3 Surprising Habits of Original People

 

Just watched a genius TED Talk about the surprising habits of original people. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues the most inventive, innovative people have what most of us believe are “bad” habits: they procrastinate, they experience fear and doubt, they even have horrible ideas. But it is because of these “bad” habits-not in spite of them-that creative people have breakthroughs. 

1. Bad habit #1: They procrastinate

Ever since we took life skills class in 6th grade, we heard that procrastination was evil. “People procrastinate for fear of failure!” the psychologists roared. “Procrastination keeps us from doing our best work.” Though procrastination is a self-destructive habit in most cases, in some, procrastination operates to open us up to new ways of thinking. You’ll often hear procrastinators say this to justify their behavior: “I have to procrastinate…that’s when I get my best ideas!” Goal-oriented, pre-crastinators like me may have thought this was a load of shit, but study after study confirms the same thing: time pressure often forces us to think in unexpected ways.

What procrastination is bad for is productivity. If you’re procrastinating on your term paper by playing video games or watching pointless video after pointless video on YouTube, you’re not accomplishing anything. In this way, precrastination-the frenzied panic that compels ambitious go-getters to finish projects way before their deadlines-is more constructive: when we get an early start on tasks, we get more done.

However, as Grant points out, procrastination has its own virtues. By momentarily putting off the task at hand, we give ourselves a cognitive break of sorts, which allows ideas to incubate. But Grant distinguishes between 2 different types of procrastination. Brief procrastination, such as spending 5 minutes checking your email before writing your senior thesis, is just enough of a break from the problem to jumpstart your thinking and energize new insights. Extended procrastination over prolonged periods, on the other hand, seems to lead to more conventional modes of thinking and fewer revolutionary ideas. 

2. Bad habit #2: They undergo periods of doubt

Like the rest of us, the most groundbreaking pioneers experience doubt and fear. The only difference is that exceptionally creative people don’t doubt themselves-they doubt their ideas.

The difference between doubting yourself and doubting your ideas is the distinction between “I suck” and “This sucks.” “I suck” identifies us with our creative failure and paralyzes us in a state of hopelessness and inaction; “this sucks” is a wake up call. This kind of doubt, Grant asserts, actually leads us to recognize our failings and improve our work.

Say you’re writing an argumentative piece for your English class. You’ve been working for weeks researching your topic, developing a thesis, gathering sources. The paper’s practically complete when you realize a major hole in your argument. “I suck” would cause us to mercilessly berate ourselves; “this sucks” would cause a brief moment of panic but eventually lead to a practical approach to the problem. “Why isn’t my argument convincing?” we’d ask ourselves, “What’s missing?” After exploring possibilities, we might realize we don’t have enough facts or compelling stories to substantiate our argument. Or that we have to revise our claim all together. Regardless of the issue, “this sucks” would invite us to use our ingenuity and problem-solving skills to find a solution and ultimately write a better paper.

The most successful people know that doubt is the greatest driver of creativity. Remember the famous line Sylvia Plath once penned: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt“-not doubt itself.

3. Bad habit #3: They have (a lot) of bad ideas and fail

It is a statistical fact: the more output you produce, the greater chance that you’ll produce something truly original. And the greater chance you’ll fail. All of the most original people-composers, filmmakers, brilliant entrepreneurs, world changing activists-have brutally, publicly failed.

The difference between the ordinary person and the successful one is the successful one persists. When we have resiliency of spirit-faith in what is possible instead of cranky skepticism and doubt-we can defy all odds. It is only when we yield to probabilities and chances that we are in danger. Faith is belief in spite of the odds. And faith is idiocy to an outsider. How can we believe we’ll survive stage 3 cancer when we’re told we only have a 50% chance to live?

Faith, I think, is the one quality shared by all remarkable people. Einstein. Edison. Tesla. All brilliant men had to believe in the reality of their vision when all other people saw was a lunatic’s hallucination, when time after time they failed. Time is relative?! Electricity can be harnessed as a form of energy?! When first proposed, these ideas seemed nothing short of crazy. But the revolutionaries and the innovators, the visionaries and the creators possessed the resolve to stand by their ideas, however ridiculed or unpopular, however many times they failed.

