The Great Equalizer

As this recent New York Times article poignantly illustrates, Horace Mann was wrong, education is not the great equalizer of men. Or women.

As always at the end of the year, most major newspapers list the most newsworthy deaths of the calendar year. Some provide a few paragraphs about each person. The “newsworthy deaths” compilations are a nice reminder that death is the great equalizer. Of men and women. The rich and poor. Hawk and dove. Religious and secular. Well known and anonymous. Prepared and unprepared.

I imagine most people who read those “famous deaths” compilations think to themselves, “Wow, a lot of famous people died this year.” That’s the thing about death, it’s kind of consistent. A lot of famous people die every year. In the United States, in 2013, someone will be born every 8 seconds and die every 12 seconds.

Poor form I know, but I can’t help but wonder if the comrades—Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro—will feature prominently in next year’s “famous deaths” lists. And what about Mugabe, Bush Sr, and Mandela, all quite skilled at postponing the great equalizer. Will they make it to 2014?

More importantly, will you and I make it to 2014? Psychologist Russ Harris suggests a simple exercise for being more conscious of The Great Equalizer (as described in The Antidote: Happiness for those Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking). Imagine you are eighty years old—assuming you’re not eighty already, that is; if you are, you’ll have to pick an older age—and then complete the sentences “I wish I’d spent more time on. . . ” and “I wish I’d spent less time on. . .”

Whatever your age, that wonderfully simple exercise will improve your chances of reaching death having lived life as fully and as deeply as possible.

I hope this isn’t your year or my year, but just in case, let’s live it like it could be.

Thank you for making time to read my writing this year. Peace to you and yours.

A New Approach to a New Year

I’m a monogamous reader. When I commit to a book, I commit. No late night flirting with other authors that I might regret in the morning. Another idiosyncrasy, I can be slow to ditch flawed books. I was on a nice reading roll during the first half of 2012, but got totally stalled in a cook book somewhere during the summer. Yes, you read correctly, a cook book! You’re forgiven for wondering what kind of imbecile sets out to read a cookbook cover to cover. The same kind that set out to read the bible from cover to cover in the sixth grade. Wasn’t able to check that one off either. Damn Leviticus.

But, I’m happy to report, my reading self is back. In fact, I may read more in January and February than all of 2012 combined, but more on why in a future post. At present, I’m wedded to Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Although it’s clearly written, Burkeman’s ideas are so provocative and contrary to conventional wisdom, The Antidote will probably require a re-reading, making it my last book of 2012 and first of 2013.

If like me, you enjoy holding up common assumptions to the light of day, I especially recommend Chapter Four, “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work”. In short, Burkeman convincingly argues that most everything you and I have been taught about goal setting is flawed. In part, his argument rests on what went wrong on Mount Everest in 1996 when many climbers died because they didn’t turn around in time to survive the descent. In his view, Krakauer’s Into Thin Air analysis is “ultimately dissatisfying” as an explanation.

He finds Chris Kayes’ interpretation more persuasive. Kayes, a former stockbroker turned business professor and expert on organizational behavior, suspects the climbers were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals”. Burkeman writes of Hayes, “His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint—a successful summiting of the mountain—the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs.”

“If his hunch about the climbers was right,” Burkeman adds, “it would have become progressively more difficult for them to sacrifice their goal, despite accumulating evidence that it was becoming a suicidal one. Indeed, that accumulating evidence. . . would have hardened the climbers’ determination not to turn back. The climb would have become a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.”

One take-away from the chapter is that there are often unintended consequences when people focus intensely on especially lofty goals. Kayes points out that the mountaineers who died climbing Everest in 1996 did successfully reach their goal: they ascended to the summit. The tragic unintended consequence was that they didn’t make it back down.

Burkeman also offers up a  challenge—to become more comfortable with uncertainty, to turn towards it, to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future. Burkeman sites a person who says the key to this approach is to think more like a frog. “You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for awhile. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.” The imagery of sunbathing on lily-pads isn’t mean to imply laziness, the emphasis is on enjoying one’s work in the present rather than postponing happiness based upon endless five year plans.

Burkeman’s thinking challenges my default tendencies to plan and set goals. My goal for 2013? Have fewer goals and turn towards uncertainty.

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The Essential Dilemma of Human Intimacy

Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, with its discussion of Stoicism, has me thinking about the Newtown parents. Burkeman and the heartbreaking portraits of the dead first graders. With their beautiful, innocent smiles, and future promise.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more difficult to overcome than a parent having to bury their six or seven year old child. Friends of ours watched helplessly for a year as their eight year old son died from leukemia. I tried to empathize, but probably failed to scratch the surface of their heartbreak.

