For the Thin Times

For the Thin Times

Recently I was indulging my inner nerd and took in The Lord of the Rings – since it’s on Netflix right now. There was a quote from Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of the movie right before he left the shire to go on his final adventure:

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

These words can resonate with most people, and I could say many times in life would relate to this, but I felt an especially strong connection to the sentiment. It’s really a vivid description of what it feels like to have yourself pulled in multiple directions – you feel thin, stretched, incomplete, and a little scraped for extra measure.

Like so many others, we feel like there is not enough to go around. But for me, there is a deeper, more difficult issue at work. And, I think it was at work in Bilbo as well.

The context of the quote was Bilbo wanting to escape his hometown and not deal with the things he knew he needed to engage. He wanted to finish his book, do his own thing, and he perceived his hometown as an obstacle to any of that. So, he conjured up excuses so he could escape – in dramatic fashion to boot (I’d love to have a magic ring like that).

That’s the problem for so many of us. We get truly overwhelmed or overstretched because we are actually just avoiding the things we need to be doing. In fact I’d go so far to say a lot of the things we think are keeping us busy are not even real or true – just something that keeps us distracted.

You want proof? As I’m writing this blog I have found numerous ways to distract myself from actually getting this done. It’s not that I dislike writing, but to create something like a blog takes work, concentration, and dedication – all things that are easily neutralized by a peek at Twitter.

Ok, I’m back again. So what was I saying? Oh yeah – distractions….

You see, just like Bilbo, I do feel stretched but I need to be honest with myself about what that actually means. Do I have too much going on? Or are the things I have in my life all important enough to keep around? The truth is if I eliminated some of the things that keep me distracted, it would force me to actually engage in more important, meaningful work.

Bilbo probably needed to stay in his hometown, deal with his family issues, and just write his book. As Seth Godin puts it, maybe we don’t need more butter – we just need less bread to spread it across.

Teenagers are on the front lines of feeling thin. Many have 7-8 completely different subjects to deal with every day at school, let alone the social and emotional pressures of adolescence. And, they are kind of thrust into it. So many report feeling anxious and frustrated with their situation and will start to struggle.

So for them (and us), how can we feel less thin as we navigate a complicated world? A few ideas…

  1. Find your space – whether it is an outdoor walk, time to read and reflect, a good workout, or prayer time – and make it a priority. These are the times where priorities begin to shift because you actually have time to think.
  2. Quit or suspend one of your social media accounts. Wait, what? Yeah, give it a try. Don’t worry, it will be there if you have to break the glass and pull the lever. Those things never go away. See how it feels to live without a Facebook account for a while. You might actually like it.
  3. Examine what is actually keeping you busy vs. what actually needs to be accomplished. This takes honesty and time but would be worthwhile. Make a list, a Venn diagram, something that works for you.

As loving adults in the lives of teenagers, we need to communicate a sense of peace in the chaos. Yes, we have so much going on, but we also have the opportunity to model what it looks like to know what is truly important – for the thin times.

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s COO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
Generosity Changes Everything

Generosity Changes Everything

I recently finished a business book, which not to brag, is a pretty big deal for me. Just finishing a book, not the business part. But the fact it was a business book is important and has my mind spinning about how I interact with people and help our readers interact with teenagers. The book, Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, is essentially a networking book. While that sounds stale and uninspiring, the motivating force behind his book and world class networking skills is what has got my head spinning – generosity.

Now, I’m probably a few weeks late on the generosity post, but this goes way farther than presents. Ferrazzi posits any relationship and connected group of relationships (a network in this case) is best when done from a standpoint of generosity. That is, when seeking out a new relationship or even finding someone who can help you must start with what you can do for them. This seems upside down (which as I’m getting older seems to be where all of the good stuff is), but it makes a lot of sense. If I’m seeking out someone who can be of help to me, I will likely get that help much more freely if I have something to offer them – especially when it comes to people of influence. Everyone is wanting something from them, but if you have something you can offer them that is helpful and timely, they might choose you to build a relationship.

Reading this book also got me thinking about another highly influential book in my library – Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Dr. Chap Clark did a research study at a large California high school to get a reading on teen culture as well as how they interact with adults. The book is stunning because it paints a rather grim picture of adolescents really being on their own when it comes to adults. What Clark dubbed “The World Beneath” encapsulates a hidden subculture of teenage life where teens live and function without the help and guidance of loving adults. 

So, why are there no adults? Dr. Clark theorizes that since the mid 1960’s, adults have increasingly withdrawn from teenagers and become more protective of what they have. Institutions like public schools, civic organizations, and even churches have become adult institutions that teenagers have to exist within. Fewer and fewer adults interact with teenagers for the joy of doing so. For Dr. Clark, a lot of adults have trouble relating to teenagers in a way that is not corrective or directive.

