What are the secrets to success? How can you make the most of every day? Whether you’ve long wished you were more creative or have always wondered how to land your dream job, our UConn-inspired how-to handbook will offer you valuable insight into some of life’s burning questions.
We’ve rounded up a selection of UConn alumni, faculty, and current students — from a NASA chief scientist to an up-and-coming beer brewer — to share their practical advice on how you can live your own best life.
Studies show creative people are happier, and coming up with creative solutions to problems can help individuals get ahead at work. But sometimes, it’s just plain hard to find that creative spark.
James C. Kaufman, UConn educational psychology professor and internationally respected creativity expert, is here to help.
One of the strongest personality traits observed in creative people is openness to experiences, Kaufman says. Whether it’s as ordinary as trying a new restaurant or as extraordinary as skydiving for the first time, new experiences can inspire new ways of thinking.
Think: What’s the Issue?
“Probably the most underrated component of the creative problem-solving process is finding and recognizing what the problem is,” Kaufman says. “If all your friends tell you that you dress poorly, you can identify the problem as, ‘I need to dress better,’ or ‘I need new friends.’ And everything else depends on how you identify the problem.”
Once you’ve figured out what problem you want to solve, let loose. Give yourself the freedom to come up with as many ideas as possible, as long as they’re somewhat relevant, Kaufman says.
What’s Your Motivation?
Research doesn’t support any particular strategy or technique for boosting creativity, according to Kaufman. There are many different levels of creativity, countless domains where it can be employed, and dozens of ways to be creative. It’s all about homing in on your individual strengths and interests.
If you’re looking for a creative outlet, think about your goals, Kaufman says. Do you want to be creative to express yourself or to connect with others? Do you want to impress someone? Be world-renowned?
There is no right answer, and often figuring out the why can lead to the how, Kaufman says. Since creativity relies on intrinsic motivation, where you’re driven by your own enjoyment rather than an external goal, “the key is finding that match, that thing that excites you,” he says.
So make your choice, give yourself the freedom to be creative and a safe place to do it, and find your passion.
You’re probably not actually addicted to Facebook or your smartphone — only about 6 percent of people are clinically diagnosed as compulsive users, says David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UConn School of Medicine and founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. But most people today do overuse or abuse their smartphones or the Internet, he says.
Studies show there are neurobiological causes behind this, according to Greenfield. When your phone buzzes, it means something is waiting for you. The variety in both the schedule and the value of the reward is what keeps us checking.
“Every once in a while, without knowing when and what, you’re going to get something you like,” he says. “Every time you get something you like that is desirable to you, you get a hit of dopamine in the brain.”
The release of this pleasure chemical every time we see a text message from a friend or a funny email has essentially turned us into a society of Pavlov’s dogs, he says.
- Be aware that technology is powerful.
- Take control of your technology. Make conscious choices about when and where you’re going to use it.
- Have tech-free days or tech-free hours. Experiment with setting limits.
- Turn your phone off when you’re in social environments. Redevelop “the lost art” of starting a conversation.
- Limit your use of things like online gaming. These have addictive properties regardless of where you’re using them, but combining them with an addictive smartphone “is like adding gasoline to a fire,” Greenfield says.
“What we have is a digital drug,” he says. “I’m not a Luddite. I’m suggesting more conscious use of it, more moderated use of [technology], and taking more control of it – instead of it controlling you.”
Everybody’s been there: Thoughts of your big presentation at work are keeping you up at night; that fight with your mom is literally causing a headache; or mulling over a daunting decision is giving you panic attacks.
“Everyone in this world has some sort of underlying stress issue that is affecting them in an unhealthy way,” says Traver Garrity ’07 (SFA), a licensed acupuncturist whose practice is steps away from UConn’s Storrs campus.
“The way I look at the body, everything we do is going to affect our health,” Garrity, who earned a master’s of science from the Tri-State College of Acupuncture in New York City, says. “One of the main ways to stay healthy is to try to find some sort of outlet to keep the stress level in check.”
Chinese medicine, of which acupuncture is a major part, is based on a theory of balance, particularly regarding qi (pronounced “chee”), which means “life force.” (Qi is also known as chi or ki.)
Stressors get in the way of energy flow, causing such symptoms as tension headaches, anxiety attacks, and gastric distress, Garrity says. But there are simple ways to combat these negative effects.
Certain types of exercise, including yoga, tai chi, and qigong, are focused on balancing qi and “use Chinese medical theory to keep the channels open and moving,” according to Garrity.
