My Little Friend

Did you ever have the feeling that an independent person lived within you?  Someone you once knew intimately, someone who has remained so vivid over all these years that you can’t even call him a memory.  To me, he is tangible.  I can almost touch him.

I see a small boy running with Freddy and Stevie along Grand Avenue in the Bronx.  His lungs are bursting as he picks up speed toward the end of the race, breaking at the last minute so he doesn’t run into Burnside Avenue.  There he is again, now at six, running across the lawn of our new Levittown home.  I see him at 10 and 15 and 20.  There’s a smile on his face.  He’s running with such joyful abandon.  I want to hold him to me.

Oh man.  Now he’s with a group of friends from the track team and they are leaping over cars that stop for a light in Harvard Square.  The drivers seem to be laughing with the jumpers.  I am, too.  I wish I could be jumping with them.

Once, when his father came to visit, the young man was running wind sprints with his friend, Chris O’Hiri, in the grand old Harvard Stadium.  While he ran, the track coach confided to his Dad:  “He runs beautifully, doesn’t he.”  If you looked closely, you’d see the father’s eyes tear up.  It was as though he were sprinting, too, his knees kicking high, then reaching and reaching until his feet touched the ground.  All the while, the autumn wind brushed his face like a the hand of new friend.  His father quickly wiped the tears away but the young man saw them, knew them, knew he was running for both of them.  Chris swung an arm around the boy-man.  He knew, too.

As you’ve surely guessed, the boy is me.  Until relatively recently, he has lived comfortably within me.  For a long time, I imagined that, at any moment, he could burst forth again.  I walk along and see a fence and imagine myself leaping over it with a foot or two to spare.  I walk across a street.  A car is coming fast.  No problem.  If necessary I’ll spring to the sidewalk.

Now I notice a clutch of big guys on my side of the street, not far ahead, looking slightly menacing.  I remember all the times as a boy I’d cross into dangerous territory, virtually daring the gang who ‘owned’ that part of town to come after me.  No chance.  I’d run away, leap over the stream that separated their part of town from mine, gain speed and make my way home without breaking a sweat.

To this day, I hate walking around without my sneakers, guarantors of my capacity to escape danger.  Even though now I couldn’t sprint more than a few yards before tearing a hamstring muscle or spraining an ankle.

For years, I substituted hiking in the high mountains for those youthful runs.  The walking was hard and slow, breathing labored, especially when we crested the passes at 11,000 feet.  But the exhilaration was so much like the boy’s.  The feeling of the air cooling the sweat on his face.  The gratitude when exhaustion came.

This older fellow was different than the boy, though.  He thought about the climbs and the peace that came from them.  But in the midst of these ruminations, he was momentarily transformed into that boy, who seemed just as sweet as the one he had known many years ago.  That boy remains a distinctive person, who I can almost touch, so different from a memory.

Sometimes I wonder if I should do something about them, those resident boys. Are they illusions that distract me from what’s going on right here, right now?  Should I expel them?  Should I push them into memory?  Deny myself their joyful companionship?

No, I don’t think so.  They don’t get in the way very much.  Their demands haven’t stopped me from becoming an adult.  They’re not so insistent on my attention that I miss more pertinent or immediate experiences in my life.  The truth is that I’m inclined to let them be and simply to take pleasure in their company.

 

 

 

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Why Shouldn’t We Be President

In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement.  I was 74.  The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort.  And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so.  .  Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.

With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing:  Why did I think it best to pass the torch?

The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task.  It was time for new ideas and new energy.  There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me.  She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences.  Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.

At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice.  In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.

I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t.  Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?

The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think  “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.”  There’s an impossible amount to learn.  Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office.  That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.  You do the math.  “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said.  As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s.  So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.

You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point.  People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age.  Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.  Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.

Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime.  Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.”  “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education.  Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:

“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”

I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership.  Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism.  That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think.  But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives.  It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it?  And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.

What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service?  These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.

I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership.  Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual.  We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive?  Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability.  What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office.  For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office?  That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.

I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability.  Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.

 

From Discipline to Freedom

I’m a freedom loving guy.  I like free time.  I prefer ambling to planning on vacations.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to think freely and outside the box.  I’d rather begin an organization of my own than fit into anyone else’s.  I am lost when I try to read the directions for a new gadget.  I am uncomfortable with strict guidelines – in truth, with rules of any kind.

There’s no inherent virtue in this way of being.   In fact, it’s often problematic for me.  It gets me into lots of trouble, multiplies the time and effort it takes to get things done, and often leaves me confused.  It slows my adaptation to certain kinds of innovations, my techno-dinosaur status a testament to that. And it’s often problematic for others.

But my love for discipline and order may be greater still.  I love, I need, a disciplined life.  So much so that I am miserable when I stray too far.  Whenever I do, I vow to return as soon as I can.

