Category Archives: Human Interest

A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain

Building a career sometimes takes fighting through dreary days in an unfulfilling job. You might face a manager determined to impede your progress, at least until you identify and secure an alternative path.

Fighting back from a mental health challenge—or any other life struggle—can feel the same. You have to face obstacles and take steps even when the benefits of your struggle seem so incremental as to be initially invisible.

Still, as I’ve found with hiking, having a goal you’re striving to achieve makes enduring the suck factor on difficult days far more bearable.

Reaching the summit of Pikes Peak was the goal that motivated me through tedious training.

Chicago’s western suburbs aren’t ideal training grounds for mountain hikes. Yet that’s where I spend most of my time. On good days, outdoor training seems at least connected to nature even if flat surfaces here constrict my enjoyment. On bad weather days, incline treadmills and stair climbers are my best options.

I’d much rather work out in actual mountains, taking on longer, steeper trails and higher elevations as my abilities expand. Conducting a mountain workout surrounded by thick oaks, tall pines and tiny squirrel feet scampering on matted leaves would turn training into its own goal. I don’t have that option.

When weather cooperates, two outdoor locations draw most of my incline workouts.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, the wishfully named Mount Hoy is best known as a tubing slope developed on an old landfill. Hiking here provides 100 feet of elevation gain in a short distance, nothing compared to challenges in the Appalachians, Smokies, Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Before I depart for a steeper challenge, I make sure I can go up and down the hill continuously for a few hours carrying a full pack.

On rare clear days, Chicago’s visible skyline is worth a view, even from 30 miles away. From the top of Mount Hoy, Blackwell’s treetops and surrounding lakes also provide welcome distraction. These are pretty views. However, by the time I’m into my 18th trip up the same hill, the setting loses its motivational lure.

The same can be said of Swallow Cliffs. It’s a Cook County toboggan run surrounded by two sets of stairs that provide less elevation change though steeper climbing than at Blackwell. A couple of hours going up and down stairs with full pack helps build muscle strength for more vertically challenging hikes.

When I don’t have a tough hike coming up, I have a hard time sustaining interest in the repetitive hiking at Blackwell or Swallow Cliffs. I often return to more leisurely and nature-infused walks at the Morton Arboretum.

Even when I distract myself by marveling at the diversity of people climbing stairs at Swallow Cliffs or the peacefulness of the far less frequently used Mount Hoy, it’s easy to let the pains and soreness that come with incline workouts deter me from continuing.

With a tough goal ahead, like a recent trip scripted to culminate on Pikes Peak’s Barr Trail, I can better muster the energy to fight through tired, pained exhaustion.

If I didn’t push while training, it would dramatically reduce the odds I’d achieve my real goal. I couldn’t expect to make the 26-mile, 7,000-foot-plus elevation gain Barr Trail hike if I couldn’t make the third hour at Swallow Cliffs or at Blackwell. So, rather than stop when my legs ached, I stretched out walking flat sections for a few extra minutes before returning to the hill or stairs.

Having a clear goal, something imaginable and at least potentially achievable, enabled me to put in work my body and mind were telling me I was too tired to accomplish.

The concept applies to every aspect of life. I sucked up a significant number of difficult workdays during my corporate career. I was determined to retire early to avoid my Dad’s fate of going straight from desk to casket. He never felt the freedom to pursue passions outside of his family.

Goals have also been essential to my mental health battle. Whenever I complete a goal, I figure out what I want to focus on next. There was a time in my life when that goal needed to be measured in hours and days. But having a longer-term goal, something I can be sure I don’t want to miss, provides the motivation I need now to fight through darker days.

A foreseeable, achievable future helps me take that next step when my mind and body conspire to tell me I’ve had enough.

Hiking, Life and Mental Health

During prolonged day hikes that challenge my ability to keep going when every twitch in my body begs for an end, the parallels between hiking and life twist into sharp focus.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m ascending to a pristine mountain lake surrounded by white-capped, sheer cliffs or plodding through a wildflower field salvaged to add a small dose of serenity to suburbia’s concrete chasms and rigid rules.

Hiking, for me, is an escape from the struggles of daily life, one that somehow reenergizes me mentally and physically even while demanding so much during the act itself. It’s my go-to coping mechanism.

The parallels between winning my mental health battle and succeeding on a trail are countless. Each week until I run out a few months from now, I’ll post the concepts I considered while miles from civilization—and remembered enough to write down later.

1) It’s irritating to descend when the goal is a mountain summit

This is among my most recurring trail thoughts. Nearly every mountain hike has downhill sections along the path to the top. At first, these sections are irritating. I don’t need descents adding to the agony of a day hike that takes me up 3,000 or 4,000 feet in elevation. It’s irritating to know I’m trying to head up, but have to traverse a downhill section to get there.

I’ve learned that descents have value. They use different muscles than I use hiking inclines. My quads, hamstrings, glutes and abs benefit from a little rest. The muscle stretching on a trail decline can be valuable, along with the ability to reduce oxygen demand on the body for a time.

