Midlife Crisis or Invitation to Go Deeper?


Oprah.com recently published an article called "The New Midlife Crisis: Why (and How) It's Hitting Gen X Women" by Ada Calhoun, and it's making its way around the interwebs among the middle and upper-middle class women like a virus in a preschool classroom. 

The article doesn't pull punches. It goes straight to the gut, and hard. Here'a a illustrative quote for those of you who haven't read it: 

Is it any wonder that women our age possess a bone-deep, almost hallucinatory panic about money? It’s not an idle worry. By some estimates, we carry more debt than any other age group (about $37,000 more than the national consumer debt average). We’re some of the best-educated women in history, and yet we’re downwardly mobile; about two-thirds of us have less wealth than our parents did at the same age.

The author isn't exaggerating. Two women on my Facebook feed commented that they had to get a glass of wine before they could finish the article. Another mentioned Xanax. 

So what are we going to do about this "hallucinatory panic about money"? 

Let's unpack a little first. This is a well-educated, middle/upper-middle class issue. The article isn't speaking to the truly resource poor and hungry, the disenfranchised, the working poor, POCs working within the confines of institutionalized racism, LGBTQAI folks fighting for equal rights. Are we all on the same page? Any suggestions mentioned here are not going address the gaping chasms that exist between middle class anxiety and the reality of living life as a transwoman of color, or someone living below the poverty line. 

First, recognize this middle-class anxiety is contagious. It's a part of our cultural toxic soup that permeates the air like the miasma Medieval doctors thought caused the plague before germ theory was discovered. Take a gander at the daily news and there it is. Talk to the other moms at school and there it is. Scroll through Facebook, glance at a bumper sticker, read a headline at the supermarket . . . and the next thing you know you are homeless, alone, and 80 (or wherever it is that your thoughts takes you). 

Your thoughts. It is so easy to get caught up in them. You are sitting on the sofa, cuddled in a soft blanket, purring cat trying to get at your keyboard, and suddenly you check your bank balance. Boom! You are billion miles away from where you are right now, purring cat, soft blanket and all. 

The author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schultz calls this "the overwhelm."

The overwhelm can transport us from freedom to emotional bondage in seconds flat. So, how do we get back to the purrs and the soft blanket? 

Here's a few ideas. 

  • Name it. Say to yourself: "I am experiencing the overwhelm." Or maybe you want to call it Delores. 
  • Feel it. "I feel sad, angry, frustrated." Cry. It's a great release. 
  • Reframe it. Is this a midlife crisis? Or is a call to go deeper? Which one resonates more with you? 
  • Breathe. Five deep breaths, holding for three seconds after the in-breath can make more difference than you can imagine. And it only take a few minutes. (No need to add a rigorous meditation practice to the overwhelm.)
  • Don't make decisions while you are in a reactive frame of mind. Let the mud settle. Then go forward. 
  • Practice feeling your heartbeat once you realize you have been triggered. Put your hand on your pulse and direct your attention toward you heart. See if you can feel it beat beneath your chest. Imagine your heart beating in sync with the pulse of the world. (It's really cool.)
  • Reach out to a grounded friend. 

The overwhelm is a paradox. It's simultaneously real and it isn't. Remember, you were sitting on a sofa with a fluffy blanket and a purring cat before you looked at your bank account balance! 

Our work, and most important, our peace, comes from knowing that our compounded agitated thoughts are not what is going to solve our bank account problem. 

If we see this anxiety as a call to go deeper, then individually, and collectively, we can create solutions to our hallucinatory money worries that come from skillfill action that is the product of grounded thought. 


The Power of Perspective

My first session with a coach was a profound lesson on perspective, and yet the act itself was so small. And that, my friends, is the power of perspective. 

The coaching call began with me snuggled into a comfortable position on my bed. My pillows were propped just so, my blue tooth was adjusted just right, I was ready to go. After some initial pleasantries and a little initiation into how she worked, we got right into it. 

