On Motivation: Barry Schwartz

I love Barry Schwartz, not just because of his generosity (he was kind enough to take time for an interview with me about children and choices) but because he is the kind of guy who is always looking at ideas from a different angle. He is an assumption-buster.

His book, The Paradox of Choice, will forever change the way you think about choice and happiness. His latest book, Why We Work, is featured on the Brain Pickings site. He presents an interesting perspective on the dynamics between discovery and invention, in particular, how our institutions shape our own human nature.

How we design our institutions–he is talking about workplaces, but think about it in terms of schools and families as well–has a profound effect on us.

Our ideas about what motivates people to work, Schwartz cautions, have shaped the nature of the workplace in unfortunate ways — particularly when it comes to the ideology of incentives and the carrots-and-sticks approach to reward and punishment.

There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work. And the more we rely on incentives as substitutes for integrity, the more we will need to rely on them as substitutes for integrity. We may tell ourselves that all we’re doing with our incentives is taking advantage of what we know about human nature… But in fact, what we’re doing is changing human nature.

And we’re not merely changing it; we’re impoverishing it.

Sobering. But then he says:

Human beings are not scorpions. People aren’t stuck being one way or another. But nor are they free to invent themselves without constraint. When we give shape to our social institutions — our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces — we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.

You can watch a brief TED talk here.

Story Makers Podcast: A Writer’s Salon in Your Living Room

cover170x170My conversation with Elizabeth Stark and Angie Powers of Book Writing World, in which we discuss the writing process, memoir, and my first book, Parenting in the Here and Now (which had just been released in the UK at the time of the recording and is available now in the US). Elizabeth teaches in-person and online writing classes that are worth their weight in gold, not just for the craft lessons but because she creates such a welcoming and affirming community. Her Story Makers Podcast is just another way of opening doors for writers. As a new writer, I needed to hear, over and over and over, from other writers. Still do. There are 8 other conversations available. I’ve listened to them all. Don’t miss them. It’s like having a writer’s salon right in your own living room.


Lessons from Dogs: Disappointment and Faith

I spend a lot of my time in my chair at my desk, and my dog spends a lot of time watching me in my chair at my desk. And every time I get up, she leaps up, ready—more than ready.


“Sorry, pup,” I say. “Just getting a glass of water.”

Or, “Sorry, little D, just getting a snack.”

Or, “Sorry, sweet girl, just going to the bathroom.”

That one is always cause for barking, turning circles and then—oops, sitting at attention, her whole body vibrating with excitement and good-dog-ness, because she knows that if I were to go out on a W-A-L-K, I would pee first and then I would ask her to sit—good-dog—and stay before I opened the door.

But most of the time it is: “Sorry, goofball, just peeing.”

And sometimes it is worse: “Sorry, little one, time for your heartworm pill—or time to clip your nails, or, or, or.”

And I go back to my desk and she goes back to lying at my feet—she’s there now, dozing and twitching.

There’s another email in my inbox—a response from a journal where I have submitted an essay or from a writer’s residency where I have submitted an application or from an agent to whom I have sent a query letter—and I wait a moment before I open it, because there’s still room for hope: are we going to walk together?

I huff a sigh out—another rejection—and my dog looks up, her own dream interrupted.

Sorry, dear writer, they say, not this time, not this place, not this piece.

I mark “no” on my little spreadsheet where I keep a record of my submissions and make a note of where to send to next.

And then I say, “C’mon, Katonah. Let’s go for a walk.”

Because she always says “yes,” and she will wait, with utter faith and love, until I say “yes,” too.

The Pitfalls of “Please.”

In a recent article in the Washington Post’s On Parenting Blog, “PLEASE: the downside of teaching our kids manners,” writer Emily Flake points, with wry humor, to the downside of teaching her young daughter to use the word “please.”

By teaching her daughter that “please” was the magic word, Flake realized that she had made a strategic error: she always said “yes” in response.

Unwittingly, she had trained her daughter to equate a request with a demand, and that is the antithesis of good manners. And that is because Flake overlooked half of the equation.

A request involves the asking: “May I please….” or “Would you please…”

But that is only the first half. The second half involves the answer from the other party: some version of yes, no or maybe. Remember: “please” is short for “if you please.” If it pleases you, but not if it doesn’t.

Have you taught your child to have good manners in receiving their answer? A “no” should be accepted with as much grace as a “yes.” A request, by definition, must inherently include permission for and acceptance of a denial, regardless of how nicely you ask. If it doesn’t, the request is a demand wearing sheep’s clothing, which is most often the word “please.”