Daily stretching, taking some time out for self-reflection, or meditation can all help – “whatever people can do to quiet their minds,” she says. “Deep abdominal breathing is also going to help calm the nervous system.”
Having and expressing educated opinions on important matters is vital to getting ahead professionally. Lucy Gilson, UConn management professor and academic director of the Geno Auriemma Leadership Conference, says becoming an expert in something is a surefire way to find your voice.
“There’s a lot of research with regard to leadership that indicates CEOs and top executives are people who have been functional specialists, who have come up through a discipline,” she says. “And the people who have been sort of generalists – often women – tend not to reach these top levels, but rather stay in mid-level managerial jobs.
“When it comes to finding your voice, the key piece is, figure out what you’re good at and what you want to be known for, and to specialize in that. Become the expert that people go to,” Gilson says. “If you find something that you’re passionate about, and you can become an expert in that, you’re much more likely to be able to talk knowledgeably and to do well.”
Being informed – whether in a boardroom or a dining room discussion – will garner respect.
“You’re more likely to succeed, and to not only know the background and materials, but also to have your own opinions,” Gilson says. “When you don’t really know that much about something, your opinion is probably someone else’s opinion.
“You want your voice to be a mixture of your opinion and the facts, the history, the research on the topic, what has been written, what has been said about it.”
Dennis Bushnell ’63 (ENG) knows a little something about reaching for the stars. His more than 50 years at NASA’s Langley Research Center – he landed a job there right after graduation and is now chief scientist – have included work on the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.
“The magic of big ideas, in my experience, is enabled by the identification of big, fundamental problems,” Bushnell says. “It is usually extremely useful to identify – and question – the fundamental assumptions associated with the problem to aid creativity and infer big idea possibilities.”
Challenging assumptions has led to major scientific breakthroughs, he says. For example, his team probed the conventional wisdom that a smooth surface has the lowest amount of drag for an aircraft and discovered that surfaces with “riblets,” or “small flow-aligned grooves,” can cause less drag, increasing speed and saving fuel.
Another big idea? Consider the colonization of Mars. By rejecting the commonly held theory that colonizing the Red Planet would require humans to bring everything they need with them – which would be too massive to travel well, according to Bushnell – scientists have come up with an economical idea that “is possible, within the responsibly imaginable.” By combining autonomous, reusable robotics and additive manufacturing systems with Mars’ vast carbon dioxide, water, and mineral resources, the planet could have everything people need, even before humans set foot there.
Of course, colonizing another planet is a far-off idea, which brings Bushnell to another insight: Big idea-generators must think longer term, he says.
People “need to open the intellectual shutter to solution spaces that eschew instant gratification,” he says. “Also, since such longer-term, frontier technologies are risky, you need to be risk-embracing and utilize the proven risk-retiring approach of multiple solution spaces and triage.”
So, in a nutshell, what are the big ideas behind thinking up big ideas?
“Bottom lines: Question everything; be open to the unusual and the emerging, take informed risks, and be audacious. Courage is required, as many will scoff, and initial efforts may not be positive,” Bushnell says. “The most important trait for invention is perseverance.”
Alexander Fikiet ’16 (CLAS) has earned the title of Life Master from the United States Chess Federation by being rated upwards of 2,200 in more than 300 USCF-rated chess tournament games. Secretary of the UConn Chess Club, Fikiet says patience is the key to winning.
“Whenever I play a game, I am sure to take into account my opponent’s ideas and actions first, and adjust my play towards that,” Fikiet says. “I want the game to be as safe as possible, and only then do I want to take action toward winning.”
Fikiet says he enters each match with a broad plan, which he tweaks as he goes to avoid his competitor’s tricks and traps.
“Finally, if I feel that I have a winning advantage, I generally triple-check my next moves in order to make sure I don’t make a mistake,” he says. “Converting a winning advantage into a win against a good player is probably the most difficult part of chess.”
George Sugai, director of UConn’s Center for Behavioral Education and Research and co-director of the national Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, says the same basic framework can be used by people of all ages to stop unwanted behaviors.
- Respond briefly and assertively. For example, say something like, “Whatever!” “I really don’t like it when you say/do that,” or “That’s annoying.”
- Disengage immediately. Step back, walk away, or move to another person or group.
- If the behavior continues, tell someone what is happening.
- Report the incident.