This particular coach worked a lot with metaphor and movement. After discovering I was on my bed, she asked me to shift a few feet to the left or the right. I chose to shift left and ended up partially perched on a stack of books and papers I had haphazardly gathered together before I placed the call. 

She asked me where I was, and I told her I very awkwardly perched on a pile of crap. She then asked me how it felt taking the call from that position. I told her the facts: it was uncomfortable and I was having trouble concetrating. Her only response was "aaaahhhhh." Then she promptly told me to move back to where I started the call. 

What you see depends on where you are. 

What you see depends on where you are. 

We moved on to another direction after that exchange, but it stuck with me deeply. I can't tell you how many times I have recalled that conversation when I have been awkwardly perched -- so-to-speak -- while looking at a sticky problem. If I find myself having trouble concentrating, and not feeling grounded, I have come to realize that a change of perspective is in order. Usually I find having both of my sit bones or feet on the ground (literally and metaphorically) can make all the difference. 

What small change could you make right now to change your perspective and get a better handle on what is right in front of you? 

If you fancy having more conversations along these lines, please drop me a line at kay@kaysterner.com. I'd love to play with perspective with you to help you embody what is most important in your life. 

Take good care!

Ten Steps for Getting Unstuck

The bad news is everyone gets stuck. It’s not my job to pathologize stuckness, or people who get stuck. Stuck is a human condition and not a character flaw. The good news is it’s possible to get unstuck.

Imagine accidentally falling into a pit of quicksand. It’s a good metaphor for getting stuck. Play along with me as I guide you through getting out. Let’s call these the 10 metaphorical steps for getting unstuck.

  1. Don't thrash, the more you thrash, the more you sink.
  2. Take a big pause and breathe.
  3. Your quality of thought is going to help you get out faster. Panic will slow the process down.
  4. Assess your environment using all of your senses. What do you see, hear, smell, feel?
  5. Take stock of your resources. What resources do you have at hand, what resources are you going to have to work harder to get? Do you have a phone in your hand? Is there a vine hanging over the pit?
  6. Start moving out of the pit small step by small step, using your resources and clear thought to formulate tactics and strategy.
  7. Adjust your strategy and tactics as time brings the future into the present.
  8. If you start to panic again, breathe. Science has shown that breathing in deeply through the nose works as an emotional regulator.
  9. Ease yourself carefully back onto land. You’ll need a shower and to take it easy for a bit. Re-entry may feel slightly disorienting.
  10. Acknowledge your accomplishment. Celebrate your freedom of movement!
Everyone spends some time in the proverbial quicksand. 

Everyone spends some time in the proverbial quicksand. 

Everyone falls into the proverbial quicksand. And when you do it’s a boon to have guidance. A good coach can help guide you through life's sticking point without making you feel like you are any less than up for the work in front of you.

Are you feeling stuck? It would be an honor to talk to you more about it. Drop me a line at kaysterner.com to take the first step.

Holistic Time Management Tips

Consider thinking about time management holistically to really make it work for you. 

Our culture confuses effective time management and hyper-productivity. Hyper-productivity may work in the short-term (see start-ups), but filling every single 15-minute slot in your planner isn’t a long-term strategy (see start-up burnout). Holistic time management includes time for relaxation, joy, and regeneration.

Take a day or two to observe your biorhythms. When do you feel the most energy and do your best work? When does your energy ebb? Notice when you are doing work at times that run counter to your natural energy cycles. Ask yourself if there are there any tiny adjustments you can make, or things that can be left undone? Remember, the work of life will never be complete. What small task can you let go of to support your self-care?

Take note of how you respond on any given day when your body prompts you to rest. How do you react? I know the notion of rest when your body is tired is laughable when you are on deadline, or your child is sick and you’ve been up all night. Here’s my question for you: if you gently employ your curiosity in these situations, what tiny shifts (the smaller the better) can you make to support your need for rest?

Holistic Time Management Tools 

Here's a couple holistic time-management tools you can use and do just about anywhere. 

