How Do You Spell Success?

by Kevin Kreiger ’84

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go to the making of genius.
Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.
— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Let’s be honest, folks. It’s hard to imagine most people actively choosing professional passion if it involves living on the street.

I’m fortunate to never have known what I’d call existential poverty — no roof over my head, no food from day to day — the nightmare where our very lives come into jeopardy. But when I was younger I endured years where I was deeply in debt and couldn’t keep up. Had it not been for a very understanding landlord, things might have gotten ugly.

One person suffered even more acutely than I did: my Mom. She had to witness her child in a horrible phase, and could offer no material aid thanks to financial problems of her own. All she could do was watch and offer moral support. To this day, I doubt that I can ever really understand the depths of her helplessness and despair.

So as a long-term College and Career Counselor, I very much get why parents can become so intense when it comes to their kids’ futures. We’re driven by two powerful, and sometimes conflictual instincts:

  1. To ensure that our offspring are equipped to fend for themselves
  2. To protect them from suffering

And it’s here, perhaps — in the way we each define suffering — that some of the most pronounced differences in notions of success emerge.

Which is to say: We need our kids to succeed. And we tend to greet perceived threats to that with all the ferocity we can muster. The “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua gave a face to in 2011 is nothing more than a culture-specific version of this primordial impulse. Her daughters were going to succeed no matter the cost — up to and including the sacrifice of a harmonious relationship with them. There was simply no other option.

While I may not agree with Chua’s approach, I do understand her intent. It’s all about goals. And the question this raises lives at the center of my work:

How do we define, respect, and implement each individual’s true goals?

As I write this, I keep thinking of classic stories that have shaped our world — cautionary tales from Macbeth to The Great Gatsby to Citizen Kane. Each protagonist ascends to great heights, racks up power and wealth. And yet each is miserable, forsaken, lost.

Why do we hear this particular tragedy over and over again? Most cultures encourage us to believe that money will solve all our problems…. or at least provide enough insulation to allow us to comfortably ignore them. And while again, I’d never suggest we opt for starvation over physical comfort, too many recent studies are refuting the long-held causal relationship between wealth and happiness.[1]

Take it another step. We have only to refer to pervasive reality TV scenarios like Real Housewives of [Wherever], and the incomprehensible discontent of all those wealthy, beautiful women who actually have what the vast majority of the population is so desperate to obtain. Or try googling “lottery tragedies” to see the startling percentage of major winners whose lives have subsequently imploded. It’ll blow your mind.

How is all this possible? Sort through it carefully and you end up with a simple distinction….

Economic Suffering
Existential Suffering

…. which of course is anything but simple. Is our overriding concern mere security? or is there something deeper at play? And while yes, I’m creating an artificially exaggerated disparity, the emphasis we choose here says a great deal about our fundamental attitudes toward success.

Now I’m not suggesting you run to the extreme and go join a commune. What I’m seeking is to challenge the way so many people think about this critical question, in the hopes of shedding some light on the less obvious variables in the equation. My core assertion:

It’s not so much what each of us hopes to become.
It’s who, and the ways that all-important personal dimension shapes our choices.

In introductory meetings, I always ask clients about their true aspirations — those early-life passions we so frequently neglect. My target, in essence:

Where’s the love? What makes you come alive?

The initial responses often circle predictably safe, conventional areas like law, business, and medicine. And just as often, I know I’m not hearing the whole story.

Not shockingly, we learn a lot in that session. This is the client’s truth, as opposed to some
preprogrammed familial/societal vision, and thus has the possibility to emerge with a whole new level of conviction. And as we’ve discussed, conviction is one of the great secret weapons of the most successful individuals.

This is the genesis of any strong sense of mission: that focused declaration of, in essence, why you’re here. Make no mistake — it’s not an easy thing to generate. But if you’re sincerely after anything more than a simple paycheck in your life, it is so worth the effort.

[1] Overview: Arthur Brooks, “A Formula for Happiness


Let me ask you to travel back about 10 years with me.

Alex was a particularly impressive scholar-athlete. She had strength across the boards, from humanities to sciences to math, and truly enjoyed them all. She was an accomplished artist. And she was also, paradoxically, quite shy. In our first meeting, when I asked about professional aspirations, her mother immediately stepped in and announced: Chemical Engineer. While there was no displeasure on Alex’s face, my alarms quietly went off.

As we moved through our initial one-on-one sessions, playing with possible colleges and avenues for essays, she began to drop her guards. At an appropriate moment, I slipped on my Fairy Godfather hat and popped the question:

Poof. I’ll sign over Paris Hilton’s bank account to you. The only condition: you can’t take the money, throw on a bikini, and move to Maui. You have to choose a career. But money is no longer a factor in that choice. Do you still take the same path?

She hesitated, a bit uncomfortable. Then, almost in a whisper, she said it:

I want to be a Dreamworks animator.

Ahh. There was the mission statement, and there was the love: what a young woman dreamed about late at night once all her obligations were handled. By 10th grade, Alex confided, she’d capitulated to the academic juggernaut, and stowed her beloved pens, paints, and computer drawing programs.

The look in her eyes nearly killed me. She was too young to be crammed into such a cage. And yet, she was my student, not my daughter. The realpolitik of the job said war with parents was never an option.

Still — I couldn’t bring myself to sit idly by. The dynamic screamed for some out-of-the-box thinking.

Eventually, we discovered two solutions which would support her admissions goals, respect the confines of my mandate, and at least wedge the window to her creative side open a bit:

1. Since as a general rule I always counsel against essay topics that largely rehash what’s already central on a student’s school record, art suddenly became a strategically valid angle. To make the most of this, of course, it would behoove Alex to quietly re-engage that part of herself.

2. While Alex had no objection to Chemical Engineering, neither did she display any major enthusiasm. It felt counterproductive to lock her into so cut-and-dry an arena. A week of research yielded gold: several prestigious schools had recently unveiled programs in Digital Modeling for Nanotechnology. The innovative, high-visibility aspects pleased Mom, and we couldn’t have asked for a happier marriage of engineering and art. It was a perfect win-win, and would officially allow her to continue developing her more aesthetic passions.

At the core here, the issue came down to a distressingly common phenomenon:

Conflicting definitions of success

For Alex’s loving but highly pragmatic mother, security was paramount. All she could see was the rocksolid, well-renumerated career whose appeal no one can fully deny — that drive to make sure her child would be equipped to survive a harsh and unforgiving world. The potential for economic suffering trumped luxuries like the heart’s desire at every turn. But that attitude was grounded in the kind of fear we discussed last time: a culturally pervasive, semi-conscious litany of what-ifs and nightmare scenarios that left no space for the soul of a gifted young woman to express itself. The question, for me, was not where
Alex ended up working; it was allowing free rein to all her potential so she could chart her own destiny as truthfully as possible.

