Saturday, May 23. 2009
In response to Kenny's comments on the primacy of effort:
Tuesday, May 19. 2009
The writers at the New Yorker keep coming up with new angles on a recurring theme: talent is Out, effort is In.
I had already written previously about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, in which he details how effort and opportunity are more important than talent in creating super-successful people. Now, in another article, "How David Beats Goliath," (The New Yorker, May 11, 2009) he asks a seemingly simple question for a dedicated basketball fan such as himself: "Why don't more teams play the full-court press?" It doesn't take a genius to realize that a weaker team can dramatically slow down a superior team by playing the full-court press: guarding their opponents they moment they get the ball, and doing everything in their power to stop them from advancing to mid-court in the required 10 seconds. And yet, you rarely see that strategy pursued, at any level of play.
Gladwell followed up on those who did use the full-court press -- a team of 12-year-old girls in the National Junior Basketball league, and the teams of college coach Rick Pitino -- and found that they triumphed . . . at a price. The full-court press is an exhausting strategy, one that requires players to run and run and run. Few teams, it turns out, are willing to work that hard. It also makes for rather ugly basketball, a rushing and flailing of arms and legs instead of the graceful passes and shots players like to make and fans like to watch. The full-court press is stigmatized -- those who use it are met with both anger and contempt, and some officials make biased calls to discourage its use.
All this would be interesting enough on its own. But Gladwell loves isomorphisms -- he wants to see if this same phenomena maps to other sorts of struggles. And before you know it, he draws parallels with the military history, and academic studies of how underdogs prevail in battle. Lawrence of Arabia played the military equivalent of the full-court press, using the everywhere-at-once attacks of his Bedouin troops in the places his foes were weakest. They prevailed because the hustled, and refused to play by the rules that favored their opponents. Those same tactics -- small, fast, non-traditional, and out-of-bounds -- have now redefined modern warfare in an age of terrorism and insurgency. David can win against Goliath, but only by using methods Goliath finds repellant.
The triumph of effort found another voice this week in another New Yorker article ("Don't! The secret of self-control," May 18, 2009) that looked at the unexpected results of psychological research in the sixties. Some researches had created "the marshmallow test," a simple exercise to see how long four-year-olds could resist eating a treat in order to earn a greater reward later. Kids' abilities to defer gratification varied significantly, but they could also be taught cognitive tricks to make it easier. The researchers didn't realize the significance of their findings until they followed up on their subjects decades later . . . and found that the marshmallow test was profoundly predictive of success in later life. Those who passed the marshmallow test scored higher on the SAT. Those who couldn't resist the marshmallow were more likely to have behavioral problems, had trouble paying attention and maintaining friendships.
For years educators and parents have been focusing on IQ as the most important cognitive measure, when it turns out willpower was more significant. And willpower, they've found, is not some mysterious quality of character, but rather a specific skill for controlling one's attention, focusing on certain thoughts and tuning out others. Persistence of attention and effort are what ensure lifelong success.
What does this mean for our culture? I hope it signals a rejuvenation of the American meritocracy, restoring our faith that people can control their destinies, if they are willing to pay the price. The "land of opportunity" is really "the land of the opportunity to work." Effort is not omnipotent, but it's the closest thing to it.
Thursday, March 12. 2009
For most of my life, and most of my career as a spiritual seeker, I had a classically Romantic notion of reason and emotion:
In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker inverts this model. Pinker asserts that the mind is an evolved mechanism, and as such any complex mechanism in the mind must have served a survival function. And that function is not the lowest of functions, but rather the highest.
Pinker posits that if you had a perfectly rational, sophisticated cognition machine without emotions (say, a robot, or Dr. Spock) and you set it lose in the world with no instructions, it would do . . . absolutely nothing. Intelligence has no use at all unless it has goals – it has to want something. It has to have a motive. And intelligence itself cannot generate the motive; it can figure out how to achieve a goal, but it can't figure out what goals to achieve. The highest-level goal has to come from somewhere else. And that's where the emotions come in. Pinker: "The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting."
So, rather than reason controlling emotion, it's exactly the other way around – emotions mobilize reason to fulfill goals. Every emotion we have is evolutionarily designed to meet some challenge in the world. Pinker spends most of the second half of the book deconstructing the design and survival value of every human emotion: fear, disgust, happiness, friendship, gratitude, sympathy, romantic love, guilt, grief, etc.
