The Bear and the Bull: A Year in Review

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Even Wall Street has its own fable. It’s told through shorthand between financiers. The fable offers a quick sketch of the economic climate at any given point and is represented by the bear and the bull. A bear market is a market in a slump and a bull market is a market rising.

This shorthand was created due to the volatility in the market as a way to concisely describe the status of a rapidly changing, complex system.

This same technique gets easily applied when we take stock of our personal lives: when we do a year in review. When we’re nearing the end of the year, we tend to make reflexive judgments that sum up the entirety of the year either as a bear year or a bull year. We decide whether things are deteriorating or getting better and then we act accordingly.

Whether it was a bear year or a bull year, our summation of things usually ends in avoidance, but for different reasons. In a bear year we can become depressed, overwhelmed and avoidant. And in a good year we can become complacent, over-confident, and sometimes even bullish.

Avoidance in bad years can lead to further decline, and avoidance in good years to reckless mistakes. Either form of avoidance misses out on the opportunity to learn and grow from our experiences.

Investors will tell you that the best approach to either market is an eyes-wide-open one. When applied to our year in review, whether it was a bear year or a bull year, let’s acknowledge it openly and be honest about our role in it. Reflection on the year gives us the opportunity to intentionally review, recap, and then move forward. Avoidance keeps us in limbo, or a place where we’re still impacted by the year without resolution (we’re stuck). Before you hit the fast forward button on the year end, I would invite you to consider taking inventory of your year.

Here are a few questions to prime the pump:

1–What has happened this year that’s important for me to remember? Why?
2–How have I grown?
3–Isolating this past year, who are the people I valued most?
4–What have I learned through pain?
5–Where did I take risks?
6–Where was I genuinely myself? Where wasn’t I?
7–What are my takeaways?

The reset button offered by a dawning 2015 could be an easy excuse to engage in functional nihilism. But if we choose to erase the past year, we risk losing valued memories, growth opportunities, and genuine perspective.

If it was a bear year, embrace it. If it was a bull year, embrace it. This life belongs to you and no one else. If you erase it, there will be no stories to tell, no losses to weep over, no joys to celebrate, and no fables to learn from.

Warmest wishes for a very happy New Year.

More Than a Candy Crush: The Life Lessons I Learned From Candy Land

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While browsing last-minute gift ideas for nieces and nephews the other day, I stumbled upon an old classic–the game of Candy Land.

Instantly I was transported to images of my 5-year-old self crouched in front of a multi-colored board lined with peppermint edges and game pieces that were as life-like as my imagination could reproduce in the ’80’s.

My friends and I spent countless summer days cross-legged and sweating over that flimsy board. There was a thickness in the summer air and an even thicker competition, as we embarked upon a magical journey through “candy cane forests and a sea of swirly twirly gumdrops” in a race to the finish. It makes me wonder if Buddy the Elf took a short cut through Candy Land en route to NYC.

During those magical, sugary hours, I was learning at more than I realized. As I reminisced this week, the thought came to me that Candy Land provides the perfect metaphor for the path to change. So I set out to see if I remembered accurately.

This iconic game comes with an important history. It was first manufactured in 1949, after having been invented a few years earlier by a woman who had polio. She used the game in children’s polio wards to provide a welcomed diversion from their illnesses and from their traumatic and elongated separations from family. There’s a fascinating article that provides an in-depth analysis of the connection between polio and Candy Land’s auspicious beginnings, and how the whimsical fantasy of a world made of candy was a great way to soothe both the frenzied hysteria and the very real anxiety that surrounded the disease.

As an aside, this article entertains the idea that the polio epidemic overwhelmingly shifted the cultural parenting tide from free range parenting to anxiety-driven hovering, and it laments how that cultural change continues to impact modern parenting styles.

The history of the game continues with multiple overhauls (e.g. the 1990’s exclusion of Plumpy); and enduring celebrity remakes from Dora the Explorer to a SpongeBob version. To date there have been 40 million copies sold, making this iconic board game a household name.

So why has this particular game withstood the test of time? Maybe it’s just the brilliant marketing to kids with a kaleidoscope of colors, delicious characters, and an edible plot line. Or, maybe not.

I wonder if the original creator knew how accurately her game predicts the path to successful change. From changing our eating habits, to planning cross country moves, to switching jobs, the path to change looks remarkably similar across the board (pun intended).

Here’s a quick sketch of the game for those who are unfamiliar. I’ll mostly be referencing the version that originated in 1985.

There is a winding path that spans the board and is divided into color blocks and locations. All locations are candy-related: plum swamps, licorice lanes, gum drop stops, etc. The players take turns picking a card that has an image of a particular color block or candy location that maps along the board. The player who picked the card moves to that spot, and then each player continues picking cards until one of the players advances far enough to reach the end: home. However, there is a catch. If you pick a card that coincides with a location that is further back on the board, you are required to retrace your steps. There are also certain places where you can get stuck (in a variety of sticky situations) and lose your turn. But in a whimsical balance, there are candy-coated shortcuts to accelerate your journey as well. So you could jump ahead of and then fall behind other players from one turn to the next.

Without opening a discussion on free will versus “Playing the hand you’ve been dealt,” let’s take a look at some of the toothsome (and gritty) truths that the Candy Land journey shares with the change process:

1–It’s non-linear. It’s not a straight forward journey. It is a forward, backward, and then sideways journey…And then backward again, with a couple steps forward, until you get knocked sideways and end up dizzy, and don’t know which direction you’re headed in.

