Favoring My Private Self

I learned to write at UCLA. In the early 80s. First in a small Remedial English composition class filled with future professional athletes, and later, in history course after history course. One of the myths we erroneously tell ourselves at places like my employer, a smallish private liberal arts university, is that personalized learning can’t happen at large public universities. I’m living proof that’s not true. Sure, often, those history course discussion sections were lead by doctoral students, but they were outstanding and demanding beginning teachers.

Like marathon training, there are no short cuts in learning to write. Defying conventional wisdom about large, public university professors, my teachers and their assistants bled all over my papers. I paid close attention to their feedback and quickly caught up to my peers. And then continued improving quarter by quarter.

One memorable day in my sophomore year, in a large class on Central America, my professor, E. Bradford Burns, read my name and the title of my essay and said it was one of the three most outstanding in the class.

Stunned is putting it mildly. Wish my dad had been there.

After watching me skate through high school the first eighteen years of my life, he thought I should skip college and go to work for him sweeping floors in the Los Angeles factory he ran. Or join the military. If those harangues were reverse psychology, they worked. To succeed I knew I had to apply myself, and I did.

Another leap forward as a writer came exactly one decade later when, thanks to the encouragement of a young innovative mentor from Stanford, I wrote a 324 page doctoral dissertation in novel-like form. In it, I told the story of an International Studies magnet high school in Southern California. I was the very rare doctoral student who enjoyed the vast majority of the dissertation research and writing process.

As a professor, I’ve published quite a bit, but have not found academic writing gratifying. The whole tree in the forest thing. If only a handful of other egghead professors read it, is it worth it? For better or worse, a decade ago, I cut back and started the humble blog.

Which brings us to the present. My E. Bradford Burns booster shot of confidence has faded a bit. Sometimes I think, if I was a good writer, the humble blog would have a larger readership. In fact, I might have to stop referring to it as the humble blog. More important than assessing how well I write or not is the incontrovertible fact that I enjoy it.

One thing I like about it is that it’s difficult. In particular, I struggle with how to engage people without revealing at least some of my inner landscape. For example, right now, apart from writing a semi-autobiographical novel, I can’t figure out how to meaningfully explore and explain what I’ve been thinking most about—motivation, or what causes us to do the things we do, or more to the point, what causes me to do the things I do, without compromising other people’s and my privacy. I’ve struggled with that since the beginning, and doubt I’ll ever master it. I error on the side of maintaining others’ and my privacy.

That means there’s way more unspoken content between blog posts than within them. When I go four or five days without posting, sometimes I’m out of interesting ideas, but other times, I’m just favoring my private self.

I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Isn’t there more to your thinking than you typically let on? Aren’t you semi-transparent at best? Don’t you struggle with being vulnerable? With trusting others with your innermost thoughts? Aren’t we all icebergs of sorts, with much more going on below the surface than anyone realizes?

Or maybe with you, what you see, is what you get. In which case, I am unique.

 

 

 

 

 

What We Get Wrong About Honesty

That it’s mostly telling the truth to others. But being honest with one’s self is a more essential starting point, and because we lack any semblance of objectivity, far more difficult.

None of us are ever completely honest with ourselves. Meaning we are loathe to accept our differences which makes self acceptance a constant struggle.

Case in point. I loved, loved, loved this short essay titled “An Emotional Reunion Between Cello and Cellist”. Russell had me after her opening paragraph:

“On a recent Thursday, Matt Haimovitz, the forty-seven-year-old virtuoso cellist, packed an empty instrument case into the back of his car and drove from his home, in Montreal, to a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where he’d be crashing. The case was for Haimovitz’s rare, multimillion-dollar cello, which he calls Matteo—after Matteo Goffriller, the seventeenth-century Venetian luthier who built it. He had played it for thirty years, until, fifteen months earlier, while giving a lesson to a promising Canadian student, he dropped it, and the cello’s neck snapped. Since then, the instrument had been undergoing extensive repairs by a team of five luthiers at Reed Yeboah Fine Violins, near Columbus Circle. Now the shop had called to say that Matteo was ready for release.”

If I’m honest with myself, I want something resembling what those six people have—Haimovitz and the five luthiers—a singleminded focus on one thing that animates their lives. One thing that gives them an overwhelming purpose for being. Even a little bit of flow.

Put differently, I want to love something the way Haimovitz loves his cello. I am fascinated by people with distinct passions, often wishing I was one of them. It doesn’t matter how esoteric or far removed the passions are from my life; interior design, locomotive trains, the Spanish language; I still look on with envy.