 

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The Physics of Motivation

“BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!” my annoying alarm clock blared. 6 am and it was time to go to the gym…at least the time I was supposed to go to the gym. For over a year, I had been going to the gym diligently 3x a week no matter what. Now when gym day rolls around, I find myself crafting excuse after excuse:

Grandma’s staying with me. I should be a good host and stay with her.”

Whoops, woke up late,” I’ll say innocently, “Guess I can’t go to the gym without being late for work.” (Never mind that I purposely stayed up late the night before just so I could justifiably use that excuse.)

“What,” I wondered, “could explain this gradual dip in motivation?”

Since I’ve noticed my inability to stop hitting snooze, I’ve been trying to decipher the physics of motivation: Why had I been so reluctant to hit the gym? to do other things like go to meditation class? What causes people to lose the motivation to pursue their goals?

I suppose it’s hard for anyone to sustain drive over the long haul. Inevitably, life shows up and interrupts our routine.We start working 50+ hour weeks and can’t make time in the mornings. We have a huge midterm paper due. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting our routine once in awhile.

But as any former fitness nut knows, it’s hard to pick up going to the gym regularly once you stop. Just like anything else, habits require momentum; once we interrupt our momentum, it’s hard to gain that thrust again.

Think of Newton’s laws of motion: an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

Once we stop following our established routine of going to the gym 3x a week (or writing every day or practicing violin for an hour, whatever it is), we’re like a rolling ball that gradually comes to a stop:

Aw, I don’t want to practice today, I’m tired/hungry/not in the mood. I’ll start again tomorrow…”

But what happens? We say the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day until we’re making more excuses than actually getting anything done. We have lost momentum and come to a stop. The only way to regain speed is for us to be acted upon by an outside force. Here are a few ways to overcome inertia, recover your motivation and get moving again:

1. create a sense of control

In his compelling account of productivity, “Smarter, Better, Faster: The Secrets to Productivity in Life & Business,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and contributor to the New York Times Charles Duhigg argues those who feel in control of their lives possess higher levels of determination. Why? Because if you believe your actions directly impact your life, you’ll feel as though your choices make a difference. Not only do proactive people who feel in control possess more drive and motivation; they are generally happier, more successful and even live longer. Conversely, those who feel like victims of circumstance will feel incapable of redirecting their destinies and suffer as a result.

The key to sustaining motivation then, it seems, is for us to find a way to feel in control. Say you have a particularly tedious task on your to-do list, like responding to a few emails. To maximize your motivation, allow yourself to exercise some control in completing the task. Which email do you want to answer first? Perhaps the easier ones that require less of a thorough response? Or maybe you want to tackle the lengthier messages first? Either way, giving yourself a choice will boost motivation and increase the likelihood that you get it done.

2. ask yourself “why?”

In his insightful blog post “20 Ways to Not Become a Real-Life Half-Dead Adult,” 20-something expert and hilarious author Paul Angone makes an insightful distinction between two types of passion: a passion can be a hobby or interest (as in, “I love painting” or “I adore fantasy football”) or it can be a hobby or interest that meets a real need (as in, “I’d love to eliminate the achievement gap in inner city schools”). For Angone, passion must be tied to something bigger than ourselves in order for our lives to be meaningful.

As I go through the sometimes mundane ins-and-outs of my daily life, I often wonder: Is my life bereft of this latter kind of passion? I have preoccupations and interests, but do I have things that drive me? I missed writing when I knew something was at stake, when I knew I had something important to share. Same with teaching. If we’re not careful to connect our daily labor with internal meaning, our work is in danger of becoming aimless and hollow.

Consider each lesson I have with a student: when I recall the significance of every lesson, when I utilize every question as an opportunity to teach students how to solve a particular type of problem and thus add another tool to their belt of test-taking skills, work is rewarding, validating. However, when I fail to connect my daily work to any broader objective, the same lesson feels boring and trite, the work feels mundane, and I feel listless and unfulfilled.

But is fulfillment simply a matter of attitude?