2–Sometimes there are shortcuts…sometimes there are not. More often than not, there are not.

3–Sometimes there are obstacles…and more obstacles. Perseverance is key.

4–Stuck isn’t really stuck. Even with the obstacles, there’s a way forward. There’s always a way forward.

5–Often times there are setbacks (which are different than obstacles). In the game, there’s a looming awareness that you could end up retracing your steps at any moment. Expecting those setbacks leads to a quicker recovery time.

6–There is an end…and that end is home. The original 1949 version had each player nostalgically arriving at home, and for good reason. At the time, children with polio had to endure traumatic separations from their parents for months at a time while being treated. The reminder of home as the end goal presented comfort and hope. For us, home may be literal or metaphorical, but it’s always the place where transformation has occurred and where comfort and contentment reside.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of Candy Land’s predictive validity as a formula for success, let’s talk about the best part. For those of us who are obsessed with change, and its importance, and who spend our days pondering the minutiae of it all, this game takes us right back to the basics.

Us adults over-complicate the process. Candy Land is that sweet reminder of how simple the message is: stick to the path, persevere, keep the end in mind, and eventually you’ll get there.

Who better to glean wisdom from than children? As the great Madeleine L’Engle once said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

That literary pearl certainly applies here. If adults don’t get the formula for change, if they over-complicate it with a long list of defenses, why not teach it to kids instead?

I remember the rise and fall of my 5-year-old ambitions with the twists and turns of that game. Maybe at that age I was better acquainted, more familiar with, the path to change than I realized. Maybe it’s that my 5-year-old self could stoop more easily to keep her ear fixed to the ground–to pay attention. Whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion I was closer to wisdom at 5 than I am now.

I’m thinking of marketing my own version of Candy Land with fill-in-the-blank obstacles to help us plot our individual journeys to change. It will be complete with winding candy paths, sticky barriers, sweet short cuts, and a road that leads to “home”.

Any takers?

Desiring Greatly

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“So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game”

–Taylor Swift “Blank Spaces”

Our problem as a culture is not that we desire too much but too little. We are not creative enough about our longings. But we don’t need to be when those longings are hand-picked for us.

It would be easy to mistake cultural decadence for a robust ability to desire greatly. But the two are, by no means, the same. Take Taylor Swift’s song, for example. The chorus above ushers us into a world of romantic decadence complete with a “long list of lovers,” where she plays at discarding relationships like dressing room clothes. She’s “young and…reckless,” and she’ll “take it way too far”. This game she’s playing smacks of indulgence. The allure is instant gratification, but the appeal quickly wears off, so she goes from one lover to the next, but continues to end up alone and unfulfilled.

This game she’s playing at is one that we dabble with, ourselves, in various forms. We feel discontented so we spend countless hours buying clothes, drinking too much, or burning through a long list of hobbies. All of these attempts are formulaic and predictable. If there’s so little imagination, why are these things so popular and appealing to us?

We’re quick to accept cultural definitions for our desires instead of defining them for ourselves; and culture is ready and willing to take up the mantle of defining our wants for us. If the problem at hand is our unfulfilled longings (that show up in a state of discontent or restlessness), then culture’s quick solution is decadence. But those indulgences only mask our desires; they don’t fulfill them.

Do you know what you want? I mean, what you REALLY want? If you’re looking to culture to identify your holiday wishes, you may “really want” a sleek, ribbon-wrapped car stretched across your driveway and poised to respond to your commanding touch. While it’s appealing, it’s also unimaginative. It’s a temporary patch that leaves little energy invested in desiring greatly. The pursuit of desire, with our cultural capacity for opulence, is something you’d think we’d be good at but we’re not.

Freud coined the term “wish fulfillment” to describe the way our unconscious desires manifest themselves in dreams or fantasies (obscured from conscious view) until they culminate in resolution. Culture offers us plenty of fantasies that we willingly accept as the fulfillments of our every wish. But if our true desires are hidden from us, how can we really know what we want or whether we’re being fulfilled by what we’re offered? We can’t.

The next logical question would be, why do we bury our desires? Because we’re afraid of the intensity of those longings, and equally afraid of the people and things we long for. So we ignore/suppress/repress them for fear of what they might stir up within us: an immortal ache. This fear of aching has the uncanny ability to limit our creativity. But the stubbornness of those desires trumps the strength of our suppression, so they come bubbling to the surface anyway. Our fear leaves us frantically looking for something to tame the desires, so we end up relying on culture to soothe the inner beast.

True fulfillment doesn’t come in ribbon-wrapped packages. When we frantically reach for shiny things we merely placate the longings. We appease and pacify, only to end up restless and discontent. Living this way is like dumpster diving for scraps of food when there’s a sumptuous feast waiting for us just across the way. Fulfillment is available to us in the form of intimacy and connection (the feast), but we choose a “long list of lovers” instead. And those trysts end up “go[ing] down in flames,” as Taylor laments.

I love how C.S. Lewis, the famed author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” puts it: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Indeed, this kind of logic yanks at our core. Who wouldn’t choose the beach over mud puddles?

To move beyond the allure of cultural decadence we must recognize the immortal ache within us. Those desires are not superficial at all. They are deeply personal and intensely real. True fulfillment evokes our creativity, our imagination, our vulnerability, and our love. True desire is only fulfilled when we partake in a lavish and glorious feast, a feast that nourishes rather than pacifying those desires. Have you ever tasted such a feast?