“Embrace the Suck!”

There’s a great phrase Army personnel use, “Embrace the suck.”  Basically, it means, “Of course the situation is bad, there are obstacles, it’s unpleasant or even deadly. That’s to be expected. Accept it and get on with the job.” Still another layer is the earned pride many soldiers – men and women – feel in who they are and what they have accomplished. When noting how badly the situation sucks and saying, “Embrace the suck,” there is also an element of, “That’s why they need us; good thing we’re here.”

“Embrace the suck,” is a formidable mantra. It leads not only to persistence in the face of difficulty, but also to a quest mentality – find the suck. Somewhere along the way, many soldiers develop a celebration of challenge. They start to look for opportunities to push themselves, mentally and physically and as leaders. Run a marathon. Try for a Ranger tab. Become a drill sergeant. Ram through a heavy load of courses to finish that degree. Over and over, they either accept and relish (“embrace”) challenges in their paths, or they put themselves into challenges. They have learned to avoid the curse of the Easy Button.

You know the Easy Button – push it, and what was hard, irritating, challenging, or inconvenient magically disappears and you have the results you want. Magic! Tempting, but wrong. Literature offers so many examples of the false allure of Easy – wishes gone awry, easy living turning into a trap, etc. At one level, we know life is not and probably should not be Easy – that we have to work for it and, moreover, it is the achievements and relationships we work for that we value the most. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, nailed this one. He summed up the core of dysfunctional beliefs that work against us in these three:

  1. I must do well.
  2. You must treat me well.
  3. The world must be easy.

The third statement is the exact opposite of “Embrace the suck.” Instead of accepting, even expecting and embracing challenge, difficulty, and even failure as only to  be expected and as signs we are working at the growing edge of our skills, knowledge, and experience, “The world must be easy,” tells us that adversity is scary and a sign something is “off” with the world around us. That’s not good news for weak, naked little creatures that are easy prey and inadequate hunters. We need to know that we can manage the world around us. It all turns on how we interpret our experience. All of the deep, dysfunctional patterns of thinking (SMART Strengths, Chpater 7) work against learning. We don’t learn from success because it should be easy (no need to learn) and we don’t learn from failure because it should not have happened. We also don’t learn from feedback as these beliefs will cause it to be interpreted as criticism and therefore a violation of “You must treat me well.”

I thought of all of this as I read a great article in New York magazine on some of the more recent research on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets (SMART Strengths, Chpater 8). (The article is totally worth clicking over and reading in full!) Beyond the research, the writer goes on to tell how it felt to try and apply the research in his own parenting. First there is the issue of authenticity (remember Integrity [Authenticity, Honesty] is one of the VIA Character Strengths):

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Too much praise is also a problem:

Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

But, offering process praise – focusing on effort, strategy, knowledge – while helpful to the recipient, may not feel as good to the praise giver:

Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise. The duplicity became glaring to me.

Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

Of course, there are many other ways to build connections and show love, including Green Light Responding (SMART Strengths, pp. 263-265), noticing and affirming strengths, and appreciative questions (Chaptedr 10). Don’t let praise become the one-stop love shop. Learn to “Embrace the suck,” and help others to do the same.

As usual, sign up for our newsletter for bonus tips on how to “Embrace the suck!”

LIFT & SMART Strengths – A Powerful Leadership Combo

Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situatioby management professors Ryan and Robert Quinn provides a simple but not simplistic approach to personal leadership that is

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applicable all the way from school superintendents and board members through administrators, principals, teachers and to students as young as the fifth grade. This well-written book gives four questions to ask, answer, and act on when facing a difficulty or challenge. These questions pull from both a broad research base in both positive psychology and positive organizational studies to create a carefully crafted framework to guide action in sensitive and emotionally charged situations. The authors provide multiple stories to demonstrate the use of each question and how the questions interact to open new ways of responding to challenging situations. What would happen if your school, system, family or team were regularly asking, answering and acting on these questions in a SMART Strengths environment?

A Brief Overview of LIFT

LIFT suggests that anyone willing to ask, honestly answer, and live by the answers to four questions can become positive force in any situation:

  1. What result do I want to create?
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  3. How do others feel about the situation?
  4. What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for the situation?

Together, the process of asking and answering these questions moves us toward the “authentic state of leadership”, a psychological state that allows powerful leadership regardless of positional authority. Asking, answering, and living by these questions moves us to an internal state where we are

  • focused on our priorities rather than having our focus set for us by others or circumstances,
  • increasingly aligned and acting congruently with our values,
  • emotionally intelligent and sensitive to the feelings, motivations, and strengths of those affected by the situation, and
  • open to try new approaches, learn, and grow based on external feedback.

Each of these questions addresses a different and competing value orientation, and the values operate not only at the individual level, but also at the level of organizations – schools and school systems. By asking each question, individuals can find a way to be a positive force – to provide “lift” – in situations that matter.
We will not go into all of the ways in which these questions are carefully structured to produce the most productive reflection and how they are solidly grounded in significant bodies of research. We highly recommend the book for that! However, in a series of post, we do want to look at how the SMART Strengths skills can help in productively asking, answering, and acting upon these questions. We’ll start with the first one:

“What result do I want to create?”

By focusing on the results we want to create, this question moves us away from focusing on problems or on our own comfort. We become focused on our purpose and move toward it, resolving “problems” naturally along the way and doing what is uncomfortable willingly. Let’s see how SMART Strengths contributes to asking, answering, and acting on the question, “What result do I want to create?”


  • The regular practices of seeing strengths in ourselves and others and using strengths in new ways (Chapters 1-5) reinforce our values, especially for the Character Strengths in the VIA. This habit of mind causes us to create more positive, pro-social goals.
  • When we maintain a positive emotional balance (Chapter 6), we are both more likely to notice when anger, anxiety, sadness, or shame signal a situation where LIFT is needed. “Tense” emotions are one of the signals of the need for LIFT. Positive emotional balance also makes us more creative, collaborative, and pro-social in defining our purpose in any situation.
  • Regular goal setting creates comfort and fluidity in defining purpose in a situation that aligns with our values and other goals, is approach oriented, and is specific and measurable enough to let us notice progress.