Just to be concrete, let me describe a disciplined day.  I wake in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and sit briefly with the newspaper.  Then I write in my journal, trying to square up my inner and outer lives, understanding what I’m thinking and feeling so that I act as consciously as I can through the day.  That’s a discipline all by itself. Then I meditate—not for long, maybe 20 – 30 minutes.  You know that the regularity and ‘proper’  practice of meditation requires discipline.

Then I write.  These days I’m writing essays for my blog.  In days past, I would be working on a professional article or a book.  Having “earned it” through all this disciplined activity, I then exercise for an hour or an hour and a half.  By now it’s early afternoon and I begin to read.  At this time of day, it’s usually a nonfiction book, sometimes in keeping with my writing project but often just something that interests me. I like to learn, always have, and I feel better about life if I’m actively engaged in learning. Focusing, trying to understand, keeping up…these require discipline.

Then the rest of the day—it could now be 3:00 or 4:00—is  open.  I rest, talk with Franny or friends or both.  I read a novel.  I nap, a new and delightful habit. It all feels good, in much the way that I feel deeply relaxed and free after vigorous exercise.  And when I awaken in the morning, assured that this is how I’ll spend my day, I greet the morning with uncomplicated calm and pleasure.  Which, I’ll admit, is part of my goal in life.

There’s more to value in a discipline than a well-scheduled day, of course.  Like maintaining clear, sturdy, kind attitudes and positions with children, grandchildren, family, friends, colleagues—and strangers.  But for this essay, let me try to explain why day-to-day discipline, in itself, has become my holy grail.

At the least, sustaining a disciplined approach to life gives me a sense of self-control.  It makes me feel like I am the prime mover.  When immersed in my various disciplines, I feel like I have chosen my activities.  Nothing is just happening to me.  Of equal importance, discipline, which requires a great deal of concentration on what I’m doing, deflects lots of the internal chatter and emotional winds, the currents of discontent and self-criticism, that readily push me about when I am lax.  Ultimately, random or unscheduled days aren’t as calming as trustworthy regimens.

Discipline brings a rhythm into my life.  You do this and then that and then this again.  Movement from activity to activity becomes almost unconscious.  Rhythm has a way of taking over, making every motion feel almost effortless.  Think of running or dancing.  When I am in rhythm my body moves and my mind flows—without thinking.  I’m not fighting myself.  So it is when I move from my journal to meditation, from meditation to writing to … well you get the picture.  I’m dancing.

Here’s the irony about discipline, though.  Just as self-discipline provides a sense of control, it simultaneously releases me from my need for control.  The safety of control helps me let go.  In the midst of journal writing, for instance, my mind wanders.  My imagination frees up.  My thoughts go to ordinary, as well as surprising, even sometimes forbidden, places.  Letting go within the confined spaces of a discipline brings out a sense of spaciousness, a safe place to be out of control; and being out of control in that safe way reassures me that I am in control.  Are you following?

There’s also a problem that comes with the need for discipline: it never completely succeeds.  I have it and I lose it.  When I’ve been disciplined for a long while, the loss sometimes feels like a relief—I can play, I can relax; I can be naughty—but it’s also a little bit like falling off the wagon.  That first drink may not lure me away for long but a number of drinks will.  Then I’m disappointed with myself.  I berate myself.  Then I exhort myself: “Get back into the rhythm, Barry.”  Sometimes I succeed readily and quickly; sometimes the return takes time, even a long time.  At such times, I grow irritable, impulsive, sometimes unhappy.

These rhythms of discipline and laxity, order and chaos, are inevitable for seekers of calm places like me.  And I need ways to cope with the downside, the periods when I flounder. I’ve come to believe that the measure of my success and failure isn’t in the fall from grace as much as it is in two closely related activities: my ability to tolerate the chaotic times, and the persistence of my efforts to return.

I could devote an entire essay to my efforts to tolerate — the times when I lose a sense of order and purpose, when I feel unable to move forward towards whatever goals I have been seeking or towards an ability to live comfortably without goals.  Over time, my tolerance seems to have grown with my ability to trust that ‘this too shall pass.’  And I don’t use the word “trust” lightly.  It is, as the scholars would call it, an evidence-based conclusion that I have drawn.  I’ve done my research, you see.

While writing in my journal for 50 years, and while meditating, it has been hard to miss: the disappointing times pass.  I am less anxious when the chaos arrives.  Its strength dissipates when I don’t fight it as hard as once I did.   And my ability to return to a disciplined life grows stronger.

I am like a fish out of water when my life in unstructured for too long.  I don’t breathe as well.  So persistence for me isn’t so much a choice as a necessity—but no longer an onerous necessity nor even a way to return.  Persistence, itself, has grown into one of my most important disciplines.