Mappsterview No. 8: Dan Lerner introduces “U Thrive”

dan_lernerFor this Mappsterview, I´m happy to interview Dan Lerner who attended Penn´s Master of Positive Psychology program two years before me. He was a teaching assistant in my MAPP cohort and I remember him mostly for his high level of energy – and giving me decent grades on my theory papers despite my crappy German-English phrasing. Today, his book U Thrive is published, co-authored with Alan Schlechter.

Dan, please introduce yourself briefly.

Hi there! I am Dan Lerner, MAPP 7. One of the many Dans who have been fortunate enough to attend the program (although hardly the most talented…or tallest…or for that matter the oldest), I am now a clinical instructor at NYU teaching “The Science of Happiness” to over 1000 students each year. I am also super lucky to remain on staff at MAPP as an assistant instructor.

What did you do before joining the MAPP program at Penn?

Oh! There was life before MAPP? I had totally forgotten. I seem to recall a decade in the music business as a talent agent for opera singers, there may have been some coaching in there as well…and…that’s right…before MAPP I enjoyed a life free of theory papers.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

During my ten years in the music business, I saw two very different types of artists. There were those who were happy onstage and off. They loved to perform, they adored their colleagues, and they found joy in the music, but it was clear that family, faith, or meaning came first. As one of the most successful singers in the world mused when I asked how he kept the nerves at bay, “I care deeply about what I offer in performance, but if I crack a note, forget a line, or trip and fall onstage, I still get to go home to my kids and hang with my friends. And you know what? None of them care about the performance: they love me, I love them, and that’s what counts.”

Yet many artists seemed profoundly unhappy despite great success in the music industry. During my first year on the job, I watched a renowned singer give a stunning performance in front of a sold-out crowd of thousands. With deafening applause and screaming fans pleading for an encore, her radiant smile dropped into a mask of annoyance the moment she walked offstage as she looked at me, put her hands on her hips, and groaned, “Jesus, why do I even do this?” I regularly received tearful phone calls from artists who missed their families, and angry calls from others who—despite ever-growing success and fame—were clearly frustrated with their lives.

Excellence and well-being, I discovered, did not necessarily go hand in hand. It got to a point where I had seen too many people with extraordinary talent either suffer or simply burning out before they could fully explore and realize their potential. So I left.

My first stop was to dive into performance psychology. I was incredibly fortunate to meet and study with Dr. Nate Zinsser, the Director of The Center for Enhanced Performance at the United State Military Academy at West Point. Nate’s clear interest in athletes who enjoyed success not only on the field but off was reflected in the syllabus that he assigned, for it included Marty’s Learned Optimism and Mike Csíkszentmihályi´s Flow. When I realized that there was a way to study well-being and its role in expert development, I was hooked. I immediately applied to MAPP, and of course, was rejected just as swiftly. Let’s just say that a fair amount of groveling goes a long way.

u_thriveTogether with Alan Schlechter (whose last name ironically means “worse” in German…), you´ve now written a book that aims at helping undergrads thrive throughout their college career. Please tell me about that project.

Almost 4,000,000 students entered the undergrad ranks in the United States last year. These students will sleep less then ever before, eat more poorly, and spend less time with friends than anytime in college history. By the end of their first year, 30% of freshman will have dropped out. A recent study by the Gallup organization of 16,760 students found that in the past twelve months, 79.1 percent of them had been “exhausted (not from physical activity),” 59.6 percent felt “very sad,” 45 percent found that “things were hopeless,” and 31.3 percent had been “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

Based on these numbers, for many college students, what was anticipated to be the “four best four years of their life” have begun to feel more like their worst.

College should be about thriving, not just surviving, and for the past five years, Alan and I have taught “The Science of Happiness” to our undergraduates at NYU with one sole intention: To help students thrive in college and beyond. “U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life)” is our attempt to help share this information with students across the county. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Alan has spent more than a decade helping young adults deal with their challenges, while I have focused for roughly the same amount of time on bringing well-being into the process of human development and the realization of individual potential. He’s red cape, I’m green, and together it is with these complementary skills that we strive to address both the tough times and the incredible opportunities that abound during a student’s time in college, sharing the theory, science, and application of thriving.

From stress to relationships, willpower to mental health, purpose to passion, and beyond, we weave the most pertinent empirical findings into engaging stories and practical application, crafting experiential learning assignments to both inform and transform our students lives. We help them learn how they can turn their fear into excitement and their anxiety into possibility.

U Thrive is the book that we wish we had in college. U Thrive helps students understand how to develop mindsets of growth, success, and resilience so that they can nurture inspiration instead of fear. We know that they will have a better chance to make the most of their four years if they understand what willpower really is, how it works, how they can strengthen it, and when it is most likely to be tested. We cover how positive emotions help them be more creative and feel more relaxed, and allow them to perform better under pressure, be it onstage, in class, on the field, or on a date. We want them to be able to distinguish bad stress from good stress, learn how to set a routine that encourages more of the latter and less of the former, know when to turn to friends and family for support, and recognize when a visit to campus mental health services may be the way to go.

Rough roommates? It’s in there. How to cultivate healthy and awesome relationships? Yes. Is the Freshman Fifteen real? What happens when you take a fifteen-minute nap while studying? Or a fifteen-minute walk? What does research show that fifteen minutes of breathing practice a day do for your grades, your mood, your relationship, and/or your focus? And what are the steps to develop these routines during the most unstructured time of their lives to date?

Our dream (and no, not ((just)) for financial reasons) is to get this book into the hands of every college bound student/freshman so that they can deal with the challenges and make the most of their opportunities on campus.

If you could send a part of the book to a younger version of yourself, while you were in college – what part would that be? And why?

It would probably be the cover, so that I could show it to my parents in an attempt to convince them that I wasn’t actually partying my life away and that I did have a somewhat promising future.

But if we’re being honest, it would be the final section, Positively Excellent. I quit a very successful career in music to live alone in a shack on a Caribbean island, before founding (and then quitting) another very successful business in music, before bartending at some huge NYC spots, before finally going back to school and finding my way in teaching and speaking. (You can see why my parents were so confused.) Basically I quit a lot of stuff right when I was poised to have huge careers in each. I can’t lie, it was stressful to have busted my butt in each area, working 80+ hours/week at each stop, only to quit and seemingly begin again.

The final section addresses the challenges of pursuing what our hearts tell us that we should. Not only how to do it, but how to do it well, and how to do it with well-being. We discuss meaning, expert development, and the role (and science ) of passion. Perhaps most importantly, this section attempts to make clear to young people that they have a choice, that their future lies very much in their hands, and that so many paths to great success and  well-being demands that they live as individuals. I think that having known this before I embarked on my journey would have helped me stress a lot less and accept the path that I had chosen.

Hopefully now that I have done the research and written on the above, quitting and starting over the next time will be a lot easier. 🙂

From “Made to Stick” by the Heath brothers, I´ve learned that it´s really helpful to sell stuff by using insightful analogies. The script for “Alien” supposedly was pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship”. What´s the analogy for your book?

“The Shining for toddlers”?  “An underwater version of The Death of Ivan Illych”? Look, people make fun of the fact that so many studies are done on college sophomores so who the hell else do the studies then apply to, but it was perfect for us and our readers. They’re college students, they stand to benefit from knowing about their peers, and that’s what we are striving to do, so the analogy is simple: Positive psychology for college students. It’s not exactly as sticky as “An all panda bear version of The Great Gatsby”, but it’s pretty much spot on.

Thanks a lot, Dan – and best of luck with your book!

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