Whatever you are working on to improve, there will be days when it is the very last thing you want to do. It doesn’t matter if you are training for a marathon or a spelling bee. So what to do?
You can give yourself permission to duff. I do this with some of my workouts. On some days, I burn straight through these drills and the sweat feels great. Other days, not so much. So I slow down. What they hey – I’m not training for the Olympics. And doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.
Or you can take a break for a day. Or a few days. Sometimes, a couple of days off helps you return with a vigor and enthusiasm that you had forgotten. Be careful, though. The key to improvement is mindful, incremental plodding toward a goal. There is a fine line – you will have to decide where it lays – between a rejuvenating break and giving up.
In The Boy Who Played With Fusion Tom Clynes writes an interesting, albeit somewhat creepy, biography of young Taylor Wilson. Taylor is different. He is an obsessive child except obsessive doesn’t capture the bonfire of his drive. He is immovable. He is an arrow shot that never quits until it hits its target. He is single-minded to the point of forgoing food, safety, and friends. He is the youngest person to have built a nuclear fusion reactor. To say that he would be a handful to raise is an understatement.
Clynes braids together three stories. One is the biography of an agonizingly obsessive and catered-to youth, another is a story about ‘extreme parenting’, and another is a story about academic giftedness. Strewn throughout the book is the breadcrumb trail of Taylor’s brother Joey. Joey is gifted, too, but is overshadowed in almost every way by the loud light of his brother. This book is about Taylor and not Joey, but any exploration of parenting and giftedness should have included more on the younger brother who was continually lost in his brother’s shadow.
The story of Taylor is a good one. It’s well written and interesting. The boy is demanding and obsessive from the womb. As a child, he jumps from interest to interest like most kids do except that Taylor jumps in with both feet and drags the family with him. Any boundaries that he bumps into are punctured by his parents for their own sanity. That he is catered to is understandable. I have a child like this myself. You give in or the entire family pays the price. At around ten, Taylor finally settles into nuclear physics and begins collecting gadgets and throw-aways and builds a makeshift ‘lab’ where he conducts experiments. From here Clynes details the story that leads to Taylor developing a fusion reactor in the basement of the University of Nevada. I applaud Taylor for much. When other kids were putting playing cards in their bicycle spokes, Taylor was collecting radioactive rocks and selling them on eBay to support his habit. If an equation stood in the way of his next step he hunkered down and learned the math. Though there is some darkness to the story, Taylor deserves what he has earned.
Interspersed within the story of Taylor’s fusion project are the other threads of the story and they aren’t as bright. Taylor finally lands at an experimental high school in Nevada (The Davidson Academy) for exceptionally intelligent children where he has the same struggles as every high schooler. He stumbles a bit with girls and friends. He crosses lines that he hasn’t been held to in other schools where he was given free reign to roam. But normal teen angst seems exaggerated here where every child is exceptional, preened, and hand-selected. For most of the kids attending this is the first time that they have had to compete for excellence or for attention.
‘Extreme parenting’ is another theme drawn out through the book. If ‘extreme’ means excellent then I’m not sure that I’m on board. From Taylor’s first interests, the Wilson family becomes a business enterprise for keeping Taylor happy. Dad or mom spend weekends driving around the country to placate Taylor and family life revolves around talks, experiments, and the budding celebrity of their oldest child. The younger boy, at least in this book, is left almost entirely in shadows and is often found alone in his bedroom. Gifted too, his interests nor his personality are as loud or spectacular as his brother’s. There is an imbalance here fraught with potential for future problems.
I don’t know Taylor and am guessing that as a young adult he is adjusted and kind. He seems to have a genuine sweetness and is incapable of guile. His effusive love of science, and especially of physics, overrides any boasting or childhood pettiness. The book closes with Taylor’s decision to accept a Thiel Fellowship that comes with a $100,000 grant and the requirement to drop out of school to pursue ‘other work’. It’s not the decision I would have made. There are things he would learn in a university setting that he won’t otherwise. Living at school, reading Spanish peasant lit, competing and collaborating with other people as accomplished as you are, and befriending people from outside your culture and habits are things we rarely pursue on our own. And each is as valuable for health and happiness.
A good weekend read with lots of food for thought. 7e(-0.693(10)/20) stars.
I’m going to invoke the cardinal rule of blogging today and write about whatever the hell I feel like. And I feel like writing about Cam Newton and blowing it.
