The Wow Factor

Excerpted from a recent local talk

Much of my professional work involves helping people find their voices and connecting those voices to the spark that stirs and excites their souls.   I recently demonstrated this concept with one of my favorite study tools –an ordinary index card.

I asked the members of the audience to grab any of the colored pencils, markers, or crayons placed before them and to mark an “o” of any size somewhere on the card. Next, write a “w” on one side of the “o.”  Finally, draw another “w” on the other side of the “o”.

That’s right, it’s “wow”. Make no mistake– this little syllable can really pack a punch.  Just think about it:

Wow, I accomplished so much.
Wow, I have a come a long way.
Wow, I was afraid but I did it anyway.

But these days, wow has lost its magic. We often use wow carelessly–

Oh yeah, that’s a wow.
Wow, that is cute.
That’s a long line, wow.

Wow can stand in for boredom, sarcasm, or for when we just can’t think of a better, more descriptive word.  We can always rely on “wow.”

But “wow” has the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.  “Wow, that was a spectacular sunset.”

The challenge for many of us so distracted and busy “being busy” is that we miss out on the moments or opportunities that can bring us genuine joy. I encourage you to search for the wow moments in your lives – to really feel the “wow.”

Remind yourself each day to look for the wow, to seek out and recognize excitement, magic and curiosity.  It will be worth it.

Display that “wow” index card that you’ve created.  Tape it to your bathroom mirror, stick it in your wallet, or put it on the night table next to your bed.

Discover the power of wow.  Wow is waiting for you.

Iris Karas
Why Is It So Hard for Kids to Ask for Help?

L, like many students I see, answered her dad’s question with an eye-roll, and this much clarity: “Because, dad, it’s just not gonna happen, I’m just not.” Her dad was struggling to understand why L was unwilling to seek help from her chemistry teacher in the very subject that caused her so much distress. “I just don’t get it,” he thinks. And from my experience in consulting with kids and parents, I can say he’s not alone.

What makes asking for help so hard for some kids? The fact is, asking for help comprises a remarkably complex set of skills. First we have to recognize exactly what it is we’re not understanding, then we have to avoid embarrassment and find a “safe” person or way to assist. Then we have to commit to working hard to receive and make use of that help. Do we teach those skills to our kids? Do we teach teachers how to recognize when students struggle with this issue? Negative for both, as you probably guessed. Yet we sort-of kind-of think we do both. We take it for granted that asking for help or recognizing when a student needs it is a natural thing. Actually, it isn’t so natural to a great deal of students—or to teachers and parents for that matter.

Why is that? One of the most common reasons, especially among middle school and high school students, is the embarrassment in appearing different, or worse, dumb—calling attention to themselves in the context of not knowing something/anything. Students may also feel and fear that if something gets further explained, they’ll get further confused. So, they rationalize, why bother? The oft-repeated adage of teachers to “Go ahead and ask questions because if it’s confusing to you, chances are it’s also confusing to someone else” thus generally falls on deaf ears. Make no mistake about it: asking for help is a both a social and academic issue.

In addition, for middle and high school students in particular, social importance is generally going to trump academic. Again, who wants to ask for help and risk looking foolish in front of their peers. Instead, in that moment of confusion, they’ll often reason, “I’ll figure it out on my own.” The problem is they may not know exactly how to go about doing that. What parents see is the result of that confusion/anxiety/fear-—when their kids “forget” to do their homework or pass in that worksheet or suddenly remember about a big assignment at the zero hour.

Other common reasons for not asking for help include simply not knowing how to ask for it; not being clear enough on what they don’t understand in order to pose the question; being afraid to ask or afraid they’ll get more confused; fear of appearing weak; or fear of being labeled as a whiner or complainer.

To be fair, who among us adults hasn’t grappled with these concerns when we have had to ask for help from a colleague, supervisor, friend, relative, or neighbor? Dare I mention the gender-skewed difficulty in ‘asking for directions’? Who among us hasn’t wondered about the cost for that help received? Even as adults, we let pride get in the way.

So what happens when we want to avoid any or all of these complex social concerns? We avoid asking for help. We avoid the potential of embarrassment and labeling. So too with kids. When they can’t figure it out on their own, they feel embarrassed, powerless, anxious and defeated. They are also convinced it only happens to them.

The first thing for parents to get across to their kids is trusting their need for help, and that not knowing precisely where it will come from is perfectly okay. The students I see seem relieved when they can finally say to someone, “I don’t get that part.” Or, “I don’t get any of it.” From there, we can move in a number of different directions to address that confusion.