  • Flexible and accurate thinkers with growth mindsets (Chapters 7 & 8) see the causes of the situation as short-term and specific, notice where they have control, and see themselves as capable of achieving higher levels of performance that will allow them to enact their purpose.
  • Advocating:
  • • The SMART Strengths savvy individual will be better able to talk about the situation in ways others can accept because he or she will be more aware of strengths, better able to imagine thoughts others might have and what emotions and reactions would flow from those thoughts.


  • When Appreciative Questions (Chapter 10) are a habit, framing one’s purpose in a challenging situation in positive, affirming ways that will call to others becomes much easier.
  • High-Quality Connections (Chapter 10) provide the relational structure within which one acts in a SMART Strengths environment.


  • A training orientation naturally leads to purposes that factor in both the expectation that others will grow and approaches and actions that will facilitate growth. This orientation helps produce positive, powerful, and pro-social purposes that can sustain effort to achieve transformational objectives in challenging situations.

Try the LIFT questions out! Use what you’ve learned from SMART Strengths and apply the questions to a situation where you want to be a positive force and see if they open up new awareness, attitudes, and actions!

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A SMART Look at Kindness

Dave’s story: A group of colleagues and I walked into a restaurant across from where a homeless man sat. As we went through the line, one of us – a lovely young woman with a mischievous sense of humor – ordered an extra meal to go. When the food was brought to our table, she took the extra meal and walked toward the door. Surprised because I thought she probably ordered the meal for a colleague who did not come with us, I watched as she walked over to the homeless man, bent down and spoke briefly, and then left the meal with him. Wow. What a show of kindness! I had been caught up in conversation as we walked into the restaurant and hardly noticed the man; she had noticed, cared, and acted. I looked at this young woman whom I already respected immensely with deeper appreciation for a quality I hand not seen before. And I determined to watch for opportunities when I, too, could be kind.

Kindness – A Broader Context

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Henry James

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” Plato

“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” J.K. Rowlying, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Sound Track[1]: “Lean on Me” by Al Green, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” by Simon and Garfunkel

In Character Strengths and Virtues, Peterson and Seligman describe the VIA Character Strength of Kindness [Generosity, Nurturance, Care, Compassion, Altruistic Love, “Niceness”] as an orientation toward others as worthy of attention and affirmation just because rather than as a means to an end. Kindness manifests in actions of respect, care, and compassion out of a warm emotional response to others and not just to obtain reciprocal behavior from the recipient of the kind acts or recognition from observers. Reciprocity and recognition may occur and can be accepted, but they are not the primary motivation. Often, in fact, individuals will manifest Kindness as quietly and secretly as possible. My friend (and, notice that in my mind, she went from “colleague” to “friend”!), did nothing to draw attention to her kind act. She simply did it. Had circumstances permitted, I suspect she would have done it completely in secret.

A Primer in Positive Psycholgy (Peterson, 2006), includes a circumplex chart showing which strengths occur (image available here) showing the tendency of the 24 VIA Character Strengths to co-occur.  For Kindness, more common companion strengths include:


Less common companion strengths include:


Of course, “less common” means just that. It is unusual to see Kindness as a Signature Character Strength in someone who also has a Signature Character strength of Creativity, but it is only rare enough to be noteworthy, not astonishing.

Shalom Schwartz has researched the structure of commonly held values around the world also produces a circumplex model. Each value tends to align with those close to it and exists in tension with those across the circle. Although we are unaware of research connecting the VIA Characters Strengths to Schwartz’ model, we suggest that individuals with a strong Signature Character Strength of Kindness would also likely endorse the value of Benevolence.

In Gallup’s StrengthsFinder framework, Kindness could manifest in several themes depending on nuance and context. Possible themes include Connectedness, Developer, Empathy, Inclusiveness, and Restorative.

Spotting Kindness: Watch for acts done in a warm, empathetic way that meet another’s needs or enable achievement of meaningful goals, especially when those acts are likely to go unnoticed by others. Sometimes even the recipient will be unaware of the identity of the one who generated a kindness. Also consider the motivation for the kind acts; those with a Signature Character Strength of Kindness are internally motivated. They do not have to be reminded; they will persist even when the recipient is not obviously appreciative, or is even dismissive or derisive. Remember that Kindness – like it’s frequently co-occurring strengths of Forgiveness, Teamwork, and Leadership – is an other-oriented strength; so begin by noticing which students tend to be most aware of the behaviors and emotional states of others, then look to see if that orientation toward others might be coming out as Kindness.


Managing Kindness:  Managing strengths involves synergy, shadow sides, and supervision.
Synergy – how is a student’s Kindness affected by his or her other Signature Character Strengths. For example, the student who lives Kindness along with Zest, Hope, and Curiosity is likely to be Kind in very different ways for another student who joins it with Authenticity, Prudence, and Open-mindedness.
Shadow Sides – Overuse can leave the person who is too kind without time or energy for themselves. This can sometimes be driven by deep patterns of thinking (see Chapter 7) along the lines of, “I must always be there for others,” or “The needs of others must always come before my own.” Misuse can occur in situations when “helping” prevents the recipient from developing their own strengths and gaining needed skills.
Supervision – Students with a Signature Character Strength of Kindness need to be help others. Opportunities to assist, tutor, and serve will improve their engagement in the classroom. In addition, explicitly linking content to ways it can enable Kindness will provide a reason to work hard at mastering that content. So, for example, a story about an adult using mathematics skills to assist in getting aid to disaster victims may be much more motivating for students with a signature strength of Kindness than exhortations to master math so they can make a lot of money in the future.

