“Health for a Lifetime” Part III

In the first two parts of this essay, I wrote about a new Harvard essay offering scientific proof for what many of us have known for years – that eating in a nutritious way and getting regular exercise can prolong your life.  After looking at why it’s so easy to resist this common sense approach to life, I explained how keeping a journal in which you record everything you eat and drink and the activity you engage in each day can help you make small changes that will enhance your health, energy and lifespan.

When seeking a motivating reason to improve their health, many people say “I’ll do it for my children.”  I’m not sure that this is such a good idea, however.  You really need to make these changes for you – and not someone else.  It’s great to be a role model for your children, to encourage them to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime – but be sure to take these actions for yourself, not your children.  Do it because you acknowledge that you are important.  A lot of people – especially women – sometimes feel guilty if they spend even a moment doing something for themselves.  It’s time to get over that.

Also, support groups like Weight Watchers and A.A. can be helpful, of course, but I strongly encourage you to make sure that you’re making the changes in your life because you know that you deserve it and because you feel the results, not because – as part of a group – you’re “supposed” to be doing these things.  If you quit smoking for the benefit of your children, once they’re grown and out of the house, you may easily pick up those cigarettes once again.  If you’ve curbed your eating because you’re a member of a diet club, once your friend drops out of the club, there’s a great risk that you’ll fall right off the wagon yourself.

If you just look around, you can easily find plenty of reasons to motivate yourself to take action.  You can easily see what happens when people don’t limit the amount they eat each day, and you can see what happens when they don’t make exercise a regular habit.  You can also see medical photographs of the diseased lungs of lifelong smokers.  These are all compelling reasons to embrace a healthy lifestyle.  Also, if you’re not taking action for yourself, it can be very easy to join a friend in overindulging when life feels stressful – whether that means digging into a big carton of ice cream, or some other destructive behavior.  Misery loves company.

You need to step into these changes with strength and determination, and in a way that will last.  In the past, you may have told your friends that you were skipping dessert “because I’m on a diet.”  Chances are good that your friends were not surprised to hear this, because they fully expected that within just a few weeks you’d be back off your diet and joining them for dessert once again.  It’s time to stop this “yo-yo” behavior, and make a permanent change in your behavior instead.  Don’t “diet” because you want to fit into that special dress.  Instead, adjust the way that you eat on an ongoing basis, so that you can literally add years to your life.  Don’t experiment with “juicing” as a fad, but instead create meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables with the intention that you’ll be doing this for years to come.  Embracing these new habits with the right attitude means that you won’t be slipping easily back into your old habits.

This is a “back to basics” plan for health and fitness.  I’m not asking you to run a marathon.  I’m asking you to walk up and down a few flights of stairs.  I’m asking you to be observant, not in denial.  Pay attention to the number of calories that you’re consuming at each meal, and be honest with yourself about how they add up.  I’m also not asking you to deprive yourself of the things that make life joyful.  In fact, I think you’ll find that by making a few simple changes, you’re actually adding more joy to your life.

I use the word “joy” because attitude and emotion are important ingredients if this plan is going to work for you.  Just as you’re making careful notes in your journal, notice if you tend to complain a lot.  Complaining often leads to the behavior we’re trying to address here – overeating, drinking too much, and indulging in other bad habits.  Instead, tell people what you love about your life and what you’re grateful for.  You may find that this takes a little effort at first, but soon it will come easily and naturally.

For those of you worried that I’m asking you to make big changes in your life, I have some good news for you.  I’m actually opposed to making drastic changes that are big.  Those who are passionate about running know that it can be dangerous to overdo it.  Making little changes, however, can put you on a great path.

Like the mice in the Harvard study, it’s time for us all to start adding years to our lives – and adding joy and energy.  As I’m sure you’ve concluded, the most important ingredient to making this plan work is you.  I believe you’re capable of great things, and I look forward to hearing your story, and to celebrating your new life!

 

 

 

“Health for a Lifetime” Part II

In Part I of this essay, I wrote about a new Harvard essay offering scientific proof for what many of us have known for years – that eating in a nutritious way and getting regular exercise can prolong your life.  After looking at why it’s so easy to resist this common sense approach to life, I suggested that starting a journal in which you record everything you eat and drink and the activity you engage in each day can provide a framework for the small changes that will enhance your health, energy and lifespan.