Next, if asking a teacher for help does not seem like the safest choice, and it may not be, then accept this reality and guide your child to consider where help might be available— tutors, for example, often represent a safe option for many students. Guidance counselors, teachers and department chairs can also be sources for academic peer tutors. Depending on the subject, there are free online resources, such as Khan Academy, that can be quite helpful. In this search, it may be valuable to distinguish whether your child’s issues are subject-specific or related more to study skills in general.

Ultimately, the most important practice to cultivate in students is actually recognizing when we need help, setting aside our fears and pride, and finding our confident voice to get it-—in whatever setting and with whomever it feels safest. Completing an assignment or scoring on a test is certainly the immediate goal, but finding one’s voice to search out help for what is not understood is empowering, a life skill that will take us far beyond the assignment at hand.

Iris Karas
When Parents Sense Something Isn’t Quite Right

When parents’ instincts matter

I too am a parent so I know well how challenging it is to be a parent, especially today. After the “what to expect during the first year” is over, we find there are very few rules and actually very little help out there to navigate what is often a pretty muddy terrain—and on a road vastly different from the one we imagined we’d be traveling.

We find out quickly that parenting is a pretty difficult balancing act. If we lean in too closely, we are accused of being helicopter parents. If we say to our kids “you figure it all out and learn from your mistakes”, then we are seen as apathetic and secretly worry that someone will want to call that 800 number on us. And, of course, most of us parents are not one way or the other all the time—it is often situation-specific.

But there are those occasions in our kids’ school years that we somehow feel definitely require our vigilance. How do we know that? Instincts. Ultimately, it is all we have to navigate this precarious muddy road of raising kids. Generally speaking, those instincts serve us well. So please continue to listen to them. Let them guide you even when they only vaguely suggest that something is not quite right and needs some parental attention. 

In my experience, when parents sense something is not quite right, their child is feeling it as well. Kids, however, tend to internalize and magnify whatever is wrong—inevitably presuming that there is something wrong with them. So often, when any stumbling block is addressed, students are able to move from “what’s wrong with me” to “I had no idea there was a different way to approach this.” When that ligh tbulb turns on, our kids understand that they don’t have to be limited or defined by these stumbling blocks.

K is a high school client of mine who exemplifies this point. Her parents advised her to come to me for help with study skills. Despite her consistent effort, she never managed to get more than a C on any test. She could not understand why she was never rewarded with a better grade, considering how much time she devoted to her preparation. Because she was stuck at “What’s wrong with me?” it never occurred to her to ask if there might be another way to prepare.  

In working together, I learned that K relied on outlines as her primary method of studying. When I asked her if she likes outlines, she said she actually hates them. Well, I asked, why would you continue to use a strategy that doesn’t work for you? “I thought that was the only way,” K said.

So not surprisingly, not only did she assume that everyone, except her, was successfully studying with outlines, but that by default there was something wrong with her because she couldn’t make it work. She had no clue (from teachers or parents or anyone else) that there is a menu of at least 21 studying options. Why not experiment with some?

Together we came up with a strategy based on her learning style, which was to approach test preparation by creating questions about the material and then using her creative abilities to answer the question.

In a relatively short period of time K discovered a personalized way to approach school subject matter from an entirely new angle. She is now able to take on a subject with interest and confidence, making test-taking simply the end result of an engaging process. Not the least important in her new approach at school, K found that the confidence she was finding in being well prepared greatly lessened her anxiety about tests. When students relax in the studying process, they can focus more sharply and retain more. Talk about a win-win.

If K’s parents did not act on their instinct that something was wrong (or not right), K would not have had the opportunity to make important changes in her school life. Helping a child to see a problem in new ways with new approaches is often what is needed to place her on the road to success.

Iris Karas
The Story Behind the Smile

D. is a young man who was interviewing for his second position as a computer engineer since graduating from college.  He sought my help because he couldn’t seem to ‘get passed the phone interview’ and there had been quite a few of those. He didn’t know why he didn’t get the call for the second interview especially since he believed most of the interviews had gone remarkably well.