There is a lot more to this book than what I am describing, but suffice to say it made an impact on how I interact with teenagers. I want to be someone who a teenager can see as a safe place to talk, think, explore. I try my best to help them think and encourage them to make a good decision based upon what they know. I don’t walk in their shoes. I don’t know what they go through. But, I can help them think.

And that brings be back around to the generosity stuff. I believe if we start from a stance of generosity when we work with teenagers, our relationships will be so much more robust. But, we need to think a little more about what they need. And, that is where this generosity stuff gets good. If we are willing to give of our time, our resources, our experiences, and our people, what an amazing impact we could have. If we were generous with patience and grace (both of which teenagers need in abundance), we would stand out as someone who could be trusted.

You see, teenagers need more than your advice and direction. They need your generosity. What would it look like to be more generous with a teenager in your life?

(Another great resource on generosity can be found in a recent Michael Hyatt podcast found here.)

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s COO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
Get on the Ground

Get on the Ground

I’ve never considered myself the “playful” type. It’s not that I’m particularly boring, but my “default” gear isn’t to step into a room wondering what kind of mischief I can stir up. I leave that to my wife.

For me, it is more of a mental shift I make – a decision that I’m not going to focus on getting things done, but just “play”. Sometimes this can be a hard shift because I feel like I am at my best when I am accomplishing things. Being task-oriented has helped me become more focused and productive, but sometimes it comes at a cost. My job has become more task oriented, and often that will follow me home.

So, when I walk in my home after a long work day my challenge is turning off my task list and re-orienting my priorities. You see, my kids don’t care about what I accomplished that day. All they want is to play. And I find the quickest way for me to switch from work to play mode is quite simple – lay down.

Oh, and I forgot the second part – prepare for the pain.

For a seven, four, and two year old there is nothing more thrilling than to see their daddy lay down on the ground for them to wrestle and jump on. Seriously – I compare the looks I see on their faces to Christmas morning sometimes. Maybe it is because I don’t do it enough – or maybe it’s because there is something else going on.

Adults fail to realize the simple idea of distance. Our world is “up here” and their’s is “down there”. They are always looking up to what we are doing. When we discipline or get upset at them, often it is from “up here”. Important conversations and decisions are made from “up there”. But, “down here” is where play, imagination, games, wrestling, and all the cool kid stuff happens.

The problem is – us adults spend way too much time “up there” and forget about “down here”. We get so consumed with adult things that we forget there is a whole other world just below our knees that looks nothing like ours. All we have to do to experience it is to lay down.

I have two big boys, and they like to hurt me when I’m down on the ground. I have a little girl who loves nothing more than to bounce on my back. It does hurt. But, for a brief moment I enter their world, and they get to share all of the cool things they are doing. They are in control. They call the shots. I don’t really have any authority on the ground.

This is “sacred space” that all adults who work with students should notice. It looks different the older people get – but that sacred space still exists. There is a world that teenagers live in where adults seldom venture. It’s a place where the shiny new tools of emotional development, society, culture, education, and the future collide. For those on the inside, it can be pretty overwhelming. If more adults would go into the world of a teenager with compassion and grace instead of advice and rules, we would know what it means to “get on the ground” with teenagers. They will open up. They will listen to you. They will trust you.

So, let’s change the way we approach teenagers. Instead of bringing adult thinking and culture to them, let’s leave all of that behind and “get on the ground” with them. It might hurt a little, but imagine what you will find……

How does this strike you? How do you “get on the ground” with the teenagers in your life? 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s COO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
The 1% Principle

The 1% Principle

The points of my life where I am the most frustrated and discontent are the points where progress halts. I’ve never been a productivity guy, as in rigid schedule keeping or meeting long-term goals, but my general hope is that I am moving in a positive direction and improving various aspects of my life.

In so many ways, this is why I love my work with Teen Life as a Support Group leader. We get to sit with students week after week and talk about what could be better and challenge ourselves to go out and do the work it takes to make it happen. Often these gains are small, but they mean a lot.

Which is why I was struck by a productivity philosophy relatively unknown outside of business schools and self-help circles – The Kaizen Method. Roughly translated (from Japanese) it means “continuous slow improvement”.

The method came into western consciousness after World War II when American automobile makers visited a Toyota automobile plant to research why they were so efficient and error-free in their production lines. Up to this point, American automobile assembly lines were notoriously sloppy and wasteful.

What they found was surprising – essentially any worker on the assembly line had been given the authority to stop the production line if they saw a mistake or flaw in the work, address the issue, then start production again. And on top of that, any worker had the agency to point out flaws in the overall system or even minor details that would make things better.

