3 Real Takeaways from Hulu’s Fake Peek Into Residence Life

“Our lives could be a TV show.”


I can’t tell you how often I hear that remark from people at the office- and have heard it, regardless of where I’ve worked. Those pleas get answered in the most seemingly random of ways; It would appear that enough current and former RAs have verbalized this need that we received Resident Advisors, which premiered on Hulu this past Thursday.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am still warming to the humor. I’m working hard to give it a chance because, as is often the case, I am a fan of several of the people involved. And additionally, as someone who did have several ridiculous situations happen to her as an RA, its always nice to see how our lives get dramatized. But even as I continue to adjust to how the story is being told, I’ve already gotten something from the two episodes I’ve seen so far to date.

All staffs are going to have people who come from different walks of life, and will need help adjusting to that reality. 

At the outset of the show, we are introduced to ambitious and high-achieving Resident Director Olivia (Jamie Chung) and her four RAs- “old guy” Doug, slacker/dumb guy Tyler, industrious Sam, and offbeat Amy. We’re made to believe that some of the humor comes from exploring each RA trope, as well as how these tropes interact with one another. And, to a certain extent this is true. The second episode sees two markedly different RAs dealing with a problem together but differently- a situation that any two student employees could encounter. But the part that stood out to me was how clear it became early on that each staff member had a different reason for taking on the RA role. Tyler (falsely or otherwise) believes that he can use it as a means to meet girls, Sam sees it as one of six jobs he holds on campus, and Doug is in it because he honestly enjoys working with students, helping them develop and set a path for their lives (sound like anyone you know?). Whether they know it or not, most RDs will work with staffs that have some combination of these three personalities. Yes, some would strive for six, eight, or twelve people that want to do this work out of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to impact lives. But that isn’t always going to be what we get…and we need to be okay with that. We train for diversity in a number of other ways- but do we allow for diversity of motivation? We need to be okay with the idea that sometimes, the ability to do the work is the thing- and as long as its getting done, aspirations of inspiring learning and changing lives don’t have to come standard.

Those paying attention closely in the first episode will take note- this could also apply to the staff member supervising RD Olivia. She’s not what student affairs would call a “lifer,” she instead sees the competency and people skills that could be developed in this role as key to success in Silicon Valley- and so she takes this job en route to another destination. Based on that avowed decision, how would she do in your res life department, in your division? For Olivia, residence life work isn’t the endgame, and that’s okay. I’d argue that it should be just as okay for the people we work with in our day to day lives. It occurs to me that she’s not the only residence life professional on TV portrayed in this light: the same could also be said for A Different World‘s Walter or Saved by the Bell: College Years‘ Mike. I could speculate as to how this portrayal informs how we’re interacted with by those outside the field…but that’s a musing for another day. What I will say instead is that we’re generally accustomed to accounting for differing motivations in res life employment for students, but less so for professional staff. My counter would be: if the work is getting done, relationships are being built, and learning is happening- why should we?

Related to that, we need to allow for stylistic differences in how the work gets done. I previously spent a great deal of time in the world of gymnastics (a point I’ll come back to in a moment), a world that features two main levels of competition: compulsory and option. In compulsory competition, all competing athletes learn the same routines and will be judged based on their adherence to those specific moves and how they should ideally be performed. After a number of years and progressing through levels, you arrive at those levels that are modified optional (a combination of compulsory and optional maneuvers), and finally, fully optional. These are the elite level gymnasts that you see on television, with routines that (not accounting for trends- I miss consecutive whip backs…) don’t look anything alike and often include moves that athletes themselves make up. Things like student development theory, knowledge of diversity and mental health, and emergency safety protocol are the compulsory moves of this field, with other moves in other areas falling more on the side of optional. Is it easy to assume that residence life work, or indeed any facet of higher education work, should operate as compulsory exercises? Sure. But to tailor to the needs of individual differences, to ascend to higher levels, we have to embrace an “optionals” mindset. When I competed, compulsories were comforting in their predictability, but ultimately were not that interesting. I worked harder to get stronger and master skills that would help me advance because I thirsted for the opportunity to put my own spin and my own personality into my routines (and anyone who saw my mod-op beam routine would never mistake it for anyone else’s!).

Student staff, and even professional staff, will similarly thirst for opportunities to put their personal spin on the skills and required elements that must be in place. That may mean that they’re going to handle problems differently than you do. Are you okay with that? If the students are happy and safe, an agreed upon outcome can be reached, and no rules are broken, do you create an environment where your supervises (student or professional) have space to individualize their approach?