This year I’ll cycle somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 miles. Friends ride 10,000-12,000. I like cycling, they love it. Some people read a book or more a week. I like reading, they love it. Some commit 60+ hours a week to their jobs because they like their work so much they often loose track of time. I prefer being on sabbatical. Some bloggers have huge readerships in part because they are laser focused on a particular topic. In contrast, the Humble Blog, a reflection of my continuously distracted pea brain, is all over the place.

Hiking Burroughs Mountain Trail last weekend, I listened to my friends excitedly discuss plant nomenclature and geology and wondered, “What’s wrong with me?” By which I meant, “Why aren’t I equally curious? Why am I content not knowing the name of the beautiful flower or understanding how the awe-inspiring landscape was formed? Why aren’t I similarly passionate about labeling and understanding the natural world?”

But then I stop to think that my cycling obsessed friends don’t run and swim. And maybe it’s okay that my interests are more disparate, and therefore, less intensive. Wide-ranging interests enable me to ask more questions, connect with more people, create a relatively diverse and interesting social network.

How fortunate that everyone is wired differently. Maybe the singleminded people of the world, the Haimovitz’s, would tell me sometimes there are downsides to being obsessively focused on one thing.

Maybe I’m okay and you’re okay.

 

I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

Selecting The Wrong Leader. . . Again

Fighting an insidious attack on my immune system, I’ve opted to lean in to the sickness by reading the Atlantic’s God’s Plan for Mike Pence and the New York Times’s Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation.

Journalism is hemorrhaging jobs, but fortunately, in some places, long form journalism is flourishing. These are detailed; thoughtful; and if you’re left-leaning, harrowing pieces.

From God’s Plan for Mike Pence:

“Scott Pelath, the Democratic minority leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, said that watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share. As one former adviser marveled, ‘The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.'”

Tucked in the NYT piece were passing references to Trump’s twelve daily Diet Cokes and his regular dinner of. . .

“plates of well-done steak, salad slathered with Roquefort dressing and bacon crumbles, tureens of gravy and massive slices of dessert with extra ice cream.”

I’m calling bullshit on his doc’s glowing reports on his health. #fakenews

Why do we as citizens, employees, members of civic organizations, make leadership decisions we often regret? Why is our batting average too often Seattle Mariner-like?

Because we pick leaders based upon tangible qualifications that most closely match those we detail in our job postings, with far too little attention paid to the finalists’ psychological well-being. Granted, psychological well-being is hella-hard to assess in even a series of interviews, but somehow, we have to get better at it.

Let’s start with this premise, on a “Psychological Health” scale of 1-100, the most self-actualized person in the world is a 90. Put differently, everyone has “issues” and is fallible. The goal is to select leaders with the fewest inner demons so as to avoid getting hopelessly side-tracked from the group’s overarching mission. How about this for an interview question: Which of your inner demons are we likely to learn about six months from now? Maybe I should use italics when joking. But seriously, how do interviewers enter the side or back door to assess a candidate’s relative mental health and basic people skills?

My best work friend of all time took another job two and a half years ago. When the damnable university called me to talk about him, this is some of what I said, “He utterly has no ego. As a result, he doesn’t care who gets the credit for the good work that get’s done. All he cares about is that good work gets done.” His lack of ego was an indicator of genuine psychological health, the foundation of which, was equal parts a wonderful marriage and extended family, a deep spirituality, and a commitment to physical activity. Importantly, he also laughed a lot, often at himself.

Maybe the answer to the question, how do we assess job finalists’ psychological health, lies in the previous paragraph. Talk to more former co-workers in greater depth. I’m interested in other ideas you may have.

 

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

What People Get Wrong About the NBA and Corona Del Mar High School

Alternative title: Why We Stereotype. Subtitle: Because our pea brains can’t handle complexity.

A sports-minded friend of mine likes soccer; Washington State Cougar football; and this time of year; the Stanley Cup playoffs. But don’t try talking professional basketball with him. He despises The Association because he decided a long time ago that the inmates are running the asylum.

College educated, and a successful professional, he’s like a lot of people who have negative preconceived notions about the league’s players. That because the minority of knuckleheads dominate the news. In fact, there’s greatness in the league, Exhibit A is Kevin Durant’s Most Valuable Player Award speech that you can watch here. Here’s a two-part challenge. Watch the first 4 minutes and then skip to the 22:50 mark and watch the last few. Try not to cry and try not to generalize about NBA players being brash, arrogant, everything that’s supposedly wrong with contemporary culture.

A Los Angeles Times story is titled “‘Prom draft’ reflects Newport Beach Culture, ex-official says“. Here’s the sordid heart of the article:

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school, alleging that the campus fostered a sexist and homophobic atmosphere. The civil rights suit stemmed from an incident in which three male athletes at the school posted a video on Facebook in which they allegedly used homophobic slurs, “outed” a student and threatened to rape and kill a female student.