It’s my strong contention that we ignore those deeper voices in ourselves at our grave peril. We run a significant risk of repression and frustration that will, more often than not, generate very real trouble later. Among some of my peers who were pressed too intently into lives they didn’t truly want — including some of the most visibly “successful” ones — I’ve observed unsettling patterns of existential disharmony: depression… marriages crumbling… even substance abuse…. in short, all the hallmarks of serious midlife
crises. And I’d argue that much of this pain could have been avoided had the individuals been given a greater voice in the shaping of their lives early on.

I will also contend that, in our relentless pursuit of academic perfection and security, we risk disempowering young people’s higher potential no matter their ultimate professional destination. Even if Alex had ended up a straightforward Chemical Engineer, isn’t it obvious how the ongoing cultivation of her creativity would only make her more effective? It’s safe to venture an assertion here: the great scientists are great not because of their analytical muscle and empiricism, but because of their capacity to reframe existing knowledge and generate new ways of seeing things.

To whit, pop quiz: who spoke the following sentence?

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Surely some great artist. Michelangelo? Beethoven? Baudelaire?

Try again. It was an obscure 20th century physicist by the name of…. yup…. Albert Einstein.

Please allow me, thus, to propose a gentle personal inquiry:

  1. Is the definition of success you hold as fully-fleshed as it could be?
  2. Are there unexamined assumptions about financial security, prestige, and social acceptability that might be guiding your decision-making process?
  3. Are you doing everything you can to fully empower yourself in the pursuit of your true potential?

I will obviously never suggest something cavalier like wiping out the retirement fund so your child can be a starving artist in Budapest. But it’s a fair bet that, for many of us, there are neglected pathways that may produce rich possibilities we haven’t examined. I’d also argue that we have very little to lose in undertaking some healthy exploration of those untapped resources.

A baseline concept to which I keep returning:


Mob psychology, American Idol, and professional wrestling are pretty good clues. By extension, however, the converse holds equally true: if you’re less than enthusiastic about your pursuits, you can’t reasonably expect anyone else to get excited about them either. This applies nowhere more than with the people behind the desk in Admissions and in Human Resources, who spend their days slogging through an onslaught of candidates. Bore them, and you’ll be getting a whole lot more rejection letters than you bargained for.

I know this may sound radical, especially to those who subscribe to the prestige principle, but the underlying query here is pretty straightforward, folks:

How can you hope to create a vivid, compelling college or job application —
or for that matter a vivid, compelling LIFE —
without engaging your heart?

So how do we spell SUCCESS? As in the kind that might, ironically enough, get those all-powerful denizens of H.R. to consider your candidature seriously? Consider trying what Mozart said up top:


Kevin_KreigerMore about Kevin: Kevin Kreiger ’84 has served as an independent admissions and career counselor for 18 years. He is an ardent believer in a counseling process that cultivates the whole human being, and helps foster empowered, self-aware individuals. It’s also his privilege to do extensive volunteer counseling and educational work with scholastically-challenged inner-city communities, mainly with author Dave Eggers’ 826 organization (

His first collection of poems, KAIROS, is appearing July 2016 from Tebot Bach Press. His plays have been read or produced in venues including the French National Theatre/Dijon, U.C. San Diego/La Jolla Playhouse, the Theatre at Boston Court, and the Fountain Theatre.

You can find more about him at


Written by Michele Zenkel ’81

Over Memorial Day weekend, I attended my 35th college reunion. I had attended previous reunions but had missed the last one, so I had not been back to my alma mater in 10 years and hadn’t seen most of my classmates since then. This lapse left me feeling more than a little apprehensive.

I had helped plan the reunion, which forced me to reconnect with a number of classmates, but it had still been ages since I’d seen them in person. I was looking forward to seeing old friends and traversing the picture-postcard campus, much of which had been enhanced since my last visit. I knew that 120 of our approximately 400 classmates were planning to attend. Beyond that, I had few expectations.

I had hoped to reconnect with several of my cohorts; however, I had not anticipated connecting deeply with several classmates I had barely known in college. Likewise, I could not have imagined that so many people would be relaxed, friendly and readily approachable, or that this reunion would feel like a loving, extended family coming together after a long hiatus. Finally, I never would have predicted that we would turn back time and revel like the freshmen we once were.

Yet, I experienced all of this, and more, in one short weekend.

I arrived early Friday evening in time for cocktails. My first Tito’s & Tonic with a fresh burst of lime set the tone for the weekend. Armed with cocktail, I plunged into the group, gravitating towards familiar faces. Gradually, I ventured out of my comfort zone. I soon found myself connecting for the first time with classmates whom I had not known well in college. Within the first hour, I began to feel completely at home.

Throughout that night and over the next day and a half, I engaged in many deep and meaningful conversations. I found my classmates honest, open and surprisingly humble. There was no sense of competitiveness or one-upsmanship, just forthright, candid communication– each of us listening intently to one another, trying to understand who we have become and what’s most important to us. I recall discussing with an old friend how we were raised to believe that our lives would follow a straight and narrow path: graduate high school, attend college (and maybe graduate school after that), get a job, make a certain amount of money, have a family, retire, etc. But then reality intervenes and life throws us curve balls, leading us on a path that more closely resembles a series of zig-zags than a straight line. We both acknowledged that these zig-zags and detours make us stronger and better, molding us into the people we are meant to be.

Judgment was mostly absent from the weekend. We were no longer “pigeon-holed” into particular categories based on our college social groups, fraternity affiliations or campus activities. My classmates seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me, as I am today. Likewise, I found myself fascinated and awed by the unique and sometimes incredible things my classmates have done and are doing, many of their lives so different from my own. I also discovered unexpected common ground with various classmates: connections to California and Colorado–two places where I spend a lot of time–as well as shared interests with fellow sports fanatics (my McMurphy’s buddies with whom I watched the NBA playoffs, you know who you are!) and still other ties to classmates whose children and mine are on similar journeys. I found these new connections surprising and affirming.

One of my personal highlights was participating in a panel discussion entitled “What’s Next?” during which classmates explored our evolving priorities and discussed what’s most important to us at this stage of our lives. I was inspired by what many of my co-panelists shared– the risks they’ve taken and sacrifices they’ve made to try new things and make the necessary changes to realize greater personal fulfillment.