If you follow American professional football, or at least watched the Super Bowl, you know who Cam is. If not then I’ll fill you in. He is the young – 26 years old – quarterback of the Carolina Panthers who is brash, arrogant, and so full of himself that I have spent the last several months making a weekly prayer vigil to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Carolina to lose. I don’t care who wins. I just want Cam and Carolina to lose. I know that this is petty and childish and I admit that it’s unfair to judge a human being by the ten minutes of television interviews I’ve seen. I guess I’m just a shallow SOB. As much as he irritates me, I have to say that he has been spectacular this year. He throws like he is drilling the ball through concrete. He runs faster and stronger than most team’s running backs. He’s six-foot-five and weighs 250 pounds and can carry linebackers like luggage under his arms. I cannot imagine standing between him and goal line when my job is to stop him. Everything came together for Cam and the Panthers this year and they lost only one game prior to the Super Bowl. They utterly embarrassed my Seattle Seahawks. Twice. And with every first down Cam does ‘the dub’. A little dance to celebrate just how damned good he is. Fans love it. People do it where I work. I hate it.
On Sunday last Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers had their pants pulled down in front of a couple billion people. It wasn’t an embarrassing loss but Denver crushed them in every category. More than once Cam’s confident smile melted until he looked lost and unsure of what he was doing. After the game, Newton sought out winning quarterback Peyton Manning and shook his hand and smiled a smile that beamed through all the glitter and ticker tape. But off the field and in front of reporters and TV cameras he sulked and refused to talk. When he did talk he mumbled. He stared into space and then pulled his hoodie tight over his head. Finally, he walked off the set.
This week, social media is castigating him from all corners. A few fans are defending him but not many and not well.
But I think Cam will look back one day and see this as the time when he began to find real greatness. He’s not going away – he’s far, far too good for that – and probably has a few more Super Bowls to win.
This entire episode reminds me of a three-minute conversation I had with a boss once. A decision needed to be made about who would manage a nasty and hazardous project. I wondered aloud if Joe was right? “Nope. He’s never screwed up.” I asked if that wasn’t kind of a good reason to hire him? Don’t you want someone who doesn’t screw up? “Nope. A person who has never blown it has played it safe. I need to know how he would act if this thing goes belly up. I need to know if he can handle a problem or if he’ll fold and make it worse.” I’ve never forgotten the conversation. It was such a different view than I was expecting.
Cam Newton doesn’t know it yet but these words are true. Losing and blowing it and screwing up in glorious fashion is essential in making you better or best. You won’t believe it and certainly won’t see it until you’re on the other side. I’ve seen it. At least twice. It is heart breaking. You doubt everything you were once sure of. Some people never recover and I don’t blame them. They get a nice desk job and put in their time. Nothing wrong with that. But if you can recover and resolve to be better then you find a new calm that isn’t so easily shaken when things start going bad. You learn that screwing up isn’t the end of the world. You learn that you can do well even in the middle of seeming disaster.
Maybe Newton needed to be knocked down. He’s not even thirty and he’s already had an envious career. Maybe he needed some humility. Maybe he needed to learn that you have to earn your rewards before you celebrate them. I don’t know. What I do know is that Cam will come back stronger and more sure of himself and more unshakable in the face of collapse. Losing the Super Bowl just might be the one hurdle he needed to become one of the best players in the game.
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There is a TED Talk snaking through the web by writer Kathryn Schultz (Being Wrong: On the Margins of Error) titled On Being Wrong. In the seventeen minute talk she wonders about opinion, embraces barking up the wrong tree, and extols the glories of missing the mark. I frankly aren’t as enamoured with being wrong but I get her point: being wrong is how we find out what is right. She talks about wonder and the willingness to explore and about opinion. I wish she spent more time on opinion which has become the new fact. It’s the kind of fact that trumps all other facts based on your level of sincerity and distance from established experts. Any anti-vaccer mom with a passel of kids and a Google account stands head and shoulders above any actual lab worker or MD who has studied the stuff. The only thing more powerful than opinion is offense. This differs from the old kind of facts that are confident and vetted explanations of reality. Who needs those old canards? Heck, Depak Chopra tells us that everything is an illusion and he is certainly opinionated, sincere, and easily offended.
Schultz is a writer and not a scientist and her presentation is more friendly than technical. I was surprised that she offered opinion on politics and religion as if they were self-evident truths. Her opinion no doubt. But all in all a provocative and thoughtful several minutes. Reviews tell me that she delves much deeper into the questions in the book.
All this comes a couple of days after sifting through the Wikiquote page for Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. Some people are of the opinion that Feynman – a bongo playing, titty-bar hangout, goof-off physicist – sits on the smartest-person-ever pedestal right next to Newton. And as much as he sometimes came off as the Court Jester his writing and philosophy has a deep sense of humility. Reading through his quotes is a humbling thing and makes one pause to consider how closely we hold onto our biases and judgements. Very seriously worth the five minutes is takes to read through this page.