Yes. I am pushing back on our culture’s constant drive to push–hard, harder!– for yes: “Don’t take no for an answer!” There is a fine line between advocating and imposing. Does your child know it? Do you?

It is harder to parse out than you would think.

Most parents, admirably, try to teach their children good manners. And most know that modeling is one of their most powerful tools. The parent models good manners, and the child imitates the parent. It is a slow way of teaching, but an effective one, except for one hidden pitfall with that word, “please.”

In their laudable efforts to model good manners, and often in an attempt to soften the blow of an announcement or expectation, parents will add in the word “please: “Would you please ________ (fill in the blank: brush your teeth, pick up your toys, get out of the bathtub, etc.)

The problem with this is that the parent is not really requesting that their child get out of the tub. They expect their child to get out of the tub. The only acceptable answer is a “yes.” And that means that the request is not really a request. It has been worded like one to sound “nicer” and hopefully garner less resistance.

I have no problem with a parent deciding that it is time for the child to get out of the tub. (There are better ways to manage it than making a demand: a song, a rhyme, pulling the plug and holding out the towel to wrap her in– emphasis on actions, in other words.)

But if we parents “request” that our child do something when we really mean “do it,” we are sending mixed messages.

We need to have good manners in asking, but we need equally good if not better manners in accepting a no.

Please is conditional.





Of Sharks and Terrorists and the Loss of Innocence

I pretend to have an obsessive fear of sharks.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am afraid. Ever since my mother took me to see Jaws when I was eleven years old, I have been afraid of sharks.

We were on a beach vacation that year, the first since my parents had divorced, and besides the shark movie, my mother treated my sisters and me to an R-rated film featuring gay sex—lots of gay sex—the variations of which were explored in exquisite detail on the screen and among many of the men who sat nearby in the theater. We were in Provincetown that year, not our usual destination, and my mother was, I suppose, trying to be cool, hipster, enlightened, I don’t know what. But even the ticket taker at the door to the theater warned us off—this isn’t a movie for children, he said—but she insisted, as if he were a relic from my grandfather’s generation. So all those rows of bloody teeth blown up large for the screen one night and then all of those intimate acts the next: I will admit. I was a bit overwhelmed.

I was contemptuous, too. The mildewy shack that we stayed in seemed like a significant step down from our usual vacation place. I can see now that taking us to Provincetown—a new place that wasn’t associated with my father—was an act of bravery on my mother’s part—or maybe it was just all she could afford. But I hated it, everything about it, especially my mother, because besides bringing us to inappropriate movies, she brought along our record player, the one that snapped shut like a small suitcase, and she played just one song from one record, over and over and over: Barbra Steisand’s “People Who Need People.”

If people who needed people were the luckiest people, it was clear that I was not one of them. I didn’t feel lucky (I was the one she chose to sleep on a sagging cot on the not-very-screened-in porch without AC), and I wasn’t a person who needed people: I just wanted to be left alone.

But back to the sharks. After the Summer of Jaws, I could never swim in the ocean again without that tingly feeling of being watched. I might even admit to having looked over my shoulder once or twice while I was in a swimming pool, but that was only because of that James Bond movie where the guy is thrown into the pool and then a secret hatch opens—uh, oh—letting in those smooth and silent sharks.

Aside from that, I feel that my fear of sharks fits into your normal range.

But over the years, my fear has become legendary in my immediate family. I copped to my shark phobia once, and besides the usual jokes about pigs killing more people per year than do sharks, an amazing phenomenon occurred.

I lived in Montana for fifteen years—pretty safe from a shark attack there!—but I managed to escalate my shark-fear rhetoric nonetheless. I was in the middle of a whole continent, and still I didn’t have to wait for Shark Week to find an excuse to slip in a funny comment about sharks followed by a full body shudder.

But it wasn’t the fear that was so delicious. I don’t like fear.

I have plenty of other things that I struggle with, that I am concerned about, that I am genuinely afraid of—so why exaggerate this one?

Because people believed me. I wasn’t dismissed as being “too sensitive.” I didn’t even have to trot out that sorry story about my loss of innocence in a theater in Provincetown. They believed that I was afraid. It required no explanation on my part.

A fear of sharks, while not statistically valid, is understandable to everyone.

And so I understand why terrorist attacks bring up such visceral fear. The horror and suffering is real.

But here is the thing: my family does not make decisions based upon my shark phobia. And neither should politicians make public policy based on their fear—or the public’s fear—of terrorists.

