childhood, escape, Harry Potter, JK Rowling, literature, reading, real world

Why Reading Harry Potter As An Adult Is More Magical Than You’d Think

As with most people in their late twenties who effectively “grew up” with Harry Potter (Happy kinda 27th, Harry!), I remember my first encounter with the famous wizard. I was in the fifth grade, and my teacher Mrs. Congdon read the first book to our class in one-hour increments each day after lunch.

Each day during for that one hour, I escaped the struggles of my world (among which were math, friendship, and piano) and entered the universe of galleons and Grims.

For the next several years, I would eagerly await each new book’s release, pre-ordering months before, dressing in costume and waiting in an endless Barnes & Noble line to grab my copy at midnight, and staying up all night to read the book. The series, in some sense, was my Time-Turner, enabling me to pause “real-life” and live, at least temporarily, in an alternate one. Perhaps because of my naiveté, or perhaps simply because of the fantastical nature of the plot, I saw every part of Harry Potter’s world as better than mine.

Books 1 to 7

Today, almost twenty years since I met Harry, I associate the series with escape. Which is why, last month, in search of escape — from the pain of personal injury, from the horror of domestic injustice and worldwide terrorism, from the disgust with political agendas — I reopened Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time since I was ten. (I planned to read the entire series, and I’m three-sevenths, or well, three-eighths, of the way there.)

This time around, however, the reading experience has been a little different. While the writing still has the magical ability to suck me in for hours on end, Harry’s world no longer seems more (or less) desirable than my own. The obvious parallels —Quidditch injuries and soccer ones, dark wizards and terrorists, Ministry of Magic and government goings-on — are endless. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because in opposition to those less desirable life truths, the Harry Potter series more abundantly emphasizes the beauties of life: Of continual self-improvement, of subsisting relationships, of unquestioning loyalty, of inspiring community. Forces that work to stamp out darkness in the magic world as well as in our muggle one.

I still experience the glee of getting buried under my covers and whizzing to Hogwarts each night. But what I realize now that I didn’t as a child is that some of the most magical aspects of Harry’s world can (and actually do) exist in my world as well.

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2016, change, childhood, experiencing, real world, strengths, success

How I Learned That It’s Okay To Ask For Help

In my childhood home, my dad’s office den was the most exciting forbidden room of the house. While it wasn’t hard for us to keep away from the expensive machines and important papers that filled a majority of that room, my brother and I found it impossible not to sneak in and play with his (yes, my dad’s) toy collection (he called them “desk props” and “paper weights”).

Among them included a small plastic crate with a small hole and square button. Through then hole shown an eye, representative of a creature trapped inside the crate. Pressing the button made the crate start shaking uncontrollably while the creature cried, multiple times, “Excuse me, excuse me! Will you let me outta here!!”

Don’t hurt yourself trying to imagine this:

 

My brother and I found endless pleasure in tip-toeing into my dad’s office, pressing the button, then scurrying out and giggling in the hallway while the audio track finished.

The crate wasn’t entertaining to me because it was meant to be or even because it was a forbidden pleasure. It was entertaining because it provided a darker, sadistic humor. The notion of confinement reminded me of my freedom. I had power that this trapped “creature” did not. I was strong, and it was weak.

You see, at age nine, my definition of “weakness” was “in need of help.”

Unlike my brother, I was the “hands-off” child. I voluntarily did my homework and laundry, I chose which books to read, and I came up with my own views on religion and culture (which boiled down to writing letters to God when I wanted intangible things and Santa when I wanted tangible ones). Over the years, my parents and teachers credited my independent actions and thoughts to my strengths as a student and my well-roundedness as a little human. Over the years, I conflated “independence” with “accomplished on my own.” For me, asking for help was a sign of weakness. Failure.

