The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Shh…tresss

Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.

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Kelly McGonigal interviewd by TED Blog (January 8th, 2014)

The Science of Willpower: Kelly McGonigal on why it’s so dang hard to stick to a resolution

It’s the second week in January and, at about this time, that resolution that seemed so reasonable a week ago — go to the gym every other day, read a book a week, only drink alcohol on weekends — is starting to seem very … hard. As you are teetering on the edge of abandoning it all together, Kelly McGonigal is here to help. This Stanford University psychologist — who shared last year how you can make stress your friend — wants you to know that you’re not having a hard time sticking to a resolution because you are a terrible person. Perhaps you’ve just formulated the wrong resolution.

McGonigal has, for years, taught a course called “The Science of Willpower” through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program and, in 2011, she spun it into a book, The Willpower Instinct. The TED Blog spoke to McGonigal this week about how willpower is often misunderstood, and what we each can do to improve it. (We also asked her about today’s talk — Why dieting doesn’t usually work.) Below, an edited transcript of the conversation.

First question: why is willpower such a struggle?

It’s a great question. I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

The reason that so many things can trigger that kind of conflict is because that’s the essence of human nature. Modern cognitive neuroscientists see this as the fundamental structure of the human brain — that there are competing systems that think about the world differently and that respond to challenges differently. I think of it as: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for survival.  But a lot of our modern challenges really tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.

So, given this idea of two competing selves who want different things, how effective are New Year’s resolutions for tapping into the ability to think long-term?

I think it depends on how you go about making your New Year’s resolution. Typically, when people are making a New Year’s resolution, they don’t start with the right questions, so they end up making a resolution that is ineffective. Most people start with the question: “What should I do?” It may not even be a conscious, implicit kind of thing, but they start from: “What do I criticize about myself that it’s time to change?” Or “what is it that I don’t really want to do that I know I should do?” It’s kind of a typical self-improvement perspective. “I don’t really like exercise, I guess I should do it.” Or “my closet is a mess, it’s time to get organized.” “I’ve never had a clean desk in my life, but I think that good people have clean desks, so this is the year I’m going to have one.”

People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail. Even if that behavior could be very valuable and helpful — like exercise — if you start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.

The kind of New Year’s resolution that works is when you start really slowing down and asking yourself what you want for yourself and your life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then asking: “How might I get there? What would create that as a consequence?” When you start from that point of view, then New Year’s resolutions can be incredibly effective. They begin to turn your attention to choice points in your everyday life where there really are opportunities to align your energy and attention in the direction that matters to you. I think most people start from the choice points, without wondering whether this is even the right thing to be choosing. People get to the behaviors too soon, in my opinion.

Any tips for how to find those big things and then narrow them down to specific resolutions?

A very practical way is to ask: At the end of 2014 — on January 1st, 2015, looking backwards — what are you seriously going to be grateful that you did? Is there a change you know that you’re going to be glad you made? What would that feel like? That can tap into something that feels really authentic.

I was just doing a radio interview at one of the NPR stations in New York, and I was chatting with the studio producer. I asked her if she had any New Year’s resolutions, and she’s like, “Oh yeah — to stay fit.” She sounded so not enthusiastic. Then after a few seconds of silence, she said, “I’m kind of thinking about finding a way to play the piano again.” She was lighting up a little more. “It used to be so important to me, and I really miss it. It’s like my soul wants to play the piano again, and it would be giving it back to my soul.” And I’m like, “That’s your resolution! What is this getting fit stuff?”

By the way, you can spend the first week [of the year] looking around. One year my resolution was to focus on being a better mentor, and to look for ways in every professional relationship to do that. You start looking around, and you see every conversation as an opportunity to choose that value and move toward that goal. Just spend a week saying, “If what matters is improving my health, if what matters is spending more time with my family, if what matters is reconnecting to creativity, what choices do I make every day that either could get me closer to that?”

So on those things you feel like you should be doing — the going to the gym or the quitting smoking — is there a way to build your willpower towards those things?

One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do things alone, and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit. If it’s exercising, you should be doing it with a family member, a friend, a co-worker. Or sign up for a series of classes after work. Because then, it’s like a bigger pool of possible willpower. If you’re exhausted after work, and you normally would say, “Screw it, I’m going home,” if there’s somebody who is going to meet you in your office, and say, “Hey, aren’t we going for a walk now?,” it doesn’t matter if you feel like it in that moment. There’s going to be a bigger pool of motivation that will support you through when you’re feeling most exhausted or least motivated.