And, as unfathomable as it may seem, for a brief period, we were actually transported back in time. One of our classmates hosted a college version of Jeopardy and grouped us into teams according to our freshman dorms. Topics included fraternities, alcohol, classes, couples, and hilarious college shenanigans. This brought back so many memories and reminded us that, despite how our lives have diverged over 35 years, we all began in the same place, as naïve 18-year-olds and that we will forever share the special and inexplicable bond of having attended the small college upon the hill.

So, here I am, some two weeks later. Back to my life, my classmates back to their own lives. But, unlike 35 years ago when landline phones and handwritten letters were our only means of communications, today’s technology makes it easy and fun to stay in touch with classmates across the country and the world. Since we parted ways post-reunion, many of us have remained in touch, sharing photos, thoughts and memories. Thank you to my college family. I have a renewed respect and admiration for each of you and can’t wait to see “what’s next” for everyone. I am already looking forward to our 40th!


James Hall Jeopardy Team!


My College Family: The Mighty Class of ’81


More about Michele: Michele Crames Zenkel ’81 is a marketing consultant and blogger.  She started her blog, “The Nest Re-Imagined,” two years ago when her youngest left for college. Michele loves animals and volunteers with two non-profit canine organizations. She is married, has two children and resides in Armonk, New York.

Debunking Discipline, And Also, How To Get Stuff Done Without It

Written by Brooke Bishop ’10

todonotI started reading a book about creativity the other day. The core message was something like, “You want to do something creative in your free time? Well, you’re going to need some self-discipline. You’ll need rituals, rules, regulations, rewards, and punishments.”

I see this discipline directive everywhere, though it’s always felt counter-intuitive to me.

Perhaps the impulse to discipline oneself is an internalization of the dynamic with which one was reared by parents or instructed by teachers. But I have heard even the most progressive folks – those who would be the first to champion child-led parenting or Montessori schooling – say that self-discipline is the only way to find creative fulfillment outside of all the obligations and expectations required of adult life.

Lots of good can come from structure: habits are formed, things are produced, and projects are finished. However, I’ve found that rules and regulations also put me in a constant low-level struggle with resistance and resentment. I live in fear of the broken promises and self-flagellation which are waiting for me around every corner.

Perhaps a prescription of self-discipline arises from the oft-touted idea that our most cherished moments of ease, flow, and inspiration are earned by first putting in hours of white-knuckled hard work. More and more, though, psychologists, self-help writers, and startup CEO’s are discovering that this notion is a post hoc fallacy, for it seems our most creative moments happen not because of strife, but in spite of it. Our bursts of creativity are rather like flowers forcing their way through cracks in concrete. What would it look like if – instead of paving our gardens with concrete – we fertilized the soil instead?

I put the whole un-structured, no-discipline, no-fertilization thing to the test, and I found myself in awe of the under-achieving, potential-squandering power of my own complacency and distractibility. After two years of “following my heart”, I woke up one day and hadn’t really done anything of substance.

I’ve tried strict structure, and I’ve tried no structure at all. Neither has had my desired result, which is something like, “joyfully pursuing creative fulfillment with something tangible to show for it.” Self-discipline: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

I’ve recently discovered a third way. It has freed me from pressure and punishment, allowed me a greater sense of enjoyment and presence, and produced results.This third way is simple; it involves mindfully acting from a place of awareness of what distracts and what inspires. Here’s how it’s done:

Step One: Identify your symptoms of inspiration. Symptoms of inspiration are pretty easy to spot, but difficult to put into words. For me, feeling of flow, confidence, and compassion come to mind.

Step Two: Identify your symptoms of fear. It is important to note here that all manifestations of distraction are symptoms of fear, and also that not all fear is verbal in our minds; most of our fear acts on us in invisible, instantaneous, insidious ways. Some of my symptoms of fear are monkey mind, humorlessness, a sense that there’s not enough time to get everything done, and distractibility.

Step Three: Identify some easy, fun actions that move you from fear to inspiration. I’ve found this is best sorted out through trial and error. Some of my inspiring actions are taking a brisk walk, taking a shower, and spending time with nature. If these things feel like treats, it’s because they are! The trick is not to use them as a means to an end, but simply to do them because they’re inherently enjoyable and rewarding. But what to do when you can’t identify what you actually want to do as opposed to what you’re driven to do because of fear? In other words, how can you tell the difference between something that’s inspiring and something that’s distracting? It comes down to trust – I’ve found it helpful to be honest with yourself, because honestly, when you know you know.

Step Four: Do whatever you want to do. I’ve found that – coupled with awareness amassed in Steps One and Two, this freedom tends to guide me in the direction of doing what inspires me rather than further indulging my fear. As I said, distractibility is always a symptom of fear – so when I suddenly notice I’m compulsively checking facebook, craving a pound of chocolate, or itching to binge-watch Say Yes to the Dress, I tend to snap out of it nowadays and choose to take a walk or read a book instead.

Step Five: Repeat Steps One through Four when necessary. In order to stay fresh, one must regularly re-evaluate. Confronted with a full hamper of dirty clothes, I used to say to myself, “But dammit, I already did the laundry!” One day I said this out loud to my partner, and he laughed in my face. We are still laughing about it to this day. Of course it’s obvious to me now that I didn’t “already” do the laundry. Rather, I have to do the laundry “again”, and will continue to have to do the laundry again and again as long as I value having clean clothes to wear.

The last thing I’ll say about this is that I’ve found it helps to accept that you won’t always get it right, nor do you always want to (sometimes we just want to be very very naughty, don’t we?), and that that’s okay, and that being a coward from time to time won’t kill you. Again, the goal here is not to set rules, but to trigger awareness so that free will can be fully felt and exercised. The goal here is freedom. Because from freedom springs creativity, and a free, creative life is indeed a life worth living.

Try it out – send me an email at – let me know what you think.

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 10.18.58 PMMore about Brooke: Brooke (McVety) Bishop ’10 is a writer, director, and story consultant. She is the Founding Artistic Director of the The City Shakespeare Company, and a Founding Author of the critically acclaimed interview-based storytelling project How Love Lasts. This post also appeared on her blog brooke bishop where she writes about living life with more joy and less anxiety. She just left Los Angeles with her partner to go build a life in Oregon, where the grass is literally greener.

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education

by Eirene Wang ’13

I spent my last semester at Amherst as an insomniac.

