You’re not an Expert

Lately I’ve been watching a show called “Forged in Fire.” It’s a reality show produced by the History Channel, in which four bladesmiths per episode do competitive blade making; the first two rounds the smiths make a knife, the last round, the two remaining smiths each make an historical bladed weapon or tool. I don’t know anything about bladesmithing (or at least, I didn’t when I started watching the show), but I’ve watched quite a few episodes so far, and I’ve found it to be fascinating for many different reasons. The one I want to talk about here, though, is the light this show sheds on expertise.

Bladesmithing is a very complex skill. There are many, many different types of blades that are suited for different tasks, there are also many different types of metal, many different techniques for forging, and many different things that can go wrong in the process. The show quite deliberately brings in smiths of a wide range of experience, and gives them demanding challenges. After watching just a few episodes, it quickly becomes apparent that more years of experience in smithing does NOT mean that the smith will produce a better result.

Most telling is when a smith very confidently says to the camera at the beginning “I have twenty years of experience bladesmithing, I can take anything they throw at me.” Then they go into the first round and they’re told to use a specific technique or to make a specific style of knife, and you see the same smith look at the camera with wide eyes and a slightly panicked expression saying “I’ve never done that before.”

In other words, this smith has spent twenty years making the same three or four knives with the same three or four techniques, over and over again. He doesn’t actually have twenty years of experience, he has two years, repeated ten times.

Almost as telling are the smiths with two or three years of experience, who jump into the work, try stuff, experiment, (sometimes inventing new ways of doing things in the process) and present the judges with a knife that stands up to their brutal testing just as well as (sometimes better than) the one produced by the guy with twenty years of experience.

Why the difference? It’s because becoming an expert isn’t about just putting the time in – if that were the case, we’d all be expert drivers by now, which we’re demonstrably not – it’s about continuing to push the limits of your skills. The guy with twenty years experience is likely quite a good smith who has lots of happy clients – and that’s part of the problem; if you have lots of happy clients and very few (or no) unhappy clients, you don’t have incentive to keep learning and pushing yourself. The young guys don’t yet have laurels to rest on, so they’re still in the habit of learning and pushing themselves, and they do, sometimes showing up the older guys.

One of my favorite models of adult skill acquisition, the one created by the Dreyfus brothers, sheds some light on this. In that model, the first two levels are about using recipes; that is, using a specific, set sequence of steps with specific tools and ingredients, to get a standard result. The following three, though, are about taking emotional responsibility for the work, and for improving your skills.

It means that you don’t just feel bad about a poor result or good about a good result, but you spend lots of time pulling apart your outcome, goals and processes, to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how it could be done better. It’s difficult, frustrating, and at times tedious, which is why most people don’t do it.

Not pushing yourself to this extent isn’t inherently a bad thing; the vast majority of jobs don’t require a really high level of expertise, and it’s not physically or psychologically possible to become capable of an expert level of performance at everything you do.

The problem comes when someone claims to be an expert (level five of five) when they’re not (such as a level two of five). Just because you’ve been smithing blades for twenty years, doesn’t mean you’re an expert smith – how many different techniques have you mastered? How many different styles of blade have you made? How vigorously have you challenged yourself to make knives that were better, stronger, sharper, able to stand up to brutal tests?

If you have twenty years of experience, but you haven’t been deliberately challenging yourself for those twenty years, then you aren’t the expert you think you are.

If you want to see the paper by the Dreyfus brothers on their model of skill acquisition, you can find it here.

Be wary of abundance

I’ve seen and been sent a whole plethora of advertisements from people selling books, courses, masterminds and many other products and services that say that they will help me increase abundance in my life.

I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. They sound good. Who wouldn’t like more abundance in their lives? There are definitely things that I would like to be more abundant in my life. Money. Inspiration. Time.

Except that while it sounds fantastic, abundance is not the unalloyed good that we like to think it is. Both individuals and societies have a much harder time dealing with abundance than they do with scarcity.

A classic example is a lottery winner – I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics, like I have, that lottery winners, with very, very few exceptions, end up worse off, both financially and socially, than they were before winning. The over-abundance of money is more difficult to deal with than the scarcity of it.

There’s also plenty of stories about retirees who look forward to retirement and not having to work, but as soon as they retire and have an abundance of uncommitted time, quickly have failing mental and physical health, because they don’t know what to do with themselves.

