Never tell him he’s smart

Some of you might have heard of Khan Academy. It’s a rather marvelous website that got started when its founder, Salman Khan, made some videos to help his young cousins with their studies.

The kids loved them, so Khan made more, and more, until it snowballed into an amazing website with dozens of contributors creating hundreds of hours of engaging videos on every subject known to humanity.

They even have a motto for their movement to make education not just free but awesome for everybody : You Can Learn Anything!

I signed up for said website, and hence I get its newsletter. The latest newsletter had a rather attention grabbing deadline: “Why I Will Never Tell My Son He’s Smart”.

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Like some kind of testosterone laden Dragon Mother bullshit. But that is not the sort of thing that fits with my image of Khan Academy, and so I read on.

Turns out, what the author means is that he reserves his highest praise not for when his children excel at things they are good at, but when they apply themselves to something that does not come easily to them and, through perseverance, improve themselves in that area.

In other words, you get the most praise not for turning an A into an A+, but for turning a C into a B.

Once I got over the shock of this novel idea, I realizes what a profoundly superior scheme that is. Learning to overcome obstacles is one of the most live-improving skills a person can have. To someone who is confident that they can overcome obstacles, the world is at their command. They are not stuck in the rut of trying to only do the things they are good at. They can go wherever they want in life without having to worry about whether it requires something they are “good” at.

From this point of view, the very concept of aptitudes comes into question. Perseverance is the meta-aptitude that unlocks all the rest. If you learn that you can learn whatever you need to learn to accomplish your goals, then you are unstoppable.

That’s why you have so many stories of successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of high school. They realized that if they just applied themselves, they didn’t need to be the smartest or the most gifted.

They were the most persistent, and that’s why they the high school dropouts ended up rich and powerful while the straight A students ended up working for them.

If I had been educated like that, it would have vastly improved my character. One of my main problems as a kid (a problem, I admit, a lot of people would have loved to have) was that it was all too easy. The schoolwork offered no challenge to me, and so I never had to learn to overcome difficulties because for me, there were no difficulties.

Being unable to challenge your gifted students does not merely leave them bored. It leaves them weak.

Admittedly, getting me to try things that did not come naturally to me would have been difficult. I was ferociously stubborn and could out-think my teachers ten times over. It would have taken someone with a very strong will and oodles of patience to convince me to just keep trying at things I found difficult, like arts and crafts, or gym, until I got it right.

Jesus, I was a difficult kid.

Still, the point remains that I could have benefited greatly from an obstacle based education. It would have both challenged me and led me to develop that all important perseverance muscle that I lack to this very day.

I have a lot of trouble sticking with things, and following through on them. I give up things far, far too easily. The moment something becomes tricky or scary or work, I tend to give up. This is especially true if it is something that will only benefit myself, or that only involves myself.

If it involves others, then my strong desire not to let them down and to do my part will keep me motivated. But if it’s just me? Well, who does my giving up hurt? Only me.

And honestly, who cares about me? Not me.

And it’s not just me. I have seen the same sort of weakness of spirit in dozens of my fellow intellectually gifted people. People who have oodles of intelligence and therefore oodles of potential, but there is some vital ingredient missing between them and the things they theoretically can do, and so they end up lost in society’s wastelands.

People with excellent marks that lead to brilliant academic degrees…. only to have them give up faced with even the thought of competing with many similar people for scarce slots in a master’s program. People with amazing programming skills who nevertheless can’t keep a job doing it, or even finish their own projects, because they flee at the slightest sign of pressure. Even people with full doctorates who end up as Starbucks baristas because they can’t face the scramble for professorships.

What is this malaise? It’s more than a lack of confidence. It might seem like you have to be a tower of confidence to overcome these obstacles, but you don’t.

You just have to keep going. You just have to have faith that you will make it there as long as you don’t give up. And you get this faith by overcoming obstacles.

Start slow. Start with something that isn’t very important that only seems sort of hard. Once you overcome that, try for something a little tougher. Work that perseverance muscle just a little bit each day, till it is strong and powerful and you are no longer locked in the box of being only able to do what comes easily to you.

There is a world of possibilities out there. Name it, and you can have it. You just have to hang in there and not immediately give up in favour of something more immediately rewarding.

Learn to hang on.

I will be with you, learning too.

I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.