Another thing I encourage people to do is — if there’s a behavior that they put off or don’t do because of anxiety or self-doubt or because it’s boring or uncomfortable — bribe yourself. If you hate exercise but truly, truly want the consequences of exercising, you should give yourself permission to do whatever you don’t want to let yourself do — like read trashy gossip magazines, or download a whole series of a TV show that you can plop on in front of you on the treadmill. As long as it doesn’t conflict with your goal, then you should go ahead and pair the thing you don’t want to do with a reward that you might otherwise not give yourself permission for. That can be very effective for beginning to prioritize and make time for things.

Also, give yourself permission to do small steps rather than think that there’s an ideal you need to meet. I wrote a review paper about two years ago showing that you can get pretty much the same health benefits from doing 5 to 15 minutes of exercise a day as from an hour. There are a lot of things like that, where we think, “I won’t get my novel done unless I can put aside a whole weekend to write.” Well, you could create a novel in a paragraph a day. So I encourage people to think: what’s the smallest step that they could take that is consistent with their goal? And not necessarily worry about whether they believe it’s sufficient.

That is actually very freeing.

New Year’s resolutions can be fun! If you think of them like a science experiment, you can always learn something from a resolution.  A lot of times, people aren’t willing to learn the lesson — and sometimes the lesson is that you think you want to change this, but you don’t really want to, and sometimes you don’t need to. That sometimes we look for the things we think we can control.

It’s funny how this happens sometimes even when we go after the things that really are core to our identity. I did this New Year’s resolution makeover once with this woman who had made the same resolution year after year to become a better cook, because she thought that’s what good moms and good wives did. She was a terrible cook, and she didn’t want to learn how to cook. That’s a mistake people make, is they think they’re just going to fundamentally change who they are with a resolution. “I’m going to become a morning person.” “I’m going to become a health nut.” “I’m going to become organized.” The best resolutions are ones that strengthen something you already are, but you may not have been fully investing in.

Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourselfDerek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself I wanted to ask about the idea of working with other people and outsourcing willpower. Have you ever seen Derek Sivers’ talk on TED.com? It’s called Keep your goals to yourself and it suggests that people are more likely to achieve goals if they keep them private.

There is some data that suggests you might feel like you have accomplished your goal if you can create a public identity as somebody who is pursuing that goal. And I have overwhelming feedback from my students in my Science of Willpower class that, if they actually can truly create the identity — that they really sense that “I am someone that trained for a marathon,” or “I am somebody who is committed to this” — that it actually makes it easier to make choices.

People are really interested in creating habits, and there’s so much excitement now about habit design. Habits are really, really hard to create because they require complete automaticity. You need to basically be making choices in the absence of any motivation and it takes a long time to get that in place. But when you have a value or commitment, that’s something different. It can be a conscious choice that when you’re in a restaurant — if your identity is as somebody who takes good care of your health — then that becomes a default way to make a good choice in that moment. Anything that you do to create that identity can actually make it easier to make choices that don’t feel like deprivation.

That’s one side of that research. Then there’s the whole other side of how social support and pride can support having more strength to move towards your goals. If you know that other people are paying attention to you, and you know that you’re going to be able to celebrate your success — you’re going to be able to post on Facebook that you actually did run that marathon, or even that you just made it to spin class, or whatever your version of that is — that anticipating that social sharing is very motivating for people. It’s more motivating than even success in itself. The self-savoring is not as motivating as knowing you’re going to be able to savor a success with somebody else. Then when you hit the wall — when you experience setbacks — social support encouragement is also so important for getting back on track.

I think that from top to bottom, making your resolution social allows you to access different supports, both internal and external. One more reason to go public — being a role model for someone. People will do things when they know that they’re inspiring change in others. It’s a natural progression that you see in many areas — whether it’s people who are recovering from addiction, or someone embarking on a physical challenge. This is what people naturally do.

Sandra Aamodt: Why dieting doesn't usually workSandra Aamodt: Why dieting doesn’t usually work And did you see Sandra Aamodt’s talk, Why dieting doesn’t usually work?

Yes! My talk was right after hers at TEDGlobal 2013. I remember basically agreeing with everything she said.

So her idea — that the brain seeks to keep weight stable over the long-run, and so dieting can often backfire because it makes a person so focused on food — fit with the research you’ve looked at on willpower?