In one study, when 3 factory workers were asked what they did for a living, each gave a different response. One replied, “I go to work”; the second, “I make a living for my family”; the third, “I make products that make people’s lives better.” All three men performed the same job, but only one of them felt truly fulfilled in his work. Why? Because he connected the ins and outs of his daily labor with a significance greater than himself. The first man understood his days at the factory merely as time punched in; the second found a little more contentment by framing his work as a means to support his loved ones but the third man-by realizing the implications of his labor-understood that the seemingly trivial task of working with his hands was actually quite important.

We only lose enthusiasm for our goals when we stop asking ourselves why we’re striving for them. If we force ourselves to go to yoga class 3x a week without pausing to ask ourselves why we engage in the activity, our motivation will dwindle. Stern self-discipline might work for awhile, but after a few weeks we’ll start making excuses as to why we can’t put our yoga pants on.

The key to keeping up motivation is to connect our small, trivial actions to a larger purpose or goal. When we ask ourselves the simple question “why,” going to bikram yoga is no longer a torturous hour of sweating profusely in a 100+ degree room- it’s a step on the path to losing 20 pounds and finally being able to touch our toes. When we ask ourselves “why,” jogging on the treadmill is no longer a half hour of hell-it’s a means of building our toughness and stamina so we can eventually accomplish our lifelong dream of running a marathon.

Often times, the monotony of routine conceals the greater significance of our efforts. If we ask ourselves “why” we’re taking a certain course of action, we can sustain our motivation over the long-term. 

3. draw clear lines 

How many times have you made a beautiful, revelatory, paradigm-shifting resolution only to try and talk yourself out of it five seconds later? “I’m going to run 2 miles a day!” we triumphantly declare, hopeful and determined to finally achieve our ambitious goals. Fast foreword 3 days later and we’re binge-watching Netflix on the coach.

“I deserve to take a break, just for today,” we tell ourselves, “we’ll get right back to running tomorrow…”

But what happens tomorrow? Instead of lace up our running shoes, we spend tomorrow debating whether we should run or not.

I call this the negotiation process. Rather than take actual action toward realizing our goals, many of us squander our precious (and limited) hours debating whether or not we should take action toward our goals. Drawing clear lines means establishing non-negotiable rules for ourselves. If we decide to quit smoking, we don’t smoke: not once in awhile, not when we’re drunk, not “just this once.” If we resolve to train for a marathon by running 2 miles everyday, we run everyday no matter what. Debating with ourselves depletes our limited energy reserves. By drawing clear lines, we make it impossible to waste energy negotiating with ourselves.

3 Reasons Why I Loved Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things”

Finished Netflix original series Stranger Things after a few hours of major binge-watching last night. Called the surprise hit of the summer, Stranger Things has been building a steady following since its release and-some have said-is on the road to cult status.

The series begins with the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), an average 12-year-old boy from Hawkins, Indiana. As Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) launches an investigation, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) embark on their own search and quickly discover there’s more to his disappearance than meets the eye. Filled with horrifying monsters, a girl with telekinesis, and portals to other worlds, Stranger Things is the intersection of the ordinary and supernatural. Though I could go on and on as to why Stranger Things deserves all the hype, here are a few reasons why I loved the show.

stranger things cast

1. Mystery

What are stories but mystery boxes?” director and filmmaker J.J. Abrams once posed. Abrams, the mastermind behind such puzzling television riddles as Lost, knows that good story-telling is about ambiguity; it’s what you don’t know-not what you do.

Stranger Things builds edge-of-your-seat suspense by constantly denying us access to the box. Creators the Duffer Brothers, in fact, padlock the box and throw away the key. With each episode, the enigma of Will’s disappearance deepens: where is Will? Who keeps calling Joyce, Will’s mother (played by a convincingly distraught Winona Ryder)? Who is the practically mute girl the boys stumble upon in the woods and where did she come from? Why did the state claim jurisdiction of where Will’s body was found and later bring in their own guy to perform the autopsy? Just when you think the show can’t get any more bizarre, just when you think you have a handle on the sinister happenings of this strange town, something even weirder happens to complicate your theories.