Advocating Kindness: Help students reflect and put the role of Kindness in their own character into context with their other strengths. Some will reflect on its role as a signature strength, while others may be reflecting on its lack of prominence in their approach to life and relationships. Of the latter group, some will feel a strong need to learn to be more kind and others will not feel that compulsion. Remember that the values underlying the strengths are in tension and that those strongly oriented toward one set of values will be less oriented toward others. Ultimately, the decision to try to develop any strength must rest with the individual and the time and energy available for such development likely require a focus on one or two strengths that “call” to the individual at any point in life.

Relating Kindness: When does kindness build a relationship with the recipient? What is the impact when the recipient feels indebted or is ungrateful? Students can think about when they have received kindness and try to distinguish factors that sometimes make that receipt build a relationship versus when it does not.

Training Kindness: Time + Awareness. Kindness requires time. One study found that even seminary students who were late for an appointment were much less likely to help someone in need than those who had some time to spare.[2] Help students notice the effect of time pressure on their tendency to be Kind. In addition, kindness begins with an awareness of others in need. Note how, in the story that starts this post, Dave’s preoccupation with colleagues and conversation made him overlook someone with a need. Simply noticing needs can promote kindness, so when appropriate within the classroom or school setting, acknowledge needs. For example, geography lessons could include a component on efforts to meet needs of individuals living in the area studied. Also remember the personal – transparency occasionally the opportunity to admit to one’s own needs and acknowledge how the kind actions of one or more students helped.

Movies: Suggestions fromPositive Psychology at the Movies by Ryan Niemic and Danny Wedding:
Babe (1995)
Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2003)
Pay It Forward (2000)

For adult study, Niemic and Wedding highly recommend the French film, Amelie (2001).

*** As usual, sign up for our newsletter for bonus material. This week on the relationship between Kindness and bullying.***

[1] Suggested in an unpublished work by Drs. Tayyab Rashid and Afroze Anjun.
[2] Darley, J.M. & Batson, C.D. (1973).  From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108.

A Teacher’s Experience: Inadequate Lesson or Poor Teacher?

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Over the weekend, we posted on our Facebook page a link to this story from a new teacher in England about the effect of one “Inadequate” rating of a lesson from an outside observer. It’s a great opportunity to see how a school leader could use SMART Strengths skills to set this teacher and the school up for better results!

The post from the teacher is short enough to read quickly then come back to this post, but here’s the core:

  • New teacher
  • Prior observed lessons rated good and most recent given an “outstanding”
  • Observed lesson was carefully planned, but teacher recognized as “not one of my best”
  • The observer rated the lesson “Inadequate” and gave suggestions for improvement

Now, let’s apply a SMART Strengths skill, Think-It-Through (Chapter 7), pulling from the teacher’s words in the post:





“I was observed again by a different consultant – and this time my lesson was graded inadequate.”“To have done all that, and still be deemed inadequate? … How on earth could I have slipped so quickly from outstanding to inadequate, with no stops in between? 


“I was mortified.”


“The demotivating effect was instantaneous. I was so upset that I couldn’t go back into the classroom that afternoon. Instead, I went home and proceeded to do absolutely zero planning for the next day. For the rest of the week, my teaching was somewhat lacklustre because I was so wrung out by the distress of the observation. I felt ashamed of myself and unworthy of the responsibility of teaching a class of children. I started to feel overwhelmed by the possibility that I might be letting my students down. By the weekend, I was experiencing symptoms of anxiety.”


“I could remember bits and pieces of the suggestions for improvement, but what stuck in my head most was that grade. Inadequate, inadequate, inadequate.”



Over time, this teacher was able to pull out of the slump created by his thoughts and the emotions caused by his thoughts. However, it took days, during which he experienced significant amounts of, in his words, mortification, distress and anxiety. He summed it up as “overwhelmed.” Also, note that he was unable to get much benefit from the experience as he could not even remember the suggestions for improvement that were made right after the evaluation – a clear sign of fixed-mindset thinking about this event (1).

Obviously, this experience might have been very different had this teacher known and applied some of the SMART Strengths skills. Specifically, he could have quickly done a Think-It-Through analysis and applied RAMP-Up:

Reject:  “It’s not true that I’m inadequate. This was one observer’s opinion about one lesson. I know I’m working hard to apply all the best practices I know and to learn more and it is paying off in my students’ learning. Other observers have seen the results. That’s why I’ve received  Good or Outstanding on my prior observations.”

Alternatives:  “Although I worked on this lesson, I knew going in it wasn’t one of my best. This observation just confirms I’m really starting to develop a sense for good lessons. I can learn from what the observer saw and improve my approach next time.”

Minimize: “This is only one observation. In fact, if I learn from this and continue to improve, it may really help me become the teacher I want to be. I may look back on this is one of the best events of my early career.”

Plan: “I will pay close attention to suggestions, ask questions, and then discuss this with my leadership so that I get the most from this experience.”

Of course, it is possible that some readers, at this point, will be thinking, “that’s a lot of work.” Absolutely. Nobody ever said that achieving more of what we want in life is easy. It is hard. Remember, “Work Hard and Have a Good Time.” And, notice, that there’s really no alternative to doing this work. In fact, this teacher did RAMP-up, it just took a number of days. During that time, he suffered, and so did his students. In fact, given what we know of emotional contagion, it is likely that his mortification, anxiety, shame, and sense of being overwhelmed also brought down some other teachers in his school. With training, he could have caught what was happening with his thoughts, emotions and reactions in the moment and done a RAMP-up on his thinking before experiencing more than just the first blush of his emotional reaction, and maybe in time to benefit from the feedback.

Let’s look beyond the teacher, however, and consider how leadership could help.