“The goal is to disengage assertively as quickly as possible — in developmentally and contextually appropriate ways — so the interaction can’t escalate, and then problem-solve strategies that prevent it from happening in the future,” says Sugai, who is also a professor of special education in the Neag School of Education and the Carole J. Neag Endowed Chair.
Despite what late-night infomercials might claim, there is no “best exercise” out there, according to Linda Pescatello ’77 (CLAS), ’81 MS, ’86 Ph.D., Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology.
“The best exercise would be the exercise you continue with,” Pescatello says. “The rule of thumb is: Something is better than nothing. Getting out of the chair is big.”
American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for quantity and quality exercise – edited by Pescatello and considered the gold standard for exercise professionals – essentially amount to an hour of exercise daily, something that is hard for even some of the fittest people to achieve, Pescatello says.
Consider what activities you enjoy, as well as your goals (whether it’s weight loss, maintenance, or muscle toning) and what time of day you are most willing to exercise to find the right program, she says. “You have to look at those things around you that are going to set you up for success.”
Conor Horrigan ’11 MBA secured a great job on Wall Street right after graduating from Notre Dame. But a few years in, he found himself feeling uninspired by how he was earning his living.
After commiserating with friends also in the midst of what Horrigan calls “a quarter-life crisis,” he decided to quit his job and travel the world with his savings and his now-wife. During that trip, Horrigan revisited one of the ideas he’d come up with in a bar with his friends – starting a brewery. On a train ride from Prague to Vienna, he sketched out everything he’d need to do to make his dream a reality.
With an MBA from UConn under his belt, Horrigan is now the founder, owner, and “Chief Beer Philosopher” of Stamford, Conn.-based Half Full Brewery.
He has a few pieces of advice for going after what you want:
- Weigh the Four Ps (no, not those) when considering any opportunity: Do you like the People? The Process? The Product? The Pay?
- Network. “Have as many conversations with as many different people as possible. I take so many different phone calls. I listen to every single idea,” Horrigan says. “You never know what could come out of the conversation. The only way you find out what you’re passionate about is broadening your horizons and tapping into other people’s knowledge.”
- Believe in yourself. “If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll figure it out” – it being just about anything you need to do to realize your vision, Horrigan says. “If you have a strong will, a strong spirit, keep surging forward and working your tail off.”
You’ve graduated college and joined the real world, but that shouldn’t stop you from having some fun. Mike Rambone ’09 (ED), ’10 MA and Chris Nuelle ’11 (BUS), founders of Lakeside Watersports in Danbury, Conn., say gliding across the water on skis is a sure way to impress your friends and have a blast. Here are their tips on how to get started:
- Wearing your lifejacket and water skis, hop in the water holding the handle, and then pretend you are sitting in a floating chair. Focus on bending your knees and keeping your arms straight and shoulders back.
- Once the line is tight, yell “hit it,” so the boat driver knows to give it some gas.
- The most important tip for water sports is to let the boat do all of the work. Don’t try to pull yourself up or fight the tension; hold tight, lean back, and let the boat pull you up out of the water.
- Once you are on top of the water, remember to keep your arms straight, bend your knees slightly, keep your shoulders back, and push your hips forward toward the boat.
- Now that you are riding on top of the water, practice turning left and right by putting pressure on the edges of the water skis.
Mike Ryan ’88 (SAH) is quite familiar with going beyond his comfort zone.
A six-time Ironman triathlete, the 51-year-old has completed the Empire State Building Run-Up and the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon three times each. He has run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain – twice. Lately, he says he’s spent a lot of time on “mud run-type things,” like the Tough Mudder races.
“What I’ve done that’s worked for me is: Don’t even look for those limits,” says Ryan, who recently left a 26-year career as an NFL athletic trainer and founded Mike Ryan Sports Medicine in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. He also serves as the sports medicine consultant for NBC Sports Sunday Night Football.
“Look for your ability to excel in everything,” he says. “Being honest with yourself is the key thing. What do you have? What are you working with?” At the same time, “don’t underestimate your skills or potential. The human body has unbelievable potential for change, if trained properly.”
Realize that success won’t happen overnight, Ryan says – progression is key.
“The goal part is most important. Set up a plan and small-chunk it,” he says. “I tend to work backwards. I’m getting ready for a big Spartan race, so I think, ‘What do I need to do to prepare?’”
Further, mental preparation is as important as physical training. Believe you can do anything you set your mind to, he says.
“People just have to stretch their imagination,” says Ryan. “Life is so exciting and there’s so much for us there.”