  • Calm.com offers great 10-minute meditations for free that you can do at your desk, on your sofa, at the bus stop.
  • Taking five deep breaths in through the nose, pausing for three seconds, and then breathing out through the mouth can shift you from a reactive state to a more neutral state in about 30 seconds.

Be well!

What to Do When it Feels Like Nothing Is Happening

I Was Told There’d Be Cake
— Sloane Crosley

Throw an American Dream, Madison Avenue, self-help, Photoshop, and just about any magazine that exists into a pot, mix them up, and you wouldn't be foolish to believe that life would serve up a nice slice of cake every day (gluten free or vegan if necessary) if you tried hard enough. 

It's not true, is it.

There's not always cake. Some days you're lucky to get an Ak-Mak cracker. Some days you get nothing.  

Our reptilian minds are programmed to go after cake -- at all costs! We work and try so hard we run ourselves ragged. 

Maybe there is a better way. 

The refrain in "Take it Easy" by Vanessa Carlton is gorgeous, and hints at an alternative to scrambling.

"Say it once, say it twice, to yourself, to the night / A shaman's prayer / It's natural / When it's quiet get slow"

Try This 

When it feel like nothing is happening and all you are getting is silence (or junk mail) from the world, try experimenting with getting slow, and see how it goes. Meet those seemingly inconsequential days with slowness, deliberate action, patience, a handful of faith, a walk in nature. 

Let me know how it goes. I'd love to talk more about it with you. 



Coaching Questions

What if you had permission to release the burdens that weigh you down? To whom would you give them? The sky, the Buddha statue in your neighbor's yard, the sturdy tree in front of the coffee shop? And then what would you do? 

What if you were unconditionally supported? What would you do? 

What if you could let go of outcomes? And all you had to do was show up to do the work?

Fancy exploring more questions like this? I'd love to coach you. 

Creating Time to Breathe (for those who seek stillness)

I just want the world to stop, so I can get off and take a breath!

How many times have you said something like that to yourself, or heard it echoed from a friend or colleague?

Folks these days hunger for moments of peaceful stillness. And yet it feels elusive. Even on vacation. Even when your kids are asleep and you have time to yourself. Even in yoga class. 

Email beckons. The dirty dishes beckon. Finding your life's passion beckons (this is a big source of stress these days as self-actualization is bought and sold and advertised). Staying on top of current events, learning new technologies, calling mom . . . . . aaaaaggggh! 

There is a way to create time to take those deep nourishing breaths.

Society places plenty of obstacles in the way of those moments of peace (oppressive policies, unobtainable ideals, relentless advertising, increasing complexity . . . the list goes on and on), but they aren't unattainable.

Your peace requires taking a gentle look at the choices you are making in your life. Your choices are how you spend the currency that is time. I've created a list of ideas and tips to support your in re-envisioning how you can spend your time. 

  1. The tasks of life will never be complete. Read it again, and breathe. When you die you will still have a to-do list. Truly knowing that in your gut allows you to let go of the idea that you have to complete the list before you can do what you love, what is fun, what is nourishing. What would be the first thing you let go?
  2. 70% is passing. (This is a tough one for overachievers to accept.) How much time do you spend in pursuit of perfection? Do your beds need hospital corners? Does your document need to be perfect before you hand it over to your manager?  Which of your self-imposed standards have room for a little give?
  3. Holistic time management at its essence is self-management. The better you know your self, the better you can manage your time. Take note of when you are most energized, and do the most difficult work of the day during that time (as possible). Follow your energy patterns. 
  4. Prioritize what you care about. The notion that our willpower is finite is being challenged by science, but we do know that a lack of will contains significant information. You will do what you care about and enjoy. What are you prioritizing that is meaningless to you and doesn't actually need to be done -- at least as a first order priority?
  5. Sleep and downtime are essential components of holistic time management. Effective time management is not hyper-productivity; it allows time for your body to recharge, so you can work most effectively and efficiently on what is most important day in and day out. Hyper-productivity is a short-term hack that doesn't cut it in the long-run. Hyper-productivity may be ruining your yoga class for you. 