I used to race bicycles and drooled over Bianchis and Guerciottis and those glorious European handmade racing machines. Who cared that they cost thousands of dollars? Well I did and I couldn’t afford one. But in time I noticed something. I was showing up at races with my $200 Kobe (which needed a rebuild every weekend) and beating the Young Turks on their $2,000 bikes. It dawned on me: unless you are an elite among elites it is fitness and your ability to withstand pain that leads to success in cycling and not your polished titanium bar stem. It’s a good life lesson. You have got to master the basic virtues before anything else will add value. With that in mind here is a crabby piece where I outline why you (okay, not you but surely the guy in the cube next to you!) can ignore all the lofty and gilt career advice posted on Linked In by people trying to sell you stuff.
You aren’t as good as you think
Sorry but this is very likely true. There is so much more you can learn. There are new ways to look at things. You’ve been with the company for thirteen years? So what? You can be more efficient. You can better understand you role. You can work from home. You can learn new skills. You have got to have your job down pat before anything will add real value.
Co-workers come in earlier and stay later
Okay – so you don’t want to be married to your job. You want to spend time with your kids. You believe your real calling to be outside of employment. That is all fine and balanced but there is a cost. Those other folks who are halfway through their morning’s report while you are brewing your first cup of coffee? The boss sees that and thinks they are working harder and are more dedicated. It might not be true but appearances count.
Other people work harder
Sally who sits down the aisle comes in early, stays late, and churns out paperwork like a mill. She knows every computer shortcut and is the only one in the office who can get the printer back online. You enjoy an hourly smoke break, keep up with baseball scores on the web, and argue strongly and loudly about slave labor. Who would you hire?
Other people work more efficiently
I’m amazed how every time someone sits at my desk to show me how they do something I learn something new. It’s part of the wonder of technology. Yes, you can always hit the Do This button but other people have figured out a work around that saves four steps. The seconds you save is immaterial but these folks are more engaged than you. They are thinking about how to make work easier and more efficient rather than simply plodding through their nine to five.
Other people are producing more
More efficiently, more time, more engaged: it all adds up to more production. And I don’t care what your company masthead says: you are hired to produce. If you don’t think so try stopping production and see how quickly you get to talk to the principal.
Others know and understand what the company wants from them
Most people come to work expecting to be told what to do. Others know what will move the company forward and hardly need managing. Your manager expects that you will need training over the first month or so. After that if you are always sitting waiting to be told what to do next they wonder why they hired you.
People play the game better
Yes, there is a game that is played out every day in corporate life. Some are experts at it while some refuse to even dip a toe. It can be played too well and the people who do this seldom win in the long term but you ignore the game at your peril. Learn the corporate ropes. There is a dress code. There is a vocabulary. There are expectations about what’s really important. Ignoring these subtleties can make you appear as an outsider who won’t join in.
Other people understand the nature of work
Larry Winget wrote a book titled It’s Called Work for a Reason. It’s loud and brash but has a message that many people never ever understand: Your employment was never meant to provide you with friends, entertainment, volunteering opportunities, or invites to holiday parties. You are there to make money and to be productive.
Other people are cheery and enthusiastic
Just like you, these folks know that not every day is a holiday and not everything goes as planned. But they refrain from whining and complaining and get back on track in a way that maintains the group’s good mood.
A Life Story
My dad was a high school basketball standout. A sophomore, he wanted to start on the varsity team. He talked to the coach who said that the senior in the position had earned the right to play. These were the days when winning often came second to loyalty and character. The senior had played all through high school, had good grades, and kept out of trouble – that Dad was a better player wasn’t the question. Dad complained to his dad who told him that if he wanted to start then he needed to show the coach, the players, the school, and the entire community that there was absolutely no question about who would start. You have to work harder, come earlier, stay later, smile the whole time, and be so much better that questions about who starts are wiped of the slate.
It’s great advice.
Wiki on Superiority Complex or the Lake Wobegon Effect
I want to get back to fitness and longevity for a bit. I’m working on a project about longevity so it’s a lazy decision for me.
The importance of doing to sharpen ourselves as we age can hardly be overstated. Do crosswords or Sudoku. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. But there is usually a missing piece in the advice offered and it’s the thing that tips the cart toward improvement rather than just maintenance. That missing part is that what you are doing should be hard. Ouch.
