Monthly Archives: January 2015

How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck)

How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck)

Nostalgia—that sentimental emotion that often sends us down YouTube rehashing our youth—is, psychologically speaking, a useful emotion that helps us deal with loneliness and loss. But if you’re not careful, you can get stuck reminiscing instead of moving forward.

How Nostalgia Affects You

How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck)

Before we dig in too deeply, let’s define what nostalgia actually means. When the term was initially coined by Swiss physicians in the late 1600s, it was called a disease similar to homesickness. Of course, nostalgia isn’t a disease, and since then we’ve come to terms with our penchant to rehash the good old days now and again. Writing for Scientific American, social psychologist Dr. Clay Routledge defines nostalgia like so:

Look in the dictionary and you will find a rather general definition of nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or yearning for the past” But what does it mean to be nostalgic? My colleagues and I explored this question by asking participants to write at length about an experience of nostalgia. Trained coders then analyzed these nostalgic narratives. Results from these coded narratives indicated that nostalgic memories tend to be focused on momentous or personally meaningful life events that prominently features close others (e.g., friends, family, romantic partners). Family vacations, road trips with friends, weddings, graduations, birthday parties, and holiday gatherings with loved ones are examples of the kinds of cherished experiences that people revisit when engaging in nostalgia… Nostalgic memories are happy memories.

Basically, nostalgia is an emotion we all experience, probably countless times a week. It might come from hearing a song from your youth, a particular smell in the grocery store, or by running into an old friend. As for what we tend to wax nostalgic for most, a study published inMemory & Cognition suggests that it’s often for our more formative years—between the ages of 12 and 22—because that tends to be the time when you start to develop your self-image.

How Nostalgia Can Help (or Hurt) Your View of the Present

How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck)

Recent studies have shown nostalgia to be beneficial in a lot ways. It can increase self-esteem, help you find meaning in life, and even combat loneliness. Studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that nostalgia can make you more optimistic about the future. Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that nostalgia is often used to cope with negative mental states, which researchers sum up like so:

Nostalgia, then, seems to be one way that people cope with various negative mental states, or “psychological threats.” “If you’re feeling lonely, if you’re feeling like a failure, if you feel like you don’t know if your life has any purpose [or] if what you’re doing has any value, you can reach into this reservoir of nostalgic memories and comfort yourself,” says Routledge. “We see nostalgia as a psychological resource that people can dip into to conjure up the evidence that they need to assure themselves that they’re valued.”

All that said, it depends on what types of memories you’re conjuring up and when. Nostalgia’s great for certain moments—especially when you’re bringing up positive memories. If you’re reminiscing about the past with friends over a beer, that’s great, but it’s still possible to get locked into those moments for too long. It’s also possible to dwell too much on negative memories, and a small study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology points out that habitual worriers might not see the same benefits of nostalgia as others.

So, typically, nostalgia’s viewed as a positive by science, but that’s not the end of the story.

How To Use Nostalgia Properly: Connect Your Past with Now

How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck)

Some obvious dangers with nostalgia exist, namely in waxing poetic through rose-tinted glasses about the past instead of taking an earnest look at the present. The benefits of nostalgia decline when your focus on the wrong things or fail to recognize how those moments shaped who you are today. Psychology Today suggests keeping your present state in check to avoid these types of pitfalls:

For some people, reminiscing about good times can trigger painful emotions. Recalling a career triumph can make you feel like a has-been, and thinking back to cozy weekends with grandma might be a poignant reminder that she’s gone.

But it needn’t be that way. “It’s what you focus on,” says Lyubomirsky. “Do you focus on how positive it was then, or that it’s over now?” People who see each good experience as permanently enriching are more likely to get a mood boost. But a person who mainly focuses on the contrast between past and present damns every good experience with the attitude that nothing in the future can ever live up to it.

To avoid this kind of cyclical negativity, Psychology Today recommends connecting your past with your present instead of comparing them. Instead of thinking about how amazing that career triumph was, think about how it got you to where you are today. Use those past experiences to savor or cope with the present instead of longing for the world that used to be. Instead of saying, “those were the days,” and leaving it at that, think about it from a more existential perspective with a question like, “what has my life meant since then?” Focus on the positivity of a moment instead of feeling about how you’ll never feel that way again.

Keep Exploring New Things To Be Nostalgic For

Of course, nostalgia isn’t just about happy memories about pleasant moments with other people. It’s also about the things we used to love. We’ve all had moments where we turn to old music, movies, places, fictional characters, or games. That’s fine, and great for a night of reveling in the past. Taken too far though, there’s a danger of getting stuck there.

Slate took a look at why exactly we get so nostalgic for certain songs and while music has itsown powers to provoke nostalgia, it’s certainly the case with just about all media. In short, our memories tend to get tied to music in two ways. First, songs become memories in themselves, where we recollect the first time we heard a song alongside the memory of the song itself. Second, music ends up forming a soundtrack to a particular time in our lives and what we felt like in those moments. In a way, we’ll never love new songs as much as those from our youth, because the nostalgia of those moments will always outweigh the (typically) more intellectual tastes of adulthood. Left unchecked, this can prevent you from exploring new things.

Speaking with BBC, writer Damian Barr sums up the nostalgia for things nicely:

You shouldn’t revisit it as a way of avoiding the present or not thinking about the future. If you spend too much time thinking about the past, you are simply not going to be prepared for the future socially or emotionally.

When you’re revisiting your past to avoid the present, you’re not forming new experiences. That’s a problem. As we know, new experiences are important and keeping things fresh is good for the brain. The inherent danger of nostalgia comes from a refusal to move onto new things. After all, why watch new movies when the ’80s clearly had all the best films? Why go to new restaurants when the old ones have the perfect menu? Why find a new band to love when it seems like your old favorites are all going on reunion tours?

The glitch with nostalgia comes when we stop creating new memories because we’re too busy thinking about the past. That creates a cycle where you’re not doing new things, making new memories, enjoying time with new people, or learning new lessons. Speaking with The New York Times, researcher Dr. Sedikides points out that regardless of the benefits of nostalgia, you still have to create new memories:

“I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. “We call this anticipatory nostalgia and have even started a line of relevant research.”

If nostalgia acts as a store of positive memories to call back on when you’re feeling down, you have to create new ones before that storage runs out. It’s easier to fall back on old times, butbreaking out of that comfort zone is well worth the trouble.

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Posted by on January 22, 2015 in African American News


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Here’s Why You Should Take Notes By Hand (Instead Of With A Laptop)


If you walk into any lecture these days, you see a majority of students staring at their screens. You hear a never-ending chorus of pounding keys. Yes, we live in digital age and I bet you can’t imagine not using your laptop for studying. Yes, laptops enable you to do more academic work and do it more efficiently. You can collaborate more easily on presentations and papers, get instant access to numerous libraries and sources online and take a huge amount of notes as you probably belong to the majority that types faster than they write.