A letter from slumberland

Holy geez was this a whopper of a Sleepy Day.

I’ve done the math, and I slept a total of fourteen hours today. The only break was when I woke up around noon as a half-asleep zombie to put some food in my face before going right back to sleep.

I was so sleepy, I forgot to take my morning meds. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I take all my psych meds in the morning, and those are the most important meds to my mental well-being.

And face it, there is no point in being physically happy when you are mentally miserable.

So as you can imagine, it was not a particularly eventful day. I slept, I ate, I slept some more. When I finally manages to truly wake up at around 4:30 pm, I felt like I was finally creeping out from under a rock. These sleepy periods of mine really do make me feel squashed flat. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with my need to sleep on my front.

But now I have 14 hours of sleep, a decent supper of baked beans on toast with an orange and some NSA cookies, and a liter of diet cola behind me, I feel a lot better. Not necessarily wonderful or even back to what I laughably call “normal”, but I at least feel human, and that’s a marvelous improvement.

In other news, I am pleased with myself because I told Joe that I wanted to go to Costco with him and Julian next time we went, then made sure to be ready to go at the right time, and then went with them, and then spend a significant (to me) chunk of cash buying healthy-type food when I was there.

Any of those steps was a potential failure point. I might have never said anything, or said it but chickened out at the last minute, or gone but not spent anything, but no. Mission accomplished! Yay me!

I bought three things. One was a three-pack of English cucumbers (the long skinny kind) for three bucks, which is a buck a cucumber and usually you can get them cheaper than that,but what the heck. I love cucumber, and that cuke is going to be the source of many a tasty cucumber, bacon, and mayo sandwich in the future.

My mouth is watering just at the thought of it. Mmmm.

Growing up, we only had the other kind of cucumber. The shorter, thicker, fatter ones. The standard cucumber, in my view. When I first came across an English cucumber (or, more properly, the European cucumber), I thought it was a standard cucumber to which something extremely bad had happened.

I still feel that way sometimes, to be honest.

But they taste just the same as the standard, and so unless you need big slices of cucumber for something, they are more or less the same thing.

The other two things were an eight-pack of cans of baked beans and an eight pack of cans of chicken soup.

The baked beans are your bog-standard baked beans you can get anywhere. But the soups are from Campbell’s “County “Kitchen”, which is funny because half of them have quinoa (pronounced ‘kee no wa’, apparently) in the and I am pretty sure that down home country kitchens are not up on the latest trendy ancient grains.

Depends on what country your country kitchen is in, I suppose. I mean, the stuff came from South America in the first place. Presumably, there are lots of country kitchens with big jars of quinoa there!

So I am finally getting around to trying quinoa. I assume it is not as trendy as it used to be if it has made it all the way into Campbell’s soups already. Hell, I think Denny’s has a quinoa salad now, and Denny’s had got to be the Reader’s Digest of food trends, in that once it is there, it has lost all of its coolness points.

Not that I am slagging Denny’s. I love it there. But part of what I love about it is how unpretentious it is. I am always the most comfortable at low-pressure, low-status, down-home kinds of restaurants. Any place where they are overtly trying to tell you how you should feel about yourself for eating there is too high-falutin’ for me.

I do, at most, middle-falutin’.

Now where was I… oh right. I am pleased with myself because I went and got the kind of foods I wanted. The kind of foods that will make my meals tastier, more satisfying, and healthier all at once. I eat way too many PBNJs and way too much junk food. I plan on improving my nutrition by buying better stuff and spending more on healthy grocery based meals instead of far more expensive restaurant based meals.

I mean, the three things I got at Costco will be the centerpiece of like twenty meals, and all for the cost of one restaurant meal. It just makes sense.

In order to buy the stuff, though, I had to borrow substantially from next week’s budget, meaning I will be going into next week with $65 instead of the usual $90. Yipes.

Oh well, it is totally worth it. Better food is a better investment than nearly anything else, after all.

Oh, and one last thing…. I will be getting the CT scan on my umbilical hernia area tomorrow. I am quite happy about it, because CT scans are non-invasive and also do not require me to be entombed within an MRI machine, so the procedure should not be unduly unpleasant, and on the plus side, it gives me a feeling that progress is being made on that front.

I am really hoping that the thing can just be patched up endoscopically and so it will be a minimum amount of hospital time invested in a new, better me.