Heading downhill into Paintbrush Canyon in the Grand Tetons.

While on one downhill section in the Grand Tetons, thinking about how I really needed the change of pace and path to keep going, I realized that this lesson applied to my life. It was frustrating when my career seemed to plateau at various points, particularly when I didn’t recognize how beautiful the view was from where I stood.

In hindsight, I realized that those plateaus and descents gave me the chance to strengthen my skills and refresh my energy for the next climb. Many of the most successful people I know stumbled along the way, went the wrong direction for a while, even descended against their will. Rather than turn around completely, they gathered strength by reengaging and learning new skills before tackling their next objective.

Now, when I encounter drops on a steep hike, I think of all my “failures” in life, how I learned from them, how I fought through them, and how I ultimately made my way to destinations I could enjoy. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.

Next Up: A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain

 

Glorious Moments, Disturbed

It should be the most glorious of moments.

Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.

But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.

Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.

But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.

Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. Continue reading

Leading Integrated, Supportive Lives

In groups I’m co-facilitating in Chicago, discussing and supporting each other through common struggles quickly erases boundaries of race, age, gender, religion and sexual orientation. I feel the same way when I’m out on the trails. Everyone watches each other’s back, offering helpful hints on the next obstacle, like this waterfall climb in Rocky Mountain National Park.
 
While too many political leaders encourage divides (no, this is not directed at just one person), no one can prevent us from leading integrated, supportive lives if we choose to pursue unity and peace over segregation and conflict.
Hiking up the side of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park.

My Post-Retirement Performance Report

This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.
This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.

Five years ago, I took a leap scarier than jumping out of a plane. It was the last day I had a boss other than the one I married. I’m grateful for these years, particularly for the chance to:

  1. Be flexible with my time so my wife’s move 2-1/2 years ago to New York City for her work strengthened rather than strained our relationship.
  2. Live with my children as a better person than while I carried the stress of my corporate work years–and to be part of the lives of young adults and children we now consider to be bonus family members.
  3. Write five books, publish four of them and even start on a sixth.
  4. Volunteer with great groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, No Stigmas, 360 Youth Services and the University of Illinois Leadership Center.
  5. Hike to the top of Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, Yosemite’s Half Dome and several sites along the Appalachian Trail, along with into the Grand Canyon.
  6. Travel with my family, Mom, in-laws and brothers, developing deeper connections on each trip.
  7. Be present for extended family, and for people who gave me the opportunity to help them through tough challenges in their lives.
  8. Speak and teach, as a university guest lecturer, as a mental health advocate and as a judge for literary contests.

It hasn’t all been rosy. I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve struggled at times to find energy and motivation. I’m not in as good of shape as I thought I would achieve, though I’m far better off than when I started. Financial results from my endeavors are what I expected. Unfortunately, I had very low expectations.

To everyone who has been part of my life these last five years, thank you. To my former colleagues at Nalco, Quaker Oats, with Congressman Terry Bruce and at The Daily Illini, I miss my interactions with you even though I can’t say I miss the corporate world in particular.

I look forward continuing my efforts to make the world just a little bit better while enjoying its beauty along the way. And I promise myself I’ll spend just a little more time blogging as well.

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
Continue reading

A Mother Turns Tragic Loss Into a Lifetime of Purpose

A varsity football starter, 16-year-old Kyle Braid led naturally. A standout among his peers for an inclusive, inspirational attitude in addition to exceptional athletic ability, Kyle’s positive presence created a deep, wide imprint at an early age.

Following his sophomore season, one of Kyle’s Florida high school football coaches informed him that he would captain the following year’s team, urging Kyle to work hard to build his speed, skill and strength.

To Colleen Malany, Kyle was much more than a leader. He was her only child, the fulcrum around which she balanced her life and a constant source of pride, joy and fulfillment. He was all that, and much more, right up until Feb. 28, 1994. In an impulsive flash during the middle of a second six-week steroid cycle as he tried to bulk up the fastest way he had heard was possible, Kyle died by suicide.

Speaking at University of Illinois leadership development program.
Colleen Malany during her keynote speech at a University of Illinois leadership development program.

As Colleen talked about Kyle with 200 students and alumni mentors taking part in a recent University of Illinois leadership development program, I found myself frequently wiping tears, in part thinking about the horror of being a parent subjected to the worst imaginable pain and in part contemplating my own struggles with depression-driven suicide ideation as a teen. Several fellow alumni mentors, including many who had met Colleen but didn’t know her history, had to leave the room. Other mentors and student Imprint leadership program participants focused intensely on every word.

Colleen acknowledged that she still cannot accurately describe the agony that tormented every moment in the days, weeks, months and years following Kyle’s loss. Colleen’s story, though, doesn’t just reach an ending with losing her son. It also starts there.

“We had to find a purpose, some way to take Kyle’s life, to take our experience, and turn it into a gift for others,” Colleen told us. “It was the only way to make sense of our pain.”