This series reminds me of one of my all time favorite movies: Donnie Darko. In terms of genre, both dabble in the paranormal and both play with the possibility of other worlds.  Like the cult classic, Stranger Things preoccupies itself with the questions-not so much the answers. So if you adore slightly offbeat shows that are one part sci-fi and two parts mystery/thriller, watch this show.

dr. brennar & hawkins lab

2. Conspiracy 

In her astute analysis of the sixth episode, AV Club critic Emily Stephens considers both the literal and figurative meanings of monster:

“El’s powers opened a portal between universes for a creature to slither through, but she’s not the monster. Even that creature, horrifying as it is, isn’t the worst monster of Stranger Things. The monster didn’t have to cross over from some darker dimension. The monster was here all along.

The monster is Brenner, persuading college kids to trade a couple of hundred bucks for the risks of his mind-bending experiments—in Terry Ives’ case, a lifetime of near-catatonia. The monster is Steve’s jealousy and entitlement, blotting out his affection for Nancy and his vacillating sense of decency. The monster is the vindictive rage of a bully, who forces a classmate to jump from the quarry’s cliff by holding his friend at knifepoint. The monster is the blank resolve of a government bureau eager to exploit a gifted child, pushing her to make solitary contact with something unknown, unknowable. As Stranger Things already hinted in the title of “Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street,” with its nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode, the monster isn’t the thing from another world. It’s us.”

When a frightening, alien-like monster wriggles through a hole between the real world and the upside down and begins tormenting Hawkins, we can’t help but think it’s the antagonist we’ve been waiting for. But as Stephens so insightfully points out, the real monster is not some creature from another world-it’s within us.

The central antagonist of Stranger Things is not a literal monster but a figurative one: Hawkins National Lab. Since the 1960s, we learn, diabolical yet socio-pathically kind scientist Dr. Brenner has been performing mind control experiments on human subjects. He kidnaps his most prized subject, a young girl named El, from her mother when it’s discovered she has telekinetic powers. Since then, Dr. Brenner has been trying to harness her abilities for the more malevolent purposes of weaponry and espionage.

In their pursuit of truth, Joyce and Captain Hopper realize Will’s disappearance is a part of this massive government cover-up. And the U.S. government is a titan adversary. The more unsettling truths they uncover, the more they realize they have nowhere to turn. Stranger Things creates a twitchy, anxiety-laden atmosphere where no one-especially those in positions of authority-can be trusted. Brenner and his team are unstoppable: dissenters who try to expose the truth are easily made to look insane…or are mercilessly killed off.

Dr. Brenner, Hawkins Lab, the U.S government- all represent the most terrible kind of monstrosity: indifference to one’s fellows. As Brenner and his colleagues ruthlessly exploit El’s powers for their own advantage, the government remorselessly covers it up.

If you love underdog stories, you’ll find it immensely satisfying when Hopper goes all renegade cop and tries to untangle Brenner’s webs of lies and cover-ups (though it’s hard to believe he’d emerge from some of his discoveries unscathed). Like all underdog tales, Stranger Things derives its tension not from the anticipation that we might encounter a real flesh and blood monster but the certainty that a less easily defeated foe lingers around every corner. 

stranger things

3. The 80s

If you’re an 80s kid like me, Stranger Things will be a nostalgic return to the ambient synth and bad hair of yesteryear. Watching this sci-fi/horror is like being teleported to 1983, a time when anti-communist paranoia was its height and we thought-for some reason- that mullets looked good. Creators the Duffer brothers do a superb job of accurately reconstructing the period, never stumbing into overblown caricature territory (you won’t see any Madonna-esqe fish nets or neon eye shadow here).

Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan fittingly coined Stranger Things a spooky shot of 80s nostalgia straight to your heart. In their 1980s tribute, the Duffer Brothers pay homage to every cinematic genius of the period from Spielberg to Steven King. The group of best friends coming of age whilst chatting over walkie talkies recalls Stand By Me (not to mention another classic period piece Now and Then) while the otherworldly girl with telekinetic powers conjures up images of ET.  All that’s missing, as Mangan notes, is the glowing finger. Ryder herself is a relic of the era, bringing to mind the pseudo-intellectual banter and dark morbid humor of such movies as The Heathers.  Add a dose of creepy spirits communicating through electronics a la The Poltergeist and you have the perfect cocktail of heart-warming coming-of-age tale and spooky, eerie sci-fi thriller.