The truth is, those who type do take more notes compared to those who use good old pen and paper. However, according to the new study published by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer (from Princeton University and University of California respectively) students who take notes on paper learn significantly more compared to their laptop-addicted peers. Here are the main reasons why:

Writing takes time and digestion is necessary

Our brain uses two different types of cognitive processing when doing these two operations: typing and writing. As tested on a group of undergrads, the research proved that laptop users type almost everything they hear without processing the meaning or devoting much thought to what it is they’re taking notes on. Basically, when you type, all you’re doing is mindlessly transcribing, and that does not require much cognitive activity.

When you take notes by hand, however, you obviously can’t write down every single word your professor utters. So you listen, summarize, and list only the key points. Your brain is more engaged in the process of comprehension and so the information processed this way is remembered better.

Longer notes does not equal better notes

You may object to the point above by saying that transcribing everything will help you later on when studying for the test. Nope! Wrong again. Students who participated in the study were assessed within a week, and longhand note takers significantly out-performed those who took notes on their laptop. Oppenheimer states that handwriting provides more effective memory cues by recreating:

  • context, as you remember the original process of writing, the emotion, and the conclusions made in your own words, and–
  • content, e.g. some individual facts written and summarized.

When comparing test scores, researchers noted that laptop users and longhand note takers performed similarly on factual questions with slightly better results from the typers. However, laptop users did significantly worse on conceptual questions.


Laptops are overwhelmingly distracting

Now this may sound like a no-brainier, but still, the facts are staggering. Students on average spend 40% of class time using all sorts of productivity killers, from instant chat messages to answering emails to simply browsing around the web. What may surprise you is that according to this research, undergrad and law students rated themselves less satisfied with their college education in general and were more likely to fail classes due to constant temptation to switch to unrelated tasks and the higher risks of academic dishonesty. Just think for a second, are you paying tens thousands of dollars per year to watch funny YouTube videos?



Have I convinced you? Great! Here are some tips for how to take notes by hand more effectively:

Master shorthand

There are numerous methods and shorthand systems for writing words and long letters faster by turning them into special symbols. One of the most popular ones is Teeline, commonly used for training journalists in the UK. You remove unnecessary letters (like silent letters or vowels, unless they come first or last) and twist them into simpler alphabet symbols that are faster to write.

If you find it hard to convert to shorthand entirely, try adopting a your own translation system for the most commonly used words in your writing – for example, “cld” for “could” or “w/” for “with.” Just make sure you don’t lose your cheat-sheet!

Use the right formatting

If you have just switched from laptop note taking to writing notes by hand, imagine the way you used to put down everything in Microsoft Word or any other writing app you’ve used. Make big titles, use bullet points and underline important phrases. Plus, leave enough white space between your notes so you can add extra information later on when studding for the test.

Get a stress ball

After a few hours of writing by hand your fingers, palm and wrist may be extremely exhausted. Get yourself a stress ball to squeeze once in a while to build up finger and hand strength. Also, do not forget to stretch out your writing hand to avoid elbow injuries and unpleasant muscle pains.

Try the Cornell Notes method

An old, yet still incredibly effective method, to take excellent study notes is the Cornell Notes method. Divide your page into two columns. The right one should be larger – that’s where you write down all the ideas, include tables, charts and pretty much everything else you do as you usually write notes. It can be messy. The left column is where you put big bulletin points and short statements, generalizing corresponding ideas from the right column.

Also, you can leave the end of each page blank and later write down a brief summary of the page in a couple sentences. Down the line, when studying for an exam or paper, it will help you find the necessary topics easily.

Lefties: get a felt-tipped pen

Ink stains, smudged letters and thus absolutely unreadable handwriting – sound familiar to you? Get a good felt-tipped pen that won’t smudge that bad when you drag your hand behind the pen while writing.

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Posted by on January 21, 2015 in African American News



When High Achievers Have No Place to Go

Star students from immigrant and minority families often find themselves locked out of the City University of New York—a system originally designed just for them.

“Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

— Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

Kenneth Rosario raced through the doors of his South Bronx high school weeks before graduation, sweating through a dress shirt, apologizing to us for being a couple minutes late. His bus had run behind schedule from Manhattan, where he had just spent the afternoon helping middle school math whizzes compete in the annual Pi Tournament. The gregarious senior had a few minutes to talk before rushing to finish his presentation on a genome database project on eel protein for his Natural History Museum internship. Later he would squeeze in some weight-lifting time—a rare leisure activity.

The powerfully built Puerto Rican with a wide, easy smile was weeks away from giving the valedictory address at Urban Assembly’s Applied Math and Science in the South Bronx, a relatively new middle and high school that was bucking myriad odds in one of the city’s most neglected school districts. His college application was anchored by a hard-won 93.5 grade average and supported by the highest-possible score on his Advanced Placement calculus test. He had collected a slew of academic extras like early college classes in electrical engineering and criminal law.

Rosario’s goal was a career in electrical engineering, or perhaps business, either of which would be a ticket out of East Tremont, the Bronx neighborhood where he was born and raised. “You can get stuck here,” Kenneth told us. The city’s decades-long drop in crime had barely touched these blocks, where close to two-thirds live on welfare and only 12 percent graduate high school prepared for college. On a recent winter night, his mother had shouted for him to hit the floor to avoid the gunfire popping on the street outside the family’s first-floor bedroom window.

Getting out was a powerful incentive. And Kenneth figured, if nothing else worked out, he could rely on the top math and business college at the City University of New York to provide a decent fallback. After all, the system had been founded more than 150 years earlier precisely for city graduates such as Rosario—promising children of single parents, new immigrants, the entrenched urban poor. Created by state legislation in the years leading up to the Civil War, CUNY’s mission had been to offer a chance at social mobility to those who could least afford higher education.

The blows, however, came hard and fast for Kenneth. His first college letter was a rejection from Baruch. A second rejection followed quickly—from a second CUNY senior college, Hunter. The two schools are considered the system’s most coveted four-year colleges. His accomplishments in high school, the obstacles he hurdled to reach them, and his GPA should have been enough to gain admissions, his counselor says, but he fell short on his SAT score—a metric that placed Kenneth, and other low-income students of color, at a distinct disadvantage.

“I killed myself, for what?” Rosario said, as he waited for other schools to judge him. “If I couldn’t even get into the top CUNY schools, what was it for?”

He’d walked the dangerous Burnside streets at night several times a week returning home from his museum internship. He’d studied beside his grandmother’s hospice bed during his junior year. Something had to give, and he’d decided to forego the evening SAT-prep sessions that his high school provided for a small group of ambitious students. He took the test only once, and he took it raw. Even though his GPA was four points higher than the average Baruch freshman in 2012, his math and reading SAT score clocked in short of the average that the college touts as proof of its excellence.

“I see this happening now all the time,” said Rasaan Ogilvie, the vice principal of Rosario’s Bathgate Avenue high school, who noted that the change has occurred in the past few years. “Our kids are not getting into the top city colleges, but into top private and state universities. I sympathize with CUNY; they are judged by getting kids to graduate on time. But these are good students.”