The Newtown parents didn’t have any reason to take a little extra time the fateful morning of the shooting to be especially present and loving. One wonders, how will they survive the shooting? Right now, their sadness is bound to overwhelm ancient Greek wisdom and everyone’s best intentions. The best way to support them is to respect their privacy and make sure our representatives enact meaningful gun control.

But what if we shift things a bit to think about Stoicism and our lives, and the people we’re closest too, and their eventual deaths. And the essential dilemma of human intimacy—the closer and more meaningful the friendship, the greater one’s vulnerability, the greater one’s vulnerability, the more intense the pain upon death.

There is a way to minimize the probability of intense grief, keep friendships superficial. But who wants to compromise the quality of their life that way? So what are we to do? Being intimate and dependent upon others doesn’t mean we’re doomed to debilitating sadness upon each of our close friends’ or family members’ deaths.

The ancient Greeks wrote about the impermanence of everything and encouraged people to reflect on the worst things that could happen to them. The result being greater appreciation for their material well-being, their health, their work, and their family and friends. Taking time to think about worse case scenarios, or negative visualization, also mentally prepares one for inevitable changes in life, including especially sad ones such as the death of a loved one.

The ancient Greeks also emphasized living in the present, an “easier said than done” cliche if not developed more fully. Think about how different birthday celebrations might be if everyone committed to living more in the present. Instead of giving the birthday person gifts (kind of an odd practice if you think about it, “Hey congrats on being born!”), and asking him or her to make a wish for the upcoming year, the party would be a celebration of the previous year. The message being that life is fragile and isn’t it wonderful that we had another year to enjoy the birthday boy’s or girl’s friendship. Each person could reflect on the birthday person’s previous year and share what has been most memorable and what they most appreciate about them. And yes, of course we can keep the cake and ice cream.

My dad died suddenly at age 69. I was 33. I was devastated in part because it wasn’t until my mid 20′s that we started to understand and appreciate one another. I thought we had the luxury of time for our friendship to flourish. But shortly afterwards, I started to think like a Stoic before knowing anything about Stoicism. I realized I could be upset that our friendship didn’t get to mature or I could be thankful that we enjoyed a positive and more personal 5-10 years. I’ve chosen the later. And that decision informs the way I try to live. I want to love boldly, fully appreciate my friends and family, and celebrate each passing year as an undeserved gift.

My hope is that with the passing of time the Newtown parents can make a similar switch from understandable anger at the time they won’t get to spend with their sons and daughters to appreciating the six or seven years they did get with them.

That math and psychology will be tough. Godspeed Newtown parents.

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Columbine, Blacksburg, Tucson, Seal Beach, Aurora, Newtown

The National Rifle Association has gone silent, hoping that we conclude there’s an inevitability to gun violence, call it an unfortunate cost of Second Amendment rights to gun ownership. That’s the exact reason we can’t become desensitized to the steady stream of incomprehensible violence.

We have to spend the next few months insisting that our Congressional representatives take the actions that Michael Bloomberg and Diane Feinstein described on Sunday’s Meet the Press.

We have to learn to think about mental illnesses like physical illnesses and advocate for more accessible and affordable care for the mentally ill.

We have to insist on people’s rights. To go to school, to go shopping, and to go to a movie without fear.

We have to resist the urge to arm more people. On the same Meet the Press, Bill Bennett (pundits should be like yogurt and have expiration dates) said we should probably have an armed security guard in every school. I thought of that when I walked into my YMCA Sunday afternoon to workout. The doors open for anyone and the membership check-in is about 30 to 40 feet inside the building. I passed 20+ people before having to show my membership card. Sometimes when the line is long, I just slide in behind it and head to the locker or weightroom. So unless we’re going to install TSA-like security at every YMCA, mall, and theater, I don’t see armed school guards as a solution. I recommend Jim Fallows position on this and his most recent Atlantic piece on the shootings (and Goldberg’s which he references).

We have to ask why, according to Mother Jones, since 1982, males are responsible for 61 out of 62 mass murders with firearms across the country. What does the fact that some young men more than young women want to physically injure and/or kill others say about our parenting of boys, our schools, and our culture? What changes in our parenting, schools, and culture are needed?

Lastly, an impassioned debate among two female writers—I am Adam Lanza’s Mother and Don’t Compare Your Son to Adam Lanza.