One small change you might make in your daily routine is to take the stairs at work, rather than the elevator.  You may notice a few people looking at you a bit quizzically.  Oddly, some people look down on those who walk rather than drive.  After all, they must be thinking, if you’re wealthy enough to own a car, why not use it?  If there’s a perfectly good elevator in our office building, why the heck are you using the stairs?  Years ago, when I first moved to New York, I used to walk everywhere and many people thought I was crazy.  They thought that perhaps I couldn’t afford a car.  It’s amazing how creative some people can be when coming up with excuses to avoid exercise!

At this point, if you’ve taken the bold step of avoiding the elevator and doing a bit more walking, it’s time to start measuring your distance.  When my son and daughter were young, and it felt like I was constantly running after them, I bought a pedometer.  With this handy and inexpensive device, you can see how far you’ve walked each day.  The next step, of course, is to increase that distance.  Stepping into health is all about making small, incremental changes and then taking it a bit further each week.

Now that we’ve made a small change to the amount of exercise you get each day, it’s time to look at what you’re eating.  Once again, let’s start with making one small change.  If you want to start eating healthier meals, the best thing to do is to make these meals yourself at home.  Many people imagine that cooking in their very own kitchen will be infinitely more complicated than going to a restaurant or – horrors! – stopping for a quick, fast food meal.  Cooking at home doesn’t need to be complicated, however.  There are many wonderful cookbooks and recipes that you can find online that consist of three simple ingredients.  It’s time to disengage from a life of “Super-Sizing” your meal and instead find how enjoyable it can be to prepare your own healthy meals.  This is also the only way that you can accurately keep track of calories, and that’s important.

Once you’ve started to make these simple changes in your daily routine, you’re going to start feeling proud of yourself – and you should.  But it’s not yet time to make bold announcements about the amazing way that you’ve reshaped your life.  Keep making notes in your journal about how you’re spending your day, but be patient about sharing your excitement.  You want to savor the rewards of increased energy and a noticeable change in your weight and fitness level.  I suggest that you wait for friends and family to start noticing the “new you” – and believe me, it won’t take long for this to happen.

If you’re a smoker, you may be hoping that I’d forget to address this important subject.  Sorry, but I’m here to tell you what you surely already know.  It’s time for you to kick the habit – and I know it’s not easy to do that.  I was a smoker too, and there was one day that was the turning point for me.  I didn’t try to taper off, but instead I realized that it was time to stop smoking once and for all.  I made a long list of reasons why it was “a must” for me to quit, and I did.  Just like the notes you’ve been taking in your journal, it’s time to take an honest and accurate look at what it means to be a smoker – from the smell of your clothes and the people who avoid you, to the harsh fact that you’re choosing to take years off your life because of this destructive habit.  It’s time to stop – and the benefits that you’ll experience (increased energy, the joy of rediscovering tastes and smells that seemed lost forever) will make you glad you did.

What’s required in order to make these gradual changes is nothing less than a shift in how you look at life.  There can be no doubt that we live in an age of instant gratification.  Infomercials promise us that we can develop “six-pack abs in only 15 minutes,” and commercials for fast food skillfully avoid the subject of nutrition.  If you’re really going to embrace a healthier way of living, however, you’re going to need to start thinking about the long-term effects of what you put into your body as well as the consequences of successfully avoiding exercise.  Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll start feeling the benefits of your efforts sooner than you might expect – and once you reach that point, it will be much easier to stay on track.

Needless to say – whether it’s eating nutritious meals or taking steps to have a happier relationship with loved ones — you’re the one who needs to take action to create a better life.  No one can do it for you.

It’s tempting to seek the help and support of doctors when we’re thinking about moving our life in a more positive direction – and there’s no doubt that there are times when medical treatment is vital – but I’d like to discourage you from seeking out a “diet pill” in order to lose weight or “a patch” to help you quit smoking.  Personally, unless you’re in a very delicate state, I’m convinced that we can each reclaim and improve our health through the kind of small, incremental steps I’ve been telling you about.  Instead of pills, we need decisions.  You need to decide that you’re going to take the stairs instead of the elevator, and that you’ll have water with your meal instead of that “Big Gulp”soft drink.