Who knows, maybe this will fix some of my digestive issues.

That’s all for me for today, folks. I will talk to you again tomorrow.

The light of morning

So what is the average world citizen to do against the heart of darkness?

You have to be willing to sacrifice some of your innocence in order to remain open to believing that humanity’s dark side knows no bound, and that where the conditions for evil exist, it will inevitably occur. Like an open wound becoming infected, the body politic is always vulnerable to the temptations and dark desires of those given power without an equal degree of accountability.

That sort of morally compromising position can exist anywhere, at any level of society. It can be as simple as a single parent abusing their child with nobody around to witness it, or as complex as as entire world governments being beholden to the rich and powerful because they have accepted so much cash and favours from them.

Thus is our human instinct for reciprocity, the desire to do good things for people who have done good things to us, twisted to serve the amoral desires of the rich and powerful.

Luckily, most of this sacrifice of innocence has been done for us. It was not an easy task and the job is not yet completely, but we have all had to learn about things like domestic abuse, genocide, people who prey on children, wretched poverty, and dozens of other ways in which life is nothing like the Ozzie and Harriet worldview that now seems hopelessly childish.

We are an older but wiser people in today’s world.

Along with the willingness to sacrifice a portion of one’s innocence, the darkness also requires a dedication to tight vigilance of those who wish to fight it. We must be able to direct our attention to those in power and let them know that they are being watched and no longer operate under a cloak of darkness.

Keeping our eyes on those in power is not easy. The first thing anyone does with power is use it to make sure they get to keep their power, and that inevitably leads to hiding what they do from all prying eyes, including those of the people who are explicitly tasked with keeping them in line. Power, as we all know, goes to people’s heads, and people who were perfectly normal citizens before they got power can turn into paranoid tyrants in a shockingly short amount of time.

They have power, and thus, the means to hide what they do with it. But we the people have time, patience, intelligence, and most of all, numbers.

It doesn’t take a huge percentage of us to track everything those in power do. And there are many ways to deduce what is not explicitly revealed. If we are willing to tear ourselves away from all the wondrous distractions the corporate world has provided for us to fixate upon and just spare a little time to scrutinize those in power who are NOT celebrities, we could bring much needed accountability to the power structures of the world.

And then, there is the issue of whistleblowers.

The world desperately needs whistleblowers. A lot of times, it is only those people on the inside who are willing to, in effect, defect to the outside world who can take down large and well organized evil. Often it is only those inside the operation but considered too unimportant to bother keeping secrets from who are in a position to take the giant down from the inside.

But I do not claim that becoming a whistleblower is easy. This is why there are so few of them. Often, it means sacrificing your entire current life, including your financial stability and your safety, just to speak up for a moral principle. It means leaving behind the world you knew and entering a colder, harsher, more anxious one where people in power are using every means at their disposal to discredit, degrade, and destroy you. You have to be willing to turn on all your co-workers and your boss, not to mention the organization that has been paying you for however many years. You have to be willing to shoot your arrow at the giant’s eyes, and flee before he falls, leaving everyone else you know at work to their own devices.

None of that is easy, especially if you have obligations outside yourself, like a spouse, children, elderly grandparents,and so forth and so on. Sure, you might find the corruption and abuse you see all around you intolerable, but what about them? What right to you have to disrupt their lives?

The only solution to this that I can see is if someone with wealth and power of their own takes up the cause of protecting and supporting the brave whistleblowers who are willing to step out into the cold. Someone with enough power of their own to face down all the other rich and powerful people who want the whistleblower’s head on a platter and will call them a class traitor to their face for sheltering them.

So in a way, the rich person must become a whistleblower themselves.

We can bring accountability to these out of control moral imbeciles who we have somehow allowed to access the lever of power, but it will cost us. It will cost us our time, our addicting distractions, our attention, our lifestyles, and maybe even our jobs.

But we are legion, and they are a tiny minority who only wield the power they do because the systems to keep them in check have been allowed by weak and corrupt leadership to be eroded away to nothing.

We the people are still in charge, if only we unite against them. No regime in history has ever been able to stay in power if the people unite against them in sufficient numbers. The politicians and governments of the world need to be told, in no uncertain terms, that they can only survive if they rein in the rich and power and restore law and order to the top income tier.