For now, though, just consider the ramifications of that simple formulation: emotions trigger responses that lead to action. It becomes a sort of mindfulness meditation: what emotion is motivating my thoughts and actions right now? If you want to change your behavior in some way (after, of course, considering the emotions that make you want to change your behavior) you will probably have to consciously manage your emotions – figure out what environmental cues trigger the emotions that generate the thoughts and behaviors that are manifesting in your life.
These ideas were not entirely new to me – I was always partial to Hume's formulation: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." But this was the first time that I heard a strong scientific case for that position. And rather than seeing the emotions as "primitive" or somehow undesirable, Pinker gives the emotions their due as sophisticated, engineered, essential aspects of cognition. It makes it that much easier for me to accept them and understand them for what they are.
Wednesday, March 11. 2009
Steven Pinker is an atheist; in How the Mind Works he is not shy about stating, without fanfare or argument, that the explanations of religion are "palpably not true." Why, then would this book be high on my list of recommended reading for the spiritual seeker? Am I trying to argue people out of their faith, with Pinker as my secret weapon?
Steven Pinker demonstrates the best attitude towards finding the truth. He's not afraid to ask the hard questions, and not afraid to accept the hard answers, and (most astounding of all) not afraid to admit what he doesn't know. He's not afraid of giving opposing views a hearing, nor is he afraid to ruthlessly critiquing them, while still avoiding being outright snarky. He is, simply, not afraid. He has a marvelous equipoise that makes you remember that science is a noble manifestation of Reason, with a capital R, and not just an excuse for the geek-and-wonk crowd to bully you with their assertions. And his inquiries have gotten him in trouble -- in fact he wrote an entire book, The Blank Slate, to explain why so many people -- both the religious conservatives and the liberal intelligentsia -- will fight tooth and nail against the notion of human nature.
Maybe it's just a result of his extremely clear, friendly, and witty style, that he seems so fearless. But frankly, I could have used a little more of that in youth. In my teens, everyone who talked about spirituality used the language of fear. Back then it seemed my only possible choice was to exchange the fear of eternal damnation (courtesy of traditional Christianity) for the fear of existential nothingness (thanks a lot, rational intellect). I latched onto mysticism because it seemed like the only way out of perpetual anxiety. Why guess, when you could know? Sometimes I think my philosophy might have gone down a different path, had I just known a few more people who had the guts to face the Unknown without ducking for cover or shitting their pants. Rather than working out my salvation with fear and trembling, I might have spent a lot more time just really paying attention.
That fearlessness only counts, though, if someone is fearlessly asking the right questions. I don't have much use for people who are fearless because they don't have a thought in their head, or who choose to stay in their philosophic bunkers and not go outside into the Doubt. And that's the biggest reason Pinker should appeal to spiritual seekers -- he doesn't shy away from the question of Consciousness. Most other cognitive scientists, after happily explaining why you're just one big ball of algorithms, will just wave their hands indignantly at consciousness. They pretend it doesn't exist, that it's an illusion, or that it doesn't matter, or that it's a question to ask another day, maybe in another hundred years or so. But Pinker, bless him, recognizes that consciousness is THE question, the one we most care about. If there is one thing we know with more certainty than anything else, it's that we are Aware . . . and what the hell is that about?
And, even more interestingly, Pinker is willing for now to let consciousness defy the computational theory of mind. No algorithm or neural network can satisfactorily explain how you come to have the experience of red, with all its redness. Pinker even suggests that it might be truly unfathomable for the human mind, because the human mind never needed to evolve the capacity to understand such things. Our ability to solve problems and predict the future was mighty handy for our ancestors on the African savannah -- but the nature of consciousness might be outside of our ability to comprehend it, because our ancestors never needed to in order to survive. This also feels intuitively true -- if there is any possible way to understand consciousness, it's going to be an entirely different sort of understanding than we're used to.
Pinker has lots of useful insights to share about every other kind of thought and feeling that occupies your philosophic contemplation. But the biggie, the best, the pearl of great price, is this: keep your eye on consciousness, because THAT'S what science can't touch, and that's where all the action is. If God is ever to be found to be "palpably" real, it's going to be there.