In Part III of this essay, I’ll focus on why attitude is so important to successfully adopting new, healthier habits – and how these changes can bring a new, joyous edge to your daily life.

 

“Health for a Lifetime” Part I

Unless you subscribe to the scientific journal “Nature,” chances are that you may have missed the announcement of one of the biggest breakthroughs of our age.  Scientists at Harvard University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have concluded that it’s actually possible to reverse the aging process.  True, this breakthrough was discovered in a study involving mice — not human beings — but the finding is reason for all of us to be excited nonetheless!  The study echoes common sense, of course — because I think we’ve all known for many years now that if we quit smoking, get plenty of exercise, and eat in a healthy way, we’ll maintain a high level of energy and remain relatively disease free well into our later years.  What I find most remarkable, however, is not this dramatic news from the medical research community that it’s actually possible to “turn the clock back” and reclaim our health, but the fact that so many of us have been ignoring this common sense advice for years, sometimes decades.

Why, then, don’t we live our lives in a way that supports our health and wellbeing?  The simple and frustratingly illogical answer is because “it’s not cool.”  For several generations now, it has been “cool” to embrace a lifestyle that includes smoking, drinking and sometimes even (legal and illegal) drugs.  Most of us went through one or more of these phases too, so we’re not in a position to claim that we were immune from this pressure ourselves during our younger years.  The problem, of course, is that many young men and women who neglect and even assault their health during their younger years never change their ways.  They continue these destructive habits into their college years and beyond.

A lot of these bad habits offer us a much-needed escape from life’s pressures.  Young mothers often are embarrassed about the changes their bodies are (quite naturally) going through during this phase of life, and taking a cigarette break or joining the girls to enjoy a cocktail often seems to make it all easier to take.  Young men, facing the pressures of building new careers and still adjusting to the new demands of family life, succumb to the desire to escape too.  When it comes to over-eating, still an epidemic in this country, many of the so-called solutions turn out to be totally ineffective, with the result that millions of men and women are engaged in a lifelong pattern of frustrating “yo-yo dieting.”  As the mice in the Harvard study would tell you if they could, this kind of lifestyle is not one to aspire to.

Living a healthy lifestyle is easy for some of us, and harder for others.  When I was in my thirties, many of my friends were starting to get sick from neglecting and abusing their bodies and I didn’t want to fall into the same trap.  Around this time, I also began to notice that having a healthy state of mind could make a major difference too.  A number of my friends were good about exercising, but they were highly stressed and didn’t feel good about themselves – and they were getting sick as often as those who didn’t exercise at all.  They all had plenty of excuses, of course, but this didn’t really matter.  Many of these friends were suddenly showing their age, and even in my thirties I was determined to remain as youthful and energetic as possible.  I also believe that it’s easier to get on the right track earlier in life when it comes to taking care of yourself rather than trying to undo years of damage and neglect later in life.

Many of these friends frequently complained that exercising and sticking to a healthy diet is difficult, but I disagree.  The truth is that staying healthy is a simple matter of common sense.  As St. Augustine wisely advised nearly two thousand years ago, “everything in moderation” is the secret to a wonderful life.  My friends who frequently indulged in smoking, drinking too much and overeating – and those who did nothing to reduce the stress in their lives — continued to deteriorate.  Many of them developed arthritis, diabetes and a variety of other health problems – and they’re well on their way, of course, to paying the “ultimate” price for this kind of abuse and neglect.  It’s time for all of us to understand the consequences of too much sugar, too much alcohol, and too many calories – because failure to understand how the various pieces of “the health puzzle” fit together can literally be fatal.  On the other hand, taking action to incorporate this knowledge into your daily life can reverse the damage.  All it takes is simply being conscious.