Creating time to breathe deeply requires a fresh look at time. Drop me a line if you would like to talk more about this topic. The peace that comes with stillness is yours for the taking. 

Be well.  



Leadership and Power

The unveiling ceremony for John's mustang sculpture. Photo credit: Oak Kelsey.

The unveiling ceremony for John's mustang sculpture. Photo credit: Oak Kelsey.

Like many of you, I've been thinking about leadership nearly every day since the US 2016 primaries began. Careful consideration of what leadership and power are more important than ever in this age of political uncertainly. Holding the lion's share of nuclear weapon, the adage “with great power comes great responsibility” is more important than ever. Toss in accelerating climate change, structural inequality and racism into the mix, and we’ve got the recipe for a disaster, to say the least.

One of coaching’s great secrets is that when there is a way there is a will. Often what gets in our way is not being able to see our way out of the proverbial muck and mire. We need people who can show up the way forward, using our power responsibly, helping us to become honorable warrior(esse)s. My plan to help show the way forward is to interview people who I think exemplify what it means to wield power with responsibility.

My first pick is my cousin John Kevin Sterner (as an only child John is the closest I have to a brother. His father is my dad’s identical twin brother). Before you accuse me of nepotism, hear me out. John is an exemplary man. He is a talented artist and an athlete. He won both the state championship in wresting for his weight class in high school and the national championship in college. He teaches art and coaches football and wrestling at the local high school. His metal sculptures have places of honor in his hometown and grace the entrance of Southwestern Minnesota State University. He does plein air painting just about any day he has the time, and loves Italy. John also has Lakota and Northern/Eastern European ancestry. He practices a syncretic form of ELCA Lutheranism that is heavily influenced by the religious teachings of the Lakota.

Most recently John has turned around his town’s football team. From the time he took the reins three years ago, he transformed a losing streak into a district championship and a trip to state this past fall. I recently asked him questions about leadership and power. The results of our email conversation are below, which has been edited and formatted for length and clarity.

You live with a foot in two worlds, the White world and the Lakota world, which creates a complex identity for you. How does this influence your coaching and the way you make your way in the world?

It really affects the way I see things in life and who I am. Three of the men who raised me always expressed the importance of my Lakota heritage. Lakota culture and spirituality guide me to see clearly and to remain true to my path in life – it is a primary component of my identity. A Lakota warrior was a teacher first, a provider to all who were in need, a father, a brother, and lastly a defender. The key word is defender, because it isn't about fighting: It means to stand when others don’t. Honor is so important to the Lakota.

My 5x great grandfather, Milauha, was renamed Has a Knife because he was forced into defending his people from the encroachment of the US. During battle he expected to die, so he said hoka hey, which means “it is a good day to die!” According to the Lakota it is a good day to die when you have led a good life and done the things you were meant to do such as teaching and providing for your community. It is a good day to die when your life is in order in such a way that you can leave this world. Milauha staked himself to the ground and fought the US Calvary armed only with a knife and tied to the stake, and he survived. He touched many enemies that day, which was more important than killing. To the Lakota warrior, honor means to say to your enemy, “you are strong, so I will not kill you, but I will touch you and get away while you are trying to take my life.” This is a guiding principle for me.

How have your spiritual beliefs affected how you coach?

I always approach the game and the sport with the idea of being a servant. I am here to help provide young men with leadership that helps them grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is paramount to teach others as you wish to be treated. I have seen many coaches who only want to win, who only want their athletes to dominate, and I have also seen how many athletes dislike their coach and don't admire them. I am not seeking to be liked and admired, but I want to raise young athletes who are role models for both parents and children in the community.

In the past the West had the notion of the Renaissance Man, but it is my impression that being a man of artistic and athletic sensibility is actually a bit of a challenge these days. As your completely non-biased cousin, I see you as exemplifying the Yin/Yang symbol, where within every masculine aspect there is a feminine aspect and vice versa. How do you live this out? Has your masculinity ever been challenged by others on account of your artistic sensibilities?

