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Alignment Theory


We use the name Alignment Theory to explain and describe what seems to be at the core of making our lives work. Many psychologists talk about those conditions that promote self-actualization. They are asking questions such as what makes one successful, how we make good choices, and what constitutes happiness. As we review some of these ideas, you will recognize a common thread that is woven into each-that is the most fulfilled individuals are those who understand who they are and arrange their lives accordingly. They have their goals, expectations, and activities in alignment with their own unique characteristics. In other words they are keeping in STEPP.

Bob Sternberg (1996), a psychologist at Yale University has written extensively on what he calls successful intelligence. He has studied people who have achieved their goals and has identified several critical elements.

Sternberg's Successful Intelligence Critical Elements
1) Successful people are aware of their strengths and talents
2) Successful people choose careers that align to these talents
3) Successful people find environments that value these talents.

Howard Gardner (1983), a psychologist from Harvard has argued similarly. He talks about different ways that people can be smart. Arguing against the idea that being smart only has to do with getting good grades in school especially in the areas of language arts and mathematics, Gardner posits that there are multiple intelligences, nine to be exact.

Gardner's Multiple Intelligences
1. Linguistic
2. Logical/Mathematical
3. Musical
Bodily Kinesthetic
5. Spatial
6. Naturalist
7. Interpersonal
8. Intra personal
9. Existential

Chief among them is what he calls the personal intelligences. Interpersonal is the intelligence that allows each of us to understand ourselves. Intra personal allows us to understand and influence other people. Intra personal intelligence is a key ingredient in one's ability to make life-course decisions and has its origins in a person's emotional life. When we focus on intra personal intelligence we look at individual strengths of the individual and ask how these strengths can be mobilized to bring out the best in each person. People with particularly strong intra personal intelligence are prized in the business world because they can make optimal use of their talents, especially under rapidly changing conditions, and they know best how to mesh their talents with those of their coworkers.

Daniel Goleman (1995), building on the work of Gardner, introduced the concept of emotional intelligence when he published his now famous and well-read book Emotional Intelligence. In his book, Goleman describes five abilities that would contribute to our ability to be successful and to find and live our life's passions.

Like Gardner, Goleman believes that the ability to manage our lives, to have healthy and fulfilling relationships, and to set and accomplish meaningful goals are far more important than intellectual intelligence.

Goleman's Emotional Intelligences
Being able to motivate one's self
To persist in the face of failure
To control impulses and delay gratification
To regulate one's mood and keep distress from swamping the ability to think, to empathize and hope.
Emotional aptitude is a meta-ability determining how well we can use the skills we have.

Goleman believes that if we are to be creatures with emotional intelligence we would:

1. Be self aware. We would know our own emotions and to be able to recognize feelings as they occurred. We would be able to discriminate between our feelings after having identified them.  In addition we would be fully aware of our values and core beliefs and know the impact and effect of compromising these core components.  The self-control component requires full mastery of being in control of one's emotions.  We would be able to manage our moods and handle our feelings as they relate to the current situation.

2. Be empathetic. We would be sensitive to the others by recognizing their feelings. We would be able to tune into the verbal and non verbal cues, the body language and the hidden signals of others so that we could act in their best interest.

3. Be realtionship managers.  We would develop expertise at forming and maintaining relationships.  We would be able to handle interpersonal interactions, manage and resolve conflicts, and be able to negotiate without compromising core beliefs or values.

4. Be self-motivated. We would be able to formulate and achieve our goals. We would be capable of "gathering up" our feelings and directing them towards our goals, despite self doubt, inertia, and impulsiveness. We would formulate a vision based on a strong personal philosophy. In addition, we would be able to explain this vision with passion. Mastery of this vision would allow us to know who we are and what we are compelled to do with our lives. When our actions and words are consistent with this personal philosophy, we will feel a sense of authenticity. Lack of adherence to values will lead to feelings of stress and discomfort. (Lynn, 2002)

Finally, to present the elements of fulfillment we will visit the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (pronounced Chick sent me hi) a developmental psychologist from the University of Chicago who explored in detail the nature of happiness and living the good life. In his best selling book entitled Flow, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) introduced his theory of happiness. He found that the most satisfied people were the ones who engaged in difficult or complex experiences that tapped physical or mental abilities. It could involve mountain climbing, reading, solving a math problem, or playing a piano piece in a concert. He felt that these kinds of activities could lead to a state of flow. Flow, he described as a state of total absorption that people feel when they are so completely involved in an activity that they lose track of time, are unaware of fatigue, hunger distractions or anything but the activity itself. In a sense they are lost in the present. The joy they get from the experience is totally intrinsic, worries disappear, anxiety is diminished, and they are truly in the moment.

"The secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible." (1996, 113).

What does this mean to us? In all cases leading a stress less but satisfying and productive life will entail knowing who we are, our strengths, talents, ethics, values, passions and interests. Success will be best achieved when we use this information to define life goals and to set realistic expectations.

Conversely, when our goals and our expectations are not in alignment with who we are, we feel considerable stress. Gregorc, (2000) the person who describes the burn out cycle, helps us to explains the alignment theory. Gregorc thought that, when people's lives are not in alignment with personal values and interests, they are in danger of "burning out". Gregorc's Burn Out theory explains the process something like this.