If I’ve inspired you to ask what you can do to start reclaiming your health, the answer is simple.  Make a list.  For seven days, write down absolutely everything you eat and drink, and also make careful note of your activity – walking, using the stairs, sitting in front of your television for three hours, and so on.  During this week, don’t do anything differently because the idea is to take an accurate look at the way you’re living your life right now – and this assessment will probably shock you.

Now that you have your list, as you start your second week, it’s time to make one small change in your normal routine.  Remove one thing that is bad for you – something you eat or drink, or some way that you avoid exercise – and replace it with something that is good for you.  (Be sure to continue making notes each day just as you did during week number one.)

For example, if you’re in the habit of using the elevator at work, it’s time to start using the stairs.  Even if your office is only on the fourth floor, this simple change is an improvement over a daily routine that is completely sedentary.  You may be surprised to find other people doing the same thing, and you’ll start to notice that you have more energy at work.  With this new burst of energy, you’ll find that you’re more productive – and even your boss will be impressed.  This all comes from making one simple change in your daily routine.

In the next two parts of this essay, I’ll focus on why it’s so important to make these changes for you – not for your children or your friends, and not because you’ve been told that you “should” make these changes to your lifestyle.  I’ll also discuss why attitude is so important to successfully adopting new, healthier habits – and how these changes can bring a new, joyous edge to your daily life.

 

 

 

 

“My M.B.A. in Life” Part III Pride

In the first two installments of this three-part article, I described how the lessons I learned when facing a variety of personal challenges in my life turned out to be extremely useful in the business world.  I discovered that it’s all about people – connecting with them, appreciating them, and really making an effort to understand and help them.  As you’ll see in the final part of this article looking at challenges from this perspective can help managers and company owners handle some of the toughest business challenges we face today.

The quality of pride is essential to a successful business — customers taking pride in the fact that they are important and being listened to, and employees taking pride in the products and services they produce.  When customers know that their satisfaction matters to a company, they’ll tell everyone they know – and this word of mouth is more valuable than any expensive advertising and marketing campaign.  It works that way in small and midsize businesses, too, of course.  When I was helping my late husband Sid with his dental practice here in New York, I saw that each and every person that a patient comes in contact with makes a powerful impression — from the receptionist to the dental hygienist.  Each of these interactions is a “touch point,” and together they form the experience that each patient has of the dental practice.  When a patient feels insignificant and like they don’t count, they’re not likely to remain loyal to that dentist or doctor.  It works this way in any kind of business.  American business overall needs to recapture this level of pride and care.

Every industry and business sector needs to remember that the pride employees take in their work is very important.  The turnaround of America’s auto industry is the latest high-profile example of what’s possible when we encourage employees to take (or reclaim) pride in their work.  When I first moved to the U.S. from Canada, whether you were “buying America” was a frequent topic of conversation.  It’s time to emphasize this once again.  We need to revive the kind of thinking that was dominant when our parents and grandparents were working hard to make America great.  The pride that everyone took in the quality of their work was something to be admired, and it’s a quality that’s far too rare these days.

Many senior level executives and CEOs seem to be excited about the innovation and new ideas they’re implementing in their companies, but let’s not forget to let this enthusiasm “trickle down” to the rest of the team.  Let’s make sure that all employees who contribute to a company’s success are recognized and appreciated.  And remember, enthusiasm and new ideas cost a company nothing — but they can be priceless when it comes to growth, increased revenue and creating more jobs.  Keeping each customer in mind every step of the way, as I mentioned earlier, is another essential ingredient in this recipe for growth.

In coming up with a road map for the future, we must be sure to include our young people, of course.  I’m a big believer in the value of small business, and I encouraged both of my children to pursue their dreams in terms of the work they choose to do.  Now, it’s up to us to create a business climate that’s receptive to their ideas and gives them an opportunity to contribute.  An alarming number of recent college graduates not only have to struggle with astronomical student loans bills that must now be repaid, but are also having trouble finding a place where they can put their knowledge and skills to work.  The idea of owning their own home — the dream that motivated earlier generations — now seems completely out of reach to most young people.