There are two things she said that really stood out to me, and that I agree with very seriously. One was that she talked about the importance of being kind to yourself. She made the point that self-compassion is much more motivating than self-criticism. That’s very important. When I first started teaching the Science of Willpower, it was the thing nobody believed — researchers and psychologists and writers have done a great job of getting this message out, because I don’t get near the resistance I used to get to the idea. And still, it’s so amazing how many people believe that they are more motivated by self-criticism and shame than anything else. They aren’t really paying attention to the effect on their behavior and choices when they are that hard on themselves.

The other thing I remember Sandra saying was about the futility of trying to lose weight. And that’s absolutely right. Whenever I’m in any situation where people are asking me to talk about losing weight, I always try to change the language to creating health because you cannot control weight. It’s exactly what Sandra said — the brain and the body, they will fight you. Losing weight is almost always a consequence of making good choices — but it’s not always a consequence. You can make good choices and not lose the weight. The most important thing in Sandra’s talk was the idea that making the healthy choices is going to give you the consequence of health, even if you don’t lose the weight.

She showed a really interesting graph of four health factors — eating fruits and vegetables, exercise three times a week, not smoking, and drinking in moderation — and how, if people who are overweight do just one of those things, their risk of mortality lowers to the same level as a normal weight person.

I hope TED has more talks from obesity experts, because nobody knows this research about how weight doesn’t predict health. There’s so much important science out there that people are not paying attention to. That was my favorite part of her talk.

Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friendKelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend To bring it back to your TED Talk, How to make stress your friend, it sounds to me like what you’re saying about willpower is related — that it’s not so much whether you have willpower, but how you think about willpower.

I’ve been joking about that — that my work has always been to basically take an inner experience that people reject, force them to accept it and understand it, so that they can make peace with it. One of the reasons why I teach this Science of Willpower class and wrote the book is because I kept hearing from people that they felt like they had no willpower. They thought they were the only ones and that their willpower struggle was uniquely wrong with them — they were so lazy, they were so stupid, they were so hopeless. They didn’t understand the fact that we all experience willpower challenges. It’s part of what it means to be human.

It is similar to the way that I’m now trying to help people appreciate stress, and understand that this is human and that it can help us. It’s not always helpful, but there are aspects to it that, when we can make friends with it, we have a lot better chance of using it to good ends. I feel the same way about willpower. When you understand what a craving is and why it’s there, you can also appreciate the part of you who can make a different choice.

One of the big lessons from The Science of Willpower is if you really fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner experiences. People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the freedom is in your choices.

That’s very similar to stress. If you think you can’t feel stress and that stress is always going to be toxic, you’re magnifying any of the toxic aspects of stress. By fighting stress, you’re making stress worse.

So, make friends with the fact that you can move towards goals that are really important to you?

Yes. Willpower is about being able to hold opposites. So I can feel the emotion, I can feel the craving, and at the very same time, I just make my awareness big enough to hold my commitment to make a different choice. Your ability to hold those opposites is what gives people willpower over time.

Filed under: ■ GLOBAL, ■ Happiness, ■ Stress, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ TED, TOPICS▼

TED Talks Pinned: Speaking of HapPINness

Recipes for feeling happy? Browse through the talks & sites below and decide what suits you best.

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■ Stay in the moment

About Matt Killingsworth’s TEDTalk

When are humans most happy? To answer this question, researcher Matt Killingsworth built an app, Track Your Happiness, that let people report their feelings in real time. Among the results: We’re often happiest when we’re lost in the moment.

About Matt Killingsworth

Researcher Matt Killingsworth designs studies that gather data on happiness. While doing his Ph.D. research at Harvard, Killingsworth invented the Track Your Happiness app.

He’s now a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar examining such topics as the relationship between happiness and the content of everyday experiences, the percentage of everyday experiences that are intrinsically valuable, and the degree of congruence between the causes of momentary happiness and of one’s overall satisfaction with life.

Web Resources

Related TEDTalk: Dan Gilbert on “The Surprising Science of Happiness”

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■ Slowing Down

About Carl Honoré’s TEDTalk

Journalist Carl Honoré believes our society’s emphasis on speed erodes health, productivity and quality of life. But there’s a backlash brewing, as everyday people start putting the brakes on their modern lives.

About Carl Honoré

Carl Honoré is the author of In Praise of Slowness, which dissects our speed-obsessed society and celebrates those who have gotten to slow down. Honoré is an advocate of the Slow Movement, an effort by those all over the world to decelerate the pace of their lives, with everything from “slow cities” to “slow food.” He’s also the author of the book Under Pressure.

Web Resources

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■ Less = HappIer

About Graham Hill’s TEDTalk

Can having less stuff, in less room, lead to more happiness? Writer Graham Hill makes the case for taking up less space.