And then there’s the epidemic of obesity in most of the Western world – humanity spent the vast majority of our history with a scarcity of food, but now that we have an abundance of it, we aren’t dealing with it very well, and we’re making ourselves fat and sick because of it.

In the larger society, we’re still trying to deal (and not very successfully) with the internet suddenly making information and connection hugely abundant. It’s changed our politics and economics to such an extent, that there are still “experts” pretending that nothing has changed, because it invalidates too many of their pet theories that were developed when information and connection were still ruled by scarcity.

So what are we to do…? Do we drop any pursuit of abundance and live a life of austerity?

No, that’s not a good solution, either. But there are some things we can do

  1. remember that abundance brings its own problems. It might be want you want, it isn’t necessarily what you need.
  2. Pursue slow growth, not fast. Put the brakes on, even, if necessary. A slow move into abundance is easier to deal with than a head-long rush
  3. Be flexible in your approach. What works in an environment of scarcity often doesn’t work in an environment of abundance. The most difficult thing about abundance is often the need to identify what isn’t working, and experiment to see what will.

Go ahead and chase after abundance – I’m not advocating against that – but be wary of it, too, because if you succeed and gain abundance, either through luck or skill, it’s going to be hard to deal with. Probably harder than you think.

Permission, not manipulation

I came across this blog post a little while ago, that uses the Trojan Horse as a metaphor for marketing. It kind of annoyed me, though, because there’s a significant difference between permission marketing and taking advantage of reciprocity.

https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2017/07/trojan-horse/

Someone doing permission marketing (or building one’s audience, in the case of an author such as me) is working to build trust and relationship. I (and many others working this way) are trying to show you that I can deliver value, so that you willingly and happily spend your money on my books (or other products), because you are confident that you will receive more value in return. Thus you, the customer gives us permission to market to you, by giving your email, or other contact details. Good permission marketers always respect that permission.

Someone taking advantage of reciprocity is the person who hands you a free pen, then expects you to stop and listen to them. It’s the sales person who comes in with cheap swag and a high pressure sales pitch, with no intention of maintaining a relationship with you, the customer, but is just intent on today’s sale. Reciprocity, that is, returning favors, is deeply hard-wired into human psychology, because for most of human history, we’ve lived in groups and needed to cooperate; giving and returning favors are fundamental to that cooperation. We don’t do it so much now, living in a money society, but it’s still a part of our deeper psychology.

One is taking advantage of a fundamental human impulse to make a sale. The other is offering an invitation to a long term relationship that will benefit both parties.

It’s much like dating. On a bad date, the guy approaches it like it’s reciprocity, like a salesman handing you cheap swag – I bought you dinner (or whatever) therefore you owe me your attention, or worse yet, you owe me sex. Those guys are usually dismayed and offended when the woman in question tells him she doesn’t owe him anything.

On a good date, the guy approaches it like permission marketing, like an indie publisher (such as me, or many others) giving the first book in a series away for free, to start a relationship and show proof of their quality. In the case of the writer/publisher, its to prove to the reader that they can produce good writing that’s engaging and entertaining. In the case of the date, it’s to prove his ability to have an interesting and engaging conversation, and his ability to be a decent human being.

Going back to the Trojan horse analogy, there’s also a fundamental difference between conquering soldiers using a ruse to get into the city, and a merchant train coming to sell a load of supplies from a distant place. They are both welcomed into the city, but the one is using deception, and leaves the city devastated, the other is clear about their intentions, and leaves the city better off than when they arrived.

I’d say that’s a significant difference.

Consistency is the Key

One of the lessons that has hit me upside the head over the last couple of years, is how consistency is not just a good idea, or nice to have, or even fairly important.

No, it is KEY.

Just about everything in life works better if you do a little bit frequently, rather than infrequent binges. If you want to learn something, spending 30 minutes on it daily will be more effective than two hours once a week. If you want to clean or unclutter your house, a daily process of getting it a little more clean and uncluttered today than it was yesterday is more effective, and build the necessary habits to keep it clean. The same thing applies to exercise, to meditation, and to writing.