Pre-set the interpretation: A SMART Strengths-savvy leader would spot in advance the potential impact of these evaluative events on teachers’ efficacy beliefs and positive emotional balance. By framing these events in advance as merely feedback about one particular lesson from one observer, the leader can help teachers pre-set optimistic and growth-minded thoughts about their observations. This will make it far more likely that teachers will get the most possible benefit from the evaluations, and suffer the least possible negative emotional and motivational impact. (Chapters 7 and 8)

High Quality Connections & Appreciative Questions: “Other people matter.” A SMART Strengthsleader would recognize the importance of close personal connection with teachers as they go through such evaluative events. If possible, it would be best to be with the teacher through the event, but if not, certainly to touch base immediately prior and after to help the teacher think optimistically and from a growth mindset about the experience.

Questions such as the following can help teachers and faculties benefit the most from feedback, even if the feedback is not ideally delivered:

  • When was a time I really benefited from feedback?
  • How are we at our best in turning “negative” feedback into sustained improvement?
  • Imagine that one year from today you believe you have grown as a person and as a teacher, how would you look back on this event?

(Chapter 10.)

Strengths Focus: Note that if a school is strengths-focused, for teachers and for students, then questions about “who am I?” naturally channel into thoughts about developing, applying, and managing strengths and their shadow sides. In other words, it is much less likely that a single feedback event, whether an evaluation for a teacher, a grade for a student, or a win or loss for an athlete, will result in thoughts that the event means one lacks the innate capacity to succeed (fixed mindset) or that the cause of an adverse outcome will continue into the future and affect many areas of life (pessimistic thinking). (Chapters 1-5.)

Positive Emotional Balance: SMART Strengths leadership would be aware of the need for a ratio of “positive” to “negative” emotions of at least 3:1 and maybe as high as 6:1 to enable optimal function of individuals and groups. Thus, during of those times during the school year when teachers or students might experience higher than normal levels of “negative” emotions, the leader would focus on ways to keep negative emotions in check and also increase levels of “positive” emotions. (Chapter 6.)

Goal Setting: Help teachers set “mastery,” “learning,” or “outcome” goals for evaluations. For example, a teacher might frame the goal as “My goal is to find at least 3 specific actions I can take to improve my lessons.” Such learning goals are far more conducive to sustained rates of growth than are “performance” goals, e.g., “I want to be rated as outstanding.” (Chapter 9.)

Are you facing a leadership challenge in your school? Send us a description of your situation and we will provide private, personalized suggestions for application of the SMART Strengths skills.

(1) Research by Jennifer Mangels and others has shown that fixed mindset beliefs even influence what regions of the brain activate when feedback is offered. Those who tend toward a fixed mindset do not pay much attention to corrective information and focus instead on evaluative feedback. Mangels, J., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C. and Dweck, C. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1(2): 75-86. Available online at http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/1/2/75.long.

Leadership: The Most Poorly Named VIA Strength

Chris Peterson has summed up the key findings of positive psychology with the three word phrase, “Other people matter.” Simple, but with surprising depth.  A corollary of this principle for groups of people is, “Leaders matter.” Starting with this post, we’re going to consider how SMART Strengths helps generate the leaders and leadership that schools, school systems, families and other groups need. We will focus on school systems, but the applications to other situations will be obvious.

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Given the emphasis we place on the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA) (take it here), let’s begin by clearing up one possible misunderstanding. The VIA Strength of “Leadership” is neither necessary nor sufficient for leadership. It is, possibly, the most poorly named VIA Strength. Here’s why.

First, it does not predict leadership. Whether were talking executives in corporations, school system leaders, or non-commissioned officers in the United States Army, the recurring patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior that the via identifies as “Leadership” may be associated with high levels of leadership performance, but strong leaders may also exist where this strength is lower in their list, perhaps even below average.

Second, when one looks more deeply and to the strength that the via identifies as “Leadership”, it becomes clear why this is the case. In Character Strengths and Virtues, Peterson and Seligman devote a chapter to Leadership, just as they do all the strengths. However, the chapters curiously unclear as to what it is discussing. It offers the definition that leadership is “a personal quality” that consist of “an integrated constellation of cognitive and temperament attributes that foster an orientation toward influencing in helping others, directing and motivating their actions toward collective success.” They go on to note that individuals with this predisposition tend to seek dominant roles and relationships and social situations. They further suggest that individuals with the strength are likely to endorse statements such as:

  • I prefer to take a leadership role in the group.
  • I am often able to motivate others to act in a certain way.
  • People generally look to me to help solve complex problems.
  • I’m often the spokesperson from our group.
  • I usually take charge in emergencies.

Curiously, however, the statements do not track at all well with the actual items the VIA uses to assess the strength. Those items include:

In a group, I try to make sure everyone feels included.

  • As a leader, I treat everyone equally well regardless of his or her experience.
  • To be an effective leader, I treat everyone the same.
  • As a leader, I try to make all group members happy.
  • As a leader, I believe that everyone in the group should have a say in what the group does.

Clearly, an individual who would affirm the list of statements from the chapter on Leadership might not affirm the items used to assess Leadership strongly. In fact, it is easy to think of extremely effective leaders – Steve Jobs comes to mind – and might strongly argue against each of the items listed above.

The disconnect between this strength and actual leadership is so clear that those who teach groups of leaders must routinely spend time clarifying the disconnect. However, that is not to say that this strength has nothing to do with leadership. It does. It just does not apply to all types of leadership, and all leadership situations.

In SMART Strengths, we suggest the use of other assessments of strengths to give individuals some depth perception as they consider their personal strengths. We use the Gallup Strengthsfinder instrument. Reviewing the 34 strengths themes assessed by that instrument, to stand out as perhaps, in combination, encompassing with the VIA assesses as Leadership. “Empathy” is the tendency to “sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves and others’ lives are situations.” This capture some of VIA’s Leadership, and much of the rest can be found in Gallup’s “Harmony” which goes to individuals to look for consensus, do not enjoy conflict, and seek areas of agreement.