After being rejected from Baruch, which would have likely cost him nothing, Kenneth Rosario decided to attend NYU’s Polytechnic University of Engineering. Even with a generous financial aid package, he’ll end up owing $4,000 to $5,000 per year. (Emily Epstein)

Rosario’s experience is part of a demographic shift that has been under the public’s radar for the last decade and a half. As part of an aggressive system-wide overhaul that began in 2000, the top five CUNY colleges—Baruch, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens, and City—have been raising admission standards and admitting fewer freshmen from New York City high schools. Over time, records show that a two-tier system has emerged. CUNY’s most prestigious colleges now favor a disproportionate number of Asian and white freshmen, while its overcrowded two-year community colleges have filled up with more black and Latino students.

This polarization was the subject of a 2012 report called “Unintended Impacts,” published by the Community Service Society, a prominent anti-poverty non-profit in New York. “We’re setting up a segregated system, which is going to cause problems and is very short sighted,” said the group’s president and CEO, David Jones. (Jones is also chairman of the board of The Nation Institute, the parent organization to the Investigative Fund, which helped support the research for this article.)

CUNY officials insist that the school is as committed as ever to its “deeply rooted tradition” of serving New York’s diverse needs. “CUNY provides educational opportunity to New Yorkers as a system, not as a group of colleges,” says Dr. Julia Wrigley, the interim vice chancellor and provost. She argues that the majority of graduates in the selective colleges don’t enter as freshman but as transfer students from other colleges who enter as sophomores, juniors, or seniors. “Transfer provides an important means of access,” Wrigley notes. Students transferring from other colleges are not required to meet SAT benchmarks.

However, records show that only about half those transfer students come in from CUNY’s second-tier colleges or community colleges. The rest come from outside the system, including private schools from around the country and the world. It is unclear whether the students transferring in grew up in New York City, attending public high schools. Notably, the percentage of black and Latino students enrolled in the top tier CUNY schools is still declining, even with the influx of transfer students.

“At a time of massive and widening inequality gaps in New York City, CUNY has a responsibility to address these equity gaps within and across its colleges,” said Michelle Fine, CUNY graduate center professor of psychology and urban education. “I fear that we have lost thousands of talented and engaged students of color who are rejected by our senior colleges and yet accepted by other highly competitive private colleges and universities.”

The changes began when CUNY’s new chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, was given a mandate in 1999 to rehabilitate the university, which had been battered for decades by budget cuts, political infighting, and social unrest. By the time he retired last year, Matthew Goldstein was widely acclaimed for increasing enrollment and retention, stabilizing the budget, attracting private donations, and improving the status of CUNY’s top five colleges. Headlines trumpeted his tenure with puns on his name: “Good as Goldstein” and “Pure Goldstein.”

In October 1995, CUNY students protested after Governor George Pataki cut $162 million in funding. The budget cut had a direct impact on CUNY’s admissions policy, which grew stricter so the campuses could save money on remedial programs. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)

But the prestige has come at a cost. Freshmen-admissions data confirm that the top-ranked senior colleges have admitted fewer and fewer black and Latino graduates as freshmen over the last decade. The students weren’t necessarily being bounced down into the second-tier four-year colleges—Lehman, John Jay, York, Staten Island, Medgar Evers, and City Tech. Those collective black and Latino enrollments fell off by 6 percent as well.

Meanwhile, there was a more than 60 percent increase in black and Latino freshmen in the system’s six community colleges, where students find it far more difficult to graduate. More than two-thirds end up leaving after four years. A 2011 study showed that a student who enters a CUNY community college has only an 8 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree at any school.

This race gulf widened most noticeably after the 2008 recession, when CUNY’s bargain tuition rates began drawing more middle-class families. Applications surged. That same year, CUNY hiked up its math SAT admission requirement 20 to 30 points for the five highly selective colleges. Department of Education records show that by 2012, the number of black public high school graduates accepted as freshmen into the system’s top five colleges had plummeted by 42 percent. Latinos dropped by 26 percent.

The decline happened alongside a sharp rise in minority high school graduation rates during the same time span: 7 percent for blacks, 20 percent for Hispanics. The racial skew became so pronounced that Baruch, the system’s business and science jewel, is now about 40 percent Asian. (In the city’s public schools, Asians represent less than 15 percent of the student body, while blacks and Latinos account for 70 percent.) Two years ago, only 7 percent of the students accepted to Baruch were African American, and fewer than half of them were graduates of city high schools.

New York City’s high school teachers and counselors were among the first to notice that valedictorians like Rosario were being rejected over and over again in surprising numbers by CUNY schools that would have welcomed them years earlier. Even more puzzling was that other prestigious private schools were vying for these same motivated kids. In Rosario’s case, Rochester Institute for Technology and New York University PolyTech Engineering each offered him generous financial packages, though neither school could match the nearly debt-free possibility of CUNY.

CUNY officials are understandably proud of the fact that two-thirds of their senior college students receive state and federal subsidies to offset their bargain $6,000 tuition. For local students, attending CUNY also makes it easier to live at home—sometimes essential for poor families. Even with healthy financial aid, RIT would have cost Rosario over $50,000 after four years. He is instead enrolled as a sophomore at NYU School of Engineering. Throughout his freshmen year, his single mom, who lives from paycheck to paycheck as a school aide, had helped Rosario cover up to $5,000 a year in extra costs; he now has a work-study job on campus.

Many of Rosario’s fellow high-achievers end up with community colleges as their only options. Community colleges are required by state charter to accept all city public-school applicants, and enrollment has surged there since 2006.

“It’s a big deal when kids get rejected from CUNY’s promise of affordability, and the chance to live and help out at home,” said Joshua Steckel, the co-author of Hold Fast to Dreams, about his work as a high school counselor at Brooklyn High School for Collaborative Studies. “It’s a bigger deal when they only have community-college options left.”

A cruel calculus appears to be at work. Never in history have more black and Latino kids in the city and throughout the nation graduated from high school and applied to college. This would be good news, except that a huge number of them end up dropping out. “Engines of Inequality,” a 2006 Education Trust study of the nation’s flagship state public colleges, reports that low-income kids who excel in high school now earn college degrees at rates below the lowest achieving rich kids. President Barack Obama hopes to help bridge this divide by making community colleges free nationwide. But graduation rates at those institutions are currently abysmal, and according to a 2012 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 13 percent of those who do graduate go on to earn bachelors degrees.

Georgetown University research director Anthony Carnevale found that CUNY’s story is being mirrored nationwide, in both public and private institutions. “The higher education system is colorblind—in theory,” he said, referring to his 2013 college enrollment study, “Separate and Unequal.” “But in fact it operates, at least in part, as a systematic barrier to opportunity for many African Americans and Hispanics. Larger numbers are qualified but tracked into overcrowded and underfunded colleges, where they are less likely to develop fully or to graduate.”