Let’s seek to loosen our grip a little bit. Here’s the part where the film studies major in me steps up on her soapbox.

Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician John Nash was noted for his brilliance in an approach to game theory, and his story was beautifully adapted into 2001’s Best Picture Winner, A Beautiful Mind. But what those less familiar with his story may not know, is that his hallucinations were of a wholly different nature than portrayed in the film (rather than government conspiracy, he hallucinated encounters with extraterrestrials), won a Nobel for economics (rather than math), and was divorced from his wife Alicia Larde Nash for much of what was portrayed as the middle of the movie, making their demonstrated enduring love seem less bulletproof. Does that change your opinion of the film’s cinematic merit? It probably shouldn’t.

When we articulate the desire to see our lives made into a TV show, we often mean that we want it told from our perspective, with all the same information that we have and with plot points dictated exactly as they happened and with all our knowledge imbued into their coverage. Even highly notable people don’t often get that treatment. But here’s a secret: shows like Resident Advisors, or any show that deals with a specific profession, have creative consultants and researchers. They have fact checkers and lawyers. And they report to network heads that can give notes on how things will be perceived. Why do I say this? To drive home a simple point: the creators and writers of Resident Advisors know that the term residence hall is the correct one, but they don’t care. 

To say that they don’t care is harsh. What I should probably say instead is that they likely had a version of the battle that we have in the field- do we call it dorm, a term that most people can immediately identify, or do we give its correct terminology and risk being misunderstood by those who don’t understand that? And because their loyalty lies in building a large audience and not a specific one, they elected to take on the latter. Yes, you can’t fire an RA without due process. No, the resident director probably doesn’t report directly to the Dean. They found one of roughly six student affairs folks that doesn’t care for hugging?!

[And if you ask me, the idea that Doug could have been an RA for eleven years and completed multiple graduate degrees without being drafted to work in student affairs is the real grievous oversight ;)]

This approach is not one unique to our field. Sorry. In fact, I want to thank Dan for this note that came up during an online discussion about the show last night:

This is a great example. Would most average people be savvy to the inconsistencies that could (and likely do) exist on The Big Bang Theory? No. But does it stop it from being entertaining (to some, not me)? Not really. But it is popular. And there’s a tradeoff there. Most shows that strive to get the facts exactly right, aren’t also the ones that boom with ratings. Just ask Matt Groening about Futurama. 

When I first started watching ABC Family’s Make It or Break It several years ago, I was drawn in by the idea of a TV show that took place in a world that I knew so well. Full disclosure: as someone who has also worked in a community college and two Parks and Recreation departments, I’ve dealt with this a few times more than some people. And at first, I let the factual (and athletic) inconsistencies get me down. But I came to understand that for most showrunners, writers, and creatives- the setting is secondary. Make It or Break It was only occasionally good television, but that had little to do with how good the gymnastics was- the setting was secondary. Resident Advisors happens to take place in a residence hall, but it didn’t have to. Similar issues could have been explored on a cruise ship, or a day camp, or with lifeguards. The setting is secondary to the stories.

An additional point to consider here: the writers of the show and those they consulted for the show weren’t residence life professionals, they were RAs. Many of the stories that are based on real-life situations (and some are) came from the RA perspective of the situation. Is it incomplete? Sure. And so long as paraprofessionals are at least partly shielded from the full scope of decision making, it’s going to be. But their stories are valid, as we generally strive to teach them. Should that affect how you receive the show? That’s up to you, but I choose to take off my work hat for twenty or so minutesand see life through the eyes of some former students who thought a formative experience in their lives was worth sharing.

Have you watched Resident Advisors yet? What do you think?

Reciprocity Ring 2015

We’re back at it for year 2, and are so pleased you’re seeking to join us! The goal of the Summer 2015 Virtual Reciprocity Ring is to create a space where women are unashamed to ask for help on whatever dream project or endeavor they wish to take part in. Each member of the group is committed to providing substantive feedback, encouragement, and advice to the other participating women in a space specifically designed to keep out needless negativity, judgment, or discouragement that keeps so many of us quiet.

