Are Our Souls on Treadmills??

running on treadmill.jpg

This academic year the cost of putting kids on treadmills from Pre-K onward is slapping me in the face through the students I mentor.  I’ve seen students’ stress, anxiety and depression increasing over the past few years but not with the exponential leap I’ve seen this year.  The current revelation of college admissions scandals and the plethora of recent articles on student’s anxiety and pressure over academic & social success reinforce what so many of us know and see every day.

You can and should hold me personally accountable. I was raised with earlier incarnations of this pressure and despite deliberately trying not to inflict this on my own children, I know I have and whatever I tried not to do or to reverse, the world, schooling and society all around them has reinforced par excellence!

The few minutes students will relax and chill are few - they are viewed as ‘unproductive’.

The few minutes students will relax and chill are few - they are viewed as ‘unproductive’.

The toll on our next generation is horrific.  I spend most of my mentoring helping students figure out how to at least slow down the treadmill.  Since they have no idea of life without being on it, they don’t know how to slow it down, reduce the incline or even dare ponder getting off. 

For many of my students, it’s not chasing the prestigious, expected Investment Banking, Consulting or Entrepreneurial grail to make your first millions before you’re 30, it’s about making the maximum possible positive impact on the world by the age of 25!  They’ve been taught to define success and worth by performance, by WHAT they do instead of WHO they are, because that’s all they’ve known. We know that extrinsic rewards are never fulfilling – there’s always someone else doing more/better, there’s always more to get, attain, have … there is never ‘enough.’  We’re telling them a lie.

Relaxing dinners do happen…

Relaxing dinners do happen…

So, what can we do? Especially if our kids are at the later end of the academic treadmill heading into or already in the real-world treadmill? We can talk to them – be honest about our own treadmills, the why & how we got on them, stayed on them and the struggles we’ve had (trying to) get off (if we have).  We can be honest about the anxiety and struggles we’ve worked so hard to hide over the years and we can try to change our own lives, slow down our own treadmills, reduce the incline, find our own balance and share how we’re finding our have found our own meaning and purpose.  Are you willing to try this with your own kids? With other people’s kids? Would you be willing to try this with and for yourself?

Atoms vs. Bits - Making Matters

Students working on projects in the  Brown Design Workshop

Students working on projects in the Brown Design Workshop

We live in a world infatuated with bits (tech).  We value, encourage, praise bit-making over atom-making.  Creating with atoms doesn’t have the cache or import it once did, and we’ve lost something precious by doing so.  Our hands* were not made (just) for typing, they were made to be sources of input to our brains to learn about our world – and learn by creating.


Making, physically making, with atoms, not bits (or at least not just bits), is powerful!  Numerous studies have shown the power of physically making for muscle memory, learning new cognitive skills, and much more.  Making helps us develop empathy, helps us learn to iterate and prototype, to try stuff

Making with atoms usually involves almost all, if not all of our 5 senses – we use sight, touch/texture, hearing, smell and even taste, think cooking!  If you ever created with wood, do you remember the constant touch & texture of sanding an edge? Eyeing a joint? The amazing smell of cut wood (ahhh!)**? the sound of a planer or saw so you knew it was working perfectly? Making builds a sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency, of knowing you can be ok, you can rely on yourself if need be.  And, making is a source of peace, calmness, harmony in our very hectic anxious lives.


Making is how we learn about our world, both in reality and as a metaphor.  For instance, if you build a drawer by just nailing the sides together, does it have the same stability, endurance and resilience as a dovetailed drawer? By building both types of drawers, what could we learn, extrapolate about systems-level thinking vs. discrete parts? Doesn’t this resemble our healthcare, education and other failing systems - as a bunch of parts nailed together instead of dovetailed? By making, we can see why systems matter and how to design them.

As you go through the rest of this month, what can you make – out of Legos, Play-Doh (yes, it’s for adults too), food, wood, glass, paper and pen? It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t need to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s.  Just make something – for yourself or with someone.  With someone is even better.  Because, remember – we’re made of atoms, not bits.