Writing consistently, as in every single day no matter what, has changed what, how, and how much I write significantly over the last months. I’ve been writing quite a bit for about five years now. For the first several I wrote between two and four times a week, and between 300 and 1000 words per session. That isn’t a great deal of productivity, but it isn’t bad, and a great deal more than the zero words per week that I was doing most weeks before that.

But in the last few months, I decided I wasn’t happy with that volume of writing, and I started writing every day. And I mean every day, no matter what. I deliberately set the bar low, at a minimum of half a page in a day (about 150 – 200 words, which takes me about 10 minutes), so that even when I was tired or cranky or just not feeling it, I didn’t have an excuse to skip doing that tiny little bit of writing.

This tiny little bit of writing every day (and many days I did more than that minimum) set up a habit of consistency. It made writing every day something that I don’t have to think about now, something I don’t have to spend any energy or decision power on, and no time or brainspace is needed to justify not doing it. The decision is already made, today I will be writing.

Now from this habit of consistency, I’m working on a greater volume and speed of writing, and I’m getting more done more quickly that I would have thought possible a few months ago.

I was one of those people who had read, over and over again, the advice of writing teachers to write every day. And I nodded and smiled and then didn’t do what they said. But finally taking that advice has made a huge difference. And I’ve gotten similar benefits when I started meditating every single day. And doing yoga every single day.

Over and over again, I’ve seen that the first thing that must happen is consistency. And after that, you can worry about quantity and quality, and things will really take off.

But consistency must come first.

Respect and Power; There are two types of each, don’t confuse them.

I’m starting a Newsletter!

So a quick note for all my lovely readers – I’m going to be sending out a weekly email newsletter, curating all the interesting, useful, weird and wonderful things I’ve encountered, online and off, in the previous week.

If you want to be part of the fun, sign up with the form on the upper right. I promise I won’t share your email with anyone, or send you spam.

Now on to the regular post.

Several times I’ve seen a post online that says something like this:

There are two very different types of respect; respect for a person as a human being, and respect for a person as an authority. But because we use the same word for these two different things, people often talk as if they were the same thing. So for example, when someone in authority says “If you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you.” What they’re actually saying (and justifying) is “If you don’t respect me as an authority, I won’t respect you as a human being.”

This point about the two meanings of the word “respect” is important, and I’m glad to see that it is getting some attention. Especially since there are currently a number of public authority figures who are using exactly this approach to justify their appalling treatment of people who don’t “respect” them enough.

The same point can be made about power, though. I have seen many (too many) discussions about power and empowerment, but there are two very different types of power, which, like the two types of respect, are often not distinguished and often talked about as if they were the same thing. They are “power to” and “power over”.

From what I’ve seen, most of the time when people are talking about power, they are referring to “power over”. This is power over people and over resources; the ability to control and influence people, the ability to decide budgets and allocate resources. “Power over” is the power to make other people do what you want them to, either directly or indirectly.

“Power to” is more personal, more subtle, and in many ways more dangerous for those seeking “power over”. It is the power to decide for yourself, the power to do what make you happy, and makes you feel fulfilled. It is also the power to object to other people having power over you.

It is “power to” that is usually referred to when someone is talking about “empowerment”, which makes sense, as that is the power that is more fulfilling long term, and makes us personally and professionally happier. But the last instance I gave of “power to” is also why most corporate initiatives to “empower” their employees have done little except annoy everyone – giving someone “power to” means that someone else has less “power over”, and that person usually doesn’t want to give it up. It’s a slippery slope; as soon as you start giving people more “power to”, it becomes less and less easy to exercise “power over” them.

The really big deception, the reason why pretending that “power to” and “power over” are the same thing is a problem, is the source of the power. “Power over” has to be given to you, one way or another. You have to be given the job by someone higher up in the organization, or you have to have people willingly give you “power over” by voting for you in an election. “Power to” on the other hand, is claimed, rather than given. You already inherently have the power to decide, the power to go after your own happiness and fulfillment, you have the power to object to other people exercising power over you, especially if they are abusing that power, or have gotten it illegitimately.

But when people talk as if they are the same thing, we can accidentally convince ourselves that “power to” must be given to us, just like “power over”. That we need permission, that we need approval, that we need to have won something, in order to exercise our “power to.”

But just like respect for authority is not the same as respect as a human being, the power to do what fulfills you is not the same as power over someone else.