One key reason, Carnevale said, is financial survival. “Every college president knows you either climb or you die,” he said. As college costs are rising, public funding is declining. “Higher education doesn’t make a profit, so the way it competes is on the basis of prestige,” said Carnevale. “The SAT is the way we keep score in higher education.” When a school can advertise that its students have a higher average SAT score, that gives a school a more “selective” reputation, which attracts more affluent students. Wealthier kids need less financial aid; they also tend to graduate more quickly.

In contrast, anchoring admission to SAT scores puts low-income students at a disadvantage. Most can’t afford the test preparation or private tutoring that give more affluent kids an edge. Even when their schools offer some kind of test prep, as Rosario’s did (with the help of a non-profit, and for a limited number of kids), it is difficult for students to squeeze these extra classes into a schedule already packed with AP classes, work, and family demands. The College Board, which produces the test, has recently conceded the test’s inequities and has made some efforts to provide more free test prep to low-income students, but it remains to be seen whether the redesign, which will be available in 2016, will close the opportunity gap in any significant way.

Another problem is that children who live in poverty tend to begin kindergarten at such a significant disadvantage when it comes to language skills that it’s next to impossible for them to catch up, even by high school. They often lack the vocabulary necessary to ace the SAT, even when they’re able to excel in the classroom. “The SAT is a good measure of accumulated opportunity,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, an anti-testing group. Yet it may not be a good measure of how well students will perform in college: In his book Crossing the Finish Line, William Bowen reported a raft of research showing that a student’s GPA is a far more reliable predictor than the standardized test score.

CUNY officials argue that it makes its admissions decisions using a variety of indicators. “SAT scores are just one of the factors that CUNY colleges look at in making freshman admissions decisions, along with grades and academic coursework,” says Wrigley, the interim vice chancellor and provost. “CUNY engages in continuing discussions of admission practices and the profile of the student body.”

But the students, principals, and counselors interviewed for this story said they’ve been experiencing something quite different for years. Ann Cook, a veteran New York City educator, said the trend began about a decade and a half ago: CUNY started shifting its emphasis away from students’ work in school and toward high-stakes test scores. Cook is the executive director of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 48 public schools that emphasize performance assessments. “Our estimates are well over 1,000 highly qualified Consortium students have been turned away from the four-year colleges, or didn’t even bother to apply once they understood what was happening,” she told us. “Many of these students would have flourished at CUNY and would have contributed greatly to the diversity of the student body.”

Marcos Velez, son and grandson of Ecuadorean immigrants, put it succinctly in his Queens high school counselor’s office, a few weeks before graduation: “The SAT test is not an accurate measure of my true potential.” Velez graduated with a 93 average at the Academy of Careers in Television and Film. His high school record caught the eye of Syracuse University, a private research institution upstate, and it offered him a generous financial package. But his SAT score fell below the cut-off for most of the top five colleges. He was subsequently rejected from Hunter, Baruch, and Queens Colleges. “None of it makes sense to me,” he said.

For all these reasons, a growing number of colleges—over 800 so far, one-third of the nation’s four-year colleges to date—are making the SAT or ACT optional for admission. A 2010 Princeton University analysis of selective colleges that dropped their reliance on standardized tests found that ethnic and racial diversity vastly improved. And at public universities, levels of academic achievement improved as well. A 2014 study released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling showed very few differences in graduation rates between schools that require standardized scores and those that do not.

In New York City, however, the trend has moved in the opposite direction. The city’s eight elite public high schools also admit students based on one specialized exam—a test that white and Asian students pass at hugely disproportionate rates. This year, only 5 percent of the incoming freshmen into the elite high schools were black and only 7 percent were Latino—in a public school system where 72 percent are minorities. This fall’s freshman class at Stuyvesant High School, the city’s most exclusive option, is expected to be 3 percent black, a record low. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced plans to back legislation that will add more weight to other admissions criteria besides the single test.

“We do not want to become a nightmarish higher-education mirror of what has happened to K-12 education in New York City,” says CUNY professor Michelle Fine. “More ‘choice,’ more stratification between institutions and more racial, ethnic, and class segregation.”

All of this is a sign that public schools and universities are losing sight of their missions, Carnevale argues: “Is the mission to reproduce race and class privilege, which is what chasing elite students does, or is it something else?”

Students study anatomy at Brooklyn College in the 1930s. (

In many ways, it is hard to believe that CUNY is a player at all in this polarizing trend. The wealthy merchant Townsend Harris founded what was called the Free Academy in 1847 with egalitarian sentiments: “Open the doors to all. Let the children of the rich and poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.” The nation’s third-largest public university has since become legendary for educating one of America’s highest concentrations of low-income students of color. More than 200 countries are represented among its student body, thanks to New York’s high number of immigrants. Its oldest flagship campus, City College, was known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.”

As its enrollment grew over the years, the campuses gradually abandoned this lofty mission and became the reserve of the city’s white working and middle class, even as the city’s population was growing ever more diverse. By the late 1960s, the student population at City College, in the heart of African American Harlem, was still 90 percent white. In 1961, the state legislature consolidated City and seven other campuses into the newly formed City University of New York system. The Civil Rights era emboldened the city’s black and Puerto Rican students to demand equal access. CUNY then became the first public university in the nation to launch an affirmative-action program for students of color in the mid-1960s.

The hotly contested open-admissions policy followed. It was a no-holds-barred effort sociologists later described as “arguably the most ambitious effort to create educational opportunity ever attempted in American higher education.”

Within a decade, CUNY’s black and Latino population doubled in the community colleges, quadrupled in the senior colleges, and roughly tripled overall. New two-year CUNY junior colleges opened to handle the surge in enrollment. Faculty devised remedial courses in math, reading, and writing to bring the unprepared up to speed in the senior colleges.

Philip Kay notes in his 2013 Columbia University Ph.D. thesis “‘Guttersnipes and Eliterates’: City College in the Popular Imagination” that open admissions “ushered in an intense and radical reassessment of what a college education was for—and for whom. And it precipitated the most withering and sustained criticism that City College had ever withstood.” Around the same time, in the mid-1970s, the city was pummeled by a fiscal crisis and the state began an annual campaign of slashing funding.

Nonetheless, a form of open admissions survived from 1970 to 1999, the year then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani convened a task force that declared CUNY to be “caught in a spiral of decline.” Rather than restoring decades of budget cuts, Giuliani proposed slashing even more—an additional $40 million. His focus was instead on raising academic standards. To head the task force, he appointed former Yale President Benno Schmidt, who had most recently come from the private sector as the head of Edison, a now defunct for-profit K-12 company. Schmidt approached his task with a sea change in ideology. He felt that the priority for public colleges should be to compete with other public and private institutions, rather than to go out of their way to serve disadvantaged students who would otherwise be left behind.

