Ori Gutin is one of our exceptional featured writers this month in En Root, and in addition to be a children's book author, he is a leader in the Social Emotional Learning space. He shines a new light on how SEL plays a role in giving children the tools needed to grow their way forward, and how we as adults can form a system of support. For another dose of inspiration, be sure to check out Ori's featured story in En Root!
This month's theme is all about crossing borders and challenging limits. Tell us about how the concept of Access has played a role in your work.
When we talk about access to knowledge, we're usually talking about an academic education. We're referencing the quality of public schools and teachers in certain neighborhoods versus others, perhaps citing the costs of higher education and who that naturally excludes from the conversation, or any number of other topics. One area we haven't historically included in that conversation is Social Emotional Learning (SEL), but that is slowly changing, and I am committed to being a part of that change.
Providing access to SEL is not about encouraging kids to get straight A's, go onto Ivy Leagues, or found billion-dollar tech companies – it’s about teaching our kids the basic skills they need to understand, express and regulate their emotions, in relation to themselves and others. It’s about teaching kids how to be compassionate and resilient, how to resolve a conflict or be a good listener, how to adopt a growth-mindset or how to offer themselves self-care, and so on.
Although these skills will likely be used more throughout a child’s life than most academic topics, they are only now beginning to get the attention they deserve in schools. Through my work as a children's SEL curriculum developer, picture book author, and aspiring child therapist, I am striving to bring SEL education into the mainstream, and make it available to as many children as possible, whether their schools offer it or not.
What do you think we as individuals and communities can do to carve a path so that others can grow beyond traditional limits?
I think we as adults can do a lot to increase access to SEL knowledge for children. First and foremost, it starts with ourselves. Kids are like sponges and they absorb everything around them, especially from their caregivers, teachers, and other adult role models. If we as adults can demonstrate effective and appropriate ways to relate to ourselves and others, we will increase children's access to SEL knowledge tenfold.
Of course, this takes a lot of work on our own part because we all grew up in a time where SEL was given even less attention than it is now. Taking the time to work on ourselves (i.e. going to therapy, developing self-care routines, acting with compassion, etc.), can be challenging, but the benefits for the younger generation will be immense.
Outside of ourselves, encouraging teachers to build SEL into their school curriculums, buying SEL related books for your children, and engaging children in conversations and activities that promote SEL are all ways we can raise more emotionally resilient, expressive, and expansive children.
Tell us about a pinnacle point or moment in your life journey.
Three years after I graduated college, I found myself in a deep depression, struggling with severe anxiety, and feelings of suicidality. I was binging self-help books in order to find some sort of secret cure to help pull me out of this deep rut that I had fallen into. I absorbed book after book, but I still couldn't pull myself out, and I began to feel even worse because I couldn't get myself to stop feeling this way despite all the effort I was putting in.
Then I read a book called "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris, and my entire life began to change. This book explained the theory behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It taught me that just because I thought something, it didn’t make it true. Instead, I could observe my thoughts, step back from them, disconnect from them, assess what I wanted to do in any given moment based off of my deepest values, and then take active steps towards creating a meaningful life even if my negative thoughts were still there.
I finally stopped pushing away all the mental struggles I was facing, and began accepting them for what they were, and learning to work with them, not against them. I remained in that deep depression for another year or so, but eventually pulled myself out, largely in part to the philosophies of ACT. I continue to struggle on and off with anxiety and depression, but with the tools that ACT has equipped me with, I am better able to respond to those emotions, and not get drawn deep into that hole again.
How did this experience change the course of your life, your career or your outlook?
In college, I had been deeply called to environmental work because I felt that environmental degradation was by far the greatest issue facing the planet. It does not pay any respect to national borders, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class – it affects everyone! We all share the same Earth, and if we don’t have a healthy planet to live on, then no one, anywhere, will be able to thrive. However, my personal experiences with depression were so powerful that I changed the focus of my career from environmentalism to mental health.
As I finally pulled myself out of the deep rut I was in, I carried with me a new realization. I realized that there was an even greater fundamental need shared by the human race than our planet’s health – our mental health. Even if the most motivated, intelligent, passionate, skilled person were living in a pristinely protected environment, if their internal world was polluted, it would impact their lives 100x worse than any environmental degradation ever could. And similarly to pollution, mental illness pays no respect to your gender, race, religion, class, etc. – it could strike anyone at any moment in time.