Go out and use your power to do something.

Lessons from Fasting

Fasting has become a thing to do, lately. I’m really not the type of person to jump to do the latest thing; if anything, I tend to avoid the latest trend, but then I read Tim Ferriss’ “Tools of Titans”, (his latest book, in which he has collected the best parts of the interviews with amazing people he’s done over the last number of years for his podcast) where he discusses with his guests how they fast and why. It sounded intriguing, so I thought I’d give it a try.

(Please note, I didn’t consult a doctor about doing any of this, but I’m a healthy forty-something, with no chronic health conditions. I’m also talking about my own experience, which is personal, a sample size of one. I’m not encouraging you, dear reader, to give fasting a try. But I’m not discouraging you, either.)

Over the last four months, I’ve done three three-day fasts, and quite a few 24-hour fasts (I don’t know exactly how many, I didn’t keep track. Maybe I should have). The experience of those fasts wasn’t entirely pleasant, but they weren’t painful, either. They were worth it, though, and I intend to keep doing them on a regular basis because I’ve learned some unexpected lessons from them. Here they are, in no particular order.

Feeling hungry is OK.

For many years I had the assumption that hunger is something to be avoided, that I should eat frequently in order to avoid feeling hungry, and that if I do feel hungry, I should do something about it immediately. I think I’ve gotten this from a couple of places; one, I think, is my mother who has eaten frequently for as long as I’ve known her, because she tends to feel dizzy and faint from low blood sugar if she doesn’t. This translated into me and my brothers having a constant supply of snacks (though thankfully ones like fruit and vegetables, not chips and candy) and instructions to eat regularly so that we weren’t hungry. This was reinforced by reading I did on weight lifting and bodybuilding around fifteen years ago, in which everyone preached the gospel of a high-protein meal every few hours so that you were never hungry.

But feeling hungry really is OK. It doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t even hurt you. And stopping to really feel the sensations, to really pay attention to how hunger feels, is really quite interesting. As has been pointed out by many people, our bodies are still primed for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, as the ten thousand or so years since we developed agriculture is too short a time to really impact us on a physical, evolutionary level. And for hunter-gatherers, food can’t be picked up weekly or daily at the local supermarket; sometimes there are gaps in their food supply, which means that they simply can’t eat for a day or more. Our bodies really do know how to deal with not eating for a few days, we just have to trust those very, very old mechanisms to kick in.

Much can be gotten through by two little words: “Not Yet.”

In the course of the three day fasts, I definitely get hungry, despite the fact that there is food in my house. The rest of my family doesn’t fast with me, so I see them eating as they please. I also know very well that I don’t have to be doing this fast – I’m not doing it as a formal ritual, I’m not doing it for medical reasons, if I don’t complete it, there will be no consequences other than me knowing that I didn’t complete it. I don’t have to confess to anyone that I didn’t complete it, if I don’t want to.

But I have still completed a three-day fast three times by telling myself “not yet”. When I got really hungry, I thought about what I would eat at the end of the fast, how good it would taste – but not yet. When I looked at the food in my fridge or pantry, or saw my family eating, I knew I would be eating with them again soon – but not yet. Each time I felt the impulse to break my fast, I put it off. Not Yet.

And then, it was the evening of the third day, and I could eat dinner with my family, and it tasted SO good, and felt so nice to have a full stomach again. Because for three days, I could just put off eating. I put it off and put it off, until I was there.

If I can do that with something as necessary and hard-wired as eating, what else could I do that with? That’s something I want to find out.

I like eating.

And eating is good, it’s necessary, and getting pleasure from eating is not a bad thing. But one of the things I had to face, going through the fasts, was how often the frustration of not eating came not because I was hungry, but because I wanted to eat for other reasons. Sometimes it was boredom. Sometimes it was pure habit; it was lunchtime or dinnertime and it felt weird to be at that time and not eat. Sometimes it was because I wanted a break from what I was doing, and I had to face that stopping to eat something is my usual excuse for taking a break.

And then there’s emotional eating. I don’t do that a whole lot, fortunately, but I doubt there is anyone who doesn’t do it at all. I had to admit after fasting, that yes, sometimes I do eat because I’m tired or frustrated. That isn’t a very nice thing to have to face, but there isn’t much avoiding it when you have to deal with every impulse to eat, without eating.