About Graham Hill

Graham Hill is the CEO of LifeEdited, which works with developers to market buildings that embody small space living. Hill is also the founder of TreeHugger.com, which aims to push sustainability into the mainstream with a design-forward style.

Web Resources

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■ Misfortunes, Stops on the Road to Happiness

About Dan Gilbert’s TEDTalk

We’re doomed to be miserable if we don’t get what we want — right? Not quite, says psychologist Dan Gilbert. He says our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.

About Dan Gilbert

Psychologist Dan Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he runs the Hedonic Psychology Laboratory. He’s the author of Stumbling on Happiness. In the book, Gilbert argues that our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong. In the same way that optical illusions fool our eyes, Gilbert says, our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy.

Web Resources

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Be Grateful

About David Steindl-Rast’s TEDTalk

We all want to be happy, says David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. And happiness, he suggests, is born from gratitude. An inspiring lesson in slowing down, looking where you’re going, and above all, being grateful.

About David Steindl-Rast

David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk who writes about gratefulness. Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing.

He was one of the first Roman Catholics to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and is the author of The Ground We Share, a text on Buddhist and Christian practice, written with Robert Aitken Roshi. His other books include GratefulnessThe Heart of Prayer and Deeper Than Words. His most recent book is 99 Blessings. He’s the co-founder of gratefulness.org.

■ ■ ■ Source

■ ■ ■ Links to be added

Filed under: ■ GLOBAL, ■ Happiness, ■ How to Live, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ TED, TOPICS▼

Big Voice / Little Voice

Recently I’ve come across an article on Toastmasters about finding your voice in situations in which you need to speak in front of an audience.

It includes some great tips that you might like to know about, so I invite you to read it below.

Once you manage to stand behind a lectern without fainting, then what? You need something to say, and you want it to be interesting to the audience. The age-old excuse people have for avoiding public speaking is, “I don’t have anything to say. My life is boring.” You don’t have to have a life-and-death experience or be an Olympic champion to have a story to share. You may not think so at the moment, but you do have a message to share. And as Toastmasters’ 2006 World Champion of Public Speaking Lance Miller shares in an article for the Toastmaster magazine, the more personal and passionate your story is, the better.

How to define yourself and your message
Look at who you are. What are your passions and interests, what do you struggle with? What challenges have you overcome? Here is a list of questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your philosophy? By what values do you live your life?
  • List the defining moments of your life. Any special lessons or experiences that profoundly affected you? For example: learning how to ride a bike, moving to a different city, taking on a new job, becoming a parent.
  • What subjects and issues are you certain about? The test of this is, How easily can you be convinced to change your mind? Have you discovered the best way to motivate a child to read? To make flowers grow? To create world peace? Then share your expertise with the world!
  • Find the extraordinary in the ordinary. You won’t inspire an audience if you live a negative life. Find the blessings in life and bring them to life for yourself and your audience!
  • What makes you laugh? Share your favorite sources of humor.
  • What makes you angry? Share how you would change the world for the better if you could.
  • What are you struggling with right now? Speak about what captures your attention at the moment. If you have “speaker’s block”, speak about your inability to come up with a speech topic. Don’t have enough time in the day for all your work? Give a speech on that topic! It will help you give a passionate speech and perhaps solve a problem.

So, what do you have to say? Challenge yourself and discover your voice!

To take it a little further, think about discovering the power of your voice, which I will call  the “Big voice,” while keeping in mind the concept of the “little voice,” the inner voice each of us hears inside, accompanying our actions or reactions. An interesting site about mastering the “little voice” belongs to Blaire Singer. Here is what he writes about it:

Everyone has a “Little Voice” that beats them up. Have you ever had a “Little Voice” in your head tell you that you aren’t:

  • Good enough
  • Smart enough
  • Successful enough

…enough of something to successfully to do whatever it is you really want to do?

You’re not alone.

This “Little Voice” has the ability to stop you dead in your tracks, preventing you from believing that you have what it takes to achieve your goals and dreams.

But, the GREAT NEWS is – You can learn to:

  • Recognize this “Little Voice”
  • Challenge it
  • And manage it out of your way

..so you can achieve goals and dreams that would otherwise seem out of reach!

You can even take a free diagnostic test of your power over your “little voice” on the same site, to find out more about your ability to handle objections, to identify emotions, and overcome “I can’t do it,” among others.

Read, learn and enjoy!

