You May Now Unplug the Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive (or negative) life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. For example, a person excitedly drives a new car home from a lot. They’re marginally happier. But a few weeks later it’s dirty and the driver has adapted to the improved interior, handling, and quietness. The loving feeling dissipates.

Now that you’re an expert on the hedonic treadmill, you’re ready for a March Madness story about our tendency to think the grass is usually greener on the other side. Let’s title the story “Why is contentment so elusive?”

UCLA, my team, got schooled in the opening round. A few days later, the coach got whacked. The backstory to why is an interesting case study in leadership, but that’s peripheral to our story.

Along with many others, Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Brad Stevens (Butler) have been mentioned as possibile replacements. Because of a new Pac-12 conference television deal, UCLA can triple or quadruple their current “small market” salaries. Both coaches, young and very successful, have been sought after by other schools in recent years.

Here’s what an Indiana reporter recently wrote about Stevens and UCLA.

UCLA just spent $138 million renovating Pauley Pavilion. Stevens is going to be able to negotiate, not just a top salary, but also facility upgrades (the Bruins need a practice facility), length on the contract, security on that contract (Howland got a buyout for the remaining four years on his deal), and assurances that this coach can run the program as he sees fit.

You give Stevens all of that, coupled with the lifestyle that living in Beverly Hills (just a long jump shot from the UCLA campus) brings, and all of sudden Butler fans have a very legitimate reason to be nervous.

I don’t question Stevens’ love of Butler in any way. I love my alma mater, as well. But when he visits the UCLA campus and tours a renovated Pauley Pavilion, visits the private school where his children will attend in Beverly Hills, eats lunch and plays golf at Bel-Air Country Club (just across Sunset Blvd. from the campus), takes Tracy and the kids shopping along Rodeo Drive, and has them (second) home-shop in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach, where they’ll spend their weekends, I can’t fathom that Stevens doesn’t give pause before waving it off.

The same reporter acknowledges:

There is no doubt, Stevens’ love of raising his family in Indiana, his love of Hinkle Fieldhouse, his love of his players, coaches and administration, his affection for everything about his position at Butler, is going to be tested if the UCLA Athletic Director calls.

Finally, he writes:

Stevens has always said “No, thanks” to job offers. And perhaps he will again. But an opportunity to coach UCLA is different. I told him he’d be crazy to turn it down.

I fully expect Stevens to say “thanks, but no thanks” again. And while he’d be a great coach, I’m actually rooting for him to stay off the treadmill. The writer is projecting his desire to live large in some place like Los Angeles onto Stevens. I suspect Stevens knows money changes you. Sending your kids to a Beverly Hills private school will definitely change them and probably not for the better. And if Stevens wanted a second house twenty miles from his primary residence, he would have probably jumped on the elite program coaching treadmill already.

Few’s the same way. Prefers Spokane, Washington over West Los Angeles. Some people are like moths, attracted to the bright lights of big, celebrity filled cities, but both Few and Stevens are reported to be “intensely private” and know there’s a cost to lost anonymity. Nearly everyone thinks they’d be a lot happier if they made a lot more money. A preternatural minority knows that’s not the case.

I applaud Few’s and Stevens’ self-understanding, wisdom, and willingness to not just say “no” to a lot more money once, but repeated times. Here’s hoping they keep daring to be different.

Ask yourself "What would Nike do?" and then do the opposite. Just don't do it.

Ask yourself “What would Nike do?” and then do the opposite. Just don’t do it.

Exercise and Cancer

More reminders. Life is fragile. A three year old child at our church has a brain tumor. Same with the English Teacher/coach at our local high school.  Same with Iram Leon.

Unless you’re already perfectly appreciative of your health, see a picture of Iram and read his entire story here.

Short version. Iram is 32. Kiana, his daughter, is 6. Iram Leon has an untreatable and inoperable cancerous tumor lodged in his brain. Statistics suggest the tumor will kill him before he is 40. He recently lost his job as a juvenile probation officer because his thinking is clouded and he says, “I was making too many mistakes on the stand.”

Instead of retreating into sedentary hopelessness, he runs. To the surprise of the medical community, a few weeks ago he ran a 3:07:35 marathon. While pushing Kiana in a baby jogger. “She had a blast,” Leon said, “listening to Disney songs and getting food from volunteers.”

From the story. “Recent research clearly shows that exercise improves outcomes for cancer patients.” And “Few other leads have shown as much promise as physical activity in extending the lives of cancer survivors, ” said an editorial last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The problem is oncologists often urge their patients to take it easy. But the American Cancer Society and other medical groups now encourage exercise among cancer survivors including encouraging breast cancer survivors to lift weights.

A doctor in the story says, “Mr. Leon gives us someone to point to when a person fighting cancer says, “I can’t do it.”