Action TipFor those who are in positions requiring them to lead, or who seek to lead, the question is not whether they have “Leadership” (bonus points to those who spot the Fixed Mindset aspect of that statement). Rather, actual or potential leaders must focus on how their particular strengths, developed and honed, might help them to lead effectively in particular organizations and situations. Then it is a matter of getting the knowledge and experience necessary to hone those strengths and practice using them to achieve leadership.

Next week, we will take a look at the Gallup approach to leadership. Meanwhile, here is an exercise for those who wish to become better strengths-based leaders. Spend some time considering your Signature Character Strengths from the VIA. Identify one or two actions you can take next week to use one or more of those strengths to help a group achieve its purpose. Take those actions. Write down your reflections on that result, and remember to pay attention to what went right. Goodluck!




Great Strengths Spotting Activity from Torrington Middle School, Wyoming

Thanks to the efforts of Catherine Deahl, Guidance Counselor, Torrington Middle School in Goshen County, Wyoming, hosted a 2-day SMART Strengths Training last September. The principal, teachers, and some folks from local agencies all learned about using and teaching strengths, flexible and accurate thinking, growth mindsets, active constructive responding and more. We heard from Catherine recently and she’s working to help teachers continue to use what they learned, including through a wonderful Strengths Spotting effort by the teachers that got written up in the local paper. Here’s the activity:

First, teachers spent several days carefully watching their students for ways in which they lived out one of the 24 VIA Character Strengths. Second, they gave their observations to Catherine, who typed them up, laminated them, and then hung them on students’ lockers so that when they came in on a Thursday morning, there they were. As an example, one of the signs said, “________ shows leadership when she works so positively with her partner in class.” Another read, “________ shows perseverance because he doesn’t give up on what he starts.” Notice that teachers didn’t just slap a label on students; they noticed and named the behaviors evidencing the strengths – effective praise!

What was the effect on students? Well, you can probably imagine.

  • “It was just nice to hear something good about me.”
  • “It kind of made my day because I didn’t know I do what it says on mine.”
  • “I was surprised because not many people do talk about me or do stuff like this.”

The article did not address parental reactions, but who doesn’t want their child’s teachers to look for what is right with them? And, what about the group impact? Ms. Deahl noted, “I can tell you what this did for me. I typed every one of (the signs). As I was typing, I was thinking, ‘We have some amazing students at this school.'” How many other teachers thought the same? How many students were a bit better at spotting strengths in each other?

We wanted teachers, parents, and coaches to be able to use SMART Strengths. That’s why we put an appendix with over 50 pages of activities in the back. But creative educators like Catherine Deahl keep coming up with new ones. YEA!

This week’s newsletter has two more tips for engaging SMART Strengths.



From Pajamas to Plane Seat in 56 Minutes

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Tuesday morning at 7:19 AM, I was sitting in my hotel room near George Washington University in Washington DC, having just learned that my speaking engagement scheduled for that day had been canceled due to the predicted mid-morning start of a winter storm. On the screen of my laptop was information telling me a direct flight to Nashville would leave Reagan International at 8:30 AM. By 8:15, I was seated on that flight texting my DC colleagues that I was on my way home. The story of what went on in my head during those 56 minutes exemplifies learned optimism and captures both its power and its difficulty.

Appropriately, I had been scheduled to speak to the first year law school class at Georgetown about resilience just before their first semester grades came out. In fact, I was to teach them one of the core skills of learned optimism: the ability to separate what happens in the world from one’s thoughts about those events and the emotions and reactions that are driven by those thoughts. Note the italics. This skill allows one to sort through the thoughts, emotions, and reactions arising from any event and make sure that the thinking and emotion/reaction engaged in as result of the event are working for one’s benefit. It involves careful consideration of whether one’s thinking is both factually accurate and broad enough to account for a reasonable range of possibilities. That last word is important – possibilities.
(Hints on teaching this skill in this week’s newsletter.)

Acacia Parks, a leading researcher of positive psychology interventions, noted in an interview that the message the public often hears about optimism is that one should simply expect everything to work out. She goes on to note:

“What I try to explain to people is that optimism is much more about entertaining the possibility that things could work out. So, if you’re a pessimist you think that things are not going to work out, and then you don’t even bother, so of course it doesn’t work out because you didn’t try. But optimism is just keeping open the idea that it could work and trying, as if it will work, so that you maximize your chances of it working. That’s the reason that optimists are more successful. It’s not magic, it’s effort, and your level of effort depends on what you expect.”

In that moment, as I sat staring at my laptop screen, two thoughts flashed through my mind. “I might make it” was immediately attacked by “No way!” But, while they were still at war, I started moving. Shower. Dress. Pack. Check out. Cab to the airport. See the line at self-check-in and turn to the empty first-class desk (even though I was flying coach) and ask for help. Hear ticket agent say that seats are available if she can get my booking changed before the system “locks her out.” And, finally, the happy words, “You’re booked; head straight to the gate,” as she hands me my boarding pass. Cruise through security (gratitude for TSA Pre-Check!), stride to the gate, and board! (And, to top it all off, I ended up with a row to myself!) Pull out my phone to text my colleagues and see the time – 8:15. Fifty-six minutes from pajamas to plane seat.

Taking Reasonable Risks

Readers with more familiarity with explanatory style may wonder about this short-hand of my thoughts, since explanatory style deals with our thinking about why something happens (causal explanations). In fact, along-with the “no way” thought came such causal explanations, including, “I’m not careful or proactive enough.” (Interestingly enough, I noticed in this experience that I often tend to visualize how I think somebody else would have done it better.) By blaming the situation on my lack of care, I was seeing a broad-acting and long-lasting cause: I would lack care in other situations and, as a personal quality, it would continue into the future, likely forever. This type of causal explanation for an adverse event, broad in scope and long-lasting in duration, meant that I had little control over getting into adverse situation. The “negative” emotions accompanying those thoughts were shame and embarrassment, and these tended to narrow my thinking (see Chapter 6 in SMART Strengths) so that all I saw were the reasons why I could not make it and tended to ignore or minimize (confirmation bias) the facts that suggested I could, such as that I had little to pack, was close to the airport, traffic would be lighter with things canceled, I was flying carry-on, etc. In the grip of those emotions, I also tended to magnify the negative risks of trying, “I’ll get stuck in airport and not be able to get back to the hotel.” Plus I started to catastrophize – “I’ll waste two days in a hotel room while this storm passes” instead of, “Most likely, I’ll have a hotel room with food spots nearby and internet access – I can get a lot done.”