This is the perhaps the most foundational misconception that I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I will never forget my first ever meeting with corporate executives. It was my first product management role and I was to present the initiative I would be working on for the following six months. My slides were a trainwreck and my voiceover was the Titanic. I hadn’t requested that my manager review my work beforehand because I wanted to demonstrate how capable I was. How independent. After all, I had been making slideshows since the sixth grade. As we walked out of the room after the meeting, my manager told me to come see him later. “I’ll teach you how to make a slide presentation.” It is one of my most glamorous failures to date and success would have been no more difficult to attain than asking for help early on.

Last year, I started working at IDEO, the most collaborative place I’ve ever worked. I received a flurry of “new employee” advice from veteran designers when I first joined. All danced around a similar theme, and one way of phrasing it leapt out from the rest: “Never hesitate to ask for help. People here fail when they don’t ask for help.”

This was perhaps the first time in my personal or professional life that I had been encouraged to ask for help, and more importantly, that needing help was no indicator of capability, strength, or success. It was a life-changing revelation.

Since then, I’ve striven to identify opportunities to ask for help — whether it’s on a piece I’m writing, a business model I’m testing, or a meal I’m preparing — and associating them with moments of strength rather than signs of shortcoming.

We forget to tell kids that asking for help is a voluntary decision. Not asking for help whispers ignorance. When we choose not to ask for help, we choose to confine ourselves in a crate. “Help” screams independence. Asking for help is how we help ourselves.

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childhood, math, money, psychology, questions, real world, San Francisco

How Asking Questions Can Make You Rich

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Last week, someone tried to steal my money. Before she could run off, I caught her in the act and fought her off. My weapon? A simple question.

Now before you imagine any grand scenes of my fighting crime on the streets of San Francisco, let me explain. I was on the phone with an agent, signing up for renter’s insurance. I had already completed an online interview and received a quote of $10.83 per month. The next and final step was for me to talk with an insurance representative who would “help me get the coverage I need.” So as we talked on the phone to make it all official, I naturally assumed that she was on my side—there for me like a good neighbor. Finally, it came time to pay.

“You’re total is one hundred and thirty dollars,” she said.

“What?” Not one for mental math, I felt like the number had come out of nowhere.

“Of course you can also pay monthly,” she said, leaving me to infer that the first number was annual.

“I think I’ll go monthly,” I said. I like to track my monthly purchases, and a recurring item on my credit card statement would be a good reminder.

“Okay. You’re total is $12.83.”

“Huh?” Neither mental math nor some taps on my calculator app could explain this one. I knew I would need to ask if I wanted an answer. “How are these amounts being determined?” 

“There is a two-dollar setup fee for the first month.”

“Great. So then next month it would be $10.83?”

“No it would be $11.83.”

“Wait what?!” A third number. This was too much. I was feeling less and less assured by the minute. “Can you help me understand this?” 

“Well, there is a one dollar service charge each month when you pay monthly.”

Aha! Caught you! Aha aha aha. Our conversation had been like a wrestling match and I had pinned her down. “But there are no additional fees if I pay annually?”

“That’s correct.” I chose the annual payment plan and hung up feeling like I had saved a million bucks (when really I had saved about twelve).

Asking that one simple question had invited the agent to unpack their payment structure (probably one that she is encouraged not to explain) and allowed me to make a more educated decision.

 

I haven’t always been a questions-asker. I know now that “there is no bad question” and that “chances are someone else has the same question,” but for most of my life, questions were a bad thing. I feared them.

Questions were those things that my mom asked when she didn’t believe what I was saying. They were the things you asked when I was being disobedient (“but why?”). Questions were what those dumb kids asked the teacher when they didn’t understand what she was saying (but everyone else did).

Over time, these cues taught me that questions were not constructive or collaborative. They were cavilling. 

The pinnacle of my question-fearing came senior year of college. I was preparing for my thesis presentation, which would consist of a one-hour session where I would share my findings then answer questions from the department. In addition to practicing my talk, I spent hours praying that nobody would ask any questions. What if I don’t know the answer? It’ll make my thesis look weak. What if I don’t have an answer? It’ll destroy my thesis.