Matthew Goldstein was hired as chancellor soon after, with a mandate to restore the institution’s former glory by abolishing remedial classes at all seven senior colleges, first and second tiers. After that, any freshman who needed remedial coursework could only be admitted to a community college. Schmidt’s report, titled “An Institution Adrift,” made a strong case for the SAT’s reliability, and recommended that some top senior colleges adopt a 1200 score cut off, along with other measures, in order to compete. Goldstein’s ambitious admissions overhaul was defined by raising the minimum SAT bar from an average of 1008 for the top tier in 1999 to 1190 in the fall of 2013. GPAs inched up as well, but not nearly as far, nor as regularly.

Supporters predicted that CUNY’s brand in the marketplace would soar. Critics predicted that the student population would eventually become imbalanced by race and class. Both predictions came true. Goldstein’s policies attracted unprecedented private donations and more students—274,000 students are now in degree-granting programs on CUNY’s two dozen campuses compared with 195,000 in 2000.

Perhaps Goldstein’s most prized achievement was Macaulay Honors College, created in 2001 as a rigorous oasis of interdisciplinary learning. Macaulay’s 1,880 students receive extras such as free admission to New York City events and performances. Most significantly, the honors students pay zero tuition. Macaulay has slowly become the whitest of all the CUNY campuses. Its black enrollment fell by half between 2006 and 2012, while Asian student numbers climbed by 6 percent. In 2012 the school was 54 percent white, 33 percent Asian, 4 percent black, and 9 percent Hispanic—making it the least representative of the city’s public school graduates.

It is interesting to note that while students in the Macaulay class of 2017 have about the same grade-point average (93) as the first cohort (Class of 2005), average SAT scores there have shot up from 1288 to 1405. Also, only 56 percent of the students come from the city’s public high schools, a very low percentage for a system designed specifically to serve that population.

The implications are far-reaching for the next generation of low-income students, who face fewer job and education opportunities than their parents did, and for the city, which could face both a brain drain and the burden of more unemployed, undereducated youth in the future.

Goldstein left the chancellor’s office last year vigorously defending the freshman admissions policies as a fair and necessary element of the institution’s success story. “It’s not where you start,” Goldstein told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in April 2013. “It’s where you end up with a degree.” As evidence, he pointed to the rise in black and Latino graduates from the senior colleges in the last decade: Many, he noted, had transferred in after years of remediation elsewhere.

CUNY officials interviewed for this story reiterated this position, asserting that large numbers of transfers have led to an increase on average in the number of black and Latino students attending CUNY’s top-tier colleges. “Access to public higher education involves more than one stream of entry,” said Michael Arena, CUNY’s director of communications and marketing.

But a close look at CUNY’s statistics tells a different story. The total student body is indeed larger now than it was a decade ago, as is the number of those who have graduated with bachelor’s degrees of all races. But the percentage of black graduates in the mix—even once transfer students are included—has steadily declined. Between 2008 and 2013, the numbers of transfer students to the highly selective campuses increased slightly for African Americans (by 317), and more than doubled for Latinos (by 644). But, these transfer increases did not make up for the huge declines each group sustained in the freshman classes. Meanwhile, whites and Asians continue to command the majority of the transfer spots—on average 59 percent—at the top five colleges.

That is why between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of blacks and Latinos dropped at all of the top five schools—except Queens, where it held steady at 28 percent, making them still a minority. In fact, the decrease in enrollment was largest at the two colleges that historically have had larger combined African American and Latino populations: Brooklyn and City.

In fact, four of the top five colleges are now majority white and Asian. (City is 47 percent.) Meanwhile, all of the system’s other four-year and community colleges, except for Staten Island, are majority black and Latino.

Emily Epstein

The sting of CUNY’s rejection falls hardest on the children of immigrants, often the first in their families to go to college. Teenagers who arrive in this country as juniors can find themselves having to take the SAT before they’ve learned English. That was the case for Rehanuma Islam, a shy, willowy teenager who broke into tears when she recalled the generosity of the teachers and counselors at Central Park East High School in Manhattan who helped her apply to college. Her high AP calculus score and 94 grade-point average could not overcome her low SAT score, an anomaly her counselor said was the result of taking the test within months after she arrived from Bangladesh. “I didn’t know what they were asking,” Islam remembered, even in math, her best subject. “I was stressed so much on that.” Baruch and Hunter rejected her.

It’s also common for children of new immigrants to neither be able to afford, nor imagine, moving far away from home.

Fran Portoviejo grew up near the projects—Brooklyn’s oldest, in the former port of Red Hook—and was raised within the tight circle of his Ecuadorean immigrant family. His plan early on was to be the first male in his family to gain a college degree, and eventually start his own company, something larger than the bodega and car repair shop his family once owned. Being apart from his family while he attended university was not an option for him. Brooklyn and City College were the only two real possibilities. “My family supports me,” he said recently. “I can’t live away from home.”

The loss and trauma he experienced as an elementary school student may explain some of that strong family bond. His life story was the subject of his college admissions essay:

I can only remember images, no words or sounds … I remember my mother picking me up from my aunts’ house and taking me on long train rides. I was always with my aunts in their home, so the train felt like an adventure, seeing the outside world pass by through the windows. After the train ride, we took a bus and at the end of the bus ride, I remember entering an office, a place where they took your stuff and scanned you with a wand. When all of that was done we went to a big meeting room where my dad would appear walking up to us, and hugging my mom and me. I remember seeing him in a prison suit, talking to my mother. And that’s where I blank out.

Portoviejo’s younger brother had been born with a congenital heart disorder and spent his young life in and out of hospitals. Portoviejo hid in the shadows during his elementary school years, feeling disoriented as the family drama unfolded around him. His first language was English, but he was tracked into special education and English as a Second Language classes. His baby brother died. His father was eventually deported to Ecuador. “I was left with trauma and scars from everything that happened to me,” Portoviejo wrote.

It wasn’t until high school that he began to regain his balance, realizing how smart and capable he was. A gregarious debater and a high school honors student, Portoviejo went on to be valedictorian of his 2011 Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies class. He still remembers the blow he felt when all four CUNY senior colleges he applied to rejected him: Baruch, Hunter, Brooklyn, and City College. “It hurt me so much, two weeks before graduation. It made me doubt my own potential,” Portoviejo recalled recently. “How could I be valedictorian and rejected from CUNY?”

Portoviejo’s grade-point average was an impressive 95, but his low math SAT score didn’t put him in the CUNY range. “It was such a rejection. It only took one score to close the doors on me. I couldn’t believe it. It took me a long time to realize that it was only a number. It didn’t say anything about me.”

Other selective colleges—Marist, Bard, Muhlenberg, Union—had offered Portoviejo generous financial aid packages. But his confidence shaken, he couldn’t consider leaving home. At first, he tried commuting four hours round trip to Mount St. Vincent’s College in the Bronx, which he was spending about $2,000 a year out of pocket to attend. The time and expense didn’t seem worth it. The only option left for him was community college, where he is now in his second year, working hard in hopes of eventually transferring to New York University if he could afford it. NYU recently accepted him, and Baruch has, at last, extended an invitation of its own, offering him a seat in its junior class. His high school guidance counselor, Josh Steckel, believes CUNY erred by not accepted him as a freshman. “He was lucky, and also exceptional, not to have been lost,” Steckel said.