On-going Effort

So, I acted like an optimist. But, inside my head, the pessimistic voice that I first started to recognize over a decade ago was still talking even as I started to act. “You can’t make it. You’re just wasting time. The best you can do is the flight after this, and it goes through Philly and you’ll get stuck there. You should just stay here, change your flight to tomorrow, and make the best of it.” I had to counter and ignore those thoughts until the momentum of my actions was enough to carry through. Had I listened to that voice for just a moment – paused to dither and debate – I wouldn’t have made it. But, I fought it and kept moving.

This on-going need to watch and challenge my thinking is why I describe myself as a “recovering pessimist.” I am not sure if I was a pessimistic thinker when I was in high school and college (law school may change some folks), but I am sure that I do not now know what it would be like to be a more naturally optimistic thinker. Even now, the little voice has not shut up. “You’re not really an optimist; you’re just faking it,” and “A real optimist wouldn’t have to work so hard at it,” are two of its favorite lines. To which, my learned optimism replies, “Maybe so, but I’m living more like I want, and I intend to keep at it.”

This tendency of the pessimistic voice to keep talking (though it does lessen over time) is why helping others learn how to practice learned optimism is so hard. It’s a skill, and like any skill, it takes work. Just helping people gain insight isn’t enough. They must have an opportunity to practice, and often they’re going to need support in continuing to focus and practice until the skill becomes internalized. In the SMART Strengths model, they not only need to Spot pessimistic thinking, they need to be able to Manage their responses and Advocate for a more optimistic approach. The “R” and the “T” in SMART Strengths, “Relating” and “Training” can also help us master this skill.

Other People Matter

My progress as a recovering pessimist did not come in isolation. The truth is that others have made a difference. First, my wife and children are optimistic and have supported my efforts. A year of study in the MAPP program at the University of Pennsylvania with amazing and encouraging classmates made a real difference. And teaching the skills to others – the T in SMART – has made a difference; I have learned a lot about my own thinking as I have taught and coached the skill to others. I have also benefitted from learning from one of the real masters in the field of training resilience, Dr. Karen Reivich.

It is hard to change patterns of thinking that have been with us for most of our lives, and the influence of those around us matters greatly. That is why school systems that want to impact achievement through applied positive psychology need to think in terms of embedding expertise in those skills – and in how to train them – throughout individual schools and the system as a whole. Otherwise, the voices of the most pessimistic of those around us tend to drag us back down. And, in fact, if we have acquired a pessimistic group of friends and colleagues (likely, optimistic thinkers generally avoid pessimistic thinkers), then those folks may argue with us on occasion that we should continue to see the world their way rather than make the changes in thinking-patterns that would let us be more optimistic and in control.

Find Control

Ultimately, Learned Optimism (Chpater 7 in SMART Strengths), like its close cousins Hope Theory and Growth Mindsets (Chapter 8), is about control. Although the thought, “There’s nothing I can do,” can be comforting when it gets us off the hook of personal effort, it is a loser’s thought – the thought of a helpless victim. It may relieve us of effort, but it eliminates the possibility of success. The other frequent pessimistic thought, “That’s too much work,” keeps pessimistic thinkers from putting forth the effort even when the likelihood of success is much greater than for a sub-one-hour pajamas to plane seat dash. Optimists, whether learned or natural, roll the dice of effort and time repeatedly and work to increase their resources and skills to increase their winning percentage. Overtime, their slightly more frequent wins mount up, and they move forward in life. They notice and remember each win, each success, and count it as evidence that they can achieve their goals through learning and practice, persistence and effort. Those who learn to think helplessly, however, take each setback (and each success by someone else) as evidence that the universe is stacked against them and that they just can’t win.

Adversity in Schools

Both students and educators today face significant and seemingly-uncontrollable adversities. Students from poorer backgrounds face the challenges of poverty, and often a lack of role models, broken homes, and alcohol and drugs. Students from families that are more well-off often face dauntingly high standards for “success”, absentee or inattentive parents, broken homes, and alcohol and drugs. Educators face demands to accomplish what no society has ever done (college for all) with no clear model for how that is accomplished and increasing doubts that it is a financially reasonable undertaking even for some who achieve grades and scores that permit them to try. Educators are not being asked to “put a man on the moon by the end of this decade,” but rather to develop faster-than-light travel by the end of the school year. It is easy to see where these sorts of pressures, for students and for educators, can make it hard to develop or even sustain reasonably optimistic thinking.

And yet, we know it can be done. We know that we can help students, teachers, leaders and others developed learned optimism, hope, and growth mindsets. We can develop a sufficiently positive emotional balance. We can help each other discover, deploy, and develop our strengths, both of character and of performance. We can improve our relationship skills and learn to set goals in a way that enables actions, encourages persistence through difficulties, and pulls us into the future. We know that these things will be far more important for developing close, satisfying relationships and fulfilling jobs than academic achievement, and that they will enable maximum academic achievement as well. All we need is leadership to devote resources and time to developing within our school systems the capacity to teach, practice, support and sustain the mental, emotional, behavioral, and relational skills that we know are essential to human success. This will not only help to maximize their academic success, but success in life, also.

