Learning to Grow

By Sterling Hawkins, MSW, LICSW, LCSW-C

Learning is a form, a growth. At the least, it involves examining areas of strength and areas of weakness. And at most, it involves change: a total reconstruction of ideas and a reorganization of what we practice and how we live. Good learning always begins by asking: What do I know?

We should each be asking ourselves several question: What are my strengths and weaknesses? What have I learned from my mistakes and failures? What ideas and practices have I derived benefit from? And, who has been helpful and supportive in my learning? These questions and others should help us to build confidence, which is essential to developing the motivation that will move us closer to our goals.

I have learned over the years that learning of any kind is most successful when it includes:

  • real or simulated learning;

  • reflective observation (What happened? What went right? What could be improved?);

  • and abstract conceptualization (Finding explanations for what happened and why? Proposing ideas about what can be done differently).

Over the past several months I’ve asked myself these questions more pointedly. This is what I have learned:     

  1. What’s no longer working for you?

I have come to accept that I no longer have the same mental tolerance and physical endurance to simultaneously work on several projects that I did twenty years ago. Instead I now settle for one or maybe two tasks, where my productivity can be more measured and more focused. I now have an increased sense of satisfaction when the project is completed. This approach enables me to rest more. When I take on too many responsibilities, I’m more easily distracted and often my diet and sleep patterns suffer.

If being healthy is important to you, it can be frustrating if too many tasks or your busy schedule leaves little time for rest or a proper diet. Building time within your routine for relaxation, nutritious meals, and a good night’s sleep will enable you to perform at your best.

2.     What is your vision for your future?

During my 20s and early 30s, I was an avid cyclist. I enjoyed recreational riding and even commuting from my home to and from campus as a graduate student. However, over the years riding lost its special place in my life, as life became over-crowded with other things important and mundane. I missed this activity in my life. So, this year I decided to change that by joining a cycling group that schedules rides throughout my community most weekends. I also began using a set of stationary rollers that allow me to train and prepare for when the season is in full swing. My goal is to complete 5-6 group rides and perhaps one or two sponsored fundraisers by the end of the year, and to improve my cardiovascular health and physical stamina.

Having a vision for your life is good mental hygiene. Create a vision board on paper or on your computer with words and pictures that represent your core values and your most important roles. Look at your vision board often to stay focused on what you aspire to accomplish, and who you want to become.

3. Who is your role model?

This was the most challenging question for me to answer. While there are many people I admire and learn from, it takes time and a connection for true mentorship to happen. Finding a role model and mentor for myself is still a work in progress, not for lack of possible mentors, but for a lack of initiative and creativity to seek out those who can contribute to my lifelong learning in meaningful ways.

I personally serve both as a supervisor and mentor to other social work colleagues and graduate students new to the profession in my community and at the agency where I work. I enjoy this role as a teacher/mentor because it allows me to meet with them regularly and to share my experiences and information, which will help them become licensed clinicians ready for independent practice.

Mentees also teach me their perspectives on various topics as I help them to study. This relationship grows by establishing good and appropriate boundaries with respect to time, the material we discuss, and how to appropriately examine and assess their own learning expectations. Through this, they practice healthy boundaries for themselves, their colleagues, and the clients they serve.

Identifying our vulnerabilities, as well as our strengths, can lead us to make improvements in certain areas of our life, which should in the end yield a high degree of contentment. Our environments including people, can either help or hinder our learning process, which affects how we think about ourselves and how we behave. Learning is an intellectually, emotionally, socially, and physically demanding job. The healthier and more confident you are, the better you can learn. Educators have known this for centuries, but it remains a lesson that we learn, as well over and over again. Each day however offers new opportunities for growth as we experience new challenges and navigate old pathways.


Sterling HawkinsComment
The Psychological Costs of Social Media
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By Sterling Hawkins, MSW, LICSW, LCSW-C

Are most of your days governed by checking social media? Does your day begin with recent news posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook notifications, or Snapchat?

The average person has five social media accounts and spends two hours on it every day. We are learning the negative impact of social media on mental health.

If you notice that you are:

  • Becoming more anxious or insecure with the volume, access, and control of information available

  • Repeatedly checking in, emailing or virtually connecting to others

  • Avoiding in-person contact with a preference for texting or emailing

It’s time to do some personal reflection to determine whether your social media presence and engagement is the best utilization of your time.