This is no small deal. Traditionally, outsourcing feedback to assembly line workers was unheard of, and stopping a production line could be costly. Was it really necessary? Couldn’t these small changes be made in ways that kept the production line moving?

When you compare Japanese vehicles to American ones in that time period, the quality and vehicle output were not even close. By far, Japanese vehicles ran farther, had greater overall customer satisfaction, and held greater value than American cars.

And all of this was attributed to the Kaizen Method – the idea that quality products and healthy growth happens not from great individual leaps, but more from small, incremental growth – consistent over time.

When workers were given freedom to fix small problems, flaws in the system were noted in real time and fixed. In American factories, production lines never stopped so if there was a problem, they wouldn’t know until they had to strip down a car and start all over again. Problems were never fixed and the end result was a complete mess.

After this method was uncovered, productivity experts started to apply this principle to self-improvement. The idea manifested in several ways, but one way really stands out – the 1% improvement principle.

The idea is if you really want to develop a habit or get better at something, you need to do so at a very slow pace. Basically, you aim to get 1% better or more regular at doing something each day. And, it actually starts that way if you are starting from scratch.

For example, if you don’t read regularly and you want to, you would start by reading 1 minute a day, then 2 minutes the next, and so on. You are allowing your brain to feel small successes while also building habits over time. So often we want to start a healthier lifestyle by radically changing what we do or going “cold turkey”. But with this principle, we prevent our brain from getting overloaded and stressed – allowing for healthy change over a long period of time.

This works in our support groups with teenagers and my guess is it can work for you. Here are some tips:

  • Choose one thing you want to do differently or better in the coming month. Only choose one thing.
  • Start day one with a small expression of what you want to be doing well in a month. An example would be if you want to save more money than you spend, spend one less dollar on something you normally would. Or, go on a one minute walk.
  • Make sure you schedule that minute or small activity. Even though it is small, it needs to be scheduled so you do it.
  • Add small increments on top of it. Map it out over a month so you can see your progress.
  • Finally, don’t feel guilty for such small steps. You are working on life change, not just trying something new. These things take time, and any time you give is a step in a positive direction.
Chris Robey, Teen Life’s COO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
Trading One Set of Good Things for Another

Trading One Set of Good Things for Another

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from one of my best friends regarding marriage. This one stuck in my memory for some reason I can’t explain. The advice was prompted by some of my anxieties revolving around leaving the “single life” – something at which I had become adept by virtue of the many years of practice. I was obviously excited about marrying the girl who had become my best friend in life, but I wasn’t really sure what it was going to be like sharing a life with someone else.

The thing is, when we do something new, old things have to pass away. This is a really hard truth as revealed by the millions of broken “resolutions” we find scattered amongst the first few months of the year. We all want to do things better and become better people, but in our efforts we forget my friend’s incredible advice:

“You have to trade one good set of things for another set of good things.” 

This advice was ringing in my ears when I read a recent blog post by Dr. Tim Elmore about some encouraging and discouraging statistics on teenagers. You can read it here. Dr. Elmore outlines some great news on teenagers balanced out with some bad news.

Smoking is down.

Junk food consumption is up.

Sexual activity is down.

So is condom use.

Drinking and driving is down.

Texting while driving is up.

Think if you were a charity or non-profit who worked diligently on the issue of drunk driving and seeing the stats fall, only to see traffic fatalities rise for essentially the same problem – impaired driving. Or if you worked tirelessly on educating youth that smoking kills only to see them eating potato chips for dinner?

Teenagers, like adults, tend to find things to help us cope with life. We all have them. Life is stressful and difficult, and we can’t always be on our “A” game. So, we justify certain behaviors so we can “get by”. After a while, we see the error in this thinking and try to change our unhealthy habits.

The problem is, changing an unhealthy behavior has to be followed with something good. We have to trade one set of things for another set of things. The only caveat is, what are we replacing it with?

I found this idea to be true in my own life recently. Since the beginning of the year I’ve tried to lose some weight (which I have) and clean up my eating (which I….kind of have), and found myself eating good during the day but eating unhealthy before bedtime. It’s like I undo all of the good I’ve done throughout the day with a poor eating choice at night.

And because of that, I struggle to meet my goals. I haven’t really traded anything.

As we walk alongside teenagers, we can’t just tell them to “stop doing things” and offer no real alternative or better path. Human beings tend to cope. And if we can’t find healthier ways to cope, we will only find other unhealthy ways.

We can’t get mad at teenagers or disparage an entire generation because they kind of act like us sometimes. Let’s help teenagers find ways to exchange an unhealthy set of behaviors for something good, sustainable, and life-bringing.

For more on this, I’d encourage you to read Dr. Elmore’s brief post about how we use these findings to bring about healthy change with our teenage friends. 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s COO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.