Nearly a dozen students were expelled this year after it was discovered that a tutor who worked with some of the students accessed school computers and changed their grades.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials declined to comment on the prom controversy but in an email to parents, Corona del Mar High Principal Kathy Scott said she’d heard about an ongoing “prom draft” and that it appeared there was a similar draft last year.

“I need your help. I urge you to talk with your student(s) and discuss the seriousness of this type of activity,” Scott wrote. “I do not believe this is intended to be harmful, but this is not behavior that is consistent with our school’s outstanding reputation.”

Jane Garland, head of discipline for Newport Mesa Unified School District until she resigned this year, said some students there live up to stereotypes tied to Newport Beach. “There’s definitely issues at that school with certain students feeling entitled,” Garland told The Times. “The culture in Newport Beach is ridiculous and CDM personifies it.”

Garland should have stopped after saying some students feel entitled. Why? Because some CDM students may not be super wealthy and some who are may actually be mindful of their privilege. When addressing the school’s larger context, she could have said, “Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous as illustrated at times by some students at CDM.”

Based on his acceptance speech, Kevin Durant may be a better human being than he is a basketball player. Part of his likability is he doesn’t seek attention for his on or off-court accomplishments. ESPN is much quicker to detail the legal failures of the league’s knuckleheads than it is to describe players’ community service. Similarly, the LA Times is much quicker to detail the moral failings of some Southern California high schoolers than it is to tell the story of appreciative, selfless, ethical young people.

If it bleeds it leads. The end result? We succumb to the media’s knucklehead bias, a phenomenon that hardens our negative preconceived thoughts about people seemingly different than us.

I’ve never been on CDM’s campus, but here’s what I know to be true about it. Its students reflect the good and the bad of their parents. If Garland is right and Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous, then no one should be surprised by the aforementioned crises.

For better or worse, young people follow the lead of their parents. Kevin Durant is worthy of admiration because his mother has been for thirty years. Some CDM parents deserve scorn for a litany of parenting failures. Inevitably though, other CDM parents have more in common with Wanda Pratt, Kevin Durant’s mother, pictured below.

We struggle with nuance, subtleties, and ambiguity. In my alternative version of A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson shouts at all of us, “You can’t handle complexity!”

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The Most Valuable Person with the leagues best player for 2013-2014

 

What Engineers Get Wrong

Mr. Money Mustache, a former engineer and Longmont, Colorado-based blogger, has struck a chord with his retire early gospel. To the tune of about 800,000 separate vistors and 3.5 million page views a month. A large part of his appeal is his directness about people’s tendency to waste money unnecessarily.

I like his thesis that community is far more fulfilling than material pursuits, but dislike the groupthink his followers often display.

His advice is to get a good paying job (easier written than done) and then work for 10-15 years saving half of what you earn. Then, when you have $500k or so saved up, quit work and spend time doing whatever you find most meaningful. For him that’s blogging, carpentry, and spending time with family and friends. $500k is far less than nearly every other retirement “expert” recommends saving. MMM believes everyone can do what his family does, live quite comfortably on about $25k a year.

Their house is paid off and they have one inexpensive car that they rarely use. Instead, they bicycle almost everywhere. His most recent post was titled “Bicycling: The Safest Form of Transportation”. That post has generated over 360 comments, many which consisted of a mathematical back and forth, some challenging his use of statistics, others defending him.

In reply to one commenter, he shouted, “You can’t disagree with the math by listing four pieces of anecdotal evidence!” And then, at the end of the of the same reply added what might be the engineers’ motto, “Calculations and spreadsheets for everything.”

These aren’t just the words of one widely read blogger, they succinctly articulate the central message of a wide range of policy makers that see data analysis as a panacea for nearly all of society’s ills. That belief, “calculations and spreadsheets for everything,” is what informs the emphasis upon STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—at the expense of the the humanities, the arts, and foreign languages.

I can’t help but wonder if MMM only interacts with other engineers with the exact same “calculations and spreadsheet” worldview. Mind boggling that someone as smart as him believes that any spreadsheet might make someone less afraid to ride their bike across a major metropolitan area. As if phobias are rational and can simply be argued away with math. If that was true, people wouldn’t see psychologists, they’d see mathematicians. “Let’s see, you’re afraid of flying in airplanes. Take a look at this spreadsheet then.”

Engineers think people are rational. If that were true, people would change their favorite Starbucks order based on their new calorie charts and every investor would always buy low and sell high. A more realistic counter motto is “Subjective emotions for everything”. Few people study calculations and spreadsheets when making friends, love, or decisions about how to get to and from work. They do it based upon a messy, unscientific, imperfect combination of intuition, feel, and emotion.

That’s what engineers get wrong.