I overact my fear of sharks because…well, I suppose because of some unmet childhood need to be protected, to be heard, to be accepted. And because it is funny. But I don’t use it to manipulate anyone.

And that is what the terrorists are doing: manipulating.

Sharks kill and eat their prey without any intent other than to fill their stomachs. It isn’t personal.

Terrorists kill in order to control the behavior of the millions of people whom they can’t kill. They kill in order to manipulate the few people who do have control over the rest of us: politicians. They terrorize in order to destroy what they could not otherwise destroy. 

Terrorism isn’t war. It is political manipulation. Follow the puppet strings. Follow the money. Stand in solidarity with the victims, but remember that terrorism is NOT an existential threat.

Pigs really do kill more people than sharks do. And many more people will die of diabetes than from terrorist attacks. Women have been killed by their partners, young black men have been killed by police officers, people have been struck and killed by drunk drivers, and students have been shot in schools. But those threats don’t scare us—or they don’t scare all of us—the way terrorist attacks do.

The terror is real. You are not over-sensitive.

And the threat is real, too. It just isn’t the one that seems so immediately obvious.

The real threat is that we will react disproportionately, as the terrorists wish us to: with fear and, worse, hatred.





The One Thing You Need to Do Before Your Book Goes to Press

New Hampshire Writer’s Week is winding down. At the second-to-last panel last night at Nashua’s Barnes & Noble, we were all in agreement that the one thing you need to do between getting your book contract (or settling on a system for self-publishing) and going to print is to make and implement a marketing plan.

As always, the panelists were generous. Amy Ray shared an outline of the promotion plan from her book proposal. Helen DePrima told stories about her odyssey, Terri Bruce reminded us that marketing is all about building authentic relationships, and E.C. Ambrose offered a mini-tutorial on the 1-2 sentence logline, that hook that we all need to nail down, write down, rehearse and memorize so that we are ready with an interesting and pithy answer to that question: “So, what’s your book about?”

And I talked about fear.

I am not an expert on marketing and promotion. I am still on that learning curve, even with one book out (Parenting in the Here and Now), another ready to send out and a third on the way.

But I know a lot– a LOT–about fear.

And I told the audience that I naively thought that once I had my contract, once I had made it past the gatekeepers, once I had been chosen, I would be done with fear.



In my earlier panel discussion about finishing a first draft, I spoke about the inner critic, who tells us that our writing is no good, often before the words are even on the page. I know the inner critic. I can recognize it in all of its multiple disguises.

Or I thought I could.

But after I had been through the pre-publication editing process on my first book with the most kind and helpful of editors, I was overcome by what I later learned is called “imposter syndrome,” in which you can’t believe that your name is worthy of being attached to your thoughts and words. I wrote a despairing email to her, confessing that I was an utter fraud and that there was still time to put a stop to the whole thing. It wasn’t too late.

I am sure that my editor must have rolled her eyes when she received the email: “Oh, these writers…” But she responded to me with as much kindness and grace as she had to my manuscript and told me that all writers feel this way at some point, that she and the publisher (Floris Books) believed in me and my book, and now would I please take another read through because it was time to proof it for the last time.

I didn’t tell the audience this story to scare them off. On the contrary, I told it to them so they wouldn’t be scared off. So they would recognize fear when it crept up on them from behind or hit them squarely in the face.

So they would understand that fear (a.k.a.: the inner critic AND the imposter syndrome) says: “You aren’t enough. You don’t have what it takes. You aren’t worthy.”

But fear means: “This is important. You are the one. Have courage.”

I cannot say it enough or hear it enough, so I’ll repeat it again, for your sake and for mine:

This is important. You are the one. You are worthy.

Have courage.


A Typewriter in Every Classroom?

It is Writer’s Week here in New Hampshire, and The New Hampshire Writer’s Project has organized a week-long series of events around the state to help aspiring writers on their journey to the page and beyond. On Tuesday, I presented my answer to that night’s question: What is the one thing you need to know to finish a first draft?

My answer: curiosity.

There were four other speakers: Steve Carter, Richard Adams Carey, Rob Greene and Jim Kelly. They all were the embodiment of warmth, generosity and humor. In the end, we all said the same thing– with our own flavor.

But I want to tell you about Rob Greene because he is doing something extraordinary.

He began his presentation by placing a manual typewriter on the lectern. CTcuJDyWIAEMa1s

Then he pecked away on the keys, saying, “It was a dark and stormy night…” He slapped the return lever to bring the carriage back and continued, “A shot rang out…,” and we all laughed. It was so cliche, so old-school.