No matter how hard I labored in the day, hitting the gym and the books, chatting with friends and professors, I always found myself painfully restive at night. The first hour would slip by, then the next. Tossing and turning, I wondered whether I would ever land any of the jobs or fellowships I dreamed about or if my expensive education had been worth it. This anxiety was so paralyzing I spent my final months prowling campus like a zombie, my ears ringing with the words of naysayers past. Had it been a mistake to major in humanities? Might I have missed the right turn into finance years ago?

Three years later, I still struggle to sleep. There are other reasons now, more mundane: a bed that is too soft or a radiator about to burst. I remain concerned about what the future holds, yet the overwhelming unease of that last year has largely lifted.

I have made peace with what my liberal arts education was not. It was not particularly helpful in job searching post Fulbright. A degree in Black Studies is incomprehensible to people who do not understand or care about race. People in finance will probably make more money than me. Knowing to love or talk about books does not equate to a higher paycheck.

(I admit that I would more acutely feel the financial burdens of my education had my parents and the College not been so generous in their aid. I am cognizant that it is a privilege not to be bound by economics, and am grateful for this freedom, which allows me to consider – perhaps even romanticize – the more immaterial ways my education pushes me to grow, as follow.)

Here’s what the liberal arts were for me: the formation of a community. The finding of my own voice.

I hadn’t realized, until I had raced out of Amherst, that it had given me a place in which to anchor myself. This was what I learned in Far Eastern Russia, when the tedium of solitude made me yearn for Val meals with friends, study dates in Frost Library, and deep conversations with friends and not-quite friends.

I miss knowing everyone, a feeling that was as delightful as it was discomfiting. I miss knowing so many multi-talented, endlessly curious people. People who danced as well as they spoke Swahili, who were fluent in economics and poetry. Outside of college, they are a rare find. Sometimes, it almost seems that everyone in the post-college world is resigned to doing only one thing decently well. Time and energy for other pursuits are but flights of fancy.

This is why I continue nurturing my relationships, despite the distance. I make time for Skype, phone calls, coffee catchups, or simply scanning Facebook. Whenever I see someone post a status that is provoking or inspiring, or read about what someone else is achieving, I feel tinges of pride. I forget the impostor syndrome that itched at me, the frantic competition in finding paid work our final year. Instead, I think – we’re making it. It’s not easy, and the current is not always favorable, but we’re rowing, and the sun is shining, if only briefly.

(Boat analogies inexplicably get to me, even though crew was my least pleasant memory.)

Beyond these personal connections, it’s the intangible that keeps me company these days. I’m referring to all the texts and books I imbibed in college, the authors whose voices populate my thoughts. Fanon. Morrison. Tolstoy. College may have ended, but I’ve come to realize that I should not—must not—stop reading. Reflecting on my childhood, I know now that reading is a lifelong venture, and writing not far from it.

My Amherst years forced me to regard writing as an exercise in the critical and crisp. I long for the days my classmates and I used to exchange blog posts or papers, and I got to catch a glimpse of their brilliance. I spend my days now rummaging for these glimmers in novels, nonfiction, newspaper articles, sometimes article comments. It is the only way to reshape and refine my own thoughts and by consequence, my writing.

The reading in my head accompany me on my strolls through the streets of New York. I pass the Fox building on 163rd Street, where Malcolm X was shot, and whisper a prayer. I take the B to Brighton Beach, overlooking rows of monotonous Cyrillic-marked buildings, and I return to Odessa during the pogroms in The Story of My Pigeon, when Isaac Babel’s young protagonist sees his beloved pigeon crushed in front of his eyes, much like the dreams of thousands of Jews during the anti-Semitic riots in the early 20th century. There is so much pain in these stories and also in these façades, which, silently, impart none of their own.

Still, there is life in commemoration. Reading has taught me that. Life is short, but forgetting is long. And because remembrance is so essential to crafting the future, I find myself returning to my childhood.

I am four years old when my grandparents arrive. It is night, I have never met them before, but I am thrilled they are here. When my sister is born, my grandfather spends hours feeding and lulling her to sleep. My grandmother busies me with Chinese writing exercises. I doze off to the warrior stories my grandfather tells of China, a place that is far but seems on the tip of my parents’ tongue.

At Amherst, I finally realize what it means to have privilege. It is a sort of good fortune mixed with the idea that you could do and be whatever you wanted. My eyes open to a different world. I am a “minority,” but not in the way you think. I had grandparents who gave up their free time to help my parents, an act of devotion so deep that few of my friends could claim it. My mother bought me all the books I could have ever wanted. Because of my migrant history, I speak multiple languages. I realize that I have power in these experiences, a certain privilege.

I had known this implicitly, but hearing and reading others, I start to feel it, deeply. It wrecks my sleep and chokes my days, but I know it’s useful. I apply it to my work in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Russia, and now New York.

It is a privilege, above all, to help others. I think this constantly as I speak to survivors of domestic violence, poverty, war, and forced migration. I think this when I have the time after work to read, write, draw and dream the future.

It feels a bit ironic that Amherst, a place of such privilege, could have helped me grasp mine. Maybe the liberal arts did not teach me so much as push me to be more honest. But in the same way that it made me consider my flaws, it also taught me that it is okay to be wrong: learning is more than a course, it is a lifetime of assignments, self-imposed and otherwise. While self-discovery is financially uncompensated, it is a propeller of movement and even growth.

While I do not know how I will feel about my liberal arts education down the road, I know for now that it has been a tremendous blessing. Time will tell what new pickings I may find from my brief stop in college – and what new insights may have flourished.

1890595_10202118626346995_713074369_oMore about Eirene: Eirene Wang ’13 is currently a program coordinator for an asylum project in New York City. She is an incoming student to Columbia University’s Masters in international Affairs Program. This is a post from her blog Eirene’s Life and Times, where she writes reflections about travel, language (she speaks French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese), books, and life.

The Benefits of a Nature Walk for Children

Written by Kriss MacDonald ’84

Oh, aren’t our children today lucky to have so many activities and access to modern technology? But where is the time in their everyday lives to connect with the multitude of delights offered by nature? Or just enjoy natural play in an outdoors with no boundaries or rules? Why is it so important for children’s well-being that they spend time outdoors in a natural environment?

Sometimes I break the normal routine during the school week to make sure my children get a dose of nature.

Nature benefits children woods and flowersThis is what happens when my children have an idyllic nature walk from school to home:

The afternoon was free of any after-school clubs, karate, tennis, ballet or riding lessons or such like. I left the car at home and made my way through the woods and up a steep hill. At the school gates I greeted my twins with their walking shoes.