The scientist in me says that they are the same being: Our brains have a right and a left hemisphere. The left controls time, language, math, sequential stuff and is organized like no other, and the right can’t speak, it is intuitive, it understands the relationships between objects, how things fit together, and it synthesizes information and sees wholes and not parts. To excel at playing sports you need what the right side of the brain does, to be able to think on the fly and make decisions based on immediate information, to be intuitive. Art is very similar, you can follow a prescribed route to get there but ultimately what makes strong art great is the intuitive portion, when to apply that paint or to move a portion of the sculpture to make it better or stronger. To me they are hand in hand and work as a team. The more I see with my right brain the more the world opens up.

John, how did you help the young men you were coaching to find their inner power and agency when you first took the reins? They must have felt some degree of powerless given their history.

As with all groups of people who find themselves in situations beyond their control, it affects not just the players, but the entire community. Changing the mood or the climate of the community is my first priority. 

One of my first strategies was to use an axiom that my father always used to develop young men’s minds to understand the idea of team: A tight rope walker spans a great chasm with his rope and asks who among the crowd of people gathered believes he can walk a wheelbarrow across the gorge. People respond positively, negatively, and with ambivalence – the real killer. He grabs his wheelbarrow and walks across the rope to the other side, and returns triumphantly to the now ecstatic and joyful crowd. He looks to the crowd and says, “do you believe I can do this?” and the crowd cheers, “yes!” The tight rope walker says, “do you believe I can do it again?” The crowd screams, “yes!” He looks the audience over and says, “then hop in!” 

This story is about the importance of believing, trusting, and ultimately having faith in what you are doing. The Bible says that we can move mountains with our faith; we just need to trust in the power. As a staff we worked hard to promote the young men’s faith in their abilities and their work, and that of the surrounding community.

We needed to establish that they had power to change their situation, and not others. "If it is to be, it is up to me" became one of our key slogans. We taught the young men that they needed to prepare themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually to reach their potential. To do this we focused on what they could do to make themselves better. The weight room, camps, and passing leagues brought physical change. Every day we taught the power of positivity to uplift them. We used quotes like “grind, hard work” and ideas that built upon what it means to be a team.

We described everything associated with the team using a train metaphor. Trains are always going somewhere and always driving hard, so hop on and get on board. We were the Laker train! Serendipity even played its part one day as we finished talking about the importance of getting on board the train of belief an actual train came through town roaring by and blowing its horn, as if on cue! Wooooo woooo! The Laker train is rollin’! Who's on board?

Now that your team is winning, how do you teach them to wield their power in ways that are honorable?

The three F’s are key to our approach: faith, family, and football. I attribute this philosophy to one of my assistant coaches, and we have used it since day one. It is ranked in order of importance and value. We believe the values you learn to live a spiritually good life should underpin how you play the sport. We stress good sportsmanship, and being a person who plays with joy and the love of the game first and foremost, and not the win at all costs mentality.

Tom Landry once said that the greatness of the sport of football is that “you can hit a man as hard as you want between the whistles but you help him up and tell him good job.” I firmly believe that our true character, our true inner self, arises in moments of tension and power displays, and you find what really drives that person in their actions.

When you see one of your young men using his power without honor, what do you do as his coach? I know ultimately he is under the guidance of his parents, but I do know that a coach can play a major role in a young man’s life (I remember my dad getting calls from jail to go bail out or pick up his college athletes. I can only imagine what the discussion was like in the car when he gave them a ride home.)

I will usually pull the young man aside and ask him what is appropriate and not appropriate.  I ask them to be responsible for their actions – just as I have to be for mine. It doesn’t matter how many times we get knocked down. What truly matters is how often we get back up!

Anything else you would like to say?

Thanks cuz for the kind words and honoring me with this interview.  Pilamaye Tukasila