Thursday, September 12, 2013

Living the Dream
by Nicoletta Heidegger

I would be lying to you, parents, if I told you I wasn’t having fun working at summer camp. Glassy, calm, blue lake, rowboats, sailboats, hiking, yoga, improv, and even disco bingo- these are a few activities that are a part of my job. When prefacing working at summer camp, many people put “job” in quotes, insinuating that camp is not a real position, since we do not work in a cubicle or the depths of a sunless research lab. But do I have to dislike my job to make it a serious, important stepping-stone for my future?

It is my third summer working at a beautiful camp nestled in Lake Tahoe, California. I had some friends who decided to stay on campus or work in a big city; they were so excited to work one-on-one with their idol professor, or so they thought. I even considered a summer staying on campus, as the majority opinion insisted that would be the best place to make connections hereafter.

Instead, many of my friends became lab rats and spent most of their days sitting inside at a desk working for a graduate student crunching numbers, and never even met the professor who led the lab. Though sometimes this necessary grunt work paves the way for a better future position, it is difficult to say whether this interaction-less lifestyle actually helped my friends develop as human beings.

Of course, not all internships or office positions are like this. It seems the successful tech companies of the Silicon Valley have begun to incorporate a camp-style experience with office life, maintaining that happy workers do a better job. For example, a conference room at Palo Alto’s Palantir is, essentially, a Chuck E. Cheese style ball pit. Google, for example, even offers subsidized massages, Pilates classes, and a vast array of free food. Google is a beyond successful multi billion dollar company; they must know a thing or two about creating a good work atmosphere and productive employees. One recent March 2013 New York Times article about “Google: a Place to Work and Play,” noted, “…people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”

Though there are some set standards of hospitality at camp, like at Google, there is also space to create new and original programming and to initiate and oversee a unique camp experience. One of my co-counselors, a junior at Stanford, notes that working at a camp has allowed her “to be her best self and to grow as a person.” At most general internships, the creativity is limited to which size of straw to get for your boss’ coffee or which kind of notepad to write your chores in. With this flexibility for ownership of the camp programs, it permits staff to wear many hats: both the professional customer service beret, and the self-expressive cowboy hat. From even the most monotonous jobs like scrubbing floors, camp staffers always bring their own creativity to the literal floor; they often create themes, wear costumes, choreograph a song and dance, or incorporate some way to entertain the guests. Not only does this dimension provide a spectacle for the amused campers, it also creates a happy and productive workplace.

In addition to being emotionally fulfilled and happy working at a summer camp, every job and effort I have sweat over at camp has been indispensible to some aspect of my life. Obviously every camp is different, yet most camps today expect and feature high quality care and service.

The following are just a few additional key tools that I personally have gained as a camp counselor:

Childcare and Conflict Resolution:  If you have ever tried to get two five year olds to share an amazing toy, you know how difficult it can be to appease both parties without some tears. Trying to work out a compromise requires extreme patience, good listening skills, and an ability to be an objective mediator. These qualities of conflict resolution apply whether two children are fighting over a dodge ball game or two CEO’s are discussing the next step in the million-dollar company merger.

Customer Service:  Living at a camp, one is technically always working. There is constantly a guest with certain dietary restrictions, a special request, or someone who has a comment or complaint. I once had a guest tell me that the “raw mushrooms were too rubbery.” I am no scientist, but I would argue that raw mushrooms, by nature, are in fact rubbery. As a customer service representative of the camp, one must have the patience to listen to these kinds of comments, the sensitivity to feel with the guest, and the responsibility to follow through and create positive changes.

Safety/Liability Knowledge:  All camp counselors are required to be CPR, first aid/lifeguard trained and are given briefs in liability and safety. In any work or personal environment, this knowledge is essential for ensuring the safety of yourself and those around you. It is also a great introduction to important legal ramifications.

Time Management:  Camp work requires being on almost 24/7. One must be both able to work hard, get enough rest, and try to find personal time. In addition, on a moment’s notice one must be able to split his or her time and interact appropriately with people of all different ages and from all different walks of life.

The Future
If you are worried about resume building, camp can actually be a huge asset; it is all about how you frame the experiences that you have had and how you communicate your time. It is comparable to a well-written college essay. A friend of mine who attended Stanford with me wrote her application essay as a comparison of herself to a Nerds rope. A Nerds rope is a simple, piece of candy, yet examined from a new angle and upon closer inspection, a Nerds rope can be a complex and intricate work of art.

It is the same with including “summer camp” on your resume. One could simply just say, “camp counselor,” but as a hard-working camp counselor myself, I know that that meager description is barely even a snowflake from the tip of the iceberg. I can only hope that any future job or internship provides me with at least a smattering of the experience, expertise, and relationships that I gained while joyously working at camp.

For me, the proverbial "road less traveled" has led not only to lush forests and crystal clear lakes, but also to clarity and definition in a sustaining passion and career choice in life.