One reason Portoviejo did not become overwhelmed by the overcrowded community college system is that he was fortunate to hook into CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP). It’s a program that offers textbooks, commuting money, and one-on-one mentoring to guide its select students through the thicket of school bureaucracy and life problems. Wrigley promises ASAP will quadruple its capacity over the next three years, but for now it serves only 3 percent of CUNY’s community college students.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Rosario recently began his sophomore year, commuting back and forth from the Bronx to the glass towers of NYU’s Polytechnic University of Engineering—part of downtown Brooklyn’s imposing university-corporate park. Academically, it’s a good fit for Rosario, who plans to make a living putting his math and civil engineering ideas to work.

But financially it’s far from perfect. Even with his generous financial assistance—a federal Pell Grant, Work Study Grant, the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, and help from the Higher Education Opportunity Program for promising students—Rosario will still owe NYU roughly $4,000 to $5,000 per year. Baruch would have likely cost him nothing.

Rosario must manage his time, commute to early morning classes from Burnside in the Bronx and figure out how to study while ignoring the fireworks and loud booming music outside his bedroom window. Finding affordable meals in the tony downtown Brooklyn neighborhood is another challenge. Hamburgers alone, he was surprised to discover, cost nearly $6 in the school’s cafeteria. Extra fares on his monthly subway pass can be cashed in for a week’s worth of food.

“I can’t be worried about anything but studying right now,” said Rosario.

Students call for a return to open and affordable education at an Occupy CUNY rally in 2011. (Timothy Krause/Flickr)

David Jones, from the Community Service Society, told us he and other advocates are looking forward to talking about CUNY’s racial imbalance with the new chancellor. “Since we’re using public funds, we’re going to ask questions about why CUNY is not as reflective of at least the most elite schools in America,” Jones says.

Returning to open admissions is not on Jones’s agenda. “We’re not talking about making it less rigorous,” he says. “We’re talking about letting in students who can succeed.” One solution might be to weigh multiple factors in admissions decisions—a common practice at many State University of New York campuses and at many private universities. Those factors often include essays, class rank, whether they’re first in family to go to college, and extracurricular activities. Other colleges consider whether an applicant is at a disadvantage because his or her high school does a poor job of helping its students get into college.

Two large state universities have gone test-optional—University of Arizona and Arizona State. The University of California uses something called “eligibility in the local context,” in which seniors in the top 9 percent of their class are guaranteed admission to their nearest four-year college. For the state’s second-tier system, the California State University schools, admission is guaranteed with a 3.0 GPA, without the SAT.

Jones points out that Texas, a state with a much less impressive civil-rights record than New York, has guaranteed that those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class will be able to attend a state public university of his or her choice. The Texas law was passed 17 years ago with bipartisan support when George W. Bush was governor.

“If Texas can get it right,” said Jones, “we can get it right, too.”

This article was reported with support from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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Posted by on January 13, 2015 in African American News


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10 Differences Between Middle Class And Rich People


According to Forbes, the 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. But what about the people in between? The middle class? You may be considered middle class. You’re not poor, but you’re not rich…yet. The middle class seems to be shrinking, according to the data revealed over the last couple decades. That means you’re going to be less likely to be middle class in the future. You’ll more likely be poor or rich. Which side do you want to be on?

If you want to be on the side with the rich, you’ve got to start thinking like the rich. Here are 10 differences between middle class and rich people for you to learn from…

1. The middle class live comfortably, the rich embrace being uncomfortable

“Be willing to be uncomfortable. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. It may get tough, but it’s a small price to pay for living a dream.”
-Peter McWilliams

middle class and rich differences

“In investing, what is comfortable is rarely profitable.”
– Robert Arnott

It’s comfortable to work a “safe” job. It’s comfortable to work for someone else. The middle class think being comfortable means being happy, but the rich realize that extraordinary things happen when we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Starting your own business is a risk and risks can be uncomfortable, but a little risk is what it takes to create wealth and achieve superior results.

Step out of your comfort zone. Look at all your options. You will have to be at least a little uncomfortable if you want to become rich. You might even have to fail and that’s great, because if you’re not failing, you’re not doing much.

2. The middle class live above their means, the rich live below

“There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no one independence quite so important, as living within your means.”
-Calvin Coolidge

rich and middle class

You won’t catch the average millionaire in a $100,000 car or a multi-million dollar home. The rich don’t spend their money on depreciating liabilities, they spend their money on appreciating assets and they live below their means. On average, the rich drive cars that are a few years old and they don’t buy them new, according to studies done in the book “The Millionaire Next Door.” Even if they can “afford” that fancy new Escalade, they usually don’t buy it.

Remember, if you earn $1,000,000/year and you spend $1,000,000/year, you’re still broke.

3. The middle class climb the corporate ladder, the rich own the ladder

“The richest people in the world look for and build networks; everyone else looks for work.”
-Robert Kiyosaki

Middle class corporate

The middle class tend to work for someone else. They have a job. A career. Upper middle class tend to be self-employed. They own a job. The rich tend to own the business. They own that corporate ladder that the middle class are busy working up. The rich understand that they need more people working for them to earn more money. The rich understand the power of passive income.

4. The middle class are friends with everyone, the rich choose wisely

“It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.”
-Warren Buffett

rich and middle class friends

The rich understand that when you surround yourself with successful people, your own success will follow. Likewise, surrounding yourself with unsuccessful people tends to have the anticipated effect. Your income is usually the average of the incomes of your three closest friends. If you want to earn more, hang around people who earn more. It’s all about aligning your mindset with the mindset of successful people. If you want to be rich, you have to think rich.

5. The middle class work to earn, the rich work to learn

“When you are young, work to learn, not to earn.”
-Robert Kiyosaki

work to learn, not to earn

The middle class are easily persuaded to change jobs when someone offers more money. The rich understand that working isn’t about the money, especially in the early years. It’s about developing the skills and traits you need to develop to become rich. That may mean working a sales job to better understand the world of selling. Or it could mean you work at a bank to better understand accounting. If you want to be rich, you should be working to learn the skills you need to become rich. Most rich people didn’t get there by earning a high salary.

6. The middle class have things, the rich have money

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people that they don’t like.”
― Will Rogers

middle class and rich difference

Back to the fancy cars and big houses. That’s where much of the middle class spend their money. Drive through a middle class neighborhood and you will usually see brand new cars, expensive landscaping and high-dollar homes. The rich understand that to become wealthy, you have to want money more than you want things. If you keep buying things, your money will keep going with them. It’s funny how that works. For example, Warren Buffett still lives in the same home he bought in 1958. And he only paid $31,500 for it.

