On Talent and Effortless Style

Fascinating essay last week by Don Van Natta, Jr. on the 1973 Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that 50 million Americans and I watched on television. I was eleven and still remember it.

Riggs was a masterful hustler who “stayed in the barn” early in high stakes tennis and golf matches, meaning he purposely played well below his potential to lure his opponent and other bettors into a false sense of accomplishment. Then, mid to late match, Riggs would “come out of the barn,” play as well as possible and ultimately win. The art was in the timing.

The most talented, compelling artists almost always appear to be at least partly in the barn. As if they always have another gear or two in reserve. That’s what makes their performances so compelling. My first memory of this phenomenon was probably around the “Battle of the Sexes” when I was awestruck by a televised Dionne Warwick performance. She seemed to be expending about a third of her energy. Here’s just one example from the video archives:

When My Betrothed dances, she’s partly in the barn. And when watching my friend Brian ride his bike, with his rhythmic high cadence, perfectly still body, and oh so steady pace, I think, “Damn, if only it were that easy.”

Lake Center Dive is an immensely talented and stylish, up-and-coming foursome that conveys that “partly in the barn” feeling big time. Dig these examples:

Of course, an individual or group can only make something look effortless when they combine natural talent, intense commitment, and serious preparation.

My Betrothed, Brian, and Lake Center Dive owe people like me, who try to compensate for a lack of talent through extra effort, with a huge debt of gratitude. The rough edges of our extra effort is what makes the truly talented appear so stylish in comparison.

What Parents Get Wrong

Since my “What Engineers Get Wrong” post went viral I figured people are anxious for me to overgeneralize about other groups. Thus, a series is born. This is the second, back-to-school installment. The full title, “What Parents Get Wrong about Their Children’s Teachers”.

I received this letter from a teacher friend who was seeking my advice with in her words, “my current least favorite set of parents”.

The Least Favs wrote to my friend:

I am encouraged to read your statement in the newsletter that arrived today, that students “shouldn’t be afraid to say something if they need help,” because “C” does. He needs more challenges than you have been providing.

C is still not challenged in math.  From talking to him and following class work through homework, nothing seems to have changed since we brought this to your attention at the first parent teacher conferences and during two subsequent meetings. C still says “It is not that I know the material, but after we learn new stuff for a day or two it is pretty slow.” If you changed anything in the way you challenge the faster learners in your class neither C nor we noticed.  We do not see that you implemented any ideas we talked about, like more challenging text problems with the same underlying pre-algebra for the faster learners, or different homework options like the link to [another school] we sent you.

We would like to again explore solutions to make sure that C will be challenged for the final trimester. For us it is sad to see that his former favorite subject rarely make his eyes light up any more. The one time you offered alternative math homework, C had so much fun and walked us through his thoughts and discussed approaches with us. This is what we asked you about and are looking for! We are hoping that maybe drawing on others experience with highly gifted education and the curricula used at other schools will help us find solutions. Also, we would appreciate [the principal’s] mediation to this time come to a clear understanding about next steps.  We feel that after our last conversations, other than changing C’s class placement, which we appreciate, you did not follow up with us on letting us know which other options you explored.  This lack of communication leaves us with the impression that nothing has changed.

We would like to emphasize that C likes you as a teacher and that the way you explain things seems to work well for him.  It is solely the lack of challenges and the speed of learning that we perceive as a problem as well as the lack of communication with us as parents.

I’m giving the Least Favs a “C-” in teacher partnering and problem solving. It’s a flawed letter, but parents like this trounce ones who are asleep at the wheel. At least they’re engaged. I’m also giving them a few points for some positivity in paragraphs three and four.

My teacher friend was wrong for not communicating better with the Least Favs after the previous conference. The problem is the Least Favs use that against the teacher in a way that clearly suggests, “We’re in the right and you’re in the wrong,” instead of “Let’s find a way to meet in the middle and move forward together.”

Also problematic, the parents assume their child is gifted and yet their son admits “It’s not that I know the material. . . .” The student feels the pace is a little slow, but the parents don’t ask the teacher, “Is it possible to increase the pace?” They’re focusing exclusively on their child, who they believe, rightly or wrongly, is gifted. In contrast, the second year teacher is attempting to do her best for all of the students in the class. That’s one important thing parents get wrong, they assume secondary teachers, who typically interact with 100-150 students a day, are able to know their child well and individualize their curriculum and adjust their instructional pace for them. The very best can and do, but they’re the exception to the rule. Most teachers, especially new ones like my friend, teach to the middle to the best of their abilities.