They looked at me in awe when I told them to hold my hands and follow me down the lane. We were going to make the journey home on foot from their English village school. Only one road did we have to cross.

“Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature – in positive ways.” Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

A nature walk like this was not just slotting in leisure time within their busy schedule but a means for me as a parent to help them to be healthier, more creative and happier.

It can also make them perform better at school.

So many studies and reports, campaigns and back-to-nature movements emphasize that children need nature and time outdoors whether for their emotional well-being, improving their learning abilities, increasing their attentiveness, reducing stress and anxiety, or merely to appreciate the wonders of the natural environment. (The list of benefits goes on – see below for resources.)

The author and journalist Richard Louv describes children left indoors as suffering ‘nature deficit disorder.’

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” Margaret Atwood

Nature benefits children hill running

We were heading home as the crow flies. We hadn’t even reached the nature trail and my kids were already clambering up and down the sides of the dirt track.

Then we were at the top of a hill. I paused to gaze upon the glory of the English landscape. They ran with complete abandon down its steep grassy slope. I felt the warmth of the sun on this spring day. They felt the air rush freely against their cheeks.

“As a child I was happiest playing outdoors. When I got back home from school, I’d throw down my books and go out to play. My children don’t do that.” David Bond, Project Wild Thing

What happened? We were outdoors as children. Our children are not.

In the late 1960s upwards of 50% of American children walked to and from school each day (The Atlantic ‘Why kids don’t walk to school anymore’). Now it’s nearer to 10 percent. More than 70% of today’s UK parents walked to school as children. Less than half of their children walk to school today (Living Streets Org). Just a generation ago 50% of children in the UK played in wild places (National Trust). Now? Less than 10%. In the last few decades US children’s amount of time outdoors has dropped by half (National Wildlife Federation).

“To see a world in a grain of sand, 
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, 
An eternity in an hour.” William Blake

Nature benefits children wood path

Soon we were on a path meandering through woods and brambles. Wild flowers smiled at my children. At the foot of a stile or under the shade of a tree these tiny natural masterpieces grew.

No signs or officials or busybodies were around ordering my children not to pick or trample flowers or break a twig or stray from the path or forbidding them to climb a park tree. But they didn’t have to be told. Without a prompt my daughter reassured me she wouldn’t step on any of the bluebells in the woods. They didn’t want to harm the wildlife around us. They just wanted to share their outdoors home.

“The ’50 Things To Do Before You’re 11¾’ initiative is in response to a report commissioned by the National Trust which highlighted research that fewer than 1 in ten children regularly play in wild places compared to almost half a generation ago, a third have never climbed a tree and 1 in ten can’t ride a bike.” The National Trust

The National Trust was founded in 1895 with a mission to ‘promote the preservation of places of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit’ of the British nation. It is now Britain’s largest private landowner. As a result of studies over the lack of nature in children’s lives, its call for action was to launch the nationwide campaign “50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾.”

Nature benefits children tree climbingNature is made for childhood adventures. A small clearing with bluebells and a fallen trunk beckoned them. My son swung from a branch. My daughter speculated out loud if this could be a new special outdoors place? They also have a den which they built in the woods. The naturalist E. O. Wilson said that it is a “fundamental trait of human nature” for children to want a hideaway. They are magical places where kids are not only inspired by nature but allow them to dream and make up their own worlds.

When we walked along the edge of a field, I admired the spring blossoms. My children wanted to run, climb a tree, find a stick, sit in the grass, explore. They made up games and had pure unstructured playtime. Our walk home from school should have taken less than 30 minutes but we spent over an hour as every path led to a new discovery, a new diversion, and a new natural play area.

“Just living is not enough, one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” Hans Christian Andersen

Geese and ducks drifted past as we followed a trail around a small lake. My son sat down on a log and wound grass around a twig. I thought of Huckleberry Finn. Our senses awakened by the scent and sight of wild flowers, blossoming trees and reflections in the water.

Nature benefits children quiet momentForget-me-nots by the edge of the water made me hope that walks like this to and from school will one day become cherished childhood memories of being outdoors. Walks like this will nourish an active relationship with nature while they continue with their endless hours of screen time. Walks like this experiencing the outdoors will help them be calmer, smarter and happier as they learn to master virtual worlds.

Walks like this will teach them to become caretakers of our wild world and planet.

“We really want kids to enjoy being in the outdoors and to care about nature, so it becomes part of their life as they grow up. The memories made as a child stay with you forever, and if outdoor places are part of these memories then hopefully children will grow up wanting to protect these special places for years to come.” Helen Meech, Assistant Director, Outdoors and Nature Engagement at The National Trust

Nature benefits children lake reflection

Our nature walk from school reminded me of bygone eras when children embraced the outdoors. But I don’t just want it to be a past memory. I want it to be part of their present and their future. And, yes, we are lucky as the trails and landscape on our homeward journey are rather idyllic for a nature walk. But we also regularly visit forests and parks elsewhere in the countryside as I want their electronic lives to be balanced with nature.

“As children grow older, their ‘electronic addictions’ increase. Britain’s 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade.” Study quoted in the 2012 National Trust Natural Childhood report.

The natural environment can have profound effects on children’s development. But sometimes for me the benefits are the simple things such as watching my twins’ happiness grow on a walk in the great outdoors.

Do you have special memories of playing outdoors as a child or climbing trees or roaming freely or just being more connected to the natural world?

Nature benefits children playing

Resources Note on Children and Nature:

If you would like to find out more about studies and research on the benefits of children being outdoors with nature then here are some articles and books with facts and lists of sources:

Resources page on the Children & Nature Network website includes collections of scientific literature, reports and surveys.

The US Wilderness Society “9 Surprising reasons for getting kids outside this summer”

Getting back to the great outdoors by the American Psychological Association

Every Children Outdoors by the British nature organisation RSPB

Natural Childhood report by Britain’s National Trust

Why connect kids and nature by the US National Wildlife Federation

The bestseller book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.

Kriss MacDonald 400 x 400More about Kriss: Kriss (Schultz) MacDonald ’84 is a photographer, writer and mother of eight year old twins living in the English countryside. She was formerly the head of news planning and regional editor of Asia and the Middle East for Associated Press Television News. As a journalist for AP and NBC News she was based in London, Beijing and New York. She also received a MA degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard.  This is a post from her blog Wild About Here ( Kriss regularly writes about ideas, adventures and places to visit that will encourage children to learn about nature and enjoy the great outdoors.