These pitches can be personal or professional in nature: requests granted in this format have ranged from help refining resumes, to making connections about book publishing, to helping raise money for surgery. Think big, this is a powerful and understanding collective and we want to be as helpful as possible :)

Many people have asked, “What do you need from me for a pitch?” That’s a good question. A few quick guidelines/suggestions:
-Three to five paragraphs written; OR
-Up to 4 minutes of video, OR
-A slidedeck detailing your idea/need; OR
-A piece of art, featuring a one paragraph max explanation.
(It is worth noting that this pitch does not have to be professional! Want help with a passion project, interested in finding a new hobby, or looking for impartial life advice? All options are on the table!)
-Most importantly: what SPECIFICALLY do you need from the group? Do you want advice? Input? Contacts who can help you with a project? Specific items? Be as explicit as possible when requesting what you need- defining the action step you’re seeking is essential to getting the result you want.
Please also include a brief “about you” including your name, where you reside, what you do for a living (whether relevant to your pitch or not), and a moment in a movie/TV show/book that made you go “wow.” Please make sure that this information is emailed to amma.marfo@gmail.com by Friday, April 24th, 2014 at 5pm EST.

By the same token, you are more than welcome to participate without putting a pitch forward! The goal of this effort is NOT to be transactional, but to provide a space that is specifically geared toward being helpful and supportive.

Starting in the first week of May, one pitch per week will be selected. Members of the group will be encouraged to offer feedback, advice, encouragement, and ask questions of the person making the pitch. In the best case, the end of the week will bring the pursuer of help more knowledge, affirmation, and constructive feedback than when the week started.

By the end of the summer, let’s all strive to answer two questions for ourselves and for others: “What are you dreaming about?” and “How can I help?”

Sign Up for the 2015 Reciprocity Ring Here!

Looking to see how it worked last year? Check out 2014’s pitches.

To head off a few AFAQ (Anticipated Frequently Asked Questions):

Q: If I participated in last year’s Ring, do I need to sign up again?
A: It would help me out, yes. This year’s weekly correspondence will be working differently than last year, so I would like to be able to pull from one place. You have until the 24th, so please do so ASAP!

Q: If I brought forth a pitch last year, can I pitch again this year?
A: I’m understanding of the idea that paths may change and needs along with that, so I’m going to allow for repeat submissions, IF your pitch is markedly different from what you’ve previously put forward.
If you’ve started work on a project, and your pitch would be additional support for what you’ve already started, I’d prefer to save the formalized pitch slots for new initiatives. That being said, please feel free to put forward your questions and calls for support on your own!

Q: What can a pitch entail?
A: As is stated in the intro of the signup form, pitches can be professional or personal, and previously have varied widely. Some ask for networking connections, some ask for feedback on projects- versions of this concept have gotten people jobs as well as connections for customized clothing for children with disabilities that are otherwise difficult to dress.
My sole request: please do not conflate the phrasing of “pitch” with the idea of a “sales pitch.” This opportunity is not designed to be used for solicitation, so please do not use them as such.

Hope this is helpful- if other questions arise, please don’t hesitate to reach out via message, or my email address (amma [dot] marfo [at] gmail [dot] com).

Lessons in Laughter, Pt 3: Laugh When It’s the Hardest Thing to Do

In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First, I covered the importance of finding your funny. Next, we talked about how to use that sense of humor to get you where you want to be (and away from where you don’t!). I’m going to close the series with the most difficult part: laughing when it seems like you should be crying, and why it’s important.

My mother and I were in the pre-op area, waiting for my father to be wheeled into surgery to remove his prostate, and we were laughing. Somehow, despite the gravity of the situation and the fear that each of us held tightly, we were laughing.

If nothing else, please giggle at the glasses. Part of being young is your parents deciding your glasses should COVER your face. Photo Credit: Nana Marfo

A bit of background: the Marfos are gigglers. My father has this Beldingesque bray that he does when something funny catches him off guard. My mother tries to hide inopportune giggles behind a tooth-hissing, near silent shake, but she never succeeds. And my sister and I have had marathon laughing bouts triggered by the simplest things (most notably, the discovery that the basketball team in Denver is called the Nuggets).That was literally a forty-five minute laughing session in the mid-nineties that I’m convinced extended my life.

But these laughs didn’t always come easily. I’ve spoken previously about my struggles with anxiety, a condition that convinces you life isn’t funny and never will be again. We have had struggles in the family with poor health, death, poverty, depression, and other things that, simply put, aren’t funny. The most recent test to our sense of humor was my father’s February diagnosis of prostate cancer. For someone who’s major anxiety trigger was something grave happening to her father…well, let’s just say that laughing wasn’t my default move. Panicking, retreating to my own space, crying, and worrying came far more naturally. But by June I had assuaged some of my fears by committing to being there for the surgery and helping my mom during the first stages of his recovery.