If you’ve ever been in a presentation of research findings, you know that my prayers went completely unanswered. Oh were there questions. I didn’t know the answers to some (“I can certainly look into that,”) but for most, there were no answers to begin with (“These findings can’t answer that”).

When we debriefed my presentation a few days later, I started out by apologizing to my advisor. “I messed up in the Q&A,” I said. “I should have been more prepared.” My advisor looked at me sternly.

“What are you saying? People only asked questions because they were interested in what you were talking about. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have asked questions. I thought it was a good conversation. Based on the energy in the room, I’m thinking we should do a follow-up study.”

It was with this conversation that I first reconsidered my beliefs around questions-asking.

 

As I’ve transitioned into my professional life, I’ve come to rely on questions as a sort of currency: They demonstrate the extent to which people are invested in what you are saying. When leaders participate in meetings, the best ones—the ones that seem to care the most—ask questions. When the most effective speakers stand in front of an audience, they leave substantial time for questions.

Today, my life is full of questions, both that I ask and that I answer. I live and breathe questions without which my personal and professional work would be far less stimulating or meaningful.

If you ask me, there are two types of people in this world: Those who ask questions and those who pay an extra twelve dollars in renter’s insurance each year. It hasn’t always been the case, but today, there’s no question I’m the former. 

In every situation, push yourself to ask the hard questions. Invite the hard questions from others. Because it’s these questions, not their answers or the answers that you already have, that will make your life a whole lot richer.

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adulthood, change, childhood, friendship, psychology, science

What’s In A Friend? The Search For A Definition Of Close Friendship

The summer after third grade, I got a two-pendant necklace set. Each pendant was half-heart-shaped, one engraved with the word “Friends” and the other with “Forever.” I spent months strategically determining who would receive my half-heart. I decided on a girl at school who I liked better than anyone else I knew. I wanted to be her best friend. The problem? The role of her best friend was taken. “But it says ‘Friends Forever,’ not ‘Best Friends,’” I told myself every time I got cold feet.

I still remember the moment I presented her with the pendant. It was the start of fourth grade and we were on the playground. She snorted. “What do I do with this?” “I don’t know,” I said. She stuffed it in her pocket and that’s when I knew that I would never realize my dream of bringing our half-hearts together.

I blamed myself for weeks. I messed up. I should have strung the pendant on a necklace so it was more obvious.

At age nine, this was the first time I contemplated the meaning of close friendship. My flawed definition consisted of the belief that there are physical manifestations of friendship (the necklace says “Friends Forever” so we are), that reciprocity is unimportant (she’s my favorite and that’s all that matters), and that you need to have one favorite (who do I like best?).

Since then, I’ve frequently grappled with the meaning of close friendship and what comes baked in to its social contract.

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camping, childhood, experiencing, positivity, psychology, real world

Just Say No — To No

FullSizeRender“No means no” is a phrase I heard frequently as a child. Though I realize now that it was always for the best (“no” to playing outside after dusk, “no” to leaving the table without eating everything on my plate, “no” to going to a friend’s house before I practiced piano), back then I despised the phrase. It filled me with fear and powerlessness. Two “no’s” in a single sentence left no room to argue, and over time, I accepted the control and authority that came with the word.

My relationship with “no” is no different from yours or anyone else’s for that matter. Because we learn the meanings of “yes” and “no” early in life when our brains are still developing, we attach emotional meaning to them. “No,” takes milliseconds longer for our brains to process than “yes,” and it is carries more weight because it means that we will not get what we want.

As kids, aside from just hearing “no,” we are told to say “no” often and in a variety of situations: talking to strangers, drugs and alcohol, and other forms of peer pressure.

In fact, perhaps because it is what we would naturally say anyway, we are rarely encouraged to say “yes” as children.

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