Saturday, January 24. 2009
Gender pay equity has been back in the news lately, as the Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which starts the clock on the statute of limitations on inequitable treatment at the time of the last paycheck. I include the link to original text, because it does turn out that the Wall Street Journal's warnings of a trial-lawyer bonanza are somewhat exaggerated – under the law, someone could recover for back pay for up to two years, instead of twenty or more. But the Paycheck Fairness Act, which supposedly seeks to revive the notion of "comparable worth" and set wage guidelines on abstract notions instead of market demand, does seem to me to be a little more disturbing.
Pay equity is one of the most vexing social issues ever to plague a policy wonk. It's thornier than even healthcare. Everyone agrees they want a level playing field and equal opportunity for all. But knowing whether particular outcomes are fair challenges every other principle that supports a free economy. In the real world, wages are not set by bureaucrats but by a labor market – that is, negotiations between buyer and seller. Research suggests that the wage gap may not be due to sinister employers trying to keep women down, but rather the fact that men are more aggressive than women when it comes to negotiating pay. The U.S. General Accounting Office research demonstrates that the majority of pay discrepancies between men and women are due to what they cautiously refer to as "work patterns" – namely, women are more likely than men to place their family obligations ahead of their career ambitions, which inevitably leads them to make decisions that diminish their earnings. As a general rule, the people who care more about money get more of it . . . and those who care about other things, get less. That might be frustrating, but is it unfair?
Ok, time out for mandatory PC disclaimers. Yes, bona fide cases of unfair gender discrimination in pay exist. Yes, women should have legal protections against such abuses. I do think, however, it is flat-out wrong to assume that differences in pay are automatically a moral offense. A difference in outcome does not necessarily mean a difference in opportunity.
Monday, December 15. 2008
Most theories of human nature (especially those that inform people's politics) boil down to two simplistic notions:
Generally speaking, conservatives believe people are naturally bad, and liberals think people are naturally good. Conservatives focus their attention on controlling and directing the individual with rules in order to preserve the common good (e.g. "law and order" campaigns, big defense budgets, etc.). Liberals focus their attention on controlling collective organizations (governments, businesses, families) in order to preserve the individual good (e.g. government mandates for worker safety, "safety nets," etc.)
I think most people are moderates, since they find the first position too cynical and the second too naïve. The truth is that human beings are naturally selfish and naturally cooperative. Things would be a whole lot easier if it was one way or the other; then we wouldn't have to spend so much time trying to figure out which response was the right one.
This poses some problems for anyone trying to construct a consistent model of fairness . . . since fairness is only consistent with about half of human nature.
Saturday, November 15. 2008
I had written earlier about my concerns about teasing and bullying in my own children, as a prelude to discussing a lecture I heard by Kim John Payne, a prominent authority on handling bullying in schools.
Payne turned out to be, above all else, and excellent story-teller. He had made a concerted study of coming-of-age rituals in various indigenous societies, and had come out of the experience inspired to bring a more enlightened understanding of childhood development, and especially managing conflict, to modern Western culture. He told several stories about those experiences, most of which were both funny and interesting. I don't think I'll do him just repeating them, though you could probably hear many of the stories in the books and CDs on his website. But I can at least give the high points of his talk, and the take-home message:
Payne found that all coming-of-age rituals throughout the world shared the same fundamental structure:
The process is shaped like an hour-glass, with the person "squeezed" through an intense experience in the middle (the "liminal" stage) and ultimately released again into greater freedom and autonomy. [My first thought, in seeing this map of coming-of-age rituals, was: "That's exactly the structure of all spiritual experience."]