Last April I read a New York Times article titled “You’re too Busy, You need a Shultz Hour.” The author David Leonhardt described how former Secretary of State George Shultz in the 1980s liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection: “Otherwise he would be pulled into moment to moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of National Security.” If Schultz required an hour each week in the 80s, long before social media existed, how much more time each week do we need for quiet reflection today?

Perhaps one remedy to the frenetic lives we’ve grown to accept involves seeing a choice. The choice to slow down and carve out more undistracted time. No phone calls, no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, mobile alerts, or podcasts. Fill that time with something meaningful, relaxing, or rewarding. Do something physical or spend time with a loved one.

Daniel J. Levitin, author of Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload notes that: “Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet, or text message you get from a friend is competing with resources in your brain.” He says that if we want to be more productive and have more energy that we should go online at designated times. Otherwise we are constantly interrupted.

I have become more aware of the negative impact of social media in my own life. I am slowly taking steps to limit the clamor. I am reclaiming an uncomplicated and undistracted solitude that is becoming quite rare in a world where new technologies override old forms of communication.

What are you doing to limit the negative impact of social media on your life? If you find yourself unable to put down the phone, log off your computer or turn off your television, perhaps it’s time to do so.

Sterling HawkinsComment
Ambivalence: the problem with too many choices
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By Sterling Hawkins, MSW, LICSW, LCSW-C

Years ago, written correspondence occurred only with pen and paper. Then came the typewriter, followed by simple mainframe computers, which were replaced with personal computers and most recently surpassed by smart phones and software packages that require installations, updates, and operating systems that “talk to one another.” We now have Androids, iPhones, and other wireless forms of communication, all tools for the goal of simplifying our lives. However, when we examine current technologies, our desire for simplicity comes at a great psychological and emotional cost: People are now taking longer to make up their minds about choices that were once settled quickly and decisively. To a large degree our indecision can be blamed on our bewildering array of choices, along with the multitude of products and services that both entice and confuse us. We can waiver about everything. I asked myself why?

To some extent, I believe this indecision reflects uncertainty about one’s self and about what one needs. The tech Industry promotes that personal computers, mobile devices and the digital platforms available are now essential for fluid communication . They promise that personal technology will move us forward, increasing our confidence and certainty with respect to “choice” in what to eat, what to wear, what to buy. On the contrary, many developing technologies have only brought more choices, more data, and more anxiety.

As humans we often resist painful choices, and the psychological costs are that we defer decisions on what to think, and how to act. When we have more choices available to us, there are more opportunities for us to regret our decisions, particularly when we are not satisfied with the outcome.

Dr. Barry Schwartz, professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, suggests that “One way to tackle the choice program is to become comfortable with the idea- ‘good enough.’”

This concept examines the question of personal values and beliefs. Am I making this choice because of what my peers think or the cultural zeitgeist is telling me to ? Is this what I want? Are my decisions reflecting my personal beliefs and values? Do existing social and cultural norms support the independent choices I am making? And, are these choices “good enough” for what I want to accomplish? To achieve a high level of satisfaction with this approach requires that persons caught in the choice dilemma examine and determine what they value in life, what they love, who they love, and what will leave a lasting impact on what they need, as well as the things they can leave behind. So if you find yourself wrestling with ambivalence and decision paralysis, how can you learn to skillfully make decisions more effectively?

In his book the Power of Less, Leo Babauta provides us with some questions we should ask ourselves about how to determine what is personally vital and what is non-essential:

  • What are your values? Values are simply knowing what things are most important to you. Think about the things that really matter to you, the qualities you want to have, the principles you want to live your life by. Once you’ve identified these values, everything you do and choose should follow from those.

  • What do you love? Think about what you love, whom you love to spend time with, and what you love to do.

  • Eliminate the non-essentials. Sometimes it is useful to work backward, if you’re having trouble figuring out the essentials. If you have a list of things to do, for example, start by crossing off the non-essential items. Once you eliminate the non-essential stuff, you are left with the essential things on the list.


    Tugend, A. (2010) Too many choices: A problem that can paralyze. New York Times . Retrieved on 24 January 2019. Available at https:// www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html

Knowing what you value, love, and need and reminding yourself of these things on a regular basis will allow you to make choices that reflect what is truly important to you. Decisions will then become easier, and as they do, the more likely you are to hold true to those choices and to find effective ways to work through challenges.

Sterling HawkinsComment