3 Questions for Emily Esfahani Smith, Author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters”

emily_esfahani_smithEmily Esfahani Smith is a writer and fellow Penn MAPP alum. She writes about culture, relationships, and psychology. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. A few days ago her first book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, was published. Today, she took some time to talk about her work on Mappalicious.

Emily, in your book, you propose there are four pillars of a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. I´ve already come across the first three while studying Positive Psychology, the last one seems to be a very unique angle. So what´s the story with storytelling?

When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied, according to psychologists—they feel their lives matter and have worth; they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose; and they believe their lives are coherent or comprehensible. Storytelling relates to that third prong of meaning, coherence. Storytelling is the act of taking our disparate experiences and weaving them into a whole. Rather than seeing their experiences as random or disconnected, people who feel their lives are meaningful see their experiences as part of a narrative that explains who they are and how they got to be that way. Another word for storytelling is sense-making—when we tell stories, we’re really trying to make sense of our experiences.

One of the people I interviewed for my book, for example, told me that experiencing adversity as a child ultimately made him a more compassionate person—that’s the story he tells about his adversity; that’s how he makes sense of it. But storytelling isn’t just about understanding ourselves more deeply, it’s also about understanding others. When we watch movies or read novels or listen to a friend’s story, we’re ultimately gaining more wisdom and perspective about what it means to be human.

power_meaning_esfahaniIn my day job, I´m heading a department in a multinational corporation. Therefore, I take special interest in the application of Positive Psychology in organizations. Do those four pillars you describe also apply to meaning in work – or are there additional aspects leaders should consider when thinking about their employees´ experience?

One of the most exciting trends of the last few decades has been the emergence of what I call “cultures of meaning” in institutions like corporations. Many companies are actively building cultures of meaning for their consumers and employees by relying on the four pillars of meaning.

A great example is the apparel brand Life Is Good, which sees its purpose as spreading hope and optimism around the world. It does this with its apparel, which has the words Life Is Good emblazoned on it. Many consumers have written to the company saying that its elevating message has helped them get through adversities and tragedies like cancer and losing loved ones. The leaders at Life Is Good have shared those stories with their employees, to show them that their work is making a positive impact on others. Life Is Good also has a non-profit arm that helps children facing adversities. When I spoke to several of the employees at the company—from a receptionist to a designer—they all told me that they are driven by the good that their company is doing in the world. So here, I see Life Is Good relying on the pillars of purpose and storytelling to create cultures of meaning.

It’s important for leaders to be aware of whether employees are experiencing their work as meaningful. Nothing engages or motivates employees quite like meaningful work—and research by Adam Grant suggests that doing meaningful work makes employees more productive, too (Adam´s interview on Mappalicious can be found here).

I feel my life is already pretty meaningful. I´m happily married and have two beautiful kids. Additionally, I can spend a lot of my time working on things I deeply care about and help other people. But I´m not so sure about the storytelling part. What are some steps I could take to enhance my experience of meaning in life via this pillar?

Storytelling requires reflection. I would recommend setting aside some time—maybe 15 minutes a day a few times a week—to either think or write about your life story. That may sound daunting or vague, but here are some specific things you can reflect on during that time.

1. Try dividing your life into chapters. How many chapters are there? What is the title or theme of each chapter? What makes each chapter unique? What chapters are yet to come? How many future chapters are there? What do you want the final chapter to say?

2. When you look back on your life, what were the turning points? What were the high points and the low points? How did those experiences change you? What did you learn from them? Are you still working to process them?

3. Reflect on the places in your life that played a formative role in your development—like where you grew up, perhaps, or where you went to college, or where you first met your husband or wife. While you’re thinking about these places, ask yourself: why were your experiences there so meaningful? How did they change you? What would your life have been life if you had grown up somewhere else or gone to a different school? What does it feel like being back in those places?

I’d like to add that storytelling is a pillar that takes work—sometimes we have to go over and over an experience hundreds of time before we can begin to make sense of it and understand how it fits into the broader arc of our lives. But it’s ultimately worth it, because that sense-making process brings us wisdom, resolution, and even a measure of peace.

Thank you, Emily, and best of luck with your book!

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For more info on Emily and her work, please check out her The Psychology Podcast, or recent features on The Psychology Podcast, Heleo and Virgin.

3 Questions for Angela Duckworth, Author of “Grit”

Angela_DuckworthA few weeks ago, Penn professor Angela Duckworth has published her first book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. And while she´s typically busy shipping exceptional research, giving TED presentations, or talking to the New York Times, it says a lot about her character that she also takes the time to answer some questions for my little blog thingy. So, thank you, Angela!

What are you up to these days? Just kidding… What does it feel like to have published a bestseller? And what part did grit play in the process of writing up “Grit”

I’m devoting myself to Character Lab, a nonprofit I founded with educators Dave Levin and Dominic Randolph three years ago. The mission of Character Lab is to advance the science and practice of character development. This includes helping children develop intrapersonal strengths like grit and self-control but also interpersonal strengths like gratitude and pro-social purpose and, finally, intellectual strengths like curiosity and open-minded thinking.