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Compared to Teaching, Charles Barkley’s Job is Easy

In a round about way, this provocative Selena Robert’s piece about Tiger Woods highlights what’s unique and especially challenging about teaching well. Robert’s quotes Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers. Most damning, Chamblee says Tiger extracts from the game but doesn’t give back to it.

Usually, the most popular analysts and critics—whether in sports, the arts, or politics—are extremely opinionated. People like analysts and critics who aren’t afraid to rip a failing player, actor, or elected official. In sports, Brandel Chamblee is simply following in the footsteps of Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley.

What the best teachers do 180 days a year is infinitely harder than what Chamblee and Barkley and other popular analysts and critics do. Teachers have to thoughtfully provide constructive criticism to young people with whom they work closely day-after-day. Young people whose self esteem is a work-in-progress.

Chamblee knows he’s never getting invited to Tiger’s pad to have dinner so what does he have to lose? When Sports Illustrated wrote about Michael Jordan’s gambling problem he never spoke to any of their writers again. Which of course made it even easier for them to be critical. It’s easy for analysts and critics to rip failing public figures from the safety of their websites, studios, and media stages.

Teachers, on the other hand, often have to tell students up close and personal that their work doesn’t measure up. And most challenging of all, students are sensitive in different ways and to differing degrees meaning teachers have to continuously tweak their message. The best ones challenge students to do better without crippling their confidence or harming their relationship. It requires a mix of respect, tact, diplomacy, and care that the public doesn’t understand or appreciate. I’m most successful at it when I lead with students’ strengths. Encouragement makes everyone more receptive to how they can improve.

Parents face similar challenges on a daily basis. They often have to tell their children, “Sorry, that wasn’t thorough, thoughtful, or responsible enough.” The most successful ones do it in loving and supportive ways that are educative. Their actions communicate, “I want you to become more competent and independent”  rather than “Don’t forget I’m in charge.”

Compared to the teachers at the school down the street from you, Brandel Chamblee’s and Charles Barkley’s television jobs are a piece of cake.

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Living Healthily By Feel

As I wrote recently, modern life requires some dependence upon expert recommendations, but when it comes to our health, we’re too dependent upon scientists; when it comes to our money, we’re too dependent upon financial planners; and when it comes to our spirituality, we’re too dependent upon religious professionals.

A recent Wall Street Journal story described a study of older recreational athletes. The conclusion, past age 50, running more than 15-20 miles a week at faster than 7:30 per mile is associated with higher mortality rates. That makes sense since fast long distance running is a form of stress. So far, I’ve ran about 1,470 miles this year or almost exactly 30 a week. Most of those miles were in the 7:30 neighborhood (well, not the last 8 in Canada). In addition, I’ve swam about 185 miles and rode 5,272—all personal highs thanks to my Ironperson Canada prep.

According to some scientific experts, I’m killing myself in the predawn perpetual light rain, in the sense that I’m shortening my life. If you listen carefully, you can hear couch potatoes everywhere cheering lustily.

So do I dial things back? I accept the studies’ peer-reviewed conclusions, but I’m too skeptical to change my overly active lifestyle as a result of the study. When determining how far and fast to run, swim, and cycle; instead of living purely by science; I choose to live mostly by intuition or feel.

I know myself better than the scientists who conducted the study. Consequently, I’m just arrogant enough to think their study doesn’t apply to me. I’ve slowly built my endurance base over the last twenty years, I eat well, I prioritize sleep, and I’m pretty good about minimizing everyday stress. Regularly going semi-long contributes to the excellent quality of my life. I’m convinced I’m physically, mentally, and even spiritually healthier than I otherwise would be if I cut back based on this study’s recommendations.

I would like to live a long life, but I’m even more interested in maintaining a good quality of life. Late in life I want to remember my past; read The New Yorker; write regularly; and walk without falling down.

I could be wrong. About one of the most important decisions imaginable. The horrors, I may not be special. If some of you are at my funeral in two or twenty years, I give you permission to laugh one last time at me.

Saturday morning, I extended myself for only the second time since Ironperson Canada (the other was the Seattle Half Marathon two weeks ago). I ran 10 miles with my favorite right wing burners, inhaled a large bowl of oatmeal, and then celebrated Hob’s 52nd birthday by swimming 52 100′s. Dear longevity researchers, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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Continuous Improvement

A bullshit workplace notion. Midway into artistic or athletic activities, jobs, careers, relationships, life, we plateau. Shortly thereafter, energy ebbs, and our performance erodes.

We improve for a bit, we plateau, we decline.