God, Hubris & Fate: Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III

Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV

Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V

Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

VI

Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII

Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII

And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX

Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,

X

Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI

Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

titanic maiden voyage

In his cool, philosophical poem “Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy meditates on the futility of acquiring material wealth. The poem opens in “a solitude of the sea” where the Titanic-Britain’s crowning glory and so-called “unsinkable” ship-came to rest over 100 years ago.

The remote, dark depths of the Atlantic serve as the setting for the rest of poem where the once magnificent testament to human will now sits at the bottom of the sea. A deeply inhuman environment, the ocean in Hardy’s poem represents mystery and darkness, a place where all things will be forgotten and eventually meet their end. This idea is reinforced in the second line when Hardy describes the sea as a place “deep from human vanity” (Hardy 2). The fact that the ocean is “deep”-or removed- from human vanity suggests pride and appearance have little meaning after death. In the next line, Hardy claims the “Pride of Life” planned the magnificent ship (Hardy 3). The aggressive capitalization of the word “Pride” proves the human belief in our own infallibility; however, our “plans” reveal themselves ludicrous when the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship, flounders and sinks 3 days after it sets off from London’s harbor. By personifying man’s plans to construct an indestructible ship, Hardy mocks the ridiculousness of such an endeavor as man’s ambitions mean little in the face of destiny.

Since her tragic demise in 1912, the Titanic has become a devastating symbol of man‘s hubris, or over-reaching. In the third and fourth stanzas, we witness the futility of man’s worldly power: “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (Hardy 7-9). Here, mirrors-which were “meant” to house “opulent” jewels-now serve as playgrounds for sea-worms. Though they were originally intended to protect something beautiful, mirrors themselves are extremely delicate, which points to human life’s fragility. Both stanzas follow the same structure: in the first and second lines, Hardy outlines an object’s original purpose; in the third, he reveals the uselessness of that purpose now that the Titanic is rotting six feet under. That jewels-emblems of glamor and social status-now “lie lightless” suggests that lavish wealth is meaningless in the face of mortality (Hardy 12).

Syntactically, the poem’s immediate undermining of each object’s original purpose proves two things: 1) man is very intent on being in control and 2) the desire to be in control is not only impossible-it’s pointless. Though these stunning jewels were “designed” to “ravish the sensuous mind,” life interferes with those plans when the Titanic meets her “twin halve” and crashes into an iceberg (Hardy 10-11).

titanic unsinkable ship

“If you want to make God laugh,” the old saying goes, “make a plan.” Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” is a cruel reminder of our inability to ever be fully in control. In fact, the only thing that seems to possess absolute governance in the poem is God, whom Hardy describes as the “Spinner of Years” (Hardy 31). Man might imagine himself as the subject of his syntactical destiny; however, it is God who appears over and over again as the actual one in power. In the sixth stanza, we see this image of God reinforced grammatically:

“Well: while was fashioning/This creature of cleaving wing,/The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything/Prepared a sinister mate/ For her — so gaily great” (Hardy 16-20).

Interestingly, the first line of the stanza is missing a proper subject. The sentence sounds so odd, in fact, one might think it’s a typo. However, Hardy intentionally drops the subject (man) to imply man is not a subject at all, but rather an object at the mercy of God’s will. Humankind may outwardly appear like a God (for instance, in these lines he fashions “creatures” much like God in the biblical origin story), but he nevertheless remains an object of the “Immanent Will.” God’s status as the only named subject in these lines hints at the overall moral of Hardy’s poem: compared to God, who is mighty and omnipotent, man’s ability to influence fate, it seems, is painfully limited.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom: Lessons from Asian American Parenting

3 hours of piano lessons a day. Extra homework. Furious complaints that their son’s 600 SAT Reading score just wasn’t “good enough.”

As a teacher with her share of experience with the “battle hymn” of the tiger mom, I’ve always thought authoritarian parenting-the setting of rigid, exacting (and, some might argue, impossible) standards must be unhealthy for the child.