Most problematic is the tone of the letter. Granted, as taxpayers the Least Favs pay the teacher’s salary, but teachers are human, and therefore parents are most effective when they seek common ground with teachers. Like trial lawyers, the Least Favs seem intent on winning an argument without any feel for what “winning” will cost in terms of the teacher’s sentiment towards them, and possibly their child.

Take aways or how to partner more effectively with teachers:

1) When communicating concerns with teachers, start positively. I suspect the first two paragraphs were like body blows; consequently, the positive points in paragraphs three and four were probably lost on my friend. Everyone is more receptive to constructive criticism after positive feedback.

2) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Before pressing a teacher to differentiate their instruction, acknowledge that it’s “probably not very easy” to account for individual differences in background knowledge, skill, and aptitude.

3) Create positive momentum by honoring the teachers’ experience by asking “What have you or colleagues of yours done that’s worked in situations like this in the past?” The implication being “You’re a professional who can resolve the dilemma or partner with other teachers to resolve it.”

4) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Instead of demanding follow up communication, say you’d appreciate some sort of follow up in the next few weeks. Increase the odds of a quick response by acknowledging that it’s “probably not very easy to communicate promptly with every parent every time something bubbles up.”

5) Ask what, if anything, you can do at home to also help improve the situation.

Human Rights, Selective Perception, and the Olympics

Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives speaks Cantonese and German, wrote speeches for the U.S. Attorney General, and more recently penned a New York Times op-ed titled “The Olympics Leadership Mess“. It’s an informative editorial, but her argument that the next I.O.C. president should strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor selected host countries progress towards improving that record, rests on the flawed assumption that the West has a monopoly on virtue.

Historical context compliments of Worden:

The 12-year term of the current International Olympic Committee Chairperson, Jacques Rogge of Belgium, will be remembered in large part for the glaring contradiction between the I.O.C.’s explicit vision of its lofty role in the world (as outlined in the rules and guidelines of its charter) and the fact that Mr. Rogge has been responsible for two Olympics with extensive human rights violations: the 2008 summer games in Beijing and the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, which start in less than six months.

To host the Olympics, governments and cities pledge not only to build sparkling new stadiums but also to uphold the I.O.C.’s “Fundamental Principles of Olympism”: respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of “any form of discrimination.” But the I.O.C. under Mr. Rogge has failed to enforce its own rules.

The 2008 Beijing games, which cost an estimated $40 billion, led to a host of rights violations, including abuses of domestic migrant workers who were building Olympic infrastructure and a harsh clampdown on civil society and media, with punishment (including imprisonment) for those trying to protest.

Then she fast forwards to the present:

Now the I.O.C. is preparing to stage another Olympics in a host country that almost appears to be taunting organizers and sponsors by flagrantly flouting its pledge. Starting in 2008, Human Rights Watch has documented myriad Russian abuses associated with preparation for the Olympics. These include government harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists, abuses of migrant workers from the former Soviet bloc who are building all the major Olympic venues (including the media center) and forced evictions of some families without compensation. Some migrant workers who tried to complain have been detained.

Over the past year, Russia has also introduced repressive laws targeting certain nonprofit organizations as “foreign agents.” With raids, threats and intimidation, the crackdown has been the most severe of its kind in the post-Soviet era. Central to this campaign is a new law targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. All these efforts are at odds with the Olympic ideal, as expressed in its charter, of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Russian authorities are apparently counting on the I.O.C. to keep quiet again.

Her argument:

The shame here is that the I.O.C. can and has used its considerable leverage to improve the conduct of host nations. Countries with repressive governments often seek to host the Olympics to improve their global reputation, and only the I.O.C. can make the Olympics happen. . . . There is no reason the new I.O.C. president could not issue a mandate to strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor a selected host country’s progress toward improving that record.

How can Worden ignore how the U.S. and other Western developed countries are doing in regard to “respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of any form of discrimination”?

Let’s use the Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 edition of my local newspaper as a frame of reference for evaluating how well the U.S. is applying the “fundamental principles of Olympism”. The Daily Olympian does a much better job covering the Pet Parade than world events; however, on Wednesday, August 21st, 2013, there were two substantive stories that suggests the U.S. should probably focus on getting it’s own human rights house in order.

Story one, “Documents link Army to man accused of spying on anti-war protesters”. The first three graphs:

More than four years after an Olympia anti-war group accused John Towery of spying on them on behalf of the Army under an assumed name, new evidence has emerged showing that at least some of Towery’s former superiors at the Army were aware of and supported his intelligence-gathering activities.