I observed a good second year math teacher today at the independent middle school. Then we conferenced. After listening to him reflect on the pre-algebra lesson, I listed his many strengths. Then I made a few suggestions. Call on Ben as soon as he puts his head on his desk. Give Robin your marker, take her seat, and have her teach everyone her prime factorization method by illustrating it on the board. Have two more students explain and illustrate their methods and then ask, “Which is most efficient and why?” Let the kite string out a bit and “guide from the side” for awhile. Remember, the educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.

He told me he likes it when I observe because he’s reminded of effective teaching methods that he has let slip. He’s a good second year teacher who has started to plateau because he’s rarely observed, and rarely gets to observe other, more accomplished teachers.

A small number of the very best teachers, artists, athletes, and people continue improving considerably longer than their peers by seeking out expert, critical feedback; by investing progressively more time and energy; and by surrounding themselves by other positive, hardworking people, who are trending upwards.

And the wisest teachers, artists, athletes, and people have a sixth sense for both when they’ve plateaued and when their performance has begun to decline. And then the wisest, most selfless, most financially secure of them, step aside to provide the next generation opportunities to improve, plateau, and decline.

Embracing Children for Who They Are

When you buy a new car you’re provided with a detailed owner’s manual, but even though human beings are far more complex than cars, when new mothers and fathers leave the hospital with a new born, they’re completely on their own.

Jane Brody, in an insightful New York Times blog post of the same title, exhorts parents to appreciate and adapt to their childrens’ differences.

Consider that critical phrase a second time—appreciate and adapt. Easier said then done. Most parents start out parenting each successive child the same. More often than not, they’re too slow to appreciate and adapt to inevitable differences.

Despite the absence of any type of owner’s manual, there are wise parent authors, like Brody herself, and Andrew Solomon (appropriately named), offering excellent help.

Key excerpts from Brody’s post:

Contrary to what some parents might believe or hope for, children are not born a blank slate. Rather, they come into the world with predetermined abilities, proclivities and temperaments that nurturing parents may be able to foster or modify, but can rarely reverse.

The goal of parenting should be to raise children with a healthy self-image and self-esteem, ingredients vital to success in school and life. That means accepting children the way they are born — gay or straight, athletic or cerebral, gentle or tough, highly intelligent or less so, scrawny or chubby, shy or outgoing, good eaters or picky ones.

Of course, to the best of their ability, parents should give children opportunities to learn and enjoy activities that might be outside their natural bent. But, as attested to in many a memoir, forcing children to follow a prescribed formula almost always backfires.

For example, everyone in my family is a jock. . . except one of my four grandsons. Now 10, he is an intellectual, and has been since age 3, when he learned the entire world’s atlas of animals. He absorbs scientific information like a sponge and retains it. He can tell you about deep-sea creatures, planets and stars, chemical reactions, exotic caterpillars, geological formations — you name it — and he’s a whiz at the computer. But he has no athletic interest or apparent ability. His parents have introduced him to a variety of team and individual sports, but so far none has clicked.

Rather than try to remake him into someone he is not, the challenge for all of us is to appreciate and adapt to his differences, love him for who he is and not disparage him for what he is not. While the other three boys get basketballs, bicycles and tennis rackets as gifts, for his 10th birthday I gave him a huge book on the universe, which became his bedtime reading.

One persuasive voice for differences in children and how families must adapt better is Andrew Solomon, author of an ambitious new book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” published this month by Scribner.

He makes a strong case for accepting one’s children for who they are and, at the same time, helping them become the best they can be. Especially poignant is his account of a family with a high-functioning son with Down syndrome. For years, the boy progressed academically on pace with his peers and was a poster child for what a person with Down syndrome could do. But when the son could go no further, his mother recognized that he needed to be in a group home.

“We had worked so hard to make him the Down syndrome guy who didn’t need it,” the mother told Mr. Solomon. “But I had to look at what was best for him, and not some ideal we had built up for ourselves.”

Most of the parents interviewed found a lot of meaning and many rewards in dealing with a child who was different. “They told me it has given them a so much richer life that they wouldn’t have given it up for all the world,” Mr. Solomon said. “There are many ways to exist in this world and many different ways to be happy.”

He added: “You want your children to achieve and be comfortable with who they are. You should advocate for them and help them develop the skills to advocate for themselves. But parents shouldn’t try to mold their children. When you expect your kids to fit into a mold, especially a mold of your own making, you’ll be disappointed.”

Parents shouldn’t beat themselves up for not getting the appreciating and adapting just right. They should seek out and embrace positive examples of flexible, loving parenting all around them.