I also see the great talent and potential in the high school students I work with each week at Freedom Academy in Brooklyn.  We must create opportunities for these young people and millions of others just like them to put their talent to work.  Those of us who have been engaged in the work force for the past few decades have the wisdom and perspective that’s needed in order to create opportunities for these talented young people.  This challenge causes us all a lot of stress, of course, and there are no easy answers — but as the NASA ground control team is rumored to have said during the Apollo 13 crisis, “failure is not an option.”

Until we create a more receptive business environment for our young people, who can blame them for believing that loyalty — to customers and to their company — is an antiquated and irrelevant concept.  I’m honored to have an opportunity to offer high school students encouragement and inspiration, but until we can create a business environment that will welcome their contributions, the likelihood that these bright and enthusiastic young people will hit a dead end as they try to put themselves to work remains a serious problem.

Although it may sound like I’m ending this essay on a rather bleak note, the fact is that I really believe there is enormous creativity and ingenuity out there, which can result in some much needed changes in our nation’s business sector.  As you can tell, I’m a firm believer that the human spirit is capable of great things and able to solve any problem.  Just as people helped me overcome a wide range of challenges in my life, I’m confident that together we can create a business environment in which each individual is valued and one that generates enormous prosperity and opportunity for all of us.

 

 

“Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence”

For the past few months, I’ve enjoyed contributing to a wonderful website called HereWomenTalk.com.  When I learned recently of the horrific murder of a member of that online community – a beautiful, sensitive woman and loving mother whose life was brutally cut short by her ex-husband – my immediate reaction was anger.  More specifically, I find it disturbing and outrageous that over the past several decades we haven’t made more progress in taking a “Zero Tolerance” stand against domestic violence or abuse of any kind.

images-2During her 25-year run, Oprah brought a fair amount of attention to this issue, and way back in 1984 the courageous Farrah Fawcett starred in disturbing made-for-TV movie about domestic violence, “The Burning Bed.”  Now, it’s more than 25 years later, and not enough has changed.

The statistics regarding this kind of abuse are truly disturbing.  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  The National Institute of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner every year.  Further, a recent study by the CDC reveals that here in the US, 24 people per minute are the victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.  That’s 12 million individuals – mostly women – every year, and this is simply unacceptable.

If we ourselves are fortunate enough to be free from this kind of terrible abuse, the odds are good are we have a friend, relative or co-worker who is caught in this terrible situation right now.  We need to open our eyes and look for the warning signs, and when we see them, we must get involved.  More than perhaps any other situation in which lives are in jeopardy, we seem to be blind to the warning signs – black eyes, bruises, burns, frequent visits to the emergency room.

The fact that one human being would cruelly inflict physical harm on another, when they have entered into what was thought to be a loving and supportive relationship is disturbing enough – but perhaps the worst aspect of a situation like this is when children witness this kind of abuse.

In their tender years, children learn so much from what they observe in the household – eating habits, how to manage money, the importance of being respectful of others.  In households where domestic violence takes place, they are very likely to perpetuate it.  (The heartbreaking experience of watching one parent physically abuse the other is bad enough, and the damage resulting from this kind of instability at home can literally last a lifetime.)

The perpetrators of this kind of violence are not always who you might expect.  We read about rap artists and musicians accused of this kind of thing, but a Harvard educated stockbroker can just as easily be guilty of this kind of horrific behavior.  One of Europe’s most esteemed financial leaders became the subject of front-page news last year when he was accused of sexual assault by a maid working in a New York City hotel.  Did the fact that apparently his wife was accepting of his philandering ways make this situation any less disturbing?  We mourn the death of a beloved singer, but when it was clear – years ago – that she was enmeshed in an abusive and controlling relationship, did any of us step up and intervene?  Now, of course, it’s too late.

Stories like these are still far too common.  Whether it’s the death of a talented musician or the abuse suffered by a friend or neighbor, we can no longer turn a blind eye to this kind of cruelty.  After all these years, isn’t it time to finally take a firm stand against domestic violence and abuse?

“Why I’ll Be Celebrating Every Day!”

As I celebrate my birthday today, it’s a time to look back, enjoy all that today has to offer, and appreciate the fact that I’m truly excited about the future.  On this day of joy and reflection, it’s most of all a day to be grateful for the wonderful people in my life — my family, my friends and also those who touch my life and continue to inspire me to dive into each day in search of fun, excitement and the pleasure of connecting with others.  As Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  I couldn’t agree more!