As she and then-husband Ken Braid grieved, they considered the best way to memorialize Kyle’s life. They found it in creating a program to provide high school student leaders with the skills to create even broader impacts within their schools and communities. Colleen and Ken created the J. Kyle Braid Leadership Foundation. Continue reading

Lessons from Civil Rights Legend Timuel Black

It could have been one of life’s passing pleasures, a serendipitous opportunity to spend an evening absorbing the insights of 96-year-old civil rights leader, educator and World War II veteran Timuel Black, Jr. on what it was like to create his own pathways through life.

As we talked, however, it seemed that there must be a purpose to our fortunate table placements beyond my simple fascination with his living history. There were lessons to be gleaned, insights that apply to any young adult but seemed particularly relevant to an intensely dedicated and gregarious African American man who has lived as part of our family between college breaks during the past 18 months.

Graciously, Mr. Black was willing to share during our extended conversation.

Timuel Black, Jr. has both endured and created dramatic events. The grandson of slaves, he survived the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge during World War II before making a lifelong commitment to human rights after seeing the horrors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. An educator who received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago, he brought in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his first Chicago appearance, organized Chicago’s Freedom Trains to the March on Washington, helped elect Chicago’s first African American mayor and introduced around a young man named Barack Obama who became another important first.

His history is extraordinary: his insights are equally important.

“If Demetrius were sitting here instead of me, what would you tell him?” I asked from my seat next to Mr. Black at a fundraising dinner for the Kennedy Forum, a group founded by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy to improve mental health awareness and treatment.

Chicago 96-year-old civil rights legend Timuel Black, Jr. and his wife Zenobia
Chicago 96-year-old civil rights legend Timuel Black, Jr. and his wife Zenobia

“I’d tell him to prepare himself; academically, if academics are the right direction for him. But whatever he wants to accomplish, he needs to be prepared, really prepared. The door of opportunity doesn’t swing open very often. If you’re ready, you’ll find a way through, but you have to be prepared,” Mr. Black replied. “Barack Obama didn’t become President just because he wanted it. He was ready when the time came.

“And I’d also tell him to persevere,” Mr. Black added. “There’s always someone or some institution to stand in the way of your success. If you know what you want to achieve – and you know it’s right – keep working, keep pushing. Don’t give up. You may even achieve beyond your dreams. I didn’t grow up dreaming about a black President. But we persevered. Something greater than my dreams happened.”

Continue reading

Creating Golden Rule Social Services

“Each individual has different needs, different capabilities, different dreams. What I see in government programs is an effort to fit people into boxes, to make people easy to administer, rather than to provide resources we need to become our greatest selves.”

Tamika Jackson
Doing Unto Others; The Golden Rule Revolution

With more than 100 government welfare and life-improvement programs potentially available as sources of support, Americans most in need of assistance are often overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of government support structures.

Every year, elected officials debate adding to or deleting from this over-mixed structure, providing never-ending fodder for the divisive hate game dominating politics today. During these debates, accusations quickly turn overwrought.

Hate the poor. Burn taxpayer money. Racist. Enabler. One percenter. Cultural rot. No accountability.

When it comes to social service programs, this debate misses a more critical issue.

Existing programs are bureaucracy centric, designed to remain within the purview of particular legislative committees or to ensure the legacy of a particular elected official. Each has its own application, funding requirements, auditing processes, staffing and timelines aimed more at fulfilling process requirements than at providing support. Many programs are established with set financial cliffs that force participants to lose nearly as much, and sometimes more, in support than they gain in income when they work additional hours or earn a raise, providing dramatic disincentives to career development.

People and their needs don’t fit neatly within congressional or state legislative jurisdictions. Continue reading

Traveling with the Oldies (Music and In-Laws)

Taking my 70-year-old-plus in-laws on a 1,800-mile, seven-day road trip had potential relationship calamity written all over it.

My in-laws’ vacation history includes sit-down meals just 15 minutes into the start of a long day’s drive, genealogy-inspired gravestone stenciling and anguished moans at missed shopping opportunities — none of which I find comprehensible.

I wondered how three decades of strong in-law relationships would survive an excess of 50s music and Cracker Barrel consumption, particularly after my father-in-law let me know he had mapped every possible stop at those “Old Country Store” restaurants on our route.

Once the trip was gifted at Christmas, there was no turning back. We would travel from Chicago’s suburbs to Washington, D.C. to New York City and back home in seven days.

The reward for me was time with my wife, who recently relocated for work to Long Island City, New York. For my in-laws, it was play time with the D.C. grandsons, drinks and dinner with three of their four children, the 9/11 Memorial, a couple of shows (Jim Parsons’ play was a particular treat to diehard Big Bang Theory fan-in-laws) and a two-hour side trip to photograph a Brooklyn apartment complex my grandfather-in-law lived in during the 1930 census.

Somehow, it worked. While we didn’t discuss rules before departing, several elements contributed to the trip’s success: Continue reading