10 Essential Pieces of Advice for Grads (and the Rest of Us)
Adulthood is confusing. We seek coping strategies where we can find them: the Tao Te Ching, Yoda, The Rules According to JWoww. (OK, maybe not that last one.) We've put together a few more smart ideas for making your way in the world, from 10 truly impressive women. Take a few for the road.
1. Begin the day with a good book.
I used to get up in the morning and immediately plunge into work. But about six months ago I started doing something different. Now, the very first thing I do is make a cup of coffee, take it back upstairs, and sit up in bed with the book that I was reading the night before. Currently it's a novel. Before that it was Jon Meacham's biography of Thomas Jefferson. It's always something that puts me in a world other than my work world. For the first 15 minutes of the day, I sip coffee and read and take intense pleasure in it all. The minute the cup of coffee is done—or once it's cold—I put the book down. I really believe that happiness is a collection of small, pleasurable experiences, like buying flowers or eating a square of chocolate. I try to have a few of these moments every day.
Anne-Marie Slaughter has written widely on work-life balance. She is the president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a nonprofit think tank and civic enterprise based in New York City and Washington, D.C.
2. Savor your coffee.
How long did it take you to down your last cappuccino? The next time, take a cue from the Japanese, whose formal tea ceremony can last four hours. Before taking a drink, participants raise their bowls in tribute to all the factors that came together to create that moment—from their ancestors to the farmers who grew the tea to the elders who taught them how to prepare it. Try this amended routine: Focus on the drink in front of you. Notice the smell, and relish the flavor. You'll find it's a wonderful daily exercise in mindfulness.
Jennifer Anderson, Ph.D., an expert on Japanese tea rituals, is a lecturer in anthropology at San Jose State University, in California.
3. Be impatient.
Early in my career, I went to numerous meetings where I was the only woman present. I would want to contribute to the conversation but would think, If I say that, everybody will think it's really stupid. And then a man would say exactly what I had in mind, and the other participants would find it brilliant. I learned that you shouldn't wait to speak. I started listening actively, knowing that I was going to comment on something and having it in my mind that I would interrupt at the right moment. It's both polite and useful to say, "Well, before we proceed to the next subject, I would like to add the following." If you wait to be called on, often the discussion will move on so far that whatever you're talking about will not be germane.
Madeleine Albright was the first female U.S. secretary of state. She is currently the chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global consulting firm, in Washington, D.C.
4. Admit how you feel.
When something disturbing happens, I tend to gloss over it at first. But 5 or 10 minutes later, I have to ask myself what I'm feeling and why I feel that way. And then—it sounds so corny, but it really does work—I acknowledge the feeling. I identify it and own it. Then, usually, I can move on. Not that it's erased from my consciousness, but it's put in a place where I can move around it and deal with it. For example, I was recently talking on the phone to a friend, and she said something complimentary about someone who had hurt me. After the call, I was overcome with irritation. I thought, Why am I so grumpy? Finally I admitted that I felt irritated, and then the feeling didn't nag me as much anymore. When an emotion is undefinable, it has more power than when you can see it for what it is.
5. Fake joy.
We think that we act because of how we feel. But we also feel because of how we act. So use this knowledge to change your mood. Jump up and down; getting both feet off the ground makes you feel childlike and energetic. Or go for a walk. Just this morning, I got an unnerving e-mail from someone and felt lousy about it. So I headed out for a walk in Central Park with a friend. So many things that tend to make a person happy are wrapped up in one little thing—a walk. It really works! When I got home, I wasn't irritated anymore. I realized, Yeah, I've got my perspective back.
6. Praise yourself.
Every thought we have, including self-criticism, paves a neural pathway. These pathways make it easier for us to have the same response the next time. Eventually some circuits get so big that the thoughts go on autopilot. Instead of going to the default—say, criticizing yourself for working too much instead of spending time with your family—give yourself credit for how much time you are spending with your loved ones. Tell yourself that you're doing a good job balancing things. At first you won't believe it. But do it day after day and you'll eventually build new neural pathways. The positive thoughts will become automatic.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and Habits of a Happy Brain.
7. Stop imagining the ideal.
I often grow impatient when I want to be in control of a situation. To avoid getting antsy when I am writing and can't find specific words for my thoughts, I try to practice self-compassion. I tell myself that I'm not going to quit even if I become frustrated. I'll say out loud, "You're not perfect, but that's OK. Writing can be a messy process, and it's not ideal, but you can handle it." Talking to yourself may feel awkward and goofy, but it quells that feeling of impatience. And it certainly beats foraging for carbs, which I'm also apt to do when I am agitated and have writer's block.
BrenÃ© Brown, Ph.D., is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and the author of the book Daring Greatly. You may have seen her widely viewed talk on TED.com.
8. Pluck the weeds.
I was miserable on and off in my life till age 39, blaming outside things, like my job or my relationship. And then it hit me: I am the leader of my life, and I can choose to believe what I want. It's such a simple idea, but it was a pivotal breakthrough. Now, whenever I have an anxious or negative thought, I use a technique that I learned from my love of gardening—one that I also teach to the girls I mentor. I think, Is this thought a weed that is taking up space and needs to be plucked? Or is it a flower that I need to tend and love and let thrive? I focus all my attention on the thoughts that are beautiful blooms and yank out the negative ones.
Elizabeth Kunz is the CEO of Girls on the Run, a nonprofit youth-development program.
9. Let your heart break.
The world is full of what seem like intractable problems. Often we let that paralyze us. Instead, let it spur you to action. There are some people in the world that we can't help, but there are so many more that we can. So when you see a mother and her children suffering in another part of the world, don't look away. Look right at them. Let them break your heart, then let your empathy and your talents help you make a difference in the lives of others. Whether you volunteer every week or just a few times a year, your time and unique skills are invaluable.
Melinda Gates is a cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
10. Know when to listen and when to zone out.
My inner critic is the thing that keeps me doing draft after draft until the work is good. So I trust it and don't want to silence it completely. But you still need to quiet your mind. I try to meditate twice a day, which helps me feel calm and peaceful. I also exercise—not a class where you're held hostage by a teacher's personality, but one where there is dancing and no one is talking to you. It's impossible for me to worry about a script or scenes or salaries when I'm like, Wait—where do I put my foot?
Jenni Konner is an executive producer of the HBO series Girls.
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