The documents detailing JBLM’s knowledge of Towery’s activities “providing crucial police intelligence” were released as part of the discovery in the Olympia anti-war group’s federal civil rights lawsuit against Towery. . . .

Story two, “Graphic photos, testimony shed light on Bales’ actions in Afghan massacre“, is a tough read. Robert Bales is a U.S. soldier who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a solitary killing spree at his combat outpost last year. He plead guilty in June to avoid the death penalty. Admittedly, one person does not make an institution, but every U.S. citizen should think about the details of this story:

On the night of the killings, . . . Bales stewed on his troubles at home and his disappointment in the Special Forces unit his Lewis-McChord team supported in southern Afghanistan. He wanted to be more aggressive. . . . He also was taking steroids and drinking alcohol in his down time.

Against that backdrop, Bales twice snuck out of his outpost to murder civilians in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban in a single night. He put his pistol in the mouth of a baby, and shot men, women and children in front of their families.

As Morse described those killings, jurors saw gory photos of Bales’ youngest victims on a wall-sized screen. One image showed the corpse of a 3-year-old girl.

Bales appeared to shrink from viewing the photos. He closed his eyes and glanced to the side when prosecutors presented images showing the bloodied head of a young girl, Zardana, he shot inside her home. She survived with the help of Army doctors.

Several of the young Afghan boys who testified spoke shyly about the nightmares they and their siblings still experience 17 months after the slaughter.

“I am always fearful,” said 5-year-old Khan. Bales murdered his father, Mohammed Dawud. “What do I wrong against Sgt. Bales that he shot my father?”

If Worden, a human rights expert, seems unable to think critically about our own human rights record, it’s no surprise the same is true for the rest of us. In particular, we’re unwilling to take a long, hard look at the ways in which our military often subverts the fundamental principles of Olympism.

If the Bales example is too anecdotal, how does one explain the fact that female soldiers are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat? For too many people, anything short of unconditional praise of the military is unacceptable anti-Americanism. Far better to talk about China’s migrant workers and Russia’s outrageous homophobia.

Also, last week we learned from a Central Intelligence Agency document that “. . . the military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet (in Iran in 1953) was carried out under C.I.A. direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy; conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” That won’t surprise Guatemalans (1954) or Chileans (1973).

And I completely lose Worden here:

Before another I.O.C. president is selected, the corporate sponsors who make the Olympics possible should insist that the president enforce the committee’s own rules about human rights. Unless sponsors and franchise-holders like NBC, Coca-Cola, G.E., McDonalds and Visa want to risk being associated with an officially homophobic Olympics, they must find their voices — before the next I.O.C. head is anointed.

In what world is Minky living? One in which major U.S. corporations care more about the human rights of gay and lesbian Russians than maximizing profits? What evidence is there for that? Corporations only act in the best interest of powerless people and the planet when their shareholders demand it of them.

Which leads to you, me, and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I predict we’ll watch just like we always do. I suppose, when it comes to the bobsled and luge, resistance is futile. And the Russian government will feel emboldened. And the multinational corporations will make a lot of money. And for those of us sleep walking in the West, we’ll feel good that we have our human rights act together.

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My Not So Redeeming Personal Quality

A better title would have been “ONE Of My Not So Redeeming Personal Qualities”.

To quote my eldest daughter, who just turned 21, from last night’s Skype session. “You routinely jump to erroneous conclusions based upon incomplete information.” Flattering stuff huh?

Some context. Growing up, my older brothers teased me mercilessly. And then my friends and I took turns ripping one another. That’s my excuse for being sarcastic, it’s the legacy of my childhood.

Sarcasm is a very tricky thing, because the line of how much is appropriate is always shifting. Every person, and therefore every small or large group, has a different level of tolerance and comfort with it. My hypothesis is that the more people grew up being teased, the more relaxed they are about it as adults. And vice versa. Some members of my fam have a low tolerance for teasing. I know that because I’ve crossed over their lines so many times.

Somehow, Eldest Daughter (ED) got accustomed to it, so much so, that she gives as well as she gets. With such a quick and keen wit, it’s almost impossible to ruffle her feathers.

A little more context. She’s living in a house just off her Midwest college campus with four roommates. She’s working full-time this summer. The GalPal and I are paying for all of her expenses including rent, utilities, and food in the hope that she can save what she’s earning.

