across Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slowness. This book was life changing. It discussed the concept of slowing down and the benefits that come from doing so. For years, I had been racing through life, not taking the time to smell the roses. I purposefully decided to slow down a bit. But even when I did so, I still had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

I then began to wonder whether I was passionate about my job anymore. This led me to read everything I could on the topics of passion and life purpose, which included lots of books and lots of blog posts. At this point, things started to click. Maybe what I needed to do was really and truly assess whether I was doing things that mattered, things that lit me up day in and day out, things that made me jump out of bed in the morning. I wanted to know more about passion for myself.

But I also wanted to know more about passion for my students. Over the years, it seemed to me that more and more of my students were choosing careers for the wrong reasons–in fact, for the very same reasons I had chosen engineering 20 years before! Rather than pursuing a career that interested them, they were choosing careers because they “wanted to make a lot of money” or because their mom and dad wanted them to. I started to wonder how many of my students were choosing majors and careers they truly enjoyed.

Shortly after my 40th birthday, I came across a blog post by the late Christopher Peterson, a well-known psychologist at the University of Michigan whose work on signature strengths had previously caught my attention. In his post, Dr. Peterson discussed the concept of passion; he also discussed research on the topic by a psychologist named Dr. Robert Vallerand. I finished the post and then Googled Dr. Vallerand, who happened to have a website that contained links to most of his research articles on the topic of passion. I began to read them and realized that this was what I had been searching for–a program of research that used the scientific method to understand the concept of passion!

I spent much of the weekend reading Dr. Vallerand’s papers and then decided to ask the students in my research group whether they were interested in studying this topic. I told them a bit about it, and their answer was a resounding, “YES!” Together we embarked on a program of research designed to learn more about students’ passion for their majors and careers and what outcomes resulted if they were or were not passionate about what they did each day. The topic of passion for activities has been the focus of my research and teaching ever since.

But as my career has progressed and I have thought more about what I want to accomplish during the remainder of my life, I’ve realized that doing research on and teaching about passion may not be the best way to “get the message out there.” If I conduct a study on passion and publish the results, only a relatively small number of people are likely going to hear about and then read an article in a relatively obscure research journal. In addition, if I teach a class on the topic for one semester each year (as I am doing now), my class may only have 15 or so students in it. And even if I give talks on the topic to a group of 100-200 students (as I have been doing more recently), the number I’m able to reach is still relatively small.

Hence the reason I decided to start this blog–a large focus of which will be the topic of passion. I hope to write about the topic of passion (which is way more complex than most people believe) and to convince others that doing things you love is an important endeavor for a wide variety of reasons.

Which actually brings this long “about me” post full circle…

At the beginning, I mentioned how, when I was in my teens, I loved playing the guitar but eventually put it down when life got “real.” On my 40th birthday, while I was sitting in my house, alone with my thoughts, I started thinking about the topic of passion and how I used to love playing music. I have a house full of guitars, and for the longest time, I played none of them. I also thought about how much I enjoyed playing guitar when I was younger. With all I had been through over the past few years, I realized that it was time for me to let my passion loose again. Later that day, I found a guitar teacher in town and gave him a call.

I’ve been taking lessons for the past few years and am hoping to join a band soon. I want to re-experience the joy I felt when I played gigs during my teens. I can’t wait for that to happen.

You know, maybe I’m simply having a mid-life crisis. Maybe I just need to go out and purchase a Corvette. Or maybe I’ve simply realized that life is both too short and too long not to do something you love.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and practice.

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