Meditation and fasting are surprisingly similar.

I’ve been keeping a regular sitting meditation practice for nearly a year, now. That practice has taught me quite a bit about how busy my mind is, and how much worry, fretting and rumination goes on in my head that is simply a waste of time and energy. Through meditation, I’m learning to let go of that mental chatter, and to not believe every thought my brain churns up and throws at me.

Fasting has done much the same thing for me, but in the context of my body and food – just as meditation has been changing my relationship with my thoughts, fasting has been changing my relationship with eating, and my feelings of hunger. It’s made me much more aware of my reasons for eating when I eat, and made me realize that I really need much less food than my stomach likes to tell me I do, just like I don’t need to worry as much as my brain likes to tell me I do. Which means that I eat less now than I did, even when I’m not fasting. Whether this will have a long term effect on my health (and body weight) I don’t know. But I intend to find out.

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The Frustration of Plateaus

It seems to make intuitive sense that for every action A, there should be a consistent reaction B. That’s how it works in billiards and bowling, that’s how it should work with everything, right?

Except it doesn’t.

When we’re talking about learning, growth, development, and so on, progress isn’t linear. We think it should be, that if we’re lifting weights, and were able to increase the weight every four sessions, then after the next four sessions, we should be able to raise the weight again, right? The same thing with flexibility in yoga sessions, learning how to do difficult math problems, working on writing better; the measureable progress of the last ten sessions should be the same as the progress of the next ten sessions.

Except it isn’t.

Learning and growth always come with plateaus. We progress very quickly in a short period of time, then we don’t seem to progress at all for a while. Sometimes quite a while. Sometimes we even regress a little.

It’s frustrating. Maddeningly frustrating, sometimes. Stuck in the middle of a big, long plateau is when most people quit doing something. Practice becomes too hard to do when we’re putting in effort over and over again, and not seeing any results. I know, because I’ve done it myself, many times.

But the thing I’ve learned, (though I have to keep learning it, over and over) is that even when you can’t see or measure results, it doesn’t mean that progress isn’t happening. It just means that the progress is happening on too deep a level for you to measure. It means that your connective tissues and circulatory system is re-arranging themselves to be able to support the next big advance in performance, because the current arrangement can’t handle that level of stress. It means that your deeper unconscious is sorting through what you’ve learned, and is working on consolidating it, and making connections and integrating understanding so that you have the foundation to learn and understand the next level of concepts.

And breaking through the plateau, getting to that next period of rapid progress will only happen if you keep showing up, keep working at it, keep practicing, and keep doing it with the focus and intensity necessary to challenge yourself. If you do that, reaching that next period of rapid growth is not just likely, it’s inevitable.

It’s something I have to keep reminding myself, when I’m trying to learn, get better at something, develop myself, and I’m stuck in the middle of a plateau. Plateaus happen, all the time.

I could give up. Again. But that would only leave me where I was; at the bottom of a long climb. If I want to reach that breathtaking view at (or near) the top, I need to keep showing up, keep practicing. This time, I’ll beat the plateau, it won’t beat me.

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How to give (better) constructive criticism

Constructive criticism from other people – even people who aren’t “experts” in an area – is easily one of the best ways to get better at what you’re doing. This doesn’t just go for things like writing, speaking, acting, etc., but for just about anything that humans do. If we can get timely, direct, constructive feedback on what we could do better, we get better at it. Period.

But one of the things that I’ve found over the last several years is that many people are really terrible at giving constructive criticism. Over and over again, I’ve seen people, when asked to give constructive criticism about something, give feedback that is entirely unhelpful. They give only kudos, perhaps for fear of giving offense. Or they give suggestions that are vague and unspecific. Or they give their feedback in ways that overwhelm, annoy or offend the person, instead of building them up to do better on the next try.

So here’s a quick primer for everyone who has needed to give constructive criticism (which I expect is everyone who isn’t living under a rock), to help you do it better.

Give some praise.

As I said above, responses that are only praise feel good in the short term, but are ultimately unhelpful for improving what we’re doing. Still, tell the person what they did right, what they did well. Show some appreciation for their efforts. They put the work in to do the thing in the first place, and they’re now asking for constructive feedback in order to do it again, but better. Give them kudos and some respect for that, even if the thing they did was a horrible, raging dumpster fire.