And a final bit of context. Recently ED reconsidered her longstanding vow to never friend me on Facebook—one of my greatest life accomplishments. Last week on Facebook she posted a few pics from her birthday including one of her sitting on her nice lawn with a few girlfriends and a few six packs of CRAFT BEER.

Finally, now you’re ready to eavesdrop on our Skype exchange from last night.

Me: Regarding the Facebook birthday pics, there’s something I have to explain to you. Most college students, no make that most people in their 20’s drink beer that’s just one small step above horse urine.

ED: What?! What are you talking about? [Her head then dropped so that all I could see was a cascade of blonde hair. Which I interpreted as an admission of guilt. So I pressed the pedal to the metal.]

Me: Yeah, you’re normally SO articulate, and now, mired in guilt, all you can do is stammer and evade.

ED: [Smiling ear to ear.] No, no, you don’t understand.

Me: You don’t understand. You’ll remember we weren’t sure how much to allocate for food. Seeing pictures of your friends and you with CRAFT BEER convinced me we’ve allocated too much money for food and drink. Most college students, no make that most people throughout their twenties, drink beer that’s just one small step above horse urine. [Now she’s laughing hard, which I interpret as an obvious mea culpa.]

Me: [Yes, you’re right, it should be her turn, but the best defense is a good offense.] Most people wait until they’re making $50 large in their thirties before buying CRAFT BEER. We’ve given you too much money if you’ve already leap-frogged the decade-long horse urine stage altogether.

ED: No, you don’t understand. I and E were visiting [I was returning for her senior year at Notre Dame and E accompanied her from home base in Olympia, WA. Both are close high school friends who she never expected to see in her college town. Thus, excitement.] and they insisted on buying me craft beer for my b-day. I didn’t pay for any of it.

Me: Oh.

Me: Is this another example of me jumping to the wrong conclusion based upon incomplete information?

ED: YES, just ONE of MANY examples!

Sadly, you can find numerous posts in this blog’s archive on the pitfalls of prejudging people, and yet, there appears to be a log in my eye (Matthew 7:3). I hereby recommend taking any future “pitfall of prejudging people” posts with large grains of salt.

Now only three questions remain.

1) Is it only a matter of time before she unfriends me in order to keep her personal purchases more personal?

2) Is she bullshitting me?

3) Is my questioning her veracity just one more not so redeeming personal quality to add to the list?

What say you dear reader?

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What I’m Reading

Book—College (Un)bound by Jeffrey Selingo. The subtitle, “The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” is representative of Selingo’s clear and descriptive writing. A must read for anyone interested in the present state and probable future course of higher education.

Magazine essay—Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair, Did Goldman Sachs Overstep in Criminally Charging Its Ex-Programmer? The central character, Sergey Aleynikov is a fascinating case study. And Lewis is on my list of writers who I read irrespective of the topic. On the surface this essay is about a computer programmer, high-speed trading, and Wall Street avarice. Deeper down it’s about human nature, passion, personal transformation, and happiness.

Blog post—The Surprising Effect of Small Efforts over Time by MMM. Here’s a three minute intro to MMM. Wonderful insight, small efforts, repeated over time, will almost always surprise you.

Losing Touch

Removed from the realities of other people’s day-to-day lives, we lose touch with them.

Politicians lose touch with their constituents all the time. Many have no idea what a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk costs. If our politicians had to do their own taxes, think they might get serious about tax simplification?

One recent afternoon, the Prime Minister of Norway decided he’d try to reconnect with common people by posing as a taxi cab driver. I’d give him more credit if he didn’t film it so expertly so that it would get reported on even by distant bloggers. The catalyst no doubt was the fact that he’s behind in the polls. Norway’s population is similar to Washington State’s, so for me, it would be like getting driven by our Governor.

Living through my daughter’s transition from high school to college has taught me I’ve lost touch with the first year college students I teach. Now days, I don’t fully appreciate how hard it is to leave home, live in a small room with a stranger, and have to start from complete scratch making friends.

Similarly, I’ve lost touch with the teaching challenges my grad students will inevitably face when they student teach in primary and secondary schools. Visiting schools is a poor substitute for teaching day in, day out.

Accustomed as I am to having a well-stocked pantry and fridge, I’ve lost touch with people who don’t have enough to eat. Make that the poor more generally. I wonder, what it would be like to not have any savings? Or be in serious debt? To feel like the hole is getting deeper and deeper?