Because of the particular challenges he faces, D. has a great deal of difficulty with social communication. As a result, responding to social cues is neither easy nor natural for him. Our sessions involved breaking down the components of communication, of which many of us take for granted, into smaller, more manageable parts. With practice and determination, D. developed this skillset until he was able to answer mock interview questions more easily, naturally and authentically. At one point, I exuberantly exclaimed “That’s fantastic, you nailed it.” And to my complete surprise, D. flashed a megawatt smile that I had never before seen. It was a magnificent, light-up-your-face kind of magic smile. It was downright captivating and one hundred percent sincere.

I told D. that he had a fantastic smile and encouraged him to bring it to his interview. He said, “I don’t like to smile very often.” He explained, “Once, a long time ago, I think when I was in 4th grade, a girl told me my smile was too big, she said it took up too much of my face. So, I try to avoid smiling as much as possible.”

So that means for approximately the last fifteen years you believed that what this girl, from 4th grade, said about your smile was true?  You assumed  that her comments about your smile were accurate? Did it ever occur to you that she might be wrong, that perhaps she was self-conscious about her smile or that she might have even secretly liked you? He answered easily that he had never considered any of those possibilities.

D. is not alone, of course.

Many of us carry similar scars from our childhood into our adult life. Most of us can all too easily recall the time that we felt maligned by teasing or taunting for being too fat or skinny, for ears that were too big, for hips too wide, for noses too big, or for calling into question our athletic, hands-on or creative capabilities…the list is literally endless.

D.’s recollection of his 4th grade embarrassment is an important reminder of what can occur when we don’t take the time to re-examine those experiences, when we presume they are part of our destiny. Think about the last time you dared to venture out of your comfort zone. Chances are that just as you were beginning to find reasons not to do this new and uncomfortable thing, you also heard the haunting lilt of some of those old messages, “You won’t be successful at that because you’re too– bossy, lazy, inflexible, clumsy, sloppy or unrealistic…”

With greater awareness, however, we have the opportunity to learn that those scars/messages don’t have to define who we are or limit what or who we can become. With insight, we can develop a new lens by which we develop the freedom to redefine ourselves. Then we can choose– what we want to be or what we want to capable of experiencing. When we are unencumbered by these limitations, we are no longer tethered to those earlier defining monikers, and then we can be truly open to exploring new experiences. And that is a whole lot to smile about.

Iris Karas
Fear/Panic/Danger - Understanding your body's response and simple steps to stop It.

We are born hardwired to recognize and respond to danger. In response to sensory input, our brain produces certain responses that make quick acting behavior based on that information more likely. Once danger is sensed, stress hormones flood our system, giving the body a jolt of energy. It is not difficult to imagine any number of scenarios in which we need to react swiftly. Our survival might depend upon it.

But the brain also responds to perceived danger by secreting stress hormones. Our brain circuitry does not distinguish between real or interpreted danger, it simply responds to the message by activating the release of stress related hormones. What happens in those cases when the release of those stress hormones ends up making us feel even more anxious? And, more importantly, what can you do about it?

The response to stress encourages more stress, which in turn makes us feel stuck and panicky. There isn’t just one stress response. There are a range of responses to stress. For some, the stress response can get them fired up, perhaps quick to lash out or more likely to make to rash decisions, while others may find themselves being quieter, turning inward, and they may be more prone to avoid action. The first step is to recognize your response to stress. Once you’ve identified it, you can focus on breaking the cycle, so that you are neither limited nor incapacitated by it. There is one response to the stress/fear signal that will quickly halt the ongoing release of more stress hormones.

The answer is remarkably simple and readily available to one and all—a few slow and deliberate breaths will instantly break the cycle of feeling panicky in response to the release of stress hormones. It takes only a couple of slow breaths-pausing to inhale for as little as one second- can signal the brain that fear is no longer a pressing issue; and therefore, stress hormones are no longer required. Slow deliberate breathing quickly trumps the brain’s need to release stress hormones because it signals that danger is no longer imminent.

Here’s a method to quickly decrease stress:

Step 1: Visualize a camera following your breath. Follow it as it comes in your nose and as it falls down the back of your throat, finding your lungs and expanding them. Now, follow the breath as it moves up the back of your throat and out your open mouth.

Step 2: Repeat and this time try to envision your lungs expanding a bit more.

Step 3: Repeat a few more times.

Step 4: Aah, you made it. Now, that you stopped the release of stress hormones, you can begin to think more clearly.

Try to resist the urge to hold your breath, it is not necessary, the goal is to establish a natural rhythm. Think of the natural ebb and flow of a wave.