Dave Shearon

Sustaining, Growth Mindset & the “November Blues”

A Teach-for-America blogger has just put up a post about what she calls the “November Blues.” While this blogger may or may not have a Fixed Mindset (SMART Strengths, chapter 8) she

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Photo Credit: friedwater via Compfight cc

writes a paragraph that captures something of the fixed end of this belief pattern:

“I’ve been living under constant stress of getting evaluated the next day. At nights I’m finding it difficult to take a deep breath (despite the fact that I’ve been evaluated already and it went well). One of my mentors has told me repeatedly I shouldn’t stress because I’m progressing well and evaluations are just a growth tool. Rationally, I know that. Irrationally, I’m still scared.” http://teachhouston.teachforus.org/2013/11/09/november-blues/

What’s great about this passage is that it captures the tension that can exist between knowing that a Growth Mindset works better and operating in a Growth Mindset at a deep level most of the time. In other words, as you (and I!) work to develop a Growth Mindset, it is like developing a new habit. The old pattern will assert itself in hidden and unexpected ways, and you will constantly find yourself having to exert effort to adopt a Growth Mindset in new areas.

Here are two  connections to sustaining energy throughout the year. (Sign up for our newsletter for another connection and tip!)

  1. The energy drain of always wondering if you are “good enough” – if you have “IT” –  makes it even harder to detach daily, rejuvenate, and sustain energy. A Fixed Mindset creates a constant, low-grade anxiety as to when the universe is going to send a signal that you do not have enough “IT” to accomplish your current goals in the face of current challenges. (Fixed Mindset says, “Sure you’ve been successful in the past, but… this is different!”)
  2. Even the way you set your goal for sustaining energy matters. In a wonderful, new, and short(!) e-book entitled The 8 Motivational Challenges: A Short Guide to Lighting a Fire Under Anyone – Including Yourself, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, who studied under Dr. Carol Dweck, suggest some ways to move toward a Growth (she calls it a “Get-Better) Mindset. The first involves setting your goals in growth language using words like “learn”,”improve”, “become” and “over time.” So, rather than “I want to detach from school daily and sustain my energy over the year,” you could word that goal to promote a Growth Mindset:
    • “I want to become better over time at detaching from school on a daily basis.”
    • “I want to develop some habits that help me sustain energy over the course of the year.”
    • “I want to improve my approaches to rejuvenation.”

These kind of goals help focus on progress, not position – a key aspect of maintaining energy and commitment in and of itself. (See, The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.)

One final comment about the blog post mentioned above: this teacher demonstrate the power of applying more than one of the SMART Strengths skills to a challenge. She spends some time Right Spotting – looking for what is going right. Spotting is the “S” in the SMART model. As we wrote in an earlier post,

“In many cases, if you can take an appreciative stance and spot what is right in a situation, process, relationship, institution, or another person, and focus on how to get more of that, your results will far exceed what you could’ve obtained by focusing on “negatives” in the situation.”

She also focuses on relationships – “Other people matter.” Always a good idea. Sustainment, like many other aspects of our lives, may well be contagious.

Words of encouragement:

  • Hang in there!
  • Manage your energy!
  • Detach daily and rejuvenate.
  • You are important to so many people in your life, including your students.
  • Bring the best of who you are on a daily basis.

That’s SMART!


Sustaining through a Personal Appreciative Approach

Over the last few posts, we have looked at research indicating the importance of detaching from demanding jobs on a daily basis in order to sustain well-being and commitment, energy

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Photo Credit: SeveStJude via Compfight cc

and engagement with the work. Teaching is such a demanding job. The question, however, is not “How  can teachers detach?” The question is how can you, as an individual, detach? (Actually, there’s an organizational question to ask here also, but let’s hold it for another post.)

(Our newsletter this week has a story about how the personal appreciative approach described below might look. Sign up and we will send you a copy!)

One of the core dynamics of positive psychology involves focusing on what’s going right. Right Spotting and a focus on strengths are both examples of this dynamic. In the world of organizational change, this dynamic is exemplified by Appreciative Inquiry (AI) developed by David Coopperrider of Case Western University, and expanded by individuals around the world. AI focuses an organization on its positive core, invites exploration of how those positive qualities and experiences might develop in the future, and then moves forward to designing and delivering that future.

In our very first post on this topic, we suggested a personal appreciative approach:

Action Step: Keep a log of what pulls your mind off work and let’s you unwind. Try out different evening routines and see what works best. Perhaps getting some exercise right after work will help, or maybe that is better for you later the evening. Reading may be good for you, but perhaps you need to stop a while before bedtime to let your mind disengage from the story, also. Try things. Keep a record. Do more of what works.

In other words, no matter how much you may think you are unable to detach, you are already detaching successfully! Some. Some of the time. And, whatever you are doing successfully now, even if only a little and only occasionally, it fits in your life, with your values, and with your current deeply held beliefs about yourself and the world. That’s big! If you make a plan to start a brand new practice or two that will radically increase your ability to detach daily,what will happen? Say your goal is to go to the gym and exercise every afternoon for 30 minutes, or to spend time playing the guitar, or to read a book, or whatever your “big idea” is, what will happen? What usually happens when you try to make a big change in your daily routine? Short-term deviation then a return to the long-term pattern. Right?  That pattern exists for reasons. Reasons involving who you are,what roles and responsibilities you carry, and your deep beliefs about yourself and the world around you. None of those are going to change just because you “decide” to be different. And, over time, they will reassert their influence and you will return to your long-term pattern.