I say Mr. Leon gives us someone to point to whenever anyone is trying to be a good father and human being. He’s only racing in events that will allow him to bring along Kiana. “I want her to have as many memories of me as possible,” he says. “I want her to remember us having fun together, not me being sick.”

Thanks Iram for the inspiration.

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

Feminism and Church Patriarchy

I was too young during the Civil Rights movement to appreciate the participants’ sacrifices and accomplishments firsthand. We’re in the midst of another, admittedly more subtle, radical social transformation.

The U.S. is tilting left, in large part because younger voters are more liberal on a host of social issues including gay marriage, women’s rights, immigration, gun control, and legalizing marijuana.  As one especially illuminating example of this transformation, read not-so-young Republican Senator Rob Portman’s explanation of why he now supports gay marriage.

The key word in the previous paragraph was “tilting” as in 55%. There’s still a Grand Canyon-like partisan divide on social issues. Case in point, Portman is getting ripped by the Right for abandoning conservative biblical principles and by the Left for a too little too late conversion.

This is what I was thinking about in church Sunday when Melinda, our twenty-something year-old intern, started her sermon, a history of St. Patrick, and what his life might mean for our church today. It was excellent. I drifted as always, but more purposefully. I was fast forwarding, thinking about how bright her pastoral future is. I was picturing her taking future calls and serving a series of churches extremely well. A life spent modeling the gospel; providing spiritual counseling; teaching and preaching; rallying people to serve those in need; thoughtfully baptizing, marrying, and burying the young and old; and the community and larger Church, being better for it.

And then I thought about a religious organization that’s been in the news a lot lately as a result of a change in leadership. And how, despite accelerating social change in the U.S., that religious organization is passing on thousands of Melinda’s the world over every year. How, I wonder, does any institution in the 21st Century take a pass on the leadership potential of half its members?

Also listening to Melinda was our district’s congressman who flies home every weekend to see his wife. Looking at him made me wonder, what if Congress passed on the leadership of half the population? What if schools of medicine did? Or your workplace? What if (fill in the group or institution of your choice) did?

How do my feminist friends, both male and female deal with the church’s patriarchy? That’s only one of my many questions about the Church in the news. My friends would undoubtedly say that’s just one of a long list of unresolved challenges facing the Church. They oppose the Church’s official stands on a litany of issues, but remain committed to it.

How does that work? Does religious tradition trump discordant hearts and minds? How does it hold together?

The Best Get Rich Scheme You’ll Read About All Day

Huffington Post-like tabloid headline alert. By “best” I mean “only”, by “get rich” I mean have a little more money leftover at the end of the month, and by “scheme” I mean partner with your neighbor-friends to buy in bulk.

The Byrnes family likes them some guacamole. Avocados are usually $1.50 at the local grocery store, but are sometimes on sale for 99 cents. At Costco, six are $4.99. I believe in slow-mo, one 83 cent avocado at a time, financial improvement.

The problem of course is eating them before they go bad. One Costco shopper offered this tip in an on-line forum, “My technique is to put the newly purchased bag in the fridge for a week, and then take out one avocado and put it on the counter and keep a close eye on it. As soon as it feels a bit soft I use it up and take out another avocado. I’m surprised at how well this works for me.”

Overtime, buying avocados and many other consumer goods in bulk can lead to serious savings, but if you’re one or two people, or even a smallish family, avoiding waste is always a challenge. Which makes me wonder, why don’t individuals, couples, and/or families form informal neighborhood-based cooperatives to buy things much more cheaply in bulk? For example, someone buys two gallons of milk, six avocados, and a case of beer at Costco and walks over to their neighbors and gives them one gallon of milk, three avocados, and twelve bottles of beer for a few dollars savings.

Not a life-changing transaction, but it illustrates the concept. The key of course, is scaling the bulk buying up, and thereby, extending the savings.

There are a few imminently surmountable reasons for why this networking isn’t more common. People may not have close friends near by. Or people may have nearby friends, but be hesitant to buck the deep-seated individualism that’s ingrained in American life. Can we come together on which beer? Or maybe people don’t feel it’s worth taking non-working time to coordinate group Costco runs. Or like a solo car commuter whose resistant to join a carpool, maybe people don’t want to give up the freedom to shop on their own schedules.

It’s ironic that people’s wages aren’t keeping up with inflation and we’re living in the midst of a social media revolution and we don’t partner up more often to buy in bulk. Maybe necessity is the mother of invention. Maybe as young, tech savvy people struggle to achieve economic independence, informal bulk-buying neighborhood cooperatives will naturally bubble up.