Take crosswords, which I enjoy. There are plenty of crosswords that I can complete in ten minutes without mistakes. They help maintain a level of mental acuity but they don’t improve my ability or mental state. To do that I need to form new neural connections. Neural connections are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. (This is why babies crawl before they walk. Crawling builds a scaffold of connections between brain and body that finally allows the child to move their legs and balance themselves with control.) How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard for us.
Let’s stick with crosswords. I can maintain the level of mental ability I have for crosswords by doing the same kind of puzzles over and over. I consider myself a Tuesday/Wednesday NYT puzzler. It’s kind of like running an eight minute mile. Some people think you’re fast and the local high school kid whacks you with a stick as he laps you. I have never in my life completed a Saturday NYT puzzle. (I read once that President Clinton finished the NYT puzzle each morning before breakfast. Forget Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. That Saturday puzzle is his crowning achievement.) If I want to get better – and by better I mean strengthening existing ‘crossword neural paths’ and building new ones then I have to do puzzles that make me wince. Make me see clues and answers from different perspectives. Make me think hard about who won Best Actress in1976 (Louise Fetcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). So take what you like and ramp it up to the next level. Learn to enjoy the angst of not knowing.
Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity. Once I was going to sign up for a voice over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a few hundred miles away – but my thinking was that this was so far out of the realm of what I normally do that it would be a whole new world for me. I would meet an entirely different group of people, learn all kinds of new words, and stretch myself in ways that would make me squirm. Exactly the kind of things that cause us to grow.
Wayne Dyer said that when he was a practicing therapist and people would come into his office complaining of depression he would try to get them outside. “Let’s go shoot some hoops or ride bikes and get an ice cream,” he would suggest. His argument is that so much of our mental state is tied to our physical state and it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. I run a lot and read testimonials in every running magazine from people who run to ‘clear their head’ or to reorient thoughts. It sounds silly but I write with my left hand sometimes. It’s hard and sloppy and my wrist never holds quite right but that uncomfortable physical act puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. Probably won’t lead me to a Nobel Prize but, as in all things healthy, it all adds up.
You already enjoy something – now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind like this – or your body – heightens your experience and by definition improves your abilities. Start with something easy. If you do woodwork and build furniture learn to master a simple joint. Not just the sawing and chiseling but they whys. Why does it work this way? Why use it rather than another joint? If you cook learn to make the perfect macaroon. Learn to make a cookie so damned good that your neighbors make excuses to visit you. Then, when you master one rudiment move onto another and build a repertoire. It makes whatever you do more enjoyable and puts you on a continued path of growth.
Oakley has written a wonderful book that I recommend to every student and to every parent of a young student. Her prose is easy and accessible for all readers and useful for all disciplines – not a skill germane to all engineers! My wish is that college freshmen spend their first week in class going through this book. Grades will improve.
Oakley begins with the most broad ideas – focused vs diffused thinking – and then adds greater depth and tips and tricks to the repertoire. She walks the reader through tools for understanding questions, memorization, and test taking, and closes with sections that touch on mastery. The real value of the book isn’t in helping Johnny pass his test next Friday – there is simply too much here to absorb in the short term – but helping Johnny to see a bigger picture of how to understand and apply learning. There is a lifetime of learning about learning here.
Oakley has an interesting resume that includes work at the South Pole, Russian and Slavic studies, and, finally, as a somewhat older student, engineering. There is a tacit tone through the book that you can attain what she has. She writes briefly about hating math in school and finally figuring out that she is ‘dumb’. But when, as an adult, she was put in different situations, she figured out how to excel even in areas she previously thought she couldn’t understand. This sense of enjoying what you once didn’t understand will resonate with many readers. Whatever your attitude and wherever you start out you can improve your skills through these tools. For what it’s worth, I like too, that Oakley is model for STEM studies.
I wish she touched more on topics of grit and the real joy of learning. There is increasing confirmation that so much of success in anything is simply staying with it. We give up too early. Success often comes to those who refuse to deviate, who have a fire to make this happen. And then there is the joy of learning. It’s an odd thing, often seen in math, where the light bulb finally flashes and – aha! – you get it. It’s a wonderful and almost addictive part of learning. I have experienced it myself and see it in my young children who are learning to read. Just sounding out a word correctly for the first time can be thrilling. And each success leads to others.
I’m a bit confused as to why the author and publisher chose to focus the book on math and science. There is so much good stuff here for all disciplines. Readers looking to figure out the Pythagorum Theorem by next week will be disappointed. There are better books for that. But learners who want to improve learning skills across the board will find real treasure here.
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