Payne correlated this structure of coming-of-age rituals with what happens with bullying in the schools. The bullied student goes through a process of isolation and endurance, resulting in extreme disorientation, but ultimately (if things go well) changes and emerges into a new form of belonging to the community. It's not a perfect fit, as analogies go, and Payne didn't push it too far, though he did seem to have some conclusions about what it means for bullying:
The other big take-home message (and I'm not sure if this directly ties into the whole coming-of-age theme or not) was that bullying always starts small, primarily with verbal put-downs. Put-downs have become a staple form of entertainment in our society; for instance, every 18-minute episode of Friends was found to contain over 50 put-downs. Kids follow the example that parents and popular culture set; we are essentially teaching them that verbally abusing others is fun and acceptable. Eventually, put-downs become a compulsive, addictive behavior: criticism creates a temporary feeling of camaraderie, superiority, and power, but later leads to a sense of isolation, shame, guilt, and emptiness. Payne's first recommendation for schools is to teach students, teachers, and parents to become aware of gratuitous criticism in their own communication, and to challenge every occurrence of it. There is nothing profoundly new about such advice: Buddhism includes "right speech" in its prescriptions for moral behavior, and nearly everyone's mother said (if not practiced) "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And yet, I know most people (adults and children alike) would find Payne's "blame, shame, and put-down diet" to be extremely challenging. If we're not complaining or criticizing someone or something, then what do we have to talk about?
Monday, November 3. 2008
A recent New Yorker article ("Red Sex, Blue Sex," by Margaret Talbot, November 3, 2008) challenges some assumptions about whether conservative attitudes towards sexuality are really "pro-family". Some new sociological studies find that evangelicals who most strongly push for abstinence before marriage are also the groups that have the most sexually active teenagers, the highest teen pregnancy, the lowest age of marriage and (as a direct consequence) the highest rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the liberals who are generally accepting of both teenage sex and abortion are the ones having the lowest teenage pregnancy rate, delaying marriage and childbearing, and therefore having kids when they are more emotionally and financially mature.
I have mixed feelings about the results they report . . . Primarily because I have lived on both sides of their conservative/liberal divide, at least as far as sexuality was concerned. I grew up with a belief that one should postpone sexual activity until marriage, instilled by my family as a part of my religious beliefs. And I did, in fact, remain a virgin until I married.
However, I had a lot of the "blue" factors at work as well. My parents were explicit about practical perils of sex as well as the moral ones -- "if you father a child, you are the one who will be raising it, not me," my mother told me on more than one occasion. And though my mother was vehement about postponing sex until marriage, she was far from being against sex per se. Sex was not banned because it was evil, but precisely because it was good -- a sacred bond, something to be cherished and not debased. And, like many teenagers, I engaged in certain, erm, practices that only barely qualified me as a "technical virgin," as is typical of the liberal-minded prescription.
The New Yorker article didn't mention some of the downsides that I see to the "liberal-minded" approach to sexuality. It completely ignores the emotionally charged nature of sexuality. All the condoms in the world cannot protect the psyche from the ramifications of such intimacy. Today's youth might be more informed about sexuality, more careful in a practical sense, and yet they also seem numb. It seems as if the only way they could deal with the emotional consequences of sex was to shut down. I can't speak to this with any authority, since, as I said, I took a different path and have no direct experience with promiscuity. But, as one young woman told me, "With my generation, it's like, sleeping with someone is no big deal." And while some liberals might cheer at such an attitude, I find it unnerving, in the same way I found mandatory promiscuity to be unnerving in Brave New World. If we conquer sexuality by sucking absolutely all meaning and significance out of it, then I'm not entirely sure we're better off.
Interestingly, the study found that the abstinence-only works fine for those who score high on measures of religiosity -- those who go to church often and pray at home. People who get plenty of support and attention, and who are embedded in a cultural alternative to the sexed-up popular culture, can succeed in delaying sex. But, as with lots of religious groups, most who identify themselves as evangelicals are not deeply observant. So it's not enough to have the conservative beliefs about sexuality -- you have to have a lifestyle that supports those beliefs in order for them to have any significance.
All this reinforces some basic SKS messages regarding one's philosophy:
Sunday, October 26. 2008
I have a new theory of human meaning, and human happiness.
It sprung from contemplating my "need to be needed." (See my previous post, "The Geek Shall Inherit…") I think at some level everyone feels a need to be needed. "Being needed" is almost synonymous with "being significant"; if you aren't needed, then you are superfluous, unnecessary, insignificant, and therefore meaningless. If you are needed, that means you are fulfilling a necessary role in the world. People care who you are and what you do. They are counting on you. They rejoice in your victories and bemoan your losses. When you listen to people who are obviously galvanized by a compelling purpose, you hear the language of need: "They really need me here." "They can't make it without me." Even if it's not directly stated, the necessity of your activity is implied. When one says, "I'm making a difference here," it implies the necessity of your action-- because, if you're action was unnecessary, could you say you're making a difference?