Happy Birthday Monty

Happy Birthday to you!

I’m truly blessed to be surrounded by so many loving friends and family members, and it’s always a treat to get together with them on this special day.  When I look back and reflect on how far we’ve all come over the years, I think my greatest joy comes from the fact that my children are doing so well.  Being a mom has not always been easy, and I know that life hasn’t always been easy for my children either, but I’m so proud of them and I think they’ll permit me to take some vicarious pride in their accomplishments too.  I’m also thrilled that my father is doing so well right now, having bounced back from a scary bout with cancer.  He’s busily engaged in life and extremely happy, and that makes me happy too.

The great poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I celebrate myself and sing myself.”  And if there’s ever a day when we can each do this without appearing too self-indulgent, it’s on our birthday.  (Actually, I think we should appreciate ourselves each and every day.)  I had been dreaming for years of becoming a writer, and over the past year I’m thrilled that I really made it happen!  I believe that having goals and dreams — and taking action on them — gives me an enormous amount of energy.  I’ve never felt healthier, and I’m eagerly awaiting the day that the tennis courts in Central Park open once again for the season.

Love cupcakes!!

Just as I’m so grateful to be sharing my birthday with my family and friends, I’m also happy about another new set of friends who have come into my life recently — the wonderful young students at Freedom Academy, where I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few months.  When one of the students recently asked me how old I am, he simply couldn’t believe that I’m a few years past fifty.  He was shocked, and said “You look fantastic!”  That made me feel good.

A birthday is also a time for looking ahead, and I’m very excited about the future.  I feel that this is a special time of my life, and I know that this is just the beginning of what will be a wonderful and exciting journey.  In fact, I’ve resolved to celebrate not just today but each and every day.  I hope that you’ll come celebrate with me!

“Fighting for the Next Generation”

With the economy limping along the past few years, many of us are struggling to stay on our feet.  Overwhelmed by our own problems, it’s been difficult to look beyond our struggles to consider how this is all going to play out for the next generation.  I had the opportunity recently to visit with a group of 9th graders at the Freedom Academy in Brooklyn, and I left feeling like I’d just been knocked over the head.  In a good way.

I was visiting the school to give a talk about self-esteem and I quickly realized that I was not prepared.  I thought I would be speaking to a captive audience, but the students had higher expectations for me.  They did not want to listen; they wanted to engage.  I was deluged with questions almost immediately: “What is self-esteem?”  “How do we get self-esteem?”  It’s amazing how often we throw around the phrase “self-esteem” but never stop to consider if the kids actually understand it.  To these kids, “self-esteem” was a buzz word.  They knew it was good, they wanted to have it, but they didn’t know where to start.  They had questions, so I quickly revised my plan.

I was struck by how very intelligent these kids were. I couldn’t get over how quick and smart they were, how much energy there was in that room. These kids wanted to learn, not just sit around a room and listen to some lady talk. They wanted answers. They wanted to talk about it. They wanted to be involved. I had been given the impression that these were “problem kids,” from the worst school and a bad neighborhood, and that I shouldn’t expect them to behave.  But the minute I started talking about how self-esteem could help them succeed, they did listen and they wanted to know more.

What I realized in conversing with these children was that they do have self-esteem.  What they don’t have is the benefit of having been taught how to succeed.  I could feel through their eager gaze that these students wanted something more. They have the intelligence and the ability to become amazing students, to go on to college.  They are grasping for a good education, but they just don’t get the attention and support that they need.  They don’t have anyone telling them, “Yes, you’re intelligent. Yes, you can move forward. Yes, you have the ability to do anything you want.”  Instead, they think that other people go on to get important jobs and travel the world, but that it can never happen for them.  They want all the opportunities that every other child has.  They like who they are and just want to be accepted.  They want the American Dream.  They want to be successful human beings.

But we’re failing these children.  Wrapped up in our mortgage payments and our job demands and our own insecurities, we’re overlooking the dreams of an entire generation.  It’s our responsibility to make sure that these kids can dream, that they can imagine a life of success and that they feel empowered to go after it.