Only then will we take back our democracy.

I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.

The Heart Of Darkness

Today’s blog entry was inspired by this brutally revealing GQ article. It does not make for light and pleasant reading, but I ask you to read it anyway, because it is only by understanding and acknowledging that things like this can and do happen that we can find the way and the will to stop them.

The gist is that men get raped in the military too. And unsurprisingly, men are far, far less likely to report it than women, and women aren’t exactly eager to do so either. Men are ganged up on, brutally raped, told that they will be killed if they speak a word of it to anyone, and if they do try to report it, they are met with a system that is perfectly willing to slap them with a mental illness label and give them a dishonorable discharge, thus wrecking the victim’s lives forever. And because their discharge is a dishonorable one, they cannot even get help from the VA. It is a most perfect hell.

This saddens me but does not surprise me. Absolutely anywhere there is unchecked power and insufficient scrutiny, especially in a highly charged, testosterone laden atmopshere, the darkness within men’s souls will rise and corruption of the worst possible kid will creep in, take hold, then take over.

And it is always the same kinds of evils. When power can use its power to protect itself from accountability, you always get the same evils of power, sex, and greed – the reptile takes over from the monkey.

But it not just the people with power who do these evil deeds that are to blame. They are merely the active component of a system far bigger than their little spiderwebs, and that system protects them not because it approves of their actions, but because people prefer to believe that these things do not happen.

Here’s how that works :

Suppose you are a child psychologist in the 1970’s. A very troubled patient of yours, an eight year old girl, has just tearfully told you that her father routinely and brutally sexually abuses her. What do you do?

From the point of view of the here and now, this is an easy question. You counsel the girl, report her father to Social Services and local police, Dad goes to jail, end of story.

But from the point of view of that child psychologist, the world has just split in two and he has a choice to face.

He could accept that what the girl is saying is true, and have his entire world view shattered. He would have to accept that this sort of thing really does happen and that would change everything he thought he knew about love, family, innocence, and the nature of evil. He would have to live the rest of his life in a much harsher, colder, crueler world, and sacrifice his entire sense of security and safety.

Or, he could call her a liar, get her out of his office, and go back to the world he lived in before that awful little girl opened her mouth and said those awful things. The steel shutters of total denial go down in his mind, he tells himself “it can’t be true. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen.”, and goes back to his life, never thinking about it again and going back to his more “normal” clients, of whom he has plenty.

We know which of those choices is right. But we also know which one is easier, and therefore which one he is most likely to choose. He’s only human, after all.

And that’s how evil grows.

If you want to get away with evil, simply do the unthinkable. Commit crimes so unspeakable that people do not want to think that kind of thing happens at all. If you do this, you will enlist a powerful ally called denial. Good, decent, wholesome people who are kind and benevolent and good citizens will commit profound crimes of negligence and heartlessness by turning away your victims, or even attack your victim themselves, simply because they want to preserve their candy-colored world view, where such things simply don’t happen.

That is why the world will always need those of us who are willing to go directly into the very heart of darkness in order to learn what is there and how to stop it. It needs those of us who are willing to give up all our illusions of comfort and safety in order to find the evil that lurks within the heart of humanity, and by exposure, destroy it.

People like myself, who are willing to think and ask questions like… exactly how does a rape gang organize itself? It’s not something you can advertise. Somehow, like-minded people find each other, and somehow the first time they find a victim and do the deed happens, and after that, they can do it again and again without ever mentioning it out loud. They just know what to expect will happen when they get together.

And in the case of men raping men, how much of a role does internalized homophobia play? It is clearly not about the sex. If the perpetrators were just looking for gay sex, they could have sex with one another.

But if they did that, there would be no way to deny to themselves that they are gay. Only by making the sex as violent, brutal, and most importantly dominating as possible can they reassure themselves that they are, as it were, the man in the relationship, and therefore not gay at all.

That would be at least a partial explanation of why, time and time again, when men have unchecked power over other men, the Abu Ghraib scenario repeats itself over and over and things always get more and more sexual.

If you want to know the true heart of darkness, that is it : the darkness in the hearts of humanity coupled will power using power to prevent accountability, and the public’s desire to maintain a happier worldview than reality will allow.

Now you understand why I am pro-surveillance.

I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.

The easy way out

By and large, the easy way out… sucks.