So let’s return to pre-op, where my mother had agreed to just be the patient’s wife for the day, and not a fellow medical professional (she’s a registered nurse by training). As the anesthesiologist spoke, she listened intently. But then, she slipped. Routine seemed to take over as she asked, “What’s his Gleason score?” I don’t remember what the Gleason score is, and it doesn’t really matter, except that it’s not a term that most people know. The doctor stopped, turned to her, and asked, “How do you know that?”

Without missing a beat, my mother, the more composed of my parents, said “I Googled it.”

I couldn’t help myself. I shot a glance at my dad and we started quietly giggling. My mom quickly explained that she was a nurse, and they finished the conversation and examination.

After she left, it got funnier. Mom immediately turned to Dad, and said, “Googled it was funny, right? Should I have said YouTube?”

Dad: YouTube would have worked, but I think this was fine.

My parents were workshopping a joke moments before my father rolled into surgery. If that doesn’t convince you that laughter can get you through the hard times, I don’t know what will.

But the fact of the matter is, “We laugh so we don’t cry” is a viable statement that has gotten people through a great many hard times. Srdja Popovic talks about creating a comical political statement in Yugoslavia as a means of showing the government its people couldn’t be broken. Finding the funny in scary or anxiety-provoking moments has proven to be among the most effective ways for me to live in a world that constantly sets me on edge. Hell, I’m writing near a window that reveals to me that it is snowing in Boston. Again. In late March. That has to be hilarious, or else it would make this Florida girl sob uncontrollably. And thanks to Hunter “Patch” Adams (and, to an extent, Robin Williams), the world knows humor to be part of a viable approach to medicine, one that I saw later in my father’s hospital stay.

As far as anyone in the hospital that day was concerned, my father was a winner. His prostate was the biggest one removed that day, which became a running joke with all the doctors and nurses that came to visit him (“you won!”). When he was told the precise mass of it (again, don’t remember- long day), I remember a previously groggy man unable to focus his eyes straightening, turning to my mom, and saying without missing a beat, “I knew I felt skinnier!” 

I’m proud of my parents for a number of reasons. They both immigrated from Ghana after making an education a priority to Canada. They navigated North America on their own, making friends and creating two children along the way. They are hardworking, kind, responsible, and brilliant, and ensured that my sister and I grew up the same. They are also two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, and raised us to remember that laughing was important. It keeps you young (ask anyone who’s met my mom- she is aging beautifully!), it keeps you sharp, and it makes life easier to navigate. Reflective writing doesn’t come easily to me, and I knew this piece was going to be the hardest to talk/write about, but I also knew that the laughs that would come in the process would be worth it. And in the end, that’s what it’s about. Just as Marcel the Shell smiles because it’s worth it, I encourage people to try to laugh as often as possible even when it’s hard- especially when it’s hard- because it’s worth it.

I’ll end this post as I ended my talk- with the final words of Peter McGraw’s The Humor Code. A tale of a Colorado professor who traveled the world for a year trying to find out the “anatomy” of a joke and what makes things funny, he ultimately landed on this sentiment/my new life motto:

Surround yourself with the people and things that make you laugh. Seek out interesting places and interesting people. Focus on the friends that make you laugh, not the ones who bring you down. Choose as a partner someone with whom you share a sense of humor, someone who helps you see the lighter side of life […] And maybe it’s cliched, but remind yourself that everything is going to be okay. That thing that seems so scary in the moment, so catastrophic and worrisome, is only scary because you’re paying so much attention to it. It’s okay to complain, but add a bit of wit to your grumbling.

UPDATE: It’s here! Watch the talk in full here:


Are We All In This Together? (f/ Kanye West)

Like many others that do the work that I do, this past week was an eventful one. Nearly 8000 of us traveled to New Orleans for the NASPA Annual Conference in New Orleans, prepared for several days of learning, networking, and spending time with friends and colleagues from all over the country. However, the more “connected” (digitally, not necessarily interpersonally) among us became roped into controversy over the use of an app where controversial thoughts, opinions, and actions were shared. As reactions to the issue began, swelled, and intensified, I had mixed feelings about the situation. Let’s assume for the duration of this post that the comments shared are (a) from our conference- there were several in the geographical area, (b) at a critical enough mass to be representative of the field- that is to say, that it was a fair number of people, and (c) true- that is, not someone trying to make a point about something. Is it the tool’s fault? (I don’t think it is, no.) Is it the field’s fault? (In a way, probably.) Why there? (Why not there?)

