March 4, 2023
Hi, I hope this finds you well. Thank you for subscribing to the Coaching Letter—you are in the right place. As is so often the case, I have more going on than I have time to write about, so this Coaching Letter is what’s been important to me lately. But one quick thing first—as I’ve written about before, we are hosting Peter Liljedahl for a week of workshops in April, and as a prelude to that, running an online book discussion of Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics over 3 weeks starting in just over a week. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, whether you teach math, know anything about math, or are even completely uninterested in math. Because even though it’s about math instruction, it’s also about how we think about teaching, period. I have found it enormously helpful. Here’s the link to find out more and register.
Coaching Letter #173 was about creating relationships, and gratitude, and how much better off I am for deciding that I wanted to be an aggressive supporter, and actively shaping opportunities to get alongside good, wonderful and talented people. This represents a progression in my life that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me a few years ago, let alone seemed like a good idea.
And then I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast, and began thinking about the interactions I have with strangers and people who are, in the terminology of the relevant research, “weak ties”: people who may not be total strangers, but who are not really known to you; the barista at Starbucks who makes your oatmilk latte every day, the young men and women behind the desk at your gym, the receptionist at your dentist. Turns out that positive interactions you have with these people have a measurably positive effect on your, and their, happiness. So I’ve been trying that out.
I was at a conference in Seattle before Thanksgiving (and used the term “peripherals” to talk about the strangers I talked to, so my colleagues had a good laugh at my expense over that—obviously, being nice to strangers is not something that I have a great vocabulary for.) From Seattle I flew to London, and flew back via Atlanta a few days later. The flight to London was the emptiest flight I have taken in decades (during Thanksgiving week, everyone is flying to the US, not away from it). The flight to Atlanta was packed, so as I sat down, I introduced myself to the young man in the window seat, whose name was Justin. I never do this. Unless I’m sitting next to someone I know, I never say a word to the person I’m sitting next to.
And I sure picked an interesting case to change that habit. He started talking to me, and told me all kinds of personal things about his life: the decidedly dysfunctional relationship he was in, his fear of flying and his motion sickness, and where he lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania. He also asked me several dozen questions about what I was working on, the books I was consulting while on the plane, and the writing I was doing. When we got to Atlanta, he had no experience of going through customs and immigration, taking the train between concourses, or even figuring out where his next plane was leaving from, so he shadowed me through the airport.
I know, it’s easy to think that I’m making fun of Justin, but I’m not. He was kind and trusting and interested in me. And he was grateful to me for being nice to him in a situation where he was clearly out of his element. I got off the train at D Concourse and he was staying on until B, and when I stood up to leave, he made a very formal expression of gratitude to me for helping him: a little thank you speech. It was very touching. That fleeting connection with Justin made me feel good about myself and made the trip feel meaningful in a way that it otherwise would not have.
These recent experiences of connecting with people because I choose to, not because I have any obligation to, have clearly meant a lot to me, because I find myself talking about them a lot. Also, I realized that many of these interactions and relationships, old and new, are a source of awe to me—I wrote about the new book Awe in the last Coaching Letter. I highly recommend it.
And, all of a sudden, relationships, and a lack thereof, have been in the news a lot. I think a lot of that is because Robert Waldinger, who is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, just co-authored a book on their research, The Good Life. He’s been on every podcast under the sun talking about the book—I listed my favorite below because the host, Galen Druke, actually asked him some difficult questions, which is not really the norm on podcasts. And the main findings of the book are featured in this TED Talk by Professor Waldinger and this author talk. Here’s some of what they’ve found:
So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.
Finally, one of the pieces of advice that comes up a lot is just to reach out to people you know and say hi, even if it’s just a quick text. I already do this a lot, with friends and current and former clients, but then if I don’t hear back from people in a while I figure they’re doing fine without me and stop texting. I’ve had a couple of experiences lately where I’ve realized that this is a mistake—not hearing from someone is just as likely to be and indicator that they’re not doing OK—so I am changing my strategy.
Here are the podcasts that have helped me with this recently—and a very old TED Talk:
Relationships 2.0: The power of tiny interactions Hidden Brain episode about “weak ties”.
Can I Ask You a Ridiculously Personal Question? Episode 451 of Freakonomics Radio—showing that we are wrong to be afraid of asking sensitive questions.
What is it about friendships that makes them so powerful? David Brooks in the New York Times.
The secrets of lasting friendships David Brooks in the New York Times.
How to… make people happy Ethan Mollick’s newsletter that I wrote about in CL #173.
The science of loneliness Vivek Murthy talking about loneliness as a public health threat on an episode of A Slight Change of Plans.
Americans are lonely: That has political consequences FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development being interviewed by Galen Druke, whom I really like as an interviewer.
The Child-Driven Education, a TED Talk by Sugata Mitra, who has some wild ideas about education that I am not promulgating, but I think he is right about the power of encouragement—in this case provided by grannies.
The Science of Connection, another episode of the podcast A Slight Change of Plans, this one is also about grandmothers as a source of mental strength.
Some of the people reading this newsletter are friends and family that I am really close to and talk to all the time, and for many of you, I realize that I am one of your weak ties—we may or may not have actually met in person, I may be just a name on an email—so regardless, let me know if I can help with anything or if you just want to connect. As I have learned, it matters.
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, forthcoming