His answer to the question of the night: everyone needs a manual typewriter. And he  cataloged its advantages: no internet connection/distraction; too much difficulty changing things, so it is easier to just keep going and not worry over mistakes; a concrete record of progress: that growing pile of pages; accountability: if he tells his wife that he is working on his novel, she can tell by the sound whether he is, in fact, working.

His was a wonderful example of a writer setting himself up for success.

But he said something else that struck me. He is also a high school teacher, and he owns 45 manual typewriters– he scavenges and repairs them– and he brings them into his classroom. He described a class in which the students were all writing– typing. And he likened it to music. Can’t you just imagine it?

And he mentioned that the manual typewriter was a real help for his students who have ADHD: the tactile experience enables them– some, for the first time– to focus more on their writing.

It takes energy to press those keys– to keep pressing them. There is a satisfying “clack” each time. I know because my father is a writer, and when I was little, I could hear him typing out his his manuscripts and articles, really hitting those keys hard to get through two sheets of onion skin paper with a piece of carbon paper in between. (He has since moved on to using a laptop. I don’t know if he still uses only his two forefingers to type).

Rob’s method is a revolution: an intermediate step– and perhaps a very crucial one– between writing by hand and using a computer.

Writing is an act of will as well as an act of thought and imagination. And our will develops first, when we are children, through our bodies, through our physical experience of the world. A healthy will is essential because it is through our will that we manifest our thoughts and feelings into deeds.

I have written on Krista Tippett’s On Being Blog about how we can organize our home life to support the healthy development of will in our children by including them in real work and real play. We nourish the will by doing. Not by talking, not by explaining. Not by thinking. By doing things that our children can imitate. By doing things that are worthy of imitation.

In schools these days, the use of computers is creeping (and I use the word with its malevolent connotation intentionally) into lower and lower grades. Some schools are not  teaching cursive writing anymore in lieu of using a computer. This is a problem. Handwriting is an act of will– it is coordination between the head and the hand. The importance and benefits of the very physicality of the act is not to be overlooked. The quick jump to computers takes out the physical aspect so quickly. Too quickly.

By using manual typewriters in his classes, Rob is setting up his students for success. He has found a way to engage their will in a way that is both physical and mental, practical and creative. This is genius.


The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft, part 2

Here is the handout I made for my presentation last Tuesday for New Hampshire Writer’s Week. It includes a list of books that have been inspiring for me and some which have been practically useful, an interesting article about Zadie Smith and her analysis of the psychology of writers, and finally, Anne Friedman’s “Disapproval Matrix,” which is instructive for anyone, really, but writers in particular. And it is wickedly funny.

Click on this link: First Draft



The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft

NHww11-9 It is Writer’s Week in New Hampshire! The NH Writer’s Project is putting on a week-long series for aspiring writers, and last night, along with four other local authors, I spoke at the Pease Public Library in Plymouth about the one thing you need to finish a first draft.

The other four speakers were fantastic: hilarious and inspiring, (more about them in a following post) and the audience was warm and engaged. Jeff Deck did a great job organizing the event. And I will note, for those of you who know me and wonder if I have, finally, learned to talk without using my hands, that this photo captures the one moment when I was not gesticulating wildly. So: no. No progress on that front.

Here is a synopsis of what I had to say:

The one thing that I believe a writer needs to finish a first draft is curiosity. Curiosity is the other side of the coin opposite judgment. Curiosity holds open the door to possibility.

There are two parts to the question of the night: the finishing and the draft itself.

Finishing is all about you, the writer, and your writing process.

Your inner critic is probably one of your biggest hurdles to finishing. My inner critic begins by saying that my writing is awful and quickly moves on to saying that I am awful. From there, it seems only logical when it suggests that I stop writing– stop embarrassing us all– before I go any further with what is so obviously a disaster. There are a million variations on this theme, but one of the best antidotes for it is curiosity. Curiosity says in response, “Maybe it is awful. Maybe not. But let’s just write one more day and see what happens. Let’s just get another 250 words down and see where they take us.” And if you do that every day, you (along with your inner critic) will eventually find yourselves with a finished draft.

I know of no way to absolutely silence the inner critic, but you can learn to work despite its presence. As I say in Parenting in the Here and Now, fear (a.k.a.: the inner critic) says: “You aren’t enough. You don’t have what it takes.” What fear means is something quite different: “This is important. You are the one. Have courage.” Curiosity can go a long way toward filling in for confidence.