Last week it was reported that 40% of whites have only white friends (and 25% of ethnic minorities have only friends from within their ethnic group). My hometown lacks ethnic diversity for sure, but thanks to the GalPal, I spent one evening last week at a nearby lake with family friends from Mexico. Their 12 year-old daughter taught me how to jet-ski. Despite occasional lake get togethers, I’m not in touch with first generation Americans who aren’t terribly comfortable with English, are supporting extended family members, and are no doubt worried about whether we’ll ever pass meaningful immigration reform.

My favorite People Magazine news story from last week involved Oprah, a $38,100 purse, and a Swiss shop owner who lost touch with the fact that non-whites can in fact be extremely wealthy. O made $77m last year. Oops.

The shop owner’s gaffe is a reminder that all of us live in varying degrees of out-of-touchness. All the time.

The only antidote is curiosity. We need to acknowledge the limits of our understanding and ask questions of others. And listen and learn.

On Dog Poop and the Human Condition

Spaniards in Brunete, a small, middle-class suburb of Madrid, are fed up with their dog poop riddled parks and sidewalks. So the mayor of the town decided to send the dog poop back to dog owners. I kid you not. Read the full story here

As explained in the New York Times:

Volunteers were enlisted to watch for negligent dog owners and then to approach their dogs to pet them. After a few flattering remarks about the beauty of said dog, they asked what breed it was. Then they asked the dog’s name. Back at City Hall, where more than 500 residents have their pets registered, that was enough information to get to an address.

Mayoral money quote, “It’s your dog, it’s your dog poop. We are just returning it to you.” The Times reports that:

The dog owners got their packages — white boxes bearing the seal of this town and labeled “lost and found” — within hours. Signing for the curious parcels, they must have been intrigued, though surely unsuspecting. . . .Delivering 147 boxes of the real stuff seems to have produced a . . . lasting effect in this town of about 10,000 residents. The mayor guesses a 70 percent improvement even now, several months after the two-week campaign.

Brunete’s Mayor deserves points for creativity and boldness, but I’ll be surprised if their parks and sidewalks are much improved next August. In part because dog owners have already stopped giving up their dog’s names, but more importantly, because it’s very difficult to teach old dogs (the masters that is) new tricks. As one commenter of the NYT article wrote, “Personal responsibility only works for people with a conscience. For the rest, it takes shame, videotape and public humiliation, all of it well deserved.” I disagree with the second sentence which I’ll return to shortly. First a related anecdote.

A few years ago I was enjoying a hard earned lunch at the Crystal Mountain turnoff late into RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). While trying to recover for the final push, I was admiring a fellow cyclist also in his late 40’s/early 50’s—his bike, cycling kit, and obvious fitness. My book cover assessment. . . badass. Then he opened a Cliff Bar, ate it, and TOSSED the wrapper on the f#*king ground.

Stunned, I wondered, what kind of person litters? That’s why God created jersey pockets and trash cans. There’s tons of evidence on the side of our roads that lots of people litter, but we hardly ever see them. This was up close and semi-personal. It’s bad enough in an urban environment, but we were smack dap in the middle of some of God’s finest handiwork. Somehow I suppressed my instincts to open a can of whup ass on my lycra-clad compatriot.

If it’s not built-in, and I don’t believe it is, how do people develop a conscience and learn to take personal responsibility for maintaining their part of the public square—whether a park, a sidewalk, or a natural setting? It’s modeled for them at a young age by a constellation of caring adults—older sibs, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders. For the vast majority of peeps, the first ten to fifteen years of life tells the story.

Shame, videotape and public humiliation will not inspire meaningful change over time. If I’ve learned one thing as a life-long educator it’s that encouragement and positive feedback are far more motivating than shame and public humiliation.

Which makes me wonder, what if Spaniards and you and I used the postal service to acknowledge selfless acts of personal responsibility? What form might those types of notes, letters, or packages take? Here’s just one of many examples that come to mind. A friend who lives on a nearby lake is always inviting our family to enjoy their primo community dock. When we take advantage of her generosity, she often barbecues dinner—hamburgers, salmon burgers, veggie burgers, chicken. Typically, we bring a salad or some fruit, but there’s a clear imbalance. I should go “reverse dog poop” and send her (or drop of rather) a package of frozen burger patties as a token of appreciation along with a note of thanks.

Granted, she doesn’t need that recognition, because generosity is integral to who she is. It was probably a part of her nature at age ten or fifteen, but everyone appreciates being appreciated. Let’s spare the postal service any more dog poop and watch for random acts of responsibility, thank the person or people involved, and create positive momentum in the public square.