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Green goodness

The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

The high priests and priestesses of minimalism don’t know it, but they have a problem. They’re seriously disliked by the majority of people who are struggling to get by. Ordinary people deeply resent the “voluntary” nature of most high-profile minimalists who write about the joys of downsizing on their numerous blogs, or for the New York Times, or Sunset Magazine.

Take for example how Graham Hill starts his New York Times essay titled “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” 

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

Half way into Hill’s story, I started to guess at the vibe of the 329 comments already posted. As David Brooks can confirm, New York Times readers are an unhappy bunch. Hill probably wanted praise, but I’ve seen this car crash enough times to know how it transpires. A lot of readers tore into him. Like Michelle from Chicago:

There is a big difference between choosing minimalism and minimalism being a harsh aspect of daily life. At any moment, Mr. Hill could choose to buy more things. If one of his 6 dress shirts rips, he can simply buy a new one. It’s a far cry from a minimum wage worker who has this lifestyle by default, because there isn’t money to rent a larger apartment or money to replace a torn shirt.

The sad fact of the matter is the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is so great the “have nots” are unable to give any credit to the “haves” for living below their considerable means. I believe Hill and others like him deserve credit for their thoughtful and principled simplicity, but it’s naive for him, for me, for anyone to expect those trying to live month-to-month to cheer well-to-do minimalists for critiquing conspicuous consumption.

I was mindful of this dynamic when commenting on a blog recently. I was responding to a post about the recent highs in the stock market. I wrote that many people are starting to invest in stocks which means it might be a good time to take some profits. And then consciously added, “for those fortunate enough to have them.” If I hadn’t added that phrase, my comment would’ve prompted other replies of the “who has profits these days” variety.

Where does this leave Hill, myself, and many other minimalists who recommend voluntary simplicity? Can it be done without offending? Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether. Maybe we should just live it and wait to see if anyone asks, “What gives? Why do you live the way you do? Why such a small apartment? Why so few possessions? Why don’t you ever check bags when flying?”

Someone now leave the obvious comment. Nevermind, I’ll do it myself. “What the hell Ron, why do you assume people can afford to fly?”

Reinventing Teaching, Reinventing School

Olympia High School’s spring orchestra concert. A young woman sits down at a large, beautiful harp. Her sound is transcendent. I’m transported to a sun-filled Thirteenth Century Renaissance faire. I also think about dying and how her music would ease the transition.

Next, the Chamber orchestra takes the stage. They practice together four days a week, before the sun or their classmates rise. They sit in a semi-circle with a wood stool front and center. A double bass player enters, sits on the stool, and adjusts his music stand as his compatriots tune their instruments. He follows suit. Eventually, he turns to the left, looks over his shoulder and makes eye contact with the first violinist. Next, he turns to the right, looks over his other shoulder and makes eye contact with the first cellist. It’s time.

Their excellence moved the audience, but a more subtle aspect of their performance was overlooked, their utter and complete independence. They have an outstanding orchestra teacher, but his work was done in class during January and February; as a result, he sat backstage out of the limelight. The education reformer in me wanted to freeze that image of the teacher backstage listening to his students playing on the stage, stand up, and bellow, “That’s what Decker Walker meant when he wrote, ‘The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them!'”

In schools today, “something is done to students” ninety-five percent of the time. Adults make all the important decisions with little to no student participation. Student governments have next to no impact on meaningful day-to-day school life or climate. Adults out-think and out-talk students to such a degree that interrupting student talk and thought is accepted as normal. So much so that students know they can out wait their teachers, that in short order their teachers will fill any empty spaces with their words and thoughts.

Athletics, or coaching more specifically, could provide a more hopeful, student-centered model for improved teaching and learning, one where students take on ever increasing responsibility for both their school environment and learning, except for the fact that most coaches overcoach, greatly limiting their athletes’ participation in decision-making, calling timeouts the second something goes awry, and yanking players after their first mistakes. There are exceptions, but the fact that they are exceptions illustrates the problem.

Maybe the best model is the music program’s artistic cousin, drama. When the curtain rises on a play, there’s no calling timeouts. The student-actors work especially long hours to prepare because they know they’re going to be on their own. For better or worse. Just like when they graduate and the curtain rises on their adult lives.

Empowering students to help make meaningful school decisions and become more independent learners doesn’t mean teachers will spend their days playing Scrabble on their smartphones. While backstage, the orchestra teacher was listening intently to his students, taking notes, preparing to critique their performance in class in eleven hours.

Conventional wisdom aside, teaching isn’t someone standing at a podium talking endlessly to rows of passive students. That’s “presenting”. Reinventing school requires reinventing teaching, reinventing teaching requires elevating the careful and thoughtful assessment of student work to new heights. Teachers must talk less and observe and listen more as students demonstrate what they know and can do. And then the teacher’s job is to help students figure out how to sound even better, solve even more difficult problems, and write even more lucidly.