Yet another bonus to stopping the release of stress hormones is the effect it has upon our judgement. Without stress hormones in the mix, we can begin to think more clearly, more rationally—something we cannot accomplish when we are distracted by a racing heart or the urge to lash out or to avoid. Consider how breathing impacts the panic associated with these common scenarios.

Most of us have had the experience of running 5 or so minutes later than we intended. Imagine that just as you are reassuring yourself that 5 minutes won’t be the end of the world, you suddenly realize you can’t find your keys or your phone or your glasses. Instantly, panic is triggered, as you now know that 5 minutes will likely increase beyond your control. In response to the panic, the brain releases stress hormones. Panic rises exponentially and soon you have an adrenaline-fueled anxiety cloud engulfing you. What happens next? Usually, panic begets panic.

Consider how in just the right setting and tone, the phrase, “I’d like to have a word with you” can trigger an immediate feeling of dread. And, because we are momentarily filled with dread/fear, what quickly follows is often a mixture of heart palpitations and a rush of anxious thoughts. As our minds race over the possible reasons we might be in trouble, our stress responses indicate that those fear signals have been received-loud and clear. Maybe, in these circumstances, our faces instantly crimson and then we worry that we look guilty before any conversation has even begun. Those secondary concerns about our reactions are also interpreted and translated as stress. And, a steady flow of stress hormones once again flood our body.

It is only when we take a few seconds to slow down and breathe deliberately that things can begin to change. Because it is in those moments that the release of stress hormones abates and we can begin to think more clearly. It is then that we can collect ourselves and retrace our steps or consider and weigh possibilities in a rational way. That kind of logical thinking is not very likely to occur however during rising levels of panic.

With this method, not only will you feel less stressed and panicky, but you will also be able to experience the benefit of clearer thinking. As with most things, practice improves performance and practicing deliberate breathing for as few as 3-5 seconds can have a profound impact. What do you have to lose, except stress?

Iris Karas
Opening Doors

When I first met C, she was a college junior majoring in environmental science. C, like many students, felt the pressure to get an internship—preferably something that would look good on her resume. The only problem was that she couldn’t begin to envision what her dream internship might look like.

And in the course of our meetings it didn’t take her very long to confess that she feared she had probably chosen the wrong major because she simply didn’t enjoy taking soil samples. What do you mean, exactly? I asked.

We talked and she said that she assumed taking soil samples was the extent of what she would be doing in an internship in her field—she just couldn’t imagine how she’d ever enjoy it.

C’s situation perfectly illustrates how too often when we think about what we’d like to do (never mind the burning question of “for the rest of our lives”) we get stuck, especially when we imagine that there is only one way to define a job or profession.

Of course, there are environmental scientists who spend their professional careers happily focused on researching the impact of the environment on soil. But taking samples is not all these scientists do, is it?

What my client didn’t yet realize is that knowing what you don’t want to do is in fact a great place to begin. The next step, and a considerably more valuable one, is to zero in on what about the field of study does arouse passion.

First, we identified true feelings. I helped C to understand why a specific task is unappealing beyond feeling “I don’t want to do it.” Instead she could ask herself why not? What is it about an activity or responsibility that makes her cringe or instantly shake her head no?

Then we brainstormed. In our exploratory talks, C became aware that she’s much more of a people person than she’d realized or had even paid attention to. What else? I pressed. In this process, she began to understand that the kinds of experiences she found particularly gratifying were those that involved opportunities to help people gain mastery over, and build awareness about, various aspects of their environment. Once she understood these things about herself, C had a starting point on her navigation map toward her goal of a dream internship.

Finally, we set to work on getting the right internship by:
• creating a targeted resume
• writing a strong cover letter that showcases C’s strengths
• practicing interviewing skills

So in the process of talking through the negatives—unappealing aspects of something positive aspects often come to light. Then we can uncover what it is that we really would like to do. The same process applies to the positions we know we liked or loved. We can ask ourselves why brainstorming as many reasons as we can.

I encourage you to take a moment to take this approach and begin to imagine what you would seek for your dream internship or job, based on what you know you either don’t like or aren’t good at. Build up the positives from there! What have you got to lose? Your dream job/internship is waiting for you.

One more thought….with every job there are always a few tasks we aren’t thrilled about. If a job or internship seems to offer enough of the things we are passionate about but has a few things we aren’t into, we should consider giving it a try anyway. We may be surprised at the doors that open when we open ourselves to new opportunities and experiences.

“You have changed the entire trajectory of C’s career.”
—C’s mom

Iris Karas