Yes, a perfectionist and hard-working Asian American myself, I value commitment to rigor and academic excellence, but these parents were too much. Doesn’t demanding so much from your children inevitably hurt them? Damage their self-worth?

Forever bound by the hyphen, I may be Asian but I’m also American; these Chinese-American parents’ insistence on perfection often seemed cruel: what if your child couldn’t meet your impossible expectations? He’d feel worthless, like a failure. Even if he was capable of getting straight-As, serving as president of the French club and winning the national tennis championships, wouldn’t the pursuit of such high standards wear him out? I remember watching so many of my students work themselves into a hysteria over an A-. Their parents’ unrealistic ambitions, I thought, were unfairly robbing them of a childhood. 

But after examining the statistics social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney provide, I’m a little less confident in my original analysis. Yes, Chinese-Americans are tough but their authoritarian style gets results: by the age of 2, most Chinese-American children are expected to possess the self-control of American children twice their age; Chinese-American students consistently outperform their American counterparts in school and-though they only account for roughly 7% of the U.S. population-Chinese-Americans make up more than 25% of the nation’s most prestigious schools.

tiger mom

In their fascinating study of willpower Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and Tierney make a compelling argument for stricter, Asian American-style parenting:

Delayed gratification has been a familiar theme in the homes of immigrants like Jae and Dae Kim, who were born in South Korea and raised 2 daughters in North Carolina. The sisters, Soo and Jane, became a surgeon and a lawyer, respectively, as well as coauthors of Top of the Class, a book about Asian parents’ techniques for fostering achievement. They tell how their parents started teaching them the alphabet before their second birthday, and how their mother was never one to reward a child whining for candy at the supermarket. When they reached the checkout counter, before the girls had a chance to beg, Mrs. Kim would preempt them by announcing that if they each read a book the following week, she would buy them a candy bar on the next shopping trip. Later, when Soo went off to college and asked her parents for a cheap used car to get around, they refused but offered to buy her a brand-new car if she was admitted to medical school. Thus, the parents did provide good things for their daughters-but each treat was meted out as a reward for some valued achievement.

The many Asian American success stories have forced developmental psychologists to revise their theories about proper parenting. They used to warn against the “authoritarian” style, in which parents set rigid goals and enforced strict rules without much overt concern for the child’s feelings. Parents were advised to adopt a different style, called “authoritative,” in which they set limits but gave more autonomy and paid more attention to the child’s desires. This warmer, more nurturing style was supposed to produce well-adjusted, self-confident children who would do better academically and socially than those from authoritarian homes. But then, as Ruth Chao and other psychologists studied Asian-American families, they noticed that many of the parents set strict rules and goals. These immigrants, and often their children, too, considered their style of parenting to be a form of devotion, not oppression. Chinese-American parents were determined to instill self-control by following the Confucian concepts of chiao shin, which means “to train,” and guan, which means both to govern and to love. These parents might have seemed cold and rigid by American standards, but their children were flourishing both in and out of school” (Baumeister 195-196).

Though the self-esteem movement has most Americans preaching the importance of positive reinforcement and constant praise, statistical comparisons of Chinese-American and American children show that our national resistance to more traditional forms of discipline may be counterproductive. By refusing to withhold rewards for exceptional work and instead applauding mediocrity, our “everyone-gets-a-trophy-culture” promises American children will lack the discipline, diligence and self-control to attain success at the rate of their Asian-American counterparts. In fact, our emphasis on building self-esteem rather than character has led to rampant narcissism among today’s youth; in study after study, American children are shown to feel better about performing worse. We may rank as one of the world’s worst countries in math, but our students leave that exam room convinced they did well, better, even, than students from China and South Korea.

chinese american students

Has our refusal to embed values like self-control led to an epidemic of narcissism and delusional thinking in our culture?

After reviewing the data, I think so.

A soft, nurturing type, discipline has never come easy to me. Like many Americans, I was raised with the belief that too stern a style would intimidate and damage my students. Little did I know that-by refusing to consistently enforce rules and demand that my students meet my high expectations for behavior-was I actually setting them up for failure.