*In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a user of this tool, but received samplings of its contents from other professionals. Like the girl that “doesn’t even go here” in Mean Girls, I just have a lot of feelings and this incident provided an opportunity to express some of them.

But the controversy itself also brought to mind a lot of other feelings I’ve been trying to sort out over the past few months. As was likely to happen to someone who absorbs pop culture as I do, the answer came to me in a song. Just as Mary Catherine Gallagher (of SNL and Superstar fame) expressed her feelings best through monologues from made-for-TV movies, mine can best be expressed through “Stick to the Status Quo” from High School Musical. For your review:

A sampling of the lyrics, for those not wanting to watch:

Look at me
And what do you see?
Intelligence beyond compare
But inside I am stirring
Something strange is occurring
It’s a secret I need to share

Open up, dig way down deep

Hip-hop is my passion
I love to pop, and lock, jam and break!

Is that even legal?

Not another peep

It’s just dancing
And sometimes, I think it’s even cooler then homework!

No, no, noooooooooooo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It’s better by far
To keep things are they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo

Now ask yourself, seriously- seriously…does this sound familiar?

Whether in our online circles, or in our own offices, there’s a major disconnect between honoring dissent, individuality, and the all-too-popular concept of authenticity- and actually allowing it to flourish. A feeling of accountability to those that ushered us into the field has created a mold for what professionals that do this work should look like, and it’s pushing people that dissent to places of stress, crisis, value misalignment and, for a few days at a conference, to an app that allows them to speak their mind without putting a name on their thoughts and opinions. Further, this is a small fraction of people. A very small portion of 8000, which in turn represents a field of considerably more. It, in some ways, echoes conversations on our campuses about retention or high-risk drinking- at what point is the percentage of people affected small enough to accept? How much energy, time, and vitriol are we willing to put toward a vocal superminority?

I hesitate to say it this way, but I know of no better example- it’s a Kanye West problem.


Lots of people have opinions about Kanye West. Many of those people have negative opinions about Kanye West. He’s outspoken, he’s opinionated, rough around the edges, and often comes across as rude as a result. I would never condone his more outlandish behavior, especially when it’s at the expense of other people (as it has been many times). But I would also argue that if we really want to talk about being authentic, there is no better model. Granted, there are miles of middle ground to traverse with him- his authenticity could use some polish in more high-profile moments, and so could ours- but he is who he is. He knows what people think of him (yeah, he’s in on the joke), and behaves as he does anyway. Am I saying that we should all Kanye our way through the rest of our lives? No. In fact, I’ll say that part again. I am not suggesting or condoning that our level of disinhibition hit Westian levels. But I do think we should show more comfort with people being themselves, even (hell, especially) in moments where their decisions don’t align with our own.

No more foreboding calls of “it’s a small field,” which is on par with saying “the unemployment boogeyman will follow you if you don’t behave. When someone confides in you a dissenting opinion or action, seek to learn more without conflating that kernel of information with their whole being. Do as you would with a friend who makes a decision that challenges you (and for a field that loves calling one another “friend,” let’s really let that approach grow some legs). Let the status quo stretch to include real people, flawed and never fully formed, instead of cracking at the first sign of “incongruence” or “imperfection.” When someone demonstrates the vulnerability it takes to stand up in the lunchroom and tell you their truth, even if it’s scary…listen to them. Honor their disclosure. Recognize that as a piece of the person they are, and not a ding against the professional they serve as. A little less “Stick to the Status Quo,” a little more “We’re All In This Together?” Who’s with me?


Lessons in Laughter, Pt 2: Let Your Laughter Be Your Guide

In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First, I covered the importance of finding your funny. Today: how to use that sense of humor to get you where you want to be (and away from where you don’t!)

At this point, we’ve already talked about how humor can help guide you toward things and people who are good for you, that will make you better. But it’s importnat to remember that things can change.

Think about the jokes we heard as kids- from joke books, from clowns, or recited by our own friends from candy wrappers and color-tinged Popsicle sticks. Our younger selves found those punchlines hilarious! But as we grew up and learned more about ourselves and the world, our senses of humor evolved. Or, in one of the saddest moments I could imagine, they disappeared altogether.