Stop buying things and start focusing on keeping, saving and investing the money you earn. If you are a shopaholic, start shopping for assets. Become interested in investing, then look for bargains on stocks and businesses instead of shoes and electronics. That being said, it’s not all about saving your money.

7. The middle class focus on saving, the rich focus on earning

“Your greatest asset is your earning ability. Your greatest resource is your time.”
-Brian Tracy

middle class and rich people

“If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.”
-Benjamin Franklin

Saving is important. Investing may be more important, but earning is the foundation of both. You understand that you need to save and invest, but to really achieve extravagant goals with them, you need to earn more. The rich understand this and work on creating more avenues to earn and earning more with the avenues they have. If you really want to become rich, work on your earning ability, not your saving ability.

8. The middle class are emotional with money, the rich are logical

“Only when you combine sound intellect with emotional discipline do you get rational behavior.”
-Warren Buffett

middle class and rich money

Steve Siebold interviewed over 1,200 of the world’s wealthiest people over the past 30 years for his book “How Rich People Think”, and according to him there are more than 100 differences in how rich people look at money compared to the middle class. One of the key differences he found was that the middle class see money through the eyes of emotion, but the rich see money through the eyes of logic. Making emotional financial decisions will ruin your finances. Warren Buffett explains that investing has much more to do with controlling your emotions, than it has to do with money. Emotions are what cause people to buy high and sell low. Emotions create dangerous business deals. Leave emotions out of this and turn to logic.

9. The middle class underestimate their potential, the rich set huge goals

“Set your goals high, and don’t stop till you get there.”
-Bo Jackson

middle class and rich goals

The middle class set goals. Sometimes. It’s the capacity of the goals that differ from the middle class to the rich. The middle class set safe goals that are easily obtainable. The rich set goals that seem impossible, difficult or crazy. But they know they are achievable. It all comes back to having the proper mindset.

When you’re setting your goals, ask yourself if they could be bigger. Ask yourself if that’s really all you can do or if you can do more. I think you can do more.

10. The middle class believe in hard work, the rich believe in leverage

“It is much easier to put existing resources to better use than to develop resources where they do not exist.”
-George Soros

rich and middle class workers

Hard work is a necessity. For all of us. If you want to reach the top (whatever that may be for you), you’ve got to put in the work. The problem is that hard work alone will rarely make you rich. You can’t become rich by doing it all yourself. You have to use leverage to truly become rich and stay that way. Leverage works in many ways, from outsourcing to investing. The more leverage you can incorporate, the more time you will free up to work on the things that really matter in your business and your life.

Some differences between the middle class and the rich are vast, while others may seem simple and minor. The fact is that if you want to become rich, you have to think like the rich and do the things the rich do.

Featured photo credit: Dude Walkin/Alejandro Escamilla via

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Posted by on January 13, 2015 in African American News


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The Liberation of Growing Old

CreditEd Kashi/VII Photo

LONDON — WHY do we have such punitive attitudes toward old people? Granted, the ancients did hideous things to elders who were unable to work but still needed food and care, but in more recent times, that had changed: In 18th-century New England, it was common for people to make themselves seem older byadding years to their real age, rather than subtracting them.

Once upon a time, “senile” just meant old, without being pejorative. Even “geriatric” was originally a value-free term, rather than part of the lexicon of contempt toward old people.

Yet today, the language used to describe the changing age composition of the population is little short of apocalyptic. We’re told that the “graying of America” is an “agequake” or a “demographic time bomb.”

Older people are likely to be seen as a burden and a drain on resources, rather than a resource in themselves. Their only contribution, it seems, is to make worse the “dependency ratio,” a term that enshrines dubious assumptions about who will be financially dependent on whom.

In 2050, Americans age 65 and over are predicted to almost double in number to 83.7 million, one-fifth of the population. An aging population does pose real challenges, but increasing numbers of people of working age (as traditionally defined) are unemployed today, while growing numbers continue to work beyond pensionable age.

In reality, age can no longer be neatly correlated with economic activity. In particular, old people are themselves significant providers of care, notably the child care provided by grandparents.

To be sure, some older public figures attain “national treasure” status, as cuddly, unthreatening George Burns-type figures. And while “ageist” language demeans and caregivers’ pay remains poor, we no longer cast old people out into the wilds. Instead, innovative services and goods are developing that seek to capitalize on the “silver dollar.”

But the social bias is real, too. When a large sample of Facebook groups created by 20- to 29-year-olds was examined by a team based at the Yale School of Public Health, three-quarters of the groups were found to denigrate old people. More than a third advocated banning old people from public activities like shopping.

Such “gerontophobia” is harmful because we internalize it. Ageism has been described as prejudice against one’s future self. It tells us that age is our defining characteristic and that, as midnight strikes on a milestone birthday, we will become nothing but old — emptied of our passions, abilities and experience, infused instead with frailty and decline.

In their study comparing the memory of young and old Chinese and Americans, Ellen Langer, a social psychologist, and Becca Levy, an epidemiologist, found that the older Chinese people, who, it was hypothesized, were exposed to less ageism than their American counterparts, performed memory tests more like their younger compatriots. Among the Americans, on the other hand, there were significant memory differences between the old and young. The beliefs that we imbibe about our waning powers may turn out to be self-fulfilling. In effect, our culture teaches us how to be old.

The historians Thomas R. Cole and David Hackett Fischer have documented how, at the start of the 19th century, the idea of aging as part of the human condition, with its inevitable limits, increasingly gave way to a conception of old age as a biomedical problem to which there might be a scientific solution. What was lost was a sense of the life span, with each stage having value and meaning.

Perhaps this is why, as a 2006 study found, we mispredict the happiness we expect to feel across the course of our lives and assume that we’ll get more unhappy as we age. In fact, the research shows that the opposite is true. For my part, at 64, I haven’t attained serenity (another stereotype of older people), but I am more able to savor life — and if offered the chance to return to my 14-year-old self, I’d run screaming the other way.

A student of mine, nudging 60, recently called age “the great liberator.” Part of what she meant was that old people simply care less about what others think, but also, I think, that our sense of what’s important grows with age. We experience life more intensely than before, whatever our physical limitations, because we know it won’t last forever.

How to enable the growing numbers of old people to live comfortable, meaningful lives is a fundamental issue of equality, with benefits for all. If we make the world better for old people, we make it better for everyone, from stroller-pushers to wheelchair-users.

Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the elder advocacy organization the Gray Panthers, argued that instead of making a fetish of independence, we should value the idea of interdependence between generations. Thus age-friendly cities, like Portland, Ore., rethink urban spaces to make them more accessible and encourage the integration of old people into communal life. And programs like Cleveland’s intergenerational charter schools, which provide lifelong education alongside grades K-8, break down the age apartheid now so common. Instead of seeing each other as generic categories, old and young people can discover each other as individuals.

Age resistance is a futile kind of life resistance: We can’t live outside time, we begin to age the moment we’re born. But the emerging age-acceptance movement neither decries nor denies the aging process. It recognizes that one can remain vital and present, engaged and curious, indeed continue to grow, until one’s dying breath. Then we need only echo the wish of the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “May I be alive when I die.”



