Self-directed Behaviour

February 18, 2012

Self-directed behavior and life planning,



There has been an explosion in recent years in our culture of a new profession – the “life coach”. Part therapist, part vocational counselor, part best friend and part cheerleader, these professionals bring both wisdom and specific training to helping people find the answers to the deep question of “what then shall I do with this one brief, beautiful life that I have been given?’ This is the question of what has been termed “right livelihood” – the balancing act between survival and fulfillment. The ironic side of all this movement of self-exploration, of course, is that it turns out that pursuing “right livelihood” also is the best way to get the money you need.


It is tempting to view this malaise about meaning and fulfillment in our everyday work life as an exclusively modern phenomenon, but in fact, this sense of needing something more from our work life may be the very thing that propelled from the dark and dangerous world of the hunter/gatherer society into the modern world. The thinkers of all culture since the dawn of history (about 4:52 a.m. on a Saturday around eleven thousand years ago) have asked questions about the larger purpose and meaning of work. Until very recently, of course, this kind of questioning was the exclusive province of people who typically did not have to worry about where their next meal was coming from. The rest of the world was usually too tired from six, twelve-hour days of work to worry about much else beyond food and bed.


In our modern world, however, more and more people are beginning to question whether it is enough to just “go to work in the morning, come home in the evening and have nothing to say”.  As we have moved from a less direct relationship between our basic survival needs and the work that we perform, a space opens that lets in this internal questioning and self-doubt.


For many people who grow up without self-evident disabilities, this kind of questioning is usually allowed a pretty good amount of time to work itself through. If we go to college, we might switch from a “sensible” plan to be a business major to ending with a degree in 17th century English garden maze design.  If in a vocational school, we might start off with a focus in CNC machining and end up in floral design. Whatever our pathway through this late adolescence/young adulthood period, there is an expectation that this is a “normal” process and that the person is just “finding themselves”.


We seldom think beyond this easily understood idea of “finding oneself” but it is a highly complex process of negotiation between our own internal passions and drives and the expectations of important people and institutions around us. When most all grown up people are asked to define their “selves” (people who have theoretically “found” their selves) they will answer most often in terms of their roles. “I’m the guy who sanitizes the shoes in the bowling alley and I am a good husband and father to my 2.5 children“. How strangely would we be looked at if we answered, “I’m the guy who, while floating aimlessly in a salt marsh by the ocean, is so carried away by the call-response singing between the salt in the water and the salt water that is the flow and the song of my heart’s blood, that I disappear into oneness with nature and the whole of creation and in so disappearing, come back and back, time and time again to my true and whole being, so that love for all sentient beings flows like honey from every cell in my body.” We might indeed get some odd looks from even our most intimate of friends and loved ones. And yet, which is the more “true” self?  Like so many things, the truth is in the nobility of the struggle among our many selves to find the space and time in our lives that keeps us and our children fed and housed and that allows us also to live our passions and deep internal drives. For particularly happy, satisfied and successful people this gap is almost imperceptible.


In my experience, an odd thing happens in this process when a young person is identified as having a disability. The typical perspective-taking that allows people to say, “Oh, he/she is just finding themselves” all but disappears and is replaced by a generalized system-wide low level anxiety that can have very profound effects on the person so identified. The major theme of the course on Public Health Issues of Disability that I teach at the University of Connecticut Medical School is, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  In the world of disability services, one of the most important tools that well-meaning professionals rely on is the “plan”- whether this is an IEP or a Transition Plan.  These are detailed, concrete, written prescriptions for the way that things ought to go in the person’s life. They are valuable tools in planning support services and educational interventions. But, like all good things (think chocolate!), too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.


This is particularly evident if we are not clear on some of the often hidden motives beyond our “good things”.  In so many cases, the pressures on education and human services professionals from parents, lawyers, and indeed from themselves to turn out a “finished product” of a student can be enormous. Like most pressures, this particular pressure comes from an entirely understandable sense of fear. This fear has its roots in our perception of the student with the disability as extra-vulnerable to the twists and turns of life’s highways and our natural desire to protect and support that student as best we can before they go off on their own.


So what’s the down side to all of this well-intentioned planning and talking? I asked my class of graduate students at UCONN the other night if any of them had ever had a class in how to think. Not a single one of them remembered a critical thinking class, an avoidance of inferential fallacies class or anything that would actually support their ability to think. Our education system is designed almost exclusively around the ability to do. It is the rare school system that offers classes in how to think and how to be.

If a student goes through an entire educational career surrounded by good intentions, anxiety, and pressure it is extremely likely that that student will make choices based almost entirely on the needs and demands of the people and institutions around them. In so doing they will lose sight, touch and hearing of their own internal passions and drives that are the essential other half of the balancing act between survival and fulfillment.  As they think about their life’s plan they will fall prey to the evils of social desirability response bias –“let me tell you what I think you want to hear”.

A couple of years ago I started researching some different ways of looking at this question and came across some interesting techniques like the McGill Action Planning System (MAPS) and the work of David Watson and Roland Tharp called “Self-Directed Behavior”.  What characterizes both of these programs and most of the other new style “career” planning tools is an almost total lack of emphasis on specific vocational categories but more of an emphasis on self-awareness.

Dr. Love 







Disability in Canada

January 16, 2012
I met with the good folks at York University in Toronto this week in the Graduate Programs in Critical Disabilty Studies and Health Equity program. I was reminded once again of how important it is to understand this idea of disability as an integral and expected and natural part of the human whole. People with physical disabilities often refer to people without physcial disability at "TABS"- standing for Temporarily Able Bodied. Perhaps one of the greatest values of disability to everyone in ...
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The ecology of disability

January 2, 2012
I have long been fascinated by the idea of systems theory in all of its different forms. I am particularly interested in the impact of systems on what we consider the "disability" of the individual person. Everyone knows, in their head on an intellectual basis, that the level of a person's disability is directly influenced by the environment they live in. A person in a wheelchair has few mobility impairments in an accessible environment but in an old Victorian building with a steep staircase ...
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