Just as humor and the ability to laugh and push you toward people and things that can make you better, a lack of humor in those same places can signal the need for a change. Too many of us resist making that change, for any number of reasons. But if you truly do, as the inspirational quote says, “want to spend your life laughing”, then that may require you to let your laughter be your guide.

Does it invalidate your choices? To quote an underrated animated comedy genius in Futurama‘s Robot Devil, “Definitely probably not.”

Would YOU regret the chance to switch hands with the robot devil? Definitely probably not. IMAGE CREDIT: Fanpop

Some of the fear and anxiety that comes with changing course surrounds the idea that if it made us happy before and it doesn’t now, that the difference is because we chose wrong. And it might be. Was our arrival at this place- a job, a relationship, a task assignment- borne of fear, desperation, or not enough (or wrong) information? If so, it’s more likely that it could have been an ill-fitting decision from the start. More often than not, however, the idea that we choose wrong can be summed up by the phrase, “all other things being equal.” This assumes that we, our circumstances, and what we know are the same now as when we started. And truthfully, how often is that the case? Our jobs change direction. Our partners or friends evolve, as do we. We learn better. And all of these factors can contribute to how our decisions serve us as time passes. So if your wish to stay in a place that doesn’t make you laugh is based on fear that you chose wrong, the Robot Devil and I would like to try and calm your fears by saying, “Definitely probably not.”

Does it mean you’re a quitter? In the most literal sense, if you stop doing something that you were previously doing, then yes. But I’d then fire back with a different question: is that bad? If you’re involved in something that isn’t serving you, and you want to pursue something that will, doesn’t it make sense to move toward the fulfilling option and away from the draining one? The emphasis on the “and” in the previous sentence is to drive home the point that we sometimes strive to fix a rough situation by adding good things without taking away the bad. But the comparison between the two can magnify the problems in the former situation, and make the time spent in it all the more unfulfilling.

IMAGE CREDIT: Chatter Busy

My go-to example in this instance is Steve Martin. In his wonderful memoir Born Standing Up, he talks about the precise moment he knew that he was done with standup comedy- his primary source of success throughout the seventies. He talks about the moment where the joy fell away and he could no longer connect with the work. His take on enjoyment at work is an important one, because it flies in the face of much of what we say we should feel about the topic:

Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.

But once he no longer connected with the work or felt that his place in it was valuable, he walked away. And, to be frank, we stand to lose another comedic icon of our generation in Dave Chappelle in short order. He has come close to walking away from the craft that has made him so successful a few times, but (as with Martin) has solved his discontent through seclusion and reinvention. Could we stick with things that we’ve lost our laughter over? Sure, but it may be a better use of our time and energy to find our laughter elsewhere.

So how long is long enough? “Find work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” isn’t true. We’d love to believe that it is, but it simply isn’t. It couldn’t be. Even when we’re doing things that we feel called to do, there are elements of it that we’ll like less or struggle to get through sometimes. But the key here is to recognize the difference between a momentary frustration and a larger ill fit or evolution away from what we need. In her neurological dissection of creativity and writer’s block, Alice Flaherty makes a fantastic observation about our relationship with our work:

So a sense of vocation doesn’t guarantee happiness at work. Nor does it guarantee being good at the job. Perhaps it merely gives the possessor a subtle feeling of megalomania, a sense of being in some manner chosen for a higher goal. Sense of vocation as disease […] even those with a true vocation never feel only the joy of work without occasionally feeling its terror. When your work is a part of who you are, and you feel you are working badly, you become foul to yourself.

It is normal to have days when you don’t love your work, or other projects you’ve chosen to pursue, or even the people around you. Those days can and will happen. Hell, that’s not even the goal of any of these things the majority of the time. And a few bad days without a giggle are not cause for a rapid shift. When the bad days outweigh the good, however, that’s when you should start using laughter as a litmus test. How many of the moments that sparked your interest, excitement, and best self still remain? How often do you get to do those things that make you feel most alive? Are you still moved to put in the work needed (especially in love, by the way)? Let the answer to those questions, coupled with a quick catalog of the last time you saw your smile, gauge if you’re doing what you should be doing.

To return to Steve Martin for a moment, he talks about the time period covered in Born Standing Up as a biography of someone he used to know, rather than his own autobiography. And if the you that goes up to bat in any walk of life feels like a wholly different person than the one who joined the team…let your laughter guide you elsewhere.