So, hopeless, isn’t it? Not at all! Work with that pattern, not against it, and you will be able to gradually change elements within it – roles, responsibilities, beliefs, habits – until you achieve a pattern that supports and sustains you in ways you can live with long-term. Let’s break down the process a bit:

  • Discover: What’s the positive core of your current detachment practices?
    • What did I do today at school that helped me be able to detach this evening? What thoughts and feelings helped me take those actions?
    • What did others do today at school that helped me detach after leaving school?
    • What did I do this evening that really took my mind off of school and let me detach? What thoughts and feelings helped me take those actions?
    • What created a positive emotional balance for me this evening?
    • What did others do this evening that helped me achieve positive emotional tone and a complete detachment from school?
  •  Dream: After you have identified some of the positive core of your current approach to teaching and to the rest of your life that is helping you detach, dream a little:
    • What if my current best practices flowered fully in my life this year, what would that look like?
    • Imagine you woke up next year and much of what you would like to see in your life in terms of being able to regularly detach in a positive emotional way had come true, what would you see looking back that had enabled those changes?
  • Design: Start moving your dreams toward reality.
    • What is a very small step can you in the next week do to take a step toward your vision of a life where you regularly achieve full, positive emotional detachment on a daily basis?
    • When could you take this step? Where would you be when you did it?
    • What obstacles will get in your way? Consider outside circumstances, the actions of others, and your own feelings.
    • What is your plan for navigating around each of those obstacles so that, next week, you will take the action you have identified.
  • Deliver: Act on your plan. Do it.
    • Notice the effect. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions as you put your plan into effect.
    • In your log, note any unexpected aid you get in doing the action you have selected.
    • Note which obstacles you ran into that you had prepared for, and how your contingency plan worked.
    • Note any obstacle that cropped up that you had not expected, and how well your response worked. Record ideas for how to respond to that obstacle in the future.

Keep working on the very small step you have selected until it is firmly established, then repeat the Design and Deliver steps for a new very small step. After a while, a series of very small steps will have substantially changed your detachment approach and success. If you are then achieving adequate detachment, great! Focus in another area. If not, you may go back and Discover and Dream again based on your new, more successful but not yet complete set of detachment practices.

Now, if you are thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of work. It’s not worth it. I can’t do that. I don’t have the time. I have to have relief now,” or any similar set of thoughts, remember: THOSE ARE JUST THOUGHTS! They are your beliefs. Your brain will tend to make you believe they are reality by filtering what you observe in the world to fit those beliefs (confirmation bias), but those are still only your beliefs. They are likely not as true as you think they are. If your beliefs are limiting your ability to achieve a better approach to teaching and living, why not test them, rather than just assuming you cannot achieve more of what you want? You might re-read this post: Detachment: “It shouldn’t be this hard!”

One final world: Other people matter. Who do you need to bring in to your effort? Who do you want to bring in? Your spouse? Other family members? Friends at work? Other friends? Remember, living, teaching, and doing better – they are ALL team sports!


Detachment: “It shouldn’t be this hard!”

Our last post was the third in a series (1, 2) on how teachers can sustain commitment, energy and engagement throughout a school year. In it, we suggested three action steps (keeping a log of what works, disengagement rituals, and other people matter). We included a couple of more suggestions in our newsletter. This week, let’s look at what is a fairly common reaction to such suggestions, “It shouldn’t be that hard!”

Deep Beliefs

It’s a pretty common experience. We become aware of something we believe we can do that will make our lives better, then we don’t do it. Often, this is because of a deep belief (SMART Strengths, p. 201) that goes something like, “Life should be easy,” or “I should not have to work at being happy” or “Trying hard tasks leaves me open to failure.” So often, we know what we need to do -or at least have a good idea – but don’t start because of a deep belief that it should not be that hard. This may come couched in the “I should have already mastered this” or “I ought not have to be working at this at my age.” Basically, we believe that life should not be so hard. And, of course, since out thoughts drive our emotions, these thoughts can drive emotions of despair and dejection and make us want to give up.

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Photo Credit: Lizzie279 via Compfight cc

Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy, once said that the three great dysfunctional belief categories are:

1. I must do well.

2. You must treat me well.

3. The world must be easy.

This is category 3. (Category 1 can get involved also if fear that we will not be successful keeps us from trying!)

Disputing Deep Beliefs

There are at least two ways to respond to these dysfunctional beliefs. One way is to dispute them. In this case, that might go something like this:

“It does seem like I should not have to work hard at learning how to detach from the school day. Shouldn’t I just be able to let go? And, for that matter, isn’t this partially the school system’s fault? There’s too much pressure and not enough support! But, still, I’ve got to deal with what I can control. And, really, there’s no reason for me to think I should just naturally be good at this. After all, our ancestors didn’t deal with the kind of pace and psychic pressures we face in the modern world, so it is no wonder I don’t just naturally have a well-developed release mechanism. I will have to focus and remember to try things to find out what helps me let go, but I have some great possibilities to tryout and I’m sure I can find more, and once I get the right mix for me, it will become habit and I’ll be able to focus my attention and energy on the next thing. So, let me see, what am I going to do this week?”

Feel better? I do, just from writing it! Try it yourself. If you are feeling any reluctance at all to dive in and try some new ways to detach, just sit down and start writing out those thoughts, then drafting your own response. Once you have a strong disputing statement, keep it with you and pull it out and re-read it when needed. It may take a while, but you can start to change that deep belief. Maybe it will become, “Hey, of course it is hard – nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and I’m proud of what I am accomplishing!”

Just ACT!

Another approach to dealing with these deep beliefs and the emotions they drive is simply to go around them. This approach comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; but let’s not get into the nuances here!). Basically ACT says, rather than dispute your thoughts or try to avoid the emotions they drive, accept them and then do what you are committed to – what aligns with your values. In other words, you might notice thoughts about your chosen way to practice detaching being hard, or feel a bit of dejection or disconnection from that action, but you think, “I value my health, my ability to be with my family when I’m home, and my ability to maintain my commitment, energy and engagement every day – I’m doing this!” And, you do. You don’t try to clarify the deep belief that’s working against you. You don’t argue against it. You simply do – ACT! – what fits with your values and move on. Of course, over time, you find the actions that work for you, you find the easiest ways to fit those actions into your life, they become a habit, you get more of what you want, and you’ve side-stepped the whole dysfunctional deep belief thing. It may arise again on another effort down the road, but you’ve beaten it for now.

This week’s newsletter has tips on how to engage Signature Character Strengths of Creativity and Kindness to detach. Sign up!