Written by David Stringer ’64

Kim from time to time wonders if I am happy. I am, most of the time, but as a New Englander with a Canadian father, I am not very good at showing it. I don’t laugh much, preferring to make others smile. I’m not a life of the party because I don’t go to parties. Our idea of a dinner party is sitting at the table with another couple, where Kim has taken the trouble to make the meal and the table itself special. My job is to buy, open and pour the wine.

But happiness is not really the point. Let’s make a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness is shallow and temporary – what you feel when you go to Disneyland, win at solitaire, eat a good piece of pie, or get laid. All good things, to be sure. Ambrose Bierce defined happiness as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another,” and while I would not go that far, I do note that the word derives from the Middle English word for luck or chance, and it’s related to pleasure. I think we can live more deeply.

Joy, as I’m using the word, is that deeper quality of living. It’s also a pleasure, but a pleasure of connection. While getting laid might make you happy, making love brings you joy, and if you don’t know the difference, or how to express love, too bad for your partner. Sharing in the suffering of others – friends or strangers – creates a joy that explains the spiritual and psychological benefit of giving. We can feel a joyful connection when standing alone at the edge of the ocean, feeling it’s comforting immensity, an “otherness” that you can hear and smell and feel and see.

20150510_Dandelion%2C+SFRS_-2-EditWhen do I feel this joy?

I am with Kim at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. She is photographing birds, and I am carrying my camera but mainly listening to the cries and calls and squawks and croaks with the late afternoon sunlight warming the grasses and the water. Kim, who is thirty yards away and peering intently through her viewfinder, shares this moment with me, though she is not aware of the sharing.


It’s late (for us!) at night, and we are on the couch watching something from Netflix, and suddenly Kim’s pillow is on my lap and then her head is on the pillow and she says, “I’m just going to rest my eyes for a bit,” and I stroke her hair and then feel for the muscle spasms in her back.


I’m typing addresses on the Christmas cards that Kim made. I am, in a small way, part of the artistic process of Kim, and at the same time I’m feeling a momentary spark of connection with each name and address that I type. It’s a small joy, but a joy nonetheless.


When I was working at Starbucks a man in his 30s responded to my “How’s your day going?” by saying “Not so well. My wife asked me for a divorce, I lost my job, and I may never see my daughter again.” He opened his laptop and showed me a picture of his little girl. I turned from the cash register where I had been taking orders, asked my manager to take the register for a few minutes, poured the guy a free drink and sat down with him at a table for about 10 minutes of man-to-man advice (e.g., get a good lawyer, spend undivided quality time with your daughter, don’t burn bridges where you used to work). He was grateful for the attention and encouragement. About a month later he reappeared in the store and introduced me to his daughter. He’d landed a new job, and our Starbucks became his “office” for several hours a day. We never mentioned our conversation. We didn’t have to.

This was a joyous experience for me, yes, because I was being a Good Guy, but mainly because I knew I was working deeply and seriously, beyond happiness.


stringerMore about David: David Stringer ’64 is a freelance writer who retired from high school teaching in 1998. His feature article, “A Week with Grandpa,” appeared in the December 2000 Parenting. His meditation on retirement, “Surviving Act IV,” appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Amherst. Stringer has prepared articles for Pfizer Corporation and case writing for management consulting firms. He has published two books of poetry, The Beast Speaks and Inhale/Exhale, and has ghostwritten/edited four books: Leadership and Organizational Climate (Prentice Hall 2001) with Robert Stringer, Secrets of the Obvious: A Guide for Balanced Living (Infinity Publishing 2002) with Harry Cohen, On a Mountainside; The 155th Provisional Guerrilla Battalion Against the Japanese on Luzon (Barbed Wire Publishing 2004) with Malcolm Decker, and Ordinary Miracles: Learning from Breast Cancer Survivors (Praeger 2007) with Dr. S. David Nathanson. He has worked as a volunteer writer with to create webcasts of Transplant Games among athletes who have received organ donations. With Dr. Robert Pasick and others he is co-author of Pet Loss: A Death in the Family. His 2011 ebook, What’s My Zip Code?, deals with the murder of his brother, John Stringer ’73. He publishes weekly articles on his blog,

Why Amherst?

Written by Flora Stamatiades ’88

I arrived at Amherst College in the fall of 1984, with no clear idea of why I was there. I knew I wanted to get out of the South, and I knew I wanted to go to a prestigious school, but I wasn’t sure why I had chosen this one.

In high school, for reasons I’ve never really understood, given the high concentration of really smart, talented, outgoing people who surrounded me, I was heavily recruited by any number of colleges and universities. Scarily enough, this started the spring of my sophomore year – I was barely sixteen, for God’s sake!

I was bored in high school. Really, really, really bored. I enjoyed many of my classes, but overall, I was BORED. So all those letters got me seriously considering starting college at the end of my junior year. Given my awkward December birthday, I would not yet have been seventeen. My mother – quite wisely – did not say no. What she did say was that if I wanted to start college early, I had to live at home for at least the first year. That was a no-brainer – I love my family, but given the choice, I waited.

Once that was decided, I had to actually think about where to go. Flipping through the volume of mail (remember mail?) that had arrived only confused me. Like most of my classmates, I invested in a college guide. It had postcards in the back you could tear out to send to colleges asking for information. I eliminated all universities (coming from a high school at which there were only about 125 in my graduating class, I was scared of a large school), and any college that had already written to me. My sister had spent time at Hampshire College, and as I recall, she mentioned Amherst. It met both my criteria, so I ripped out the perforated card and sent it off. Shortly thereafter, I got a recruiting letter. But hey, I still asked first, right?

I loved everything I heard about Amherst – frankly, no core curriculum was a huge selling point – but also, it was small, selective, and far enough away that I could consider it an adventure. At that point in my life, I had never been North of the Mason-Dixon line, so Western Massachusetts seemed very exotic to me.

This was the first big decision I ever made entirely on my own. And in a style that turned out to be a harbinger of my life, I went all in. I applied Early Decision, and did not even get applications for other schools. (Full disclosure – a local university accepted me, but I did not officially apply.) For financial reasons, I could not visit the campus, and did my interview locally.

I was sure I had blown it, but still, I waited to hear without really thinking about anywhere else. And when a very thin envelope arrived on my seventeenth birthday, I was terrified. A friend opened it with me, and there it was, an acceptance letter! After we jumped up and down for a while in my driveway, reality set in.

Despite the commitment of Early Decision, I had doubts. My doubts actually intensified after my family surprised me with a spring break visit to a high school friend in her freshman year there. But I showed up that fall, suitcase in hand and fear in my heart.