You’re Never Too Experienced to Fake It Till You Learn It


Novices emulate favorite bosses and colleagues in an effort to look and talk as if they know what they are doing — even when they have no clue. It’s how they develop and grow (just as children do, first imitating their parents, then their peers). But this natural — and efficient — learning process tends to break down as people gain experience and stature. As we become more certain about what we “know” and who we are, the idea of mimicking others feels artificial, even distasteful. So we stick with what’s natural and comfortable. And that’s precisely what gets us in trouble as we hit career transitions that call for new and different ways of leading.

In my research on how experienced managers and professionals step up to bigger leadership roles, I have observed both the value and the difficulty of returning to our youthful, fake-it-till-you-learn-it strategies. The only way to pick up the “softer” skills that we need to lead with greater impact is to observe and emulate people who already have them, trying their strategies and behaviors on for size before making them our own.

Take, for example, Clara, an HR specialist who was promoted a level above her boss to become her company’s director of operations. The new assignment meant managing people who had been her superiors and overseeing functions, like finance, in which she had no expertise. “I understood in theory that a good manager should be able to manage areas without understanding the technicalities of the work,” she told me, “but in practice this made me feel like a fraud.”

At a loss for what to do, Clara decided to emulate people she saw as effective leaders. When she met with the finance manager, one of her new direct reports, Clara greeted her warmly, putting an arm around her shoulders as she’d seen her own boss do in the past.  And in her first staff meeting, she tried out the blunt and direct way of speaking that she’d frequently noticed other directors in the company using.

“I went home exhausted each day from playing the role of ‘Director of Operations,’” she said. It was depressing — even embarrassing at times. Still, she persisted, adjusting her tactics along the way. After about a year, in the course of leading a successful meeting, she realized she had grown into the role. “As I began to gain confidence in my own ability to do this job, I also began to fall into a leadership voice that felt more like my own and less like an imitation of my former bosses.”

This kind of identity stretch-work comes more naturally to some people than to others. Psychologist Mark Snyder identified the profile and psychology of “chameleons,” people who are naturally able and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling like a fake. Chameleons have core selves defined by their values and goals but have no qualms about shifting shapes in pursuit of their objectives. Then there are the “true-to-selfers,” as I call them, those who view situational demands that push them away from what they do naturally as threats to their authenticity. Their self-definitions are more all-encompassing, including not only their innermost values, but also their leadership styles, speech, dress, and demeanor.

A quintessential chameleon, author Michael Lewis famously describes how imitation helped him transform himself from an inexperienced trainee into a highly successful bond salesman in his best-selling book Liar’s Poker. “Thinking, as yet, was a feat beyond my reach. I had no base, no grounding,” Lewis writes. “So I listened to the master and repeated what I heard, as in kung fu. It reminded me of learning a foreign language. It all seemed strange at first. Then one day, you catch yourself thinking in the language. Suddenly words you never realized you knew are at your disposal. Finally you dream in the language.”

People gravitate more readily to chameleon strategies like Lewis’ earlier in their careers, when it is easier to accept and express ignorance. With experience and success, our habitual ways of thinking and doing become more entrenched and our work identities solidify. We value authenticity, so we continue to act in accordance with our sense of who we are — even when it becomes patently ineffective. Unfortunately, the effort we put into protecting our “true” identities can really hold us back later in our careers, when we’re trying to build on past successes to take on new and bigger roles or responsibilities as leaders.

Suppose you have become known (and been rewarded) for your ability to use rigorous analysis to figure out solutions to organizational problems. What happens when you’re suddenly expected to start selling your good ideas to diverse, skeptical stakeholders outside your area of expertise? Intellectually, you know you need to persuade and inspire, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. So, you put more work into your facts and figures — and when your ideas repeatedly go unheard, you conclude that the organization and its key players are “political.”

A better option is to look around to identify people who are good at selling their ideas — and watch carefully what they do and how they do it. People who use this strategy concentrate their efforts first on reproducing the behavior they have observed, even if they don’t fully understand it. Then with practice, like Lewis, they try “to get inside the brain of another person.” In their minds, they’re not being inauthentic — they’re simply evolving so they can get the job done. After a while, they find they have acted their way into a new way of thinking. They haven’t just developed their persuasion skills; they now value a different way of working and see themselves as the kind of people who are good at getting others on board.

By definition, transformative learning starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors. When we are working at improving our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass. It helps us navigate choices and work toward our goals. But when we are looking to change our game, a rigid understanding of authenticity is an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth. By viewing ourselves as works in progress, we multiply our capacity to learn, avoid being pigeonholed, and ultimately become better leaders. We’re never too experienced to fake it till we learn it.


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How to Be Less Distracted in 2015

00:00 / 00:00

The New Year always ushers in another opportunity to take a stab at a few things that seem to be dragging us down. But which things should we focus on? Maybe the answer is in the question. The modern world has given us infinite choices: Everything is on demand all the time; everyone can reach us in fractions of seconds. Our technology buzzes, rings, pings, vibrates and blinks all day, every day. And that doesn’t say anything about the human disruptions: The co-workers who barge in on us; the family members who drop by unannounced. We live in a world riddled with distractions and many of us lack the tools to deal with it.

And screens. Everywhere, the screens. Even in those moments when we’re waiting for something or somebody, we don’t take a minute for a deep thought; we practically seek out distraction.

“We’re conditioned to bring out our iPhone, open up a laptop, look up at the television screen,” said Ned Hallowell, a psychologist and author of the new book from from the Harvard Business Review Press, Driven to Distraction at Work. “I’m not saying let’s go back to a world without screens. I’m just saying what we have to do is put ourselves in charge of them and not let them be in charge of us.”

Hallowel says we need to recognize that we have more control over our lives that we tend to think.

“We haven’t learned how to recreate boundaries,” he said. “You do have demands from other forces. But no one forces you to check your email at 3:00 a.m.”

Don’t pick up the phone every time it rings. Try not to get anxious from those blinking message lights. And realized, the brain is incapable of what we typically think of as multitasking. According to Hallowell, once you take back control, the rest can be handled by taking care of your brain:

  • Sleep. “People say ‘I’m too busy. I’ve got to stay up late.’ Most of the time they’re staying up late screen-sucking.”
  • Eat. “Eating right doesn’t take time. It just takes selection.”
  • Exercise. “People say, ‘I don’t have time to exercise.’ My answer is ‘you don’t have time not to.'”
  • Meditation. “It only takes a few minutes, a couple of times a day. It’s a way of cleaning up your brain.

At the office, he suggests a quick burst of exercise will do the trick. Take a walk. Do some pushups even. And find some people along the way. Positive human contact is the universal antidote for clearing the mind, resetting your focus and slowing the world down for just a little while.

It may sound like easy advice, but committing to it could make a difference.



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