Filed under: 5►On-line Assignments, 7► DIY, ■ Brain Matters, ■ Happiness, ■ Self Development Links, ■ Site Scout, ■ Voice Matters, ►11.ON LINE▼, ►META PHORS▼

Introducing Sarah Kay

Hit play on this TED video to witness a spoken word performance delivered by a talented and enthusiastic spoken word poet.

Should it intrigue you into wanting to know more about her work and interests, I recommend visiting her site, Kay, Sarah (sera).

I found her site refreshing, the perfect image of Action, a place where no words are wasted. Her performance, on the other hand, brings forth an emotional flux of ideas in simple yet powerful words. That is why action and words are, in Sarah’s case, a perfect match. Remarkable. A worthy stop for any English learner.

Enjoy the video and discover your own response to what you hear and see, a response in action and words. It doesn’t have to be spoken out loud or commented on. It suffices if it  speak for itself, whatever the language.

Filed under: ■ Conference Speakers, ■ Happiness, ■ Leadership, ■ Spoken Word Poetry, ■ Talks & Conferences, ►META PHORS▼

“Where are you?”

According to a study mentioned by Eric Weiner in his TED talk held in Bucharest last year, this is the question that comes up, in various forms, in 80% of all phone conversations.

Here are some more points Eric Weiner makes in his talk that you can watch below.

The quality of a society is more important

than your place in it.

(from The World Database of Happiness)

There are more words to describe unhappy states of mind than happy ones,” as a result of which new words are necessary, like the one he coins in order to describe the Swiss: conjoyment (contentment + enjoyment).

Better to fail for the right reasons than to succeed for the wrong ones.

(heard from an Icelandic)

Should more countries use the GNH (the gross national happiness policy in use in Bhutan) to supplement the GDP (gross domestic product)?

Happiness is 100% relational.

(heard from a Bhutanese)

The genuine smile of the Thai is in their eyes.

Beware of the fact that “You think too much“; it may come against your happiness.

What would you conclude after reading all of the above?

To answer the question in the title, I am now in Poland, in the beautiful city of Krakow. Do I currently live in a society I am pleased with? Is it any different than the society I was raised in? Are there happier places for me to be in? Not entirely – and I am thinking again of the Polandia series of interviews that show Poland through the eyes of foreigners of different ages, races, and religions; not really, with the note that living in a foreign country allows me to choose freely my version of reality within its borders, which I like; and probably.

I believe  that happiness happens. Most often unconsciously. It fills us with that beautiful, inexplicable joy that comes out from within to meet the happiness that lies outside ourselves (in people’s eyes, in smiles and first times), and in that meeting the feeling, the memory and the future of happiness that stay with us are born.

Do I have the words to describe happiness or the lack of it? Of course! Do they come easy? They rarely do. That’s why we cherish finding the voice of happiness. That’s why people sing, invent songs, write prose and poetry, or find themselves in other people’s words – a few among so many ways of being happy.

Eric Weiner’s advice: crush envy, do NOT win the lottery, get connected, lower your expectations, and, best of all, in my opinion,

approach happiness sideways.

More about Eric Weiner:

Eric Weiner is a long-time correspondent for the National Public Radio (NPR) and author of the book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World”.
For as long as he can remember Eric Weiner wanted to be a foreign correspondent. So he could hardly believe his good fortune when, one day in 1993, NPR dispatched him to India as the network’s first full-time correspondent in that country. Weiner spent two of the best years of his life based in New Delhi, covering everything from an outbreak of bubonic plague to India’s economic reforms, before moving on to other postings in Jerusalem and Tokyo.

Over the past decade, he’s reported from more than 30 countries, most of them profoundly unhappy. He traveled to Iraq several times during the reign of Saddam Hussein and he was in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taliban regime fell.

He’s also served as a correspondent for NPR in New York, Miami and Washington. D.C. Weiner is a former reporter for The New York Times and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He was part of a team of NPR reporters that won a 1994 Peabody award for a series of investigative reports about the U.S. tobacco industry.

His commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Slate and The New Republic, among other publications. After travelling the world, he has settled, quasi-happily, in the Washington area, where he divides his time between his living room and his kitchen.

His book, The Geography of Bliss, is a travelogue of ideas in search of answers to some pressing questions: What are the essential ingredients for the good life? Why are some places happier than others? How are we shaped by our surroundings? Why can’t airlines serve a decent meal?

At TEDxBucharest 2010 Eric Weiner talks about what really makes us happy and where exactly we should think about moving to.

Filed under: ■ Conference Speakers, ■ Geo. of Bliss, ■ Happiness, ■ Nationalities and Stereotypes, ■ Polandia, ■ Races, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ The World, ■ Travel

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