I did not do well academically my first semester. In fact, I was on “academic probation”. And after that first semester, there was also very nearly a financial aid crisis. (Thank you, Dean Case, for saving me.)

But no-one in my family has ever been a quitter – so I stuck it out. I took classes I had never imagined; met people who were good, bad, and indifferent; and began to find the person that I wanted to be.

Because in the end, looking back, which is really the only way to be sure when you make a life decision at (eek!) seventeen, that is why I chose Amherst. I joke now when people ask that I chose it because it did not choose me, but really, it did. Somehow, in describing itself, Amherst let me know that I could find my answer there. I learned how to think at Amherst, to question, to tolerate, and to explore. Amherst shaped my processes in ways that I could not see then, but that are now the underpinnings of my ability to do my work with success and joy.

I have a serious answer now to the question of why Amherst. Amherst gave us the freedom to become – without judgment, without restriction, but not without hard work. And with, of course, a hell of a lot of fun.

AC photo at KirbyMore about Flora: After graduating from Amherst College with a major in Theatre and Dance, Flora flailed around for a few years before heading to the School That Shall Not Be Named to receive her M.F.A in Theatre Management.

Now she serves as the National Director, Organizing & Special Projects, for Actors’ Equity Association, the national union representing Actors and Stage Managers in the United States (  She has been at the union since 1994, and in her current position since 2002.

In her not-so-copious spare time, Flora practices Bikram Yoga and Pilates, reads, guest lectures for any school that asks, explores New York City and anywhere else her travels take her, and spends quality time with her family, her friends, and especially, her cats.

Freedom of the Flip Phone

Written by Carmella de los Angeles Guiol ’09

I always joke that my flip phone is my most prized possession. Do you know how hard it is to find one these days? You try explaining to the clerk at the cell phone store that you want a phone that only makes phone calls!

Yes, I’m one of those weird people without a smartphone. And somehow I have a job, find places I’ve never been to before, and even online date on occasion. In my opinion, I don’t need to carry the internet on my person in order to function.

My friends tell me it’s just a phase. They think I haven’t caved in to the smartphone phenomenon yet. Either that, or I must be really cheap.

I am really cheap, but that’s not the reason why I abstain from a data plan. As unbelievable as it may sound, I actually prefer my flip phone, with its real buttons and Hummer-like build. It may not be able to give me the score of the basketball game, but it does what a phone is supposed to do: phone calls—and as of a few weeks ago, picture texts! (Emogis still look like this, though: □)

But this story gets even weirder. When my roommate moved out this summer, she took the Wi-Fi subscription with her since it was in her name. I figured I didn’t need it over the summer, but I would have it reinstalled once graduate school started back up at the end of August. But the new semester came and went, and I never did turn the internet back on—and I don’t plan on it.

There is no way to actually live an internet-free life anymore, unless you’re living completely off the grid. Even though I don’t have a smartphone or internet access at home, there seems to be no way to avoid reading a Buzzfeed article a day (or five). I check my email as much as the next person, I keep a blog, and I’m a Facebook addict. But unlike smartphone users, I can only engage in internet related activities at my office computer or on my laptop at a nearby coffee shop.

All around me, I see the internet becoming a lifestyle, society’s constant crutch. In reality, it is a necessary tool in the world in which we live—for communication, information, and professional purposes—and I want to make sure that I use it as such. I mostly work from home, which makes people wonder how I am possibly able to work without Wi-Fi. It’s because I happen to know the secret: having internet access is in direct opposite correlation with getting anything productive done.

As a freelance writer and university writing instructor, there are aspects of my work that need to be done online, such as researching, pitching, networking, and emailing. Without constant access to the internet, the time I spend online is spent more efficiently. For example, I keep a list of online “errands” to attend to when I am connected to the internet. Of course, I still waste time falling for clickbait and mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, but these bad habits are vastly minimized simply by my lack of access.

On the other hand, most of my working hours need to be spent alone at my desk, with as few distractions as possible. This is where my limited internet access comes in handy. Thinking back to the time when I used to have internet at home, it seems unnecessary and stressful. Home has become a sanctuary for me, where I am free from the pressure of being constantly connected. Without a smartphone, I am forced to use things like dictionaries and maps. Sometimes it’s a hassle to drive to the nearest Starbucks and send a quick email from the parking lot. But overall, I stand firm by my decision. In fact, I become more adamant about my internet-limited lifestyle as the internet embeds itself further into our daily life.

I want to exist in the real world, not the digital one in the palm of my hand. I want to inhabit the small, silent spaces of my day, rather than turning to an electronic device to fill up “dead air”. I want to make space for creativity, instead of turning to the internet for constant stimulation.

This may seem a bit extreme for some of you, and I understand that we all have different goals and lifestyles. Still, I challenge you to incorporate some amount of self-imposed internet-free time into your life. Leave your smartphone home for a whole day. Find a half-day once a week where you turn off the technology. Or take an internet-free staycation. Give it a try, and see what happens.

Carmella GuiolMore about Carmella: Carmella de los Angeles Guiol (class of 2009) is the creator of The Family Roots Project ( and The Restless Writer blog ( When she is not ghostwriting memoirs and family histories for her clients, she writes about travel, sustainability, and culture. She is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of South Florida in Tampa where she edits Saw Palm (, a journal of Florida literature and art. Her writing and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in The Toast, BUST, The Normal School, Lunch Ticket, The Fourth River, Spry, and The Inquisitive Eater.

School is Optional!

Written by Kenneth Danford ’88

For twenty years I have been supporting teens to have an alternative to traditional school through my work with North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, now located in Sunderland, Massachusetts. (see Amherst College Tedx Talk, November 2013, and ) Throughout my career, my own two children have chosen to attend school, allowing me a convenient way to assert that I am not a complete zealot. This fall, however, my 16-year-old daughter, a junior at Amherst Regional High School, has declared she is done with the high school environment, forcing me to confront my professional life right at home. Interestingly, I find my strongest emotion is not joy, or smugness. Rather, it is sadness. If the system is driving my open-minded, high-functioning daughter away, then really, this is a sad situation.

I remember high school reasonably fondly, and I still feel loyal to the people of my high school community. At graduation, I was ready to move on to Amherst College, but I had not been miserably counting the days to escape from high school. I wonder how many of us have children or grandchildren who truly feel the same way as I did about their high school experiences. As depicted in The Race to Nowhere, high school has become a pressurized, competitive zone for those applying to elite colleges. Meanwhile, the content feels even more disconnected than ever from our evolving society. By age sixteen or seventeen, many young people have experienced adult-level responsibilities in jobs and positions outside of school, and they experience the ongoing distrust and control of schools to be demeaning.