*The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

**If anyone ever wonders why I love doing my office hours in the Brown Design Workshop, just come in and smell the wood!

Trade Hubris for Humility

Salko ‘21,  Kyra  ‘20,  Jake  ‘20, me,  Matt  ‘18.5,  Nate  ‘19,  John  ‘21,  Samanee  ‘19

Salko ‘21, Kyra ‘20, Jake ‘20, me, Matt ‘18.5, Nate ‘19, John ‘21, Samanee ‘19

One of the reasons I love mentoring students is because it keeps me learning, exploring, questioning and challenging my beliefs – keeping me relevant and useful to the world (I hope!).  So, I’m sharing part of a wonderful conversation with one of my #BlueLobsters (mentees), Salko, a second year at Brown (front left at the “we ate all the” sushi table)


Deb – a question that’s been on my mind recently: How do you make it so you don’t become egotistic as you achieve more?


Ego: This is a hard one for sure!  I can tell you what’s worked for me (now that sounds egotistical 😂) !  

  1. Have a questioning mind, so no matter how much you succeed and achieve (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proud of your accomplishments), there is always more to learn. I use the ‘learn’ more than ‘achieve’ because it shifts my brain to focus more on the ‘thing’ I’m doing than ‘me’, redirecting the emphasis;

  2. Surround yourself with people who are as bright & brighter than you & want to have impact and ‘achieve’ - that’ll put you in your place! But don’t let that lead to lack of self-confidence - don’t compare yourself and feel you’re not as good - we all have our gifts & roles & timing in life;

  3. Stay vulnerable - always be willing to admit you don’t know the answer and you need help - that allows others around you to feel free to vulnerable and also leaves you more open to learn.  Almost all the people I’ve met who are really the best in their field are not narcissistic - they are humble, eager to learn and eager to share…. it’s a matter of putting it into perspective.  Lesson? Trade Hubris for Humility!

Trade Hubris for Humility


I fear that by being surrounded by this "high-achieving energy", I'll be too focused on doing stuff and doing stuff and doing stuff all so I can be "successful and great" (or reach outlandish goals), but lose some genuine human connection and my relationships along the way (because I fear I won't pay much attention to them). Like I will lose interest to keep in touch with old friends and family members because "they're not doing things or interested in things that would bring my goals to fruition". Now how would you handle that?


So you’re worried you’ll become so obsessed with making a mark, having a huge impact (however you define that) that you won’t view time/relationships with people who aren’t doing (as) cool things or aren’t into helping you do your things (faster/better), as either equally or even somewhat as important as your ‘goals’?  Yup, that could happen. Yup, that’s kind of hypocritical.  And usually it happens slowly (like the boiled frog syndrome) so you’re not aware of it until it’s (almost) too late. How do you handle that? Well, a few things:

  1. See #2 above – People!!!! Surround yourself with people who care a ton about you, who will hold you accountable to the values you’ve said matter to you, who uphold the same values in their own lives. People who remind you that your friends and family are not functions to serve and provide for you but to be with you, love you, accept you and enrich who you are AND as you should do likewise!  Also, depending on who the people are around you, they may want you to hold them accountable as well, which is a round-about way of holding yourself accountable;

  2. Schedule time with old friends & family – time to facetime/video, email, text, visit in real life – this may sound trite but sometimes we need to do the basics – like blocking time in our calendar so we don’t forget.  It doesn’t mean we’re trivializing or demeaning the relationship, it means that it matters to us and we worry we’ll forget and so we make sure we don’t.  Remember, unfortunately, the day to day usually beats out the important for our attention. 

  3. Oh! Remember to have fun - a lot of it! Helps to put things into perspective!

Remember to have fun - a lot of it!


I'm afraid of it changing into something I won't be able to predict! 


I changed into something I NEVER would have predicted and it’s been the BEST THING EVER!!