While I’m thrilled with the success of the book, I can also tell you that my attention is entirely on the future and new challenges. And, as for grit while writing Grit? Writing this book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I almost quit many times. So, yes, I used my grit to do it, and I learned a lot about grit in the process!

You´re incredibly successful as a researcher, but also as an educator, first via your TED talk, and now with the book. Clearly, a lot people are intrigued by the concept of grit. Still, I’ve read a couple of articles that give pushback to the concept for allegedly ignoring the socio-economic factors that lead to success in school and life in general. What’s your take on this?

At a recent conference, I sat down next to a sociologist. She knew my work, and it didn’t take long for her to express extreme disdain—even anger—for what she called the grit message. “What’s that,” I asked? “Well, put it this way,” she said. “I happen to think that poverty and inequality matter a heck of a lot more than grit.” I thought for a moment. Then I said, “I see your point.”

If you pit grit against structural barriers to achievement, you may well decide that grit is less worthy of our attention. But I think that’s the right answer to the wrong question.

Caring about how to grow grit in our young people—no matter their socio-economic background—doesn’t preclude concern for things other than grit. For example, I’ve spent a lot of my life in urban classrooms, both as a teacher and as a researcher. I know how much the expertise and care of the adult at the front of the room matter. And I know that a child who comes to school hungry, or scared, or without glasses to see the chalkboard, is not ready to learn. Grit alone is not going to save anyone.

But the importance of the environment is two-fold. It’s not just that you need opportunity in order to benefit from grit. It’s also that the environments our children grow up in profoundly influence their grit and every other aspect of their character. This is the grit message in my words:

Grit may not be sufficient for success, but it sure is necessary.

If we want our children to have a shot at a productive and satisfying life, we adults should make it our concern to provide them with the two things all children deserve: challenges to exceed what they were able to do yesterday and the support that makes that growth possible.

So, the question is not whether we should concern ourselves with grit or structural barriers to achievement. In the most profound sense, both are important, and more than that, they are intertwined.

I’ve pursued and completed a Ph.D. but the truth is: I entirely lost interest in the topic after the first year. Still, I hung in there for another 3.5 years for reasons that the founders of Self-Determination Theory, Ryan and Deci, would probably call “externally regulated”. And while I suffered emotionally during that time, I now do enjoy the upsides that having a Ph.D. entails at times. Was that grit? Or “stupid grit”? Or just stupid?

Good question. I might have asked myself, “Why am I pursuing this Ph.D.?” And in response, what would you have said? The answer gives you a higher-order goal—the “why” that gives meaning to the Ph.D. Was there a way to pivot in terms of your topic or research to achieve that higher-order goal?

And, in terms of pure interest, is there an adjacent topic to the one your pursued that you would have enjoyed more?* Interest and purpose are the drivers of passion, and I think if there is really no interest and no sense of purpose, you need not feel the compulsion to finish what you started.

Thank you, Angela – and best of luck with your book and the Character Lab!


Grit_DuckworthDr. Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies non-IQ competencies, including self-control and grit, which predict success both academically and professionally.

Prior to pursuing a career in academia, Angela was a McKinsey consultant and, for five years, a math teacher in several public schools. In 2013, she was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. Very recently, Angela has published her first book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance with Scribner. It was an instant New York Times best seller and remains on the best seller list today.


* The truth is: When you don´t want to work on your Ph.D., you start to put a lot of time and energy in other things, just to have your calendar really, really stuffed as an excuse. For me, this led to discovering Positive Psychology in the first place, which then led to studying at Penn, which led to meeting Angela.

This is one of my learnings: Whether something is truly good or bad for us should probably not be judged in the moment. It often takes a couple of years to connect the dots and see the real value of our life´s episodes.

Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 1/16

I´ve decided to start a new category of blog articles on Mappalicious. Once a week, I´m going to post a news digest listing the most interesting articles on Positive Psychology and adjacent from the past week. That’s it, clean and simple. So here we go…

 

Positive Psychology | News Digest | Mappalicious

On Talent Management: Above all, it´s the Love for People

The radio silence on Mappalicious is over. I´ve spent the last 10 days on Cyprus with my family and have committed to a “computer diet” as strictly as possible.

Here´s our #CyprusFamilyjustbeforeSundownonthePlaygroundbesidetheBeachSelfie:Family_Rose_Cyprus

Yesterday, I was a speaker a the iRecruit 2014 conference in Amsterdam. Beforehand, I was interviewed on my views about talent management for the fair´s magazine. You can read that by clicking on the picture below. I am very much convinced that before MAPP, the interview would sounded somewhat differently…

Nico_Rose_Interview_iRecruit