Lessons in Laughter, Pt 1: Find Your Own Funny

In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First up: the importance of finding your funny.

This time last week, I was a bundle of nerves preparing for the one-night-only grad show from my sketchwriting class (cheekily entitled “6-8 Inches” in homage to our frequent cancellations for snow, and our class predilection for dick jokes). But my journey with this group started months ago when our teacher asked us a seemingly simple question: what makes you laugh? And while I knew on some level, I don’t know that I had ever taken the time to make a “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” list. But it can be powerful to know just what makes your funnybone shake. Why?

(1) It can help you tell your story. We live in a world vastly overpopulated with data- facts, opinions, statistics and the like. We have to find a way to filter it, and many of us- for better or worse- do this by focusing on what captivates us, the things that stand apart from the boring. And one way to make a story worth listening to, is to make it funny. I learned last year at a conversation with Arrested Development’s Mitchell Hurwitz and Modern Family’s Danny Zuker that the litmus test for many jokes on the former’s show was if the writers themselves found them funny. Write for the room, not for the potential viewer. People can tell the difference! Hurwitz gave this advice to another prominent showrunner, Dan Harmon (of Community fame). I use these examples for a very specific reason, which I’ll get to in just a moment.

Danny, Mitch, and the one-day-to-join-them Mike, at their conversation on comedy. I chicken danced for Mitch Hurwitz, I’m proud to say. CO-ka-CO-ka-CAW!

(2) It can help others hear your story, particularly ones that are difficult to tell. Relationships with power differentials (teachers with students, supervisors with employees) are particularly powerful places to tastefully demonstrate a sense of humor. Sometimes positions of power, or lack thereof, can make messages hard to receive; the ability to make them relatable can assist in overcoming differing stations in life. Contrary to older models of leadership or management that applauded a monolithic approach, humor is one of several humane elements (alongside the much buzzed about “authenticity” and “vulnerability”) being injected into our new take on leadership that values connection over fear and intimidation. Opening with a joke or periodically injecting tasteful and appropriately-timed humor can help create the relatability that builds all-too-important trust. While balance is key here, lest we forget the many stumbles of The Office‘s Michael Scott, the right amount can make all the difference.

(3) Your humor builds your tribe. As promised, I want to return to Harmon and Hurwitz for a minute. Their niche successes drive home a very important point about putting your sense of humor out into the world: not everyone is going to “get” it.

Like BoJack Horseman (voiced by Arrested’s Will Arnett), you may worry about if people are going to “get it.” IMAGE CREDIT: Entertainment Weekly

Both Arrested Development and Community have fiercely dedicated audiences, but ultimately not large ones. This may be why they had to resort to alternative distribution methods (Arrested to Netflix, Community [soon] to Yahoo! Screen). In a sense, your take on humor could be not just the litmus test for what goes out into the world, but what people you choose to take on said world with. As an example, I think about my friend Nick from high school. I’ve known him for half my life now, and we’ve been through a lot together. There are times where I tell people we probably shouldn’t still be friends, but here we are! He and I developed an inside joke about five years ago at brunch that makes us both fall apart whenever we think about it. The joke itself isn’t particularly interesting if you’re not us, and we know that. But if you ever really want to know it and have ten minutes (it will take that long and 80% of that will be giggling), I’ll tell you. Ever since that moment occurred, a story was created that never fails to connect the two of us. It’s not the most accessible of jokes, and having giggled about it in the presence of other friends we know it’s not one that everyone gets. But in a way, that’s the point: our jokes, our silly and unique takes on the world, are precisely the thing that let us know who is deserving of our time, energy, and hearts.

Stay tuned for parts two and three real soon! In the meantime, try out the exercise we did and make a list- what makes you laugh?

How a T-Shirt Reminded Me About Careful Crowdwork

When I think about my ideal weekend, there are a few inevitabilities that come to mind. Part of it will be spent quietly, either reading, writing, or watching lots of things I’ve already seen on Netflix. Part of it will be spent with friends, ideally over brunch. And a good portion of it will be spent in a Crowdrise T-shirt.

For those unfamiliar, Crowdrise is one of several crowdfunding platforms designed to help its users raise money for outside causes (or, as of recently, individuals). I first came upon them a few years ago when I participated in Women’s Health’s Run 10 Feed 10 initiative and fell in love with their approach- they provide outstanding logistical and technical support for fundraisers, while also bringing a spirit of fun and familiarity to their interactions with customers. While I don’t have the same relationship with them that my friend and colleague Paul has with his beloved JetBlue, my time spent fundraising and working with them has shown me that they “get” me.