After meeting these children, my dream is to build a program where the students would write articles and create videos about self-esteem and present their projects to each other.  In addition to giving them hope and confidence, it would also give them business experience and help them build marketable skills.  It would work with their skills – writing, teamwork, leadership, production, project management – and build on their strengths.  It would give the students a chance to show their talent and build within them a sense of accomplishment.   It would give children a sense of validation that says, “You are worthy. I love what you created. It deserves to be shown somewhere that people can see it.”

If you give opportunities to children who are not used to getting opportunities, you get a response.  I know because my son was considered one of those “problem children.”  School was really difficult for him and he ended up at one of those dead-end schools, where you either make it or you don’t.  And what saved my son was an internship that let him see that there was opportunity for him, even if he didn’t do well on his standardized tests.

Sitting in that room and listening to the kids talk about self-esteem, it hit me that they were 14, the same as my son when he hit his turning point.  I realized that the early teens – 14-16 –is the age where you can catch them, where you can encourage them to take their adolescent energy and devote it towards growing into a successful adult, or you can let that energy overwhelm into and push them into self-destruction. With a little more care, we can move these kids in a different direction. They are developing who they are and they are open to input. And yes, it’s idealistic, but I really believe that if we just give these kids an injection of confidence, they’ll remember it.  It’s time that we all fight for these children, the same way we fight for our own.

 

“Lessons from an Ugly Duckling”

I was not a “pretty girl.”  With a six-inch port-wine stain birthmark covering nearly the entire left side of my face, I spent much of my teenage years struggling to avoid teasing and humiliation.  From the age of four to 30, I applied a mask of thick makeup to my face every single day in an effort to hide my disfigurement from the world.   Baby001

Like a normal teenager, I yearned to be liked and I did what was necessary to run with the popular crowd.  My life revolved around an endless parade of boys, parties, and, regrettably, sometimes drinking and drugs as well.  I was overwhelmed by my own desire to fit in and never-ending pressure from my parents, so I lashed out with outrageous behavior as a release.  This was a common feeling for many of my friends at the time, but inside, I was carrying a heavier weight than most.  I knew that if I let my mask slip – let people see who I really was, birthmark and all –  the result would be too painful to even imagine.

I saw escape as my only means as survival.  I knew I was different.  I wanted to be something else and I didn’t know what, but I knew from the very beginning that I needed to go somewhere else.  When I enrolled in college, I set out for the big city to chase my dreams, but I soon made a mistake that would knock me off my true path for many years.  Instead of fulfilling my aspirations, I got married.  My ill-fated marriage quickly fell apart, but with two small children and only myself to lean on for support, I had no choice but to move forward.

Happily, medical science had made progress in treating port-wine stains like my own and I began undergoing treatments to remove my birthmark, over 50 surgeries in all over a 20-year period.  By the time I was complete, my birthmark was all but invisible.  For the first time in my life, I felt began to feel beautiful.

Looking back over my years of hardship as a teenager, I realized that the people who were mean to me treated me badly not because I somehow deserved it, but because they felt bad about themselves.  If I could go back, I would hold that truth in my heart and let those people keep talking, because if you know you’re living your life right and being who you are, then no one can put you down.  Instead of chasing the approval of the popular crowd, I wish I had sought out people who made me feel good about being myself.

If there’s one thing I wish I could tell every girl in America, it’s that it’s all about how you approach a challenge.  Everyone faces challenges in their lives, but a challenge is really a gift, an opportunity to become a better person.  No matter how bleak it seems at the time, when you look back at today’s challenge it will never seem so bad as it does right now.  That’s because with every hardship you overcome, you change and grow and learn, and you become better prepared for whatever life throws at you next.  It’s important to step aside, take stock in what’s going on, and review who and where you are and what this challenge is about.  And always seek professional help if you need it.

Though I’m glad to be rid of my port-wine stain today, I’m grateful for the strong character that my childhood flaws and early mistakes helped build.  Life is totally different because I don’t feel the pain and uncertainty in myself that I used to feel.  I have done so many things that I’m proud of.  My hope is that every girl will hold tight to her uniqueness and trust in her own value, no matter how difficult life may be.  My hardships gave me an opportunity to do something more special than I’ve ever dreamed and I wouldn’t trade my “ugly duck” experience for anything.