Nicoletta Heidegger graduated in 2013 from Stanford University, where she majored in Psychology and served as the school mascot, the Stanford tree. She now lives in Los Angeles and attends Pepperdine University for a clinical masters program in marriage and family therapy. In her free time, Nicoletta competes hunter jumper horses and loves to surf and play the drums.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Six Things That Matter More Than Perfect Grades

Well, actually, this piece could be entitled seven hundred and six things that matter more than perfect grades. But hey, I needed to pick a number and there is a word limit for blogs. While there is no debating, that for most kids, grades do matter, and that they matter significantly, the fact is that we’re thinking about grades in entirely the wrong way. Good grades as an indicator of engagement with learning, curiosity and persistence mean something both in the present and as indicators of being successful out in the work place. But getting straight A’s so you’ll get into Harvard, in order to get an internship at Goldman Sachs, so you can go to Wharton for your MBA, and as a result, will be set for life is a very poor way to think about grades. Unfortunately, this has become the paradigm for many young people and it bodes poorly not only for their mental health, but for their success out in the work world as well. Here is an example of the kind of thinking that all of our parental and cultural anxiety about grades results in. This is an actual transcript of one of my fifteen-year-old patients; let’s call her Chloe. She and I are discussing possible college choices even though she’s only a sophomore in high school.

Chloe: My dad is a complete asshole. He’s mean to people and he cheats in business. I really think he’s a jerk.
Me: Guess you’d like to be a different kind of person than your father.
Chloe: No, not really. He went to Harvard and he’s made a fortune. My mom went to a state school. She may be nice but she’s a loser.
Me: Why is she a loser if she’s nice?
Chloe: Nice is being weak. If she had gotten better grades and didn’t waste time being nice she would get more respect and make more money.
Me: So whom would you prefer to be like?
Chloe: Duh (complete with mandatory eye roll). My dad. No one cares if you’re a jerk. They only care if you “make it.” And I want to make it. I know I’m not really learning anything at school now. But I don’t care. As long as I ace my tests and get into one of the schools that rich kids go to, I’ll be happy.

A seasoned adolescent psychologist is not easily taken aback, but it took me a minute after this conversation to recalibrate my reactions to Chloe. While I’d like to think she’s an outlier, a particularly vapid kid with no sense of who she is yet or the kinds of skills that will actually stand her in good stead, I know she’s not. Unfortunately, she is typical of a breed of teenagers who have become so focused - by their parents, their schools, the culture, their peers and themselves on gaming the system, cheating when necessary and believing that money and material goods are the foundation of a life well-lived - that they have little opportunity to develop the kinds of ideas that used to be typical of teenagers. Decades ago, when I first began practicing, teenagers typically were concerned with friends, appearances, and most touchingly, the world. They talked a lot about “meaning,” wrote treacly poetry and cared, often deeply, about big social issues like civil rights, famine or war. Unfortunately, I rarely hear about these concerns in my office anymore.

Anyone who’s been alive for a few decades longer than Chloe, who has actually participated in life, knows that there are dozens of mistakes in Chloe’s thinking. No school guarantees either success or failure. Being a good person matters. Materialistic people are less happy than less materialistic people. Real learning, engagement, enthusiasm and persistence are what lead to interests and passions in life. And perhaps most of all, that connection to others matters greatly to well-being and that narcissistic preoccupation with looking important is certain to impair connection. That being said, and while there are many components to a life well-lived, here is my list of things that matter, not simply more than grades, but that matter if we want our kids to have meaningful, productive and moral lives.

Having Friends – one of the best predictors of mental health. Kids who are too preoccupied with grades and put all their energy into studying don’t have the necessary time to cultivate strong relationships. Other people tend to be seen as ways to gain an advantage rather than as potential sources of mutual support. Sometimes parents say, “They can make friends later.” No they can’t. Being a good friend takes a great deal of practice beginning early in life.

Character – integrity, honesty, reliability. These are the kinds of traits that we look for in friends, spouses and workers. This country has seen enough despair brought on by people who lack a basic sense of decency and responsibility to others.

Resilience – Try to make it through life without a good set of coping skills. Impossible. Life throws lots of curve balls at us and will at our children. Learning how to manage: how to delay gratification, to exert self-control, to soothe one’s self, to fall down and get up again – are mandatory so that our children are not undone when faced with challenge. And they will be faced with challenge.

Interests/Passions – I’m tentative about using the word “passion,” hence the interests/passions qualifier. I’ve had moms call me worried that their four-year-old child doesn’t have a “passion.” Life is their passion. Depending on temperament, for many kids, interest is enough. But Chloe is right when she says she isn’t really “learning anything.” Real interests and passions grow out of talent, time and practice. They make life rich.

• Collaboration – Every C-level executive I’ve spoken with underscores the need for collaboration in the workplace. In our “flat” world, problems are so complex, that they will not be solved by individuals sitting in a room and being hit by a bolt of lightening. People working together, often across cultures and time zones will solve them. And of course, we all know the benefit of having a collaborative spouse or best friend.

Self-Reflection – Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Whether you’re a fan of psychology or not, having the time and inclination to understand one’s self is critical to making good decisions, to understanding motives and to appreciating the challenges that living presents. Kids who are busy “climbing the ladder” from early on will often say they don’t have time to “think about things.” Big mistake. Without thinking about things, one is likely to repeat mistakes and feel “lost.” A sense of self comes from many places, but can’t be constructed without time devoted to self-reflection.

Next time your child insists on staying up half the night to study, or turns down an invitation from a friend, remember this list. Put it up on your refrigerator. I’ve seen hundreds of unhappy kids over the years. While academic success is certainly to be applauded, it is only one piece of the puzzle that goes into being a good person with a sense of purpose and meaning in the world. The kind of person you’d probably choose to work with, be friends with or marry.