Since that point, I have decided to dedicate my life to mental health, with a focus on working with children. I enrolled in a Masters of Counseling graduate degree program, began working as a socio-emotional support staff for high-risk kids in a charter elementary school, and published my debut picture book, "The Butterfly Who Flew in the Rain," which I wrote in order to bring the philosophies of ACT to young children.
And of course, environmentalism is still a deeply integral part of my life, too!
What are your top three pieces of advice for students and professionals who may be looking for ways to grow forward?
1) Follow your passion -- Don't spend so much time calculating the perfect moves for your future, but rather follow and stay connected to work that deeply excites and invigorates you in the present. Steve Jobs said "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards," so don't worry if following your passions in each moment doesn't take you on an obviously linear path towards a goal right now. It will in the future.
2) Take your time -- Don't be in such a rush to get to any "end" destination. There is more to life than just working, and a career. Take time to travel, explore different interests, try jobs that give you different perspectives (everyone should work in customer service at least once!!), and make spontaneous decisions. It’ll be worth it in the end, I promise.
3) Don't compare yourself to others -- Everyone has their own unique journey, and comparison will do nothing but make you miserable. Every time you compare yourself to someone and feel happier because you feel you are in a better position than them, you are sowing the seed to feel sadness and frustration later on for not being as far along as someone else. Instead of comparison, strive to feel genuine joy for others in their own success, and empathy for those who are having a harder time. It’ll make you feel better, and it will make those in your community feel better, too.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Accept each moment exactly as it is, whether good or bad. It is in our aversion to the bad times, and our clinging to the good times, that we create most of our unhappiness. Remember, each moment whether good or bad, is impermanent, and will pass. Allow yourself to feel each moment fully while it's there.
What is your favorite quote?
Oooo, that is a very tough question! I am a big lover of quotes, and find much of my inspiration in the power of others' words. If I had to choose, I'd say my favorite quote is this one by author, theologian, and philosopher, Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
A close second would be this proverb:
“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”
Based on your professional experience, what are the top three career competencies that you believe can be gained/developed as a result of pushing past limits?
1) Failure is a sign of growth – Failure is not a sign of a lack of ability, but rather of growth and a willingness to push beyond what’s comfortable and easy. I’ve learned that true growth rarely comes without failing, perhaps many times, first. I’ve learned to gratefully accept failure, and to keep trying with equal or even more vigor to reach my goals.
2) To be my own champion – I’ve learned that if I don’t believe in myself to accomplish difficult tasks, then no one will. If I am not my own biggest champion, then who will be?
3) Anything is possible – There is no goal that is unattainable if you want it badly enough. You may not achieve it overnight, and there will certainly be obstacles in the way, but if it means enough to you, you can accomplish it. I believe this with all my heart. Having strong conviction and determination is the biggest indicator of success.
What's next? What are your next steps toward growth in 2020 and beyond?
1) Launch the Compassionate Kids Club (CKC). The CKC is a project I’ve been working on for about 6 months now. The idea sprung from my love of picture books, and my own participation in Thom Bond’s Compassion Course. The CKC is a 12-month curriculum for elementary aged kids that teaches the basic fundamentals of compassion through the use of a different SEL picture book each month. Each month comes with actionable, and fun challenges for kids to complete in order to receive a monthly prize, and ultimately receive their Compassionate Kid Certificate at the end of the 12 months! It can be used for one kid at home with a caregiver, or it could be used with a whole class at school with a teacher. I thought about launching it in January 2021, but I’ve decided to launch instead in August 2021, just before the new school year. Keep an eye out!
2) Publish my second children’s book through a traditional publisher. I am so grateful for the experience I’ve had self-publishing The Butterfly Who Flew in the Rain, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. That being said, I’m eager for my work and message to reach an even larger audience. Working with a traditional publisher on my next picture book would allow me to reach thousands more than I can on my own. Again, it’s all about access to knowledge, and I think the SEL concepts and theories I am trying to convey in my picture books are essential to the healthy growth of any young person. I want them to reach as many children and families as possible!
Ori is an east coast transplant currently living in Berkeley, CA. He is currently working to get his Masters in Counseling Psychology at The Wright Institute in the hopes of becoming a youth therapist. Outside of his studies, Ori is a budding children’s book author, having just released his debut picture book, The Butterfly Who Flew in the Rain, a mindful educator, an Ironman athlete, a Vipassana meditator, and an avid traveler, adventurer, and nature lover. Follow Ori’s latest releases on Instagram, or by signing up for his newsletter: www.orisstories.com/newsletter