We insist that every child get a trophy because we’re afraid the children who don’t earn a prize won’t feel good enough. We are a nation of coddlers. We fret more about hurting our children’s feelings than establishing real opportunities for boosting self-worth.

It is only when we delay gratification-like, say, the Kims, who required that Soo be admitted into medical school before she got a new car-that we teach our children the perseverance and hard work they’ll need to be successful. Awarding our children with trophies they didn’t earn it is like rewarding them for work they haven’t done: it sets the expectation that you will always be recognized even when you didn’t work hard enough.

Perhaps this is why Baby Boomers so often lament the laziness and narcissism of our generation. Little do they know that it is their laid-back, hands-off style parenting that is to blame for so much that is wrong with our culture.

Can their generation’s distaste for the conventional type of parenting they endured as children explain my generation’s apparent failures to be autonomous and grow-up?

Can growing numbers of “boomerang kids”-adult-aged children who move back in with their parents-be a result of “you’re always good enough” coddle-style parenting?

In many ways, my generation was spoon-fed the misleading and ultimately false belief that we mattered. When we graduated from college and still couldn’t get menial jobs, we were shocked: this wasn’t how our parents told us the world worked. We were supposed to graduate college and immediately have careers. A degree, in fact, was supposed to guarantee us a job. Like an invitation-only after party, our degree was the ticket to prosperity and instant success.

But, in reality, it wasn’t good enough.

We needed real experience in our fields to be competitive, not to mention higher GPAs. Maybe our parents did spoil us.

Because we were always rewarded no matter what, many of us held the mistaken assumption that we’d always get what we want. We expected the world to just give us things but, we soon realized, that’s not how the world worked.

By American standards, the Asian American insistence on excellence and achievement may seem severe, but-time and time again-it’s proven to get results. Perhaps it’s time we open our ears to the galvanizing battle hymn of the tiger mom.

S-M-A-R-T Goals vs. Stretch Goals

 

In a hyper goal-oriented, productivity-driven culture, we’re always asking ourselves the same thing: what is the best way to set and achieve goals? What kinds of goals are best?

Pioneered by corporate giant General Electric, S-M-A-R-T goals have held sway since the company first began requiring its employees to outline such goals 80 years ago. Meaning specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound, the S-M-A-R-T strategy, Gary Latham, a research psychologist who helped developed the method, once said is the “difference between hoping something comes true and figuring out how to do it.”

This emphasis on setting realistic objectives and detailing specific, measurable means to reach them has deeply informed how we approach goal-setting today. Go to any management seminar or listen to any podcast about goal-setting and you’ll hear dozens of experts sing the praises of the S-M-A-R-T system. I myself find the S-M-A-R-T methodology extremely helpful for breaking up big ambitions into concrete, more manageable goals. A driven, goal-oriented person by nature, the second I have a dream I want to realize, I pull out my Passion Planner and create what’s called a “passion plan.” A visual representation of your goal, a passion plan takes a large ambition (like, say, studying for the GRE) and divides it into smaller, actionable steps with clear timelines. To return to my example of the GRE, the smaller steps might be to buy the official GRE book and learn 10 new vocabulary words every day. Each of these tasks would have a precise due date which would serve as a measure of success or failure. Such passion mapping is a direct descendant of our S-M-A-R-T culture.

passion roadmap
A passion plan example (I’m obsessed)

 

I’m an avid proponent of S-M-A-R-T goals so you could imagine my surprise when Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of “Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business” Charles Duhigg questioned their effectiveness. The problem, it seems, stems from S-M-A-R-T’s emphasis on realism. “If you’re constantly being told to focus on achievable results,” observed professor and goal-setting expert Steve Kerr, “you’re only going to think of achievable goals. You’re not going to dream big.”

Because the S-M-A-R-T system demands we develop a clear roadmap for reaching our objectives, it has the unintentional effect of discouraging our grander, more starry-eyed ambitions. The result? We may be more productive in the sense that we’re achieving our goals but we’re not realizing nearly a tenth of our potential. Imagine if the Wright brothers had been asked to break flying into realistic, achievable steps! They wouldn’t have been able to: the idea that man could soar through the skies was totally unfeasible.