“Loving Life at Fifty”

I had no idea that this part of my life was going to be so rewarding.

Growing up, I was taught that, “You’re only given the challenges that you can handle.”  Over the past fifty years, that expression has run through my mind more times than I’d like to count.  That’s exactly what I focused on each and every day, for more than 50 years, as I applied a thick layer of makeup to my face to hide a disfiguring birthmark.  When my first husband left me, stranded and alone with two kids in a foreign country, I thought, “You’re only given the challenges that you can handle.”  When I couldn’t pay my rent for three months and had nothing to feed my children, I thought, “You’re only given the challenges that you can handle.”  And when years later the love of my life passed away and left me alone, again I thought, “You’re only given the challenges that you can handle.”

During those low moments, I had no choice but to take a deep breath.  I needed change and the only thing that any of us can really change is ourselves, so I knew that I had to find a place to gain control of my life.  I needed professional help.  I needed to assess who I was, what I was doing, what I wanted for me.  Some days I didn’t think I’d ever come out from below zero.  When I finally did, I decided that just making it wasn’t enough for me.  I was going to really live.

There’s a point at which we need to put away our baggage and learn to live despite it.  We can spend our days feeling badly about the cards we were dealt and making excuses for why our life is the way it is, or we can move on.  What you do with a challenge is entirely up to you.  You can take it as an opportunity to make yourself better, to grow and move forward, or you can let it tear you down.  Never let it tear you down.

Rid yourself of negativity and stand tall.  Feel good about who you are because no one else is going to do that for you.  If you’re waiting for somebody else to give you permission to love yourself, you could wait a lifetime.  Don’t wait any longer.

I’ve worked with women for most of my life, developing support groups.  I spent much of my life feeling that I was alone, and that I was the only person going through the hardships I was experiencing.  But the more I looked, the more I found other women who were exactly like me struggling with the same challenges I was.  When I decided that I needed to go to court to get my children’s father to support them financially, I didn’t know that there was an estimated 6.1 million women who were mired in the same system, and millions still who hadn’t yet begun their fight.  So I started a support group for women going through divorce.

In sharing stories with other women, it became obvious to me that so many of us are held back by thoughts that other people put in our heads.  People tell us that we are worthless, that we are weak, and that we aren’t deserving of love or consideration or support.  These people aren’t worth having in our lives.  We need to keep telling ourselves, “I deserve to have a good life.  I am good person.  I can have a successful career.  I am a good mother.”  And we need to listen to ourselves.

You know you’ve done a good job.  You can feel it all the way down to your toes.  You should not doubt yourself.  When someone tells you that you did not do a good job, you need to pause before internalizing that.  Why is this person saying that?  Are they insecure about themselves?  Does the negative comment they’re making towards me make them feel better by putting me down?  Oftentimes, the answer is yes, and so we need to throw that negative comment right out the window.

Believing in yourself brings you somewhere special in the middle of your heart, in your soul.  When you feel good about yourself, you attract people who are like you.  You have a bounce in your step and people notice you because there’s an energy that you bring, an aura around you.  You laugh more.  You start doing things that you never thought you could.  You treat your body well.  You eat right and you enjoy eating and you exercise because it feels good.  You have the courage to speak up, to take on new and exciting adventures like travel or tennis or art.  You find yourself able to reach farther than you ever thought you could.  You’re finally able to create the life you want, and to enjoy that life.

Maybe this – the years following fifty – is the period of our lives that is our best.  I’ve had a lot of challenges, but I’ve also had a lot of opportunities, because I realized early on that there’s no perfect way of doing anything.  For me, fifty marked the beginning of appreciating who I turned out to be.  I’m a late bloomer, but I’ve learned that it’s never too late to start feeling good about who you are and what you have achieved.  Fifty is an opportunity for all of us to finally become who we were meant to be, to break through the reins that others have placed on us and go after what we really want.  I know I have an exciting future ahead of me and I’m lucky to be fifty.