But being addicted to it, to the pint where you can’t imagine taking any other route, is even worse.

It’s not hard to see how the easy way out becomes addictive. Laziness is an instinct, despite what some gym teacher types might think. We would be inefficient creatures indeed if we did not have an instinct for conserving effort.

This instinct makes avoiding effort inherently pleasurable. We get a nice buzz of electricity in the reward center of our brains when we successfully avoid “unnecessary” effort.

Throw in an element of feeling clever and smart that you came up with an easier way to do something (or avoid doing), and you have a recipe for addiction right there. Two kinds of reward means twice as addictive.

Then add in a third reward : relief of fear or panic. If the effort involved, even in something extremely minor, is also something which causes panic in you, then escaping the situation will make you feel like you just escaped a predator.

And our wonderfully plastic minds are perfectly capable of increasing our tendency to panic in order to get those three rewards. There you are, feeling efficient, smart, and relieved, and even proud of yourself, when all you have really done is reinforced the behaviour pattern that is ruining your life.

When you always, compulsively, take the easiest way out of a situation, you become a very weak and fearful person. Your list of options in life gets smaller and smaller with every easy way out you take, and soon you are effectively almost immobile because your addiction has hollowed you our and made you blind both to the damage you are doing to yourself and the possibilities that lie outside your proscribed low-panic area of comfort.

The easy way out of the situation is rarely ever the best choice. It precludes you actually dealing with situations, only escaping them, and so your problems only get worse over time and, of course, the worse they get, the more you want to escape them and the worse you get at actually dealing with them.

And you have to ask yourself : why am I looking for a way out all the time anyhow? What’s wrong with staying in? Surely there has got to be things out there that are worth staying in for. Only a fool would think that they can somehow know enough about the world to say that there is nothing worth sticking around for.

The truth is that it is the addiction that tells you that nothing is worth the cost of avoiding or even just delaying taking that easy way out exit. As long as you believe that, the addiction remains in your control. You are its prisoner. And if you dare to start looking outside those prison walls, it will enforce its will via fear.

But think about it. What is so bad about staying in? It’s not like you are trapped. The easy way out is still there. You could stay in the situation just to see if maybe it gets better. Maybe it won’t seem so scary if you just hang around. Maybe you will start to get curious. Maybe you will find your motivation to go forward.

And could it really be true that no situation is worth the cost? Not even extremely wonderful ones? Winning a million bucks? Meeting your favorite celebrity? Having the exact kind of sex that you have always wanted? Nothing?

Would you really turn down situations if they involved staying in an uncomfortable or scary situation for longer than you would like when there is an easy way to escape the whole thing?

No, right? So we have found that some things really are worth the cost of sticking around. It’s just a matter of degree.

Now think of those wonderful things, and imagine them happening. You’re in no danger… you are perfectly safe. It is just an exercise of the imagination.

Imagine them happening in as much detail as you can. It will help you to feel like it is a real possibility. Imagine them, then treasure the memory of that experience.

You will begin to get curious about the world. It doesn’t matter how probable the thing you imagined is, all that matters is believing that it is possible. That will provide you with the motivation to explore your life as it is now, and find possibilities that your addiction did not let you see before now.

Even finding one little thing that makes your life a little happier will do wonders for your outlook. You will begin to believe that there really IS happiness out there for you to find, and that if you just keep looking for it, you will find it.

And when the addiction senses it is dying and fights back with the fear and panic that has served it so well in the past, do not fight the fear. Fighting it only makes it stronger.

Instead, let the fear pass through you. Offer it absolutely no resistance. Let it pass through you like a crowd through the sky. And when it has passed through you, it will be gone… and you will still be there.

You can kill your addiction to the easy way out. It won’t be easy, but once you have the tools, victory is inevitable. Every time you hang in there and survive the panic without taking the easy way out, you will grow stronger and the addiction will grow weaker. Do this, and you can murder that evil addiction.

Soon, you will be able to look upon your addiction with amused pity. Oh, there’s that silly old addiction again, trying to scare me. What was once a mighty demon is now no more than a cranky kitten. You can keep it as a pet.

Don’t get trapped by the easy way out. Believe that there are things out there that make fighting the addiction worthwhile.

And someday, you will be able to leave the proscribed life behind.

I will talk to all of you nice folks again tomorrow.