"Nonsense!" declares the hard-charging businessman with his copy of Atlas Shrugged in his briefcase. "I don't do this stuff to be needed! I just want to be the best! I'm doing this for myself!" Hmmm . . . Well, the businessman might think he's in it just for himself, but empirically it doesn't seem to hold up. If you dig into his definition of what "being the best" means, you will ultimately find that it involves filling someone's need. The railroad he builds, or the media empire, or the work of art, is ultimately judged as "good" or even "great" to the extent that it fulfills some human need.
So . . . We need to be needed. And with that need comes the burden of necessity. When your action is required, it becomes a duty, something you have to do. (Never mind, for the moment, that you might also want to do it; it still remains a necessity, a have-to-do.) Now, the burden of necessity can be a blessing; lots of people talk about "having a reason to get out of bed in the morning." They want to have some necessity to compel them to action. Some people even find a certain intensity and bliss in all their actions coming from sheer necessity. Soldiers and others in life-and-death struggles often report a lightness in their being, a clarity unclouded by doubt. They know what they need to do, and they do it . . . which is more than many of us can claim for our day-to-day lives.
Over time, though, the burden of necessity can ultimately lead to being enslaved by necessity. Unless the necessity we serve is completely in accord with our true desires, we find ourselves feeling trapped by our duties and obligations. Think of Steve Martin's character in Parenthood, snarling to his wife: "My whole life is 'have to' !" We feel deprived of freedom, deprived of choice, a mere cog in the works of society.
So . . . we can look to the other side of meaning, which is freedom. I'll take that up tomorrow.
Saturday, October 25. 2008
"What happened to the blog?" I'll tell you: I was overcome by my inner geek.
The stereotype is that geeks are social outcasts -- awkward, repulsive people who cultivate relationships with machines because they can't relate to other people. And yet, as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of the popular culture and everyday life, people with technological skill are generally well-loved and respected. I have no lack of fans, at least among those who need my help.
And . . . There is always a need for technological help. Confessing to be a techno-geek at a party is almost as bad as being a doctor; people immediately start telling you about their computer problems and asking you to help them.
And the geeks do help. I've rarely found a geek who wasn't willing, nay, dying to share his expertise with others. That is, after all, how they constitute their self image. In our own minds, we are super-heroes. I am not exaggerating; we really do see ourselves as the specially-endowed saviors of humanity.
Consider the following scene:
Someone cries for help. Something awful has happened. Their world has turned upside down. Something very dear to them is terribly imperiled by a threat they do not understand, some kind of monster, and nobody around them can help. Others have been powerless to help. The victim is on the verge of despair. Suddenly, someone new arrives . . . Someone who is not afraid. "I've seen this sort of thing before, ma'am." Using powers that seem mystical and strange, the stranger banishes the evil, restores balance and peace to the world. The rescued victims are so thankful. "However can I repay you . . . ?"
This is a stock scene from Superman, yes? It is also what happens when you recover someone's email files from a corrupted hard disk. The thrill of power and purpose is probably about the same.
I used to think that the pull of being a superhero was only a small part of my motivation. Surely I have other motives -- personal profit, intellectual interest. But the drive to be the super-hero consistently trumps all other desires. I will give up billable hours, even my own free time, even food and sleep, all for the sake of hearing someone say, "You saved me. You're awesome."
No doubt lots of good comes from it. And yet, it is an unmanageable addiction, one that leads to over-commitment, poorly planned projects, and misplaced priorities. My boss once told a customer: "Don't ask Georg to do anything that's not on this list . . . Because saying 'please' to him is, like, kryptonite. He loses all willpower, he does whatever anyone says."
So . . . As I started making free time to pursue my writing, I was filling it instead with more technical heroics . . . This time unpaid technical heroics for my kids school. It all needed doing, and I'm glad I did it, but it's not what I set out to do. It's time to change that.
My thanks, as always, to the friends and colleagues who kept asking me, "Where's the blog?" Sadly, I need that. I need that a lot.
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