Though S-M-A-R-T thinking proves useful practically in terms of getting things done, it often limits what we view as possible. That’s why we need stretch goals. Stretch goals are the antithesis of their S-M-A-R-T counterparts. Unlike S-M-A-R-T objectives which require we outline a comprehensible path on the route to our goals, stretch goals are so ambitious that they’re almost inconceivable. According to Duhigg, “numerous academic studies have examined the impact of stretch goals, and have consistently found that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity. A 1997 study of Motorola, for instance, found the time it took engineers to develop new products fell tenfold after the company mandated stretch goals throughout the firm. A study of 3M said stretch goals helped spur such innovations as Scotch tape and Thinsulate. Stretch goals transformed Union Pacific, Texas Instruments, and public schools in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. Surveys of people who have lost large amounts of weight or have become marathon runners later in life have found that stretch goals are often integral to their success” (Duhigg 126-127). In other words, a S-M-A-R-T goal is running 5 miles without stopping; a stretch goal is running a marathon. This is not to say that the S-M-A-R-T system is unnecessary: S-M-A-R-T thinking is vital to actually accomplishing our goals. But stretch goals push us to realize dizzying new heights of untapped potential. If S-M-A-R-T goals are sensible pragmatists; stretch goals are dreamers. Just as we need our inner realist to revise our beautiful but impractical ambitions and make them more workable, we need our inner idealist to expand what we think is possible.

 

 

 

Death & Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

robert frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Have been beginning my mornings by reading a poem from The 100 Best Poems of All Time, a lovely collection of classics my grandmother gave me years ago. Today, read Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Never been a big lover of Frost: his poems are too monosyllabic, too simple; I much prefer the lyricism of a Plath or Fitzgerald. But just so I don’t spent hours debating which poem to read, I turn to a random page and let the fates decide; today, I landed on page 129, Robert Frost’s classic. I had read this poem once before with a student but my memory was muddled. Reading it again today, I felt the familiar frustration of encountering Frost: the poem seems like the retelling of a man’s brief stop in the woods, nothing more. I feel the same way reading Hemingway. Though I can appreciate the groundbreaking cultural significance of Hemingway’s lean, athletic style, I myself am a traditionalist: a prefer writing to be poetic, lavish, adorned.

But in a way, simplicity is genius: though a piece by Hemingway or Frost may seem forthright and straight-forward, their simplicity usually conceals a far more complex machinery operating underneath. Take Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example. Reading it a couple of minutes ago, the poem seemed like an uncomplicated story about a man pausing to admire the beauty of a dark wood; however, upon closer examination, deeper themes revealed themselves.

If we investigate the rather plain title, we notice that the poem’s name immediately situates us in time and place: in the woods on a snowy evening. Taken alone, this doesn’t seem noteworthy; however, if we look closer, we’ll notice Frost doesn’t set his poem on any evening but a “snowy” one. Snow, and more generally the bleakness of a cold winter, universally represents death just as spring points to rejuvenation and renewal.

Though Frost’s poem presents itself as an accessible series of events-a man who craves to escape from the responsibilities of his ordinary life finds peace in a nearby wood-some scholars have theorized this poem carries a more sinister meaning and that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide and meditating on the nature of death. Such a reading finds support in several instances of the text: in the last stanza, for example, the speaker seems hypnotized by the enchanting forest, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep” (Frost 13). The woods-like death- are made “lovely” by the very fact that they’re “dark” and “deep”, or removed from the commotion of civilization. Throughout the poem, our speaker longs for the quiet peace only death can offer, using soft, lulling words like “easy” and “downy” to describe the sounds of the restful wood beyond the lake.

However in the next line, the contrasting conjunction “but” indicates his affair with the snowy night is only temporary. No matter how enticing it may be to give up and surrender to the tranquility of death, the speaker realizes he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go” before he can metaphorically slumber. The repetition of “and miles” in the final two lines hints at the distance he still has to travel before he can meet death. Such an ending suggests our speaker has had an epiphany of sorts: though life can be disappointing, our speaker realizes the escapism embodied by suicide is ultimately irresponsible.