But “getting” people doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes, and Crowdrise and I got through one a few weeks ago. As part of their customer relations program, they award points toward merchandise such as their super-comfy T-shirts if you pose with items you’ve recently received. I did so enthusiastically, posing with one of my new T-shirts in my office on a busy Monday. A few weeks later, I came upon the picture (which I was not tagged in, which seems an important detail) on their Instagram account with a caption that stung a little. It was nothing overtly rude, but it was something that cut deeply in an area where I’m already vulnerable. Some would use this as an excuse to write off the company altogether, insisting that any company that would do something like this was no longer worthy of their business. But after nearly four years and thousands of dollars raised with them, I elected to give them the benefit of the doubt, and wrote them a quick email letting them know how I was feeling. Sure enough, I received a message back shortly after with an apology and a strategy to fix the situation- which included taking the picture down (even though my initial email mentioned that I didn’t want to mandate that), as well as a donation to the charity of my choice. While the initial incident wasn’t what I would have wanted, I appreciate how it was handled and the care that I felt from people I’ve never met about putting me in a situation I’d find hurtful.

Why am I telling you this? Because any of us could find ourselves in Crowdrise’s position on any given day. As someone who comes in contact with many, many people over the course of a day, I am guaranteed a few unpleasant interactions. We all are. But how we choose to deal with these feelings and frustrations is up to us. Could I throw a status up on Facebook, execute a snarky “subtweet,” or find the perfect “inspirational” quote on Instagram to express myself? Sure. But there’s some danger in that. Being visible in an online space with many of the same people that I interact with in person, means that I can be seen. And it’s a rule of mine that my interactions in that space should be explicitly named (meaning that there is NO question who they are about), or entirely anonymous (meaning too vague to be ascribed to any one person). The passive-aggression that we sometimes find ourselves engaging in, falls in that expansive middle ground, and it can lead to hurt feelings. The hurt feelings I felt are subtlely different from the ones that I felt when I saw my photo and its caption, but the principle applies here too.

Earlier this week, now-former Chronicle Vitae columnist Jesse Stommel spoke out against this sort of hurtful snarking in places where it should not be, namely a publication designed to develop higher education professionals. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between his argument and the one I’m trying to make:

Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole.

He goes on to say that Chronicle Vitae is also not one of the public places where this venting should take place. And indeed, those of us who are visible would do well to remember that our words shared in the heat of a moment or otherwise less than thoughtfully, can easily be seen by anyone who has access. Rather than airing these concerns at the proverbial watering hole, find those water coolers or other appropriately private places instead.

What’s my point in all this? First and foremost: watch it. You have no idea what people will see, or how they will come to know what was posted. Paul Jarvis wrote in his newsletter this week about audience growth, and made this point better than I could have (thanks Paul, you came in clutch this week!):

Think about it. In order for your numbers to grow, people need to first hear about you. How do they do that? By listening to people they already listen to. If those people they’re already listening to mention you, you’ve got a good chance of adding them to your audience ranks.

The student, coworker, or superior you’re venting about might not be friends with you on Facebook or follow you on Instagram. But their friend, roommate, or mentor might. And because the world is far smaller than we’d like to believe most days, don’t take that possibility for granted. Take these conversations offline, find your private setting and use it liberally, or even employ the Lincoln letter strategy.

But there’s a second piece in here: if it happens to you, and you do find yourself on the receiving end of a stinger, I’d encourage you to assume best intentions rather than lashing out based on impact. I will allow for the fact that zingers based on dislike, and truly thoughtless outbursts, can sometimes look the same. In that moment, think to your relationship with the person or entity in question: would they mean to hurt you? Interestingly enough, the shirt I had in the photo said on it, “Decent Human.” I love it not because that’s what I believe myself to be, but it’s what I hope to be able to expect from the people around me. Again, it can be incredibly difficult, but ground your response in the answer to that big question “would they mean to hurt you?” All of our most meaningful relationships have to be able to endure occasional disagreements, lapses in judgment, and honest mistakes. That’s what makes them stronger. I will continue to use Crowdrise as a resource for fundraising and awareness projects- not because they’ve been perfect, but because they displayed some heart when they were imperfect.


Still reppin.