Why? Isn’t it possible for schools to evolve along with our culture? I used to think so, and that was why I became a teacher. After six years of teaching in public schools, I concluded that the system is heading in the wrong direction with more testing and less trust for students. I learned about homeschooling, and self-directed learning, and I embarked on an adventure that continues to this day.

ken and studentsOver the past twenty years, North Star has supported nearly six hundred teens in their decisions to leave school and explore self-directed learning. We’ve turned no one away for being a hard case, nor for financial reasons. We’ve welcomed every interested family who wants to try this approach. We see immediate and dramatic improvement in our teens’ happiness and engagement with their families, their communities, and their learning. In the long term, approximately 80% of our members go on to some form of college or certificate program, and many go on to graduate school and professional work. At least 25–30% claim some involvement in self-employment.

The major conclusion is that, contrary to popular belief, the choice to leave school with some support and be in charge of one’s learning presents little to no risk, and a high chance of a more meaningful life than waiting for high school graduation.

My daughter is soon heading out on five-month outdoor expedition, and she plans on attending our local community college during her senior year of high school. We don’t know whether these choices will lead directly to a familiar four-year college experience or to some other exciting possibility. I’m not worried. What would be worrisome is watching her resign herself to slogging through the remainder of her high school years.

For those of you interested in my current ideas for reforming education, you can watch a talk I gave in Guernsey, United Kingdom this fall on how to make their island the best place on earth to live by 2020.

Many of us among the Amherst Alumni are deeply involved in education, and in creating opportunities for young people to thrive. I am glad to be included in this conversation.

View Kenneth’s TEDx talk at Amherst College:

ken danfordMore about Kenneth: Kenneth Danford ’88 is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens located in Sunderland, MA.  He is now a featured speaker and leader in the area of alternative education, especially in the world of homeschooling and self-directed learning.  Prior to establishing North Star in 1996, Kenneth taught in both the Prince George’s County, MD and Amherst, MA public schools.  He now lives in Montague, MA.

The Juggle

Written by Annie MacRae ’04

I am only four years into the work/family juggling journey and am constantly surprised by how my goals and priorities shift daily in terms of my career and my family and where I see myself going in the next five years. There are days when I dream about staying at home for a stretch of time to be with my boys who are now just two and four, and then there are the inspiring workdays where I cannot imagine ever stopping. I feel excited and lucky to have the opportunity to ask these questions and to continue to figure it all out.

After Amherst, I began as an intern at Manhattan Theatre Club, one of the three major non-profit Broadway theatres, where I was then an assistant, associate and Literary Manager and Sloan Project Manager. I ran the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commissioning program, through which I commissioned plays about math, science and technology, and I ran our rehearsed reading series.

I had no idea what kind of work/life balance I would strike, because pre-children I was totally work obsessed. When I went into labor, I was writing pass letters to agents and play recommendations on my way to the hospital! After my first son was born, I returned to work fulltime after a three month maternity leave and saw plays three nights a week. When I had our second son two years later, MTC’s Artistic Director granted me an exceptional arrangement by allowing me to come into the office only three days a week while keeping my fulltime salary.  I’ve found that working moms envy stay-at-home moms and vice versa, so I thought that I had achieved the perfect balance. I hadn’t properly anticipated the challenges of a part-time schedule. I was grateful for that time with my boys, but on those two days when I wasn’t in the office, I was distracted as my phone buzzed with calls and emails.

I rarely feel the pull of my children while I’m at work or the pull of work when I’m at home. The times I’ve felt this pull and guilt are when I’m trying to do both at the same time. The two times I worked at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, my mom watched our son for ten days. I returned for meal breaks while dramaturging, which made me feel that I was neither fully engaged in the rehearsal room nor at home. I felt that I was failing in both spheres. I often feel overwhelmed by my work and life to-do lists, but I rarely feel guilty, which is a blessing, because when I’m at the office I’m 100 percent there and when I’m home I try to tune out work.

I loved working in a Literary Department and always thought my career endgame would be running a Literary Department at a major non-profit theatre, but while working part-time I realized I wanted to be closer to the hot seat. Then a great job at the Atlantic Theater Company came up, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring. When I negotiated to work part-time, I thought I would work a reduced schedule until my children were in middle school at least. I also thought I would have a third child and continue to work. But in the interview process, my ambition was reawakened and I thought that since I have chosen to work, I might as well really go for it.

Last year, I left MTC after a decade of being mentored by inspiring working mothers and began as the Associate Artistic Director at the Atlantic Theater Company. Atlantic produces six plays a year at two Off Broadway theaters and is a smaller institution than MTC, but I have a much bigger role. Instead of reading the plays and passing them along to the Artistic Director to program and produce, I help program and produce our shows.

As a result, the hours are more intense than ever before. There are more nights and weekends for technical rehearsals, preview performances, and all closing performances. My new boss has created a family friendly environment, and I have three hours of flex time each week for my sons’ extra curricular activities, which makes a big difference. But if you do the math, our nanny spends significantly more time with our boys than I do. Being out at night is tricky, and interrupting the weekend routine by having to go into work is hard for the boys, because I’ve established that weekends are our time together.

I always remind myself first of all how lucky I am to have these two boys and to have this job so all the running around comes from great joy and opportunity. I also like to set the bar low, so it’s a good day if we have groceries and I manage to show up to work in clothes that don’t have toddler matter on them. When I came back from my first maternity leave, I took a fellow working theater mom out to ask her how she does it. The answer I’ve realized is that there’s no set path, and the path changes every year. I also constantly look at other women in the theater who have more rigorous and demanding schedules than I do: playwrights, directors, and agents.  I’ve learned so much from them as well as from the many impressive Amherst theater alums (Jiehae Park, Kim Rosenstock, Julia Brownell and Julia Cho to name just a few of the powerful women!)  I feel lucky to be trying to figure it all out, even the days when I’m late for everything and run around just saying sorry and thank you. Amherst certainly gave me the grounding to ask the questions while feeling grateful for the journey.

Hugh's-birthdayMore about Annie: Annie MacRae is currently Atlantic Theater Company’s Associate Artistic Director. She previously worked in Manhattan Theatre Club ’s literary department for a decade. She has been an Annual Fund agent for her class since graduation and is on the Amherst Executive Committee.