First, we may find ourselves in a situation that we don't enjoy, one that is not aligned with our values and interests, or in a place we don't want to be.  When this happens we begin to "act out".  Acting Out means that we cause trouble in class, play hooky, or take extra time off, turn in papers late just to "act out". If we are forced to continue in the situation, we may begin to demonstrate the second phase of the Burn Out Cycle, "physical manifestations". Now the body is responding to the stress of being out of alignment by actually crying out physically. We may experience neck or back pain, stomach upset, diarrhea, headaches, eyestrain--, a whole long list of physical aliments that are not imaginary but are indeed psychosomatic. That is they are related to our mental state. If we fail to pay attention to our body signals and continue out of alignment, our bodies rebel and we begin the final three phases of "burning up, burning out, breaking down."

This is analogous to running a car without antifreeze in the radiator or oil in the engine. Of course this is not good for the car! It is possible to start and run the car but then the engine warning light comes on warning us that it is too warm and that the engine is in danger of overheating. If we ignore the warning signals and continue to drive the car, we will burn up the engine, burn out the cylinders and break down. The result will be a very expensive engine rebuilding job.

The truth is simple and obvious. If we don't have antifreeze in the radiator and oil in the engine, we should not drive the car until the situation is corrected. Likewise, if we are out of alignment with the things we value and want to do, we are in danger of "burning out".

Of course it is possible to be a little out of alignment.  But unlike a car that is a little bit low in fluid levels, being our of alignment as a human body has more serious consequences.  A little out of alignment is like having bad posture.  Slouching in our chair won't hurt us today!  But years of sitting slouched in a chair or at the computer workstation will cause back troubles that will cause pain and can lead to long term, permanent, painful disability.

If we are a little more out of alignment like the tire and wheels of a car the wear pattern on the tires can become obvious in just a short distance.  Steering becomes more difficult, and car handling can be diminished to the point of even contributing to or causing an accident.

Finally if we are seriously out of alignment, like a train track after an earthquake, there is a train wreck waiting to happen.  If circumstances are forcing us to things in conflict or significantly out of our value system, then it is not a question whether there will be a personal disaster, it is a question of when.

Why would anyone choose to be out of alignment?  The message is do what we value, value what we do.  Setting life's goals according to who we are and what we value will lead to flow and may just uncover the secret to having a happy life.

The secret to staying in alignment is, first, being able to answer the question, "Who am I?"  The information and activities in this chapter will help us to do just that.  Next, and most important, we must decide how seriously out of alignment we are.  Is his a question of bad posture, poor wheel alignment or a train wreck waiting to happen?  Then act.  Gregorc can help us again with his threory for change.  Then act.  Gregorc can help us again with his theory for change.  He believes that there are five strategies for change.

We can adopt the situation. This is where we try to make the misalignment fit by adjusting our thought process to "correct" the misalignment. "I never thought it would be important to study ancient history, but now I see how we might learn from it. I am even getting interested in this topic."

Or, we can learn to cope. "Perhaps this class is terrible, but it only lasts 45 minutes. I can wait. I can daydream. I can spend less time on the assignments. I can party over the weekend." This strategy lets us avoid the problem by distracting ourselves from it. This strategy can work for short periods of time where the goal is just to survive the problem. Drugs like alcohol are frequent coping methods used by adults. This is not truly coping, and usually serves to return the practitioner to the burn out cycle! These first three strategies work for minor misalignment but when the misalignment is serious or the first three strategies don't work, then there are two remaining strategies to try to change our alignment to keep us in STEPP.

We can work to change ourselves to align to the environment or to change the environment to align to our views. This is where we might seek counseling for ourselves or lead a "revolt" at work. Wake-up calls at this stage may come in terms of a court ruling ordering someone to stay away, or a court ruling determining custody. Changing self and environment are strategies that are useful in correcting serious misalignment, rather than living with it. "I am so sensitive. My friends hurt my feelings all the time. I am feeling depressed." This situation can be remedied by seeing a counselor about "desensitizing" self and getting help to communicate more clearly to friends about what we need and how they might change their behavior to improve the situation.

The final strategy is to "drop out with integrity". Quitting or dropping out of the environment is not about our ability to succeed but rather because we don't align to the environment. Rather than staying out of alignment and out of STEPP we can choose to drop out with integrity or in the words of Western singer Johnny Paycheck, "Take this job and shove it!"

Perhaps Kenny Rodgers said it best in the song:

The Gambler.
"You've got to know when to hold them.
Know when to fold them.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run."

Students might decide that a particular school is not meeting their needs and choose another more in alignment with their talents. For instance, some highly creative students who feel too closed in by the International Baccalaureate curriculum offered by the school may choose to dropout of the program, not because the program lacks excellence but rather because it is not meeting the needs of the students. We learned of such a student while visiting international schools in Eastern Europe. This highly creative young man had a passion and talent for film making. He had little motivation for his IB classes and as a result was doing poorly. Talking to the school counselor and his parents, it was decided that he would drop out of IB and accept a mentorship with a local filmmaker. This experience paved the way for his acceptance into a university with an excellent program in film.

Unfortunately, for many who do not think they have options that can reverse their burn out cycle, the situation causes deep depression. For them dropping out with integrity means suicide. Let's work to be sure that we have developed strategies to keep us in alignment. The information in this book will give us techniques for dealing effectively with the stressors in our lives long before they engulf us.

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