The Self-Compassion College Try

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My daughter asked me to look over her college application essay the other day.

Her request prompted me to look at my own life — in a fresh, kinder way.

The self-reflection started with self-doubt.

I had a flash of wondering if I had the skills and wisdom to guide my daughter Skyla as she applies to fine arts college programs.

That question is absurd. I’m a professional writer! I’ve written and edited others’ writing for major publications (like USA Today and Fortune) and co-written four books!

So I snapped out of the skills-deficit-thinking pretty quickly.

But there was a deeper doubt. One grounded in my admiration for my daughter’s desire to be a fine artist — knowing full-well that her passion may make it hard to make a good living.

What did I have to offer her and her high-integrity intentions?

In the background of my mind, an old movie was playing. A story of disappointment and regret.

I’ve made decent money as a writer and enabled my family of four to enjoy a solid middle-class life. But given my many privileges (such as growing up white, middle-class, male, able-bodied and attending an Ivy League college), I can see my professional achievements as paltry. I haven’t set the world on fire with my writing, nor have I climbed far up the corporate ladder.

In fact, I’ve only managed one person, for one day!

It’s a laughable statistic. And remembering it may have helped me move on from the self-flaggelation. It’s hard to laugh at and lacerate yourself at the same time.


And here’s where deeper reflection kicked in. I’ve already poked fun of myself for my tiny management history, and recognized it is not the true measure of a man or his legacy.

What was fresh this morning, as I thought about helping Skyla, was a fuller appreciation of the path I’ve taken.

It’s possible to see my professional journey as a series of ethically admirable moves. These include:

— Turning down an offer to NYU law school to keep teaching New York City public school kids

— Turning down a Stanford PhD program to follow a passion for journalism

— Leaving a prestigious journalism job (covering the likes of Google and Microsoft) to be a more devoted father and partner

— Leaving a well-paying job because of low integrity on the part of my boss

— Challenging the ethics of that boss and another, at the risk of getting fired

— Leaving the security of another well-compensated role to pursue a call to help reinvent masculinty, organizations and society

I don’t mean to come across as morally perfect, holier-than-thou or better than anyone else. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Hurt people along the way. And I know there are far more admirable folks, who’ve overcome far more adversity than me.

But recounting this list in my head helped me view myself in a glass-half-full way. Or even a glass-brimming-to-the-top way.

I was compassionate to myself.

The low-volume, meanspirited movie in my mind screeched to a stop. And a gentler-yet-louder feature film took its place. A combination romantic comedy-thriller, with a hero doing his best — one I liked.


The whole affair reminded me how easy it is for me to let old narratives around what it means to be a “successful man” shape me. Narratives and expectations that tell me and other men to compete and win in the game of life. To rise to the top. To become rich and famous.

More than many men, I suspect, I’ve stared down those stories. Deconstructed and rejected them. But they persist in our culture. Like a movie playing in the background.

And we can feel such shame when we don’t live a life that conforms to that script.

M3, the men’s group founded by my book co-author Ed Adams, has a sign in a meeting room that reads: “I never beat myself up gently.”

We men may not beat ourselves up gently, but I think we often do so subconsciously.

How about we stop beating ourselves up at all?

How about we start noticing the subtle ways we demean ourselves? Doubt ourselves. Lacerate ourselves.

Because when we do, the damage goes far beyond us. We take out our hurt on those around us. On loved ones. Near ones and far ones. Ones we start loving to hate.

Can there be any doubt that the politics of cruelty today as well as the spasms of male violence have much to do with deep personal hurts?


This is not to say we men should regard ourselves as flawless creatures. Or that we should avoid self-scrutiny.

On the contrary, self-awareness is needed more than ever today. We need it for reasons ranging from improving personal performance at work to remedying historic inequities to saving the planet from climate catastrophe.

But it we’re going to engage in productive, honest self-reflection, we’ve got to heal the core wounds of not-enoughness that plague so many of us.

We’ve got to give ourselves a break. Tune out the noisy narrative of “victory or bust” and tune into a deeper, soulful story. We’ve got to connect to the sense of fundamental human worth that the world’s major faith traditions speak of. We’ve go to feel that unconditional self-love, perhaps from a spiritual foundation.

Self-love is cousins with self-compassion. With forgiving ourselves. With reframing our autobiographies and our bio-pics to see the good dude there at the center.


I made a little progress along these lines over the past day. I’m more conscious than ever of my divine spark. More aware of the fact that, along with all my stumbles and miscues, I’ve got plenty to be proud of.

And grounded in this kinder view of myself, I’m looking forward to helping my daughter with her college application essay.

By asking for my help, she helped me re-write my story. Now I’m ready to help her tell hers.



This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM with permission.



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