I love hearing other writers describing their writing processes: their habits, their schedules, their tricks. I wrote my first book in the warm room of a hockey rink and the second in our pickup in the parking lot of another hockey rink. I am working on my third at home, but if I get stuck, I may be heading out to the rink again. Some writers will say “you must:” write every day, write first thing in the morning, write only new material without looking back, etc. But most just describe how it works for them, and that is liberating because even the “musts” are all different. There are as many variations as there are writers, and it is your job to be curious about what works for you. Be inspired by how other writers do it, but don’t be bound by it.

Some writers are planners. Every plot point and scene is worked out in advance. There may be a considerable supply of post-its involved, and outlines and lists. I admire these types of writers because I am not one of them. Every other part of my life is organized and planned down to the last detail. But not my writing. Even though I am a non-fiction writer, when I sit down each day to write, I have no idea what I am going to say. Just as Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, I have the seed of an idea but beyond that: nothing. Not till I get to the writing. That is how I excavate the story. Even with my parenting book, where I supposedly had expertise to share, I was still flying by the seat of my pants. I did go so far as to make a list of ten topics before I began, but I never checked the list again. I had a rough idea, and then I let the writing take me where it wanted to go.

And that is the second part: the draft. The draft comes from you, but it is not you. It is more than you. And if you leave room for curiosity as you write– regardless of how much or how little you have planned in advance– you will start to see connections and patterns that you didn’t know were there, that you couldn’t have thought of on your own, on purpose.

I have written two memoirs. Theoretically, I know the story in each because– well, duh– I lived it. The truth? No clue. I had no clue what the story was all about until I had written it.

Approaching your first draft with curiosity opens the door for discovery and inspiration and surprise. And it invites in the reader, as well, because that is why a reader picks up a book in the first place: to see what happens, to discover, to be inspired or surprised. And if you have found those things on the page, then they will, too.

Ultimately, your final draft is your gift to your readers. Your fist draft is your gift to yourself. It is all yours. You write it in utter freedom. In fact, writing a first draft may be the only thing that we adults get to do in utter freedom.

I encourage you to bring curiosity to your first draft: to see what you will bring to the draft, and also, to see what the draft will bring to you.

Vacuuming: A Lesson in Devotion

Let me tell you about me and the vacuum. We’re not pals. We don’t get along. When the hose twists and makes that high-pitched whining sound, it takes all of my self-control to not yank it as I straighten it—OK, I do yank it. When the vacuum gets hung up behind the door, I take it as a personal affront.

For a while, I was granted a reprieve by my son, who vacuumed the house every weekend for years—with good cheer. I still haven’t figured out how he managed that. But he is off and away now, and I am back at it (I do the downstairs, my husband does the upstairs). And clearly, I have not developed a more mature approach. I open up the closet door, and I swear, that vacuum is leaning against the corner with a surly look in its eye.

I know this is nuts.

And that is what I told a group of parents recently, who had gathered to hear me talk about the crisis of will.

We were discussing chores—how important they are to the child’s developing will—and I had spoken about how the parent can set a good example by doing his or her own chores in the presence of the small child and by doing them with care, with joy, but mostly with devotion.

At one point in the discussion, I asked the parents what “devotion” meant to them: joy, attention, taking time to slow down, gratitude, love.

But I also wanted those parents to know that they didn’t have to set a perfect example, just a good one. And I always seem to have a ready anecdote to show them how that works: being imperfect. The vacuuming could be Exhibit A. Any other chore—no problem—I can find something to love about it. But the vacuuming is just a hurdle that I haven’t been able to jump. Yet.

But then it occurred to me that we had missed an important element of devotion, and the story about my utter disgust and admitted bad attitude about vacuuming held a little grain of important truth.

I hate vacuuming, but I still do it, and I do it reasonably well. I don’t pretend to not hate it—I’m not that good an actor. But I do it, nevertheless. And my kids know that.

And that is part of devotion, maybe the most basic part: showing up. Showing up every time, when you want to, but even when you don’t. And that is part of a healthy will: learning to balance want with need.

It is a true gift to be able to make the doing of mundane household tasks meaningful, to invite a young child to sink his hands into the soapy dishwater or to teach him to master the trick of folding a shirt. Done with devotion, those tasks can be nourishing instead of draining.

But showing up to do something necessary and important (I like a clean house, so vacuuming is therefore necessary and important to me) even when you don’t want to, is a sign of devotion, even if it is only in an infant stage.

So all is not lost for me and the vacuum. And not only because my son will be home for the summer and might be convinced to take up that chore again.

What do you show up for, even when you don’t feel like it? Are there any areas in your life where you haven’t really shown up? What about other people in your life? When/where have they shown up?