Pick a small number of things to point out as things that need improvement.

What that small number is will depend on the context and medium that you’re giving feedback in; if you’re doing a formal, written review, the number will be a bit higher, likely around five or six. If you’re in a more informal context, like an online course or discussion board, or talking to the person face to face, you likely will need to keep the number down to two or three. If the thing you’re giving feedback on is quite good, the small number of things might be the only things there are to mention; if the thing is the raging dumpster fire, the small number will need to be the things that will bring the greatest improvement. Don’t mention all the other things, that will only overwhelm and discourage the person you’re giving feedback to, and defeat the purpose.

Be specific.

Vague generalities about how they “always” do this are as irritating and unhelpful in constructive criticism as they are in marital spats and employee annual reviews. Tell the person exactly what part or what instance (or if it is something they do many times over, pick one specific example) and tell them specifically what it is that could be better.

Express the feedback as your personal opinion.

Because that’s what it is. You’re telling the person what YOU think would make things better; your feedback is not objective, it is not divine and perfect, it is not the ultimate final word on the worthiness of the thing, or the person who did it. Don’t pretend or word your feedback otherwise.

So for example, if you’re giving feedback on a piece of writing, don’t say “Your piece is too short. Make it longer.”, say “I think the piece is too short for the complexity of your topic. Can you expand on some of your points?”

Which brings me to my next thing to do.

Give suggestions, not directives.

Just like the last point, your feedback is not unbiased, and is not the ultimate and final word on anything. It also isn’t your name and your reputation that is connected to the thing you’re reviewing. Which means that the person who did the thing gets to choose whether to agree and follow or implement your suggestions, or not. If the person thinks that you’re way off base and your suggestions violate the spirit and intent of the piece, then it’s their right to ignore your feedback. Don’t pretend otherwise.

Give the best, most thoughtful feedback you can.

Even if you aren’t a writer, you can give feedback to writers based on your experience of reading other published authors. The same goes for just about every other kind of thing – even if you aren’t a producer or expert or professional critic, you can still think about what you liked about the thing, and what you found boring, what didn’t make sense, what seemed odd, what felt awkward, and so on. Thinking in this way and coming up with these good, helpful things can take practice, but if you just stop to consider, drawing on your experience as a consumer of things, I expect you can come up with a couple of things to say.

I’ve already mentioned a few things not to do, but here’s one more, the biggest thing to not do.

Do not ever make your feedback a comment on the person.

Only comment on the thing. The failings of the thing are the failings of the thing, not the failings of the person who did it. Never, ever word your feedback in a way that suggests otherwise.

Here’s an example to make it clearer. Do NOT say “You’re stupid about this” or “You’re being stupid here” or even “This is stupid.”. These are not acceptable phrases to use in constructive criticism. What would be acceptable are phrases such as “This doesn’t make sense to me because of (reason). Can you explain this better?” or “I think some more research is in order here” or even “I don’t think you thought this through well enough”. Each of the first set of phrases is attacking the person and shutting down possibilities for improvement. Each of the last set discusses the thing, not the person, and stays positive about the person’s ability to do more, and do better.

Much more can (and has) been said about doing constructive criticism better. But for now, if someone asks you to give them feedback on a thing they did, following these guidelines will help you do it better.

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Big Patterns, in Math and in Life.

I spent some time tutoring a new student in math yesterday. This girl, like many of my students, struggles in math; as I started working with her, it became clear that she has a hard time remembering how to do specific types of problems, and often ends up stumped, or applying the wrong technique, which naturally results in a wrong answer.

After a little more discussion and some probing questions, I discovered that she wasn’t able to visualize a number line in her head in order to have an intuitive feel for the relationship between numbers, and she didn’t see and understand many of the large patterns in math processes, that make it much easier to remember and apply the specific steps necessary to solve a given problem.

This is, unfortunately, a common thing in my students.

But it makes me wonder – why is this so devastatingly common? So many of my students see math or chemistry or biology as a collection of entirely unrelated facts that must be memorized in a sadistic ritual that they must get through to be allowed into the adult world.

Is that how they’re being taught? If so (and I suspect that it is so) is it because their teachers look at the subject as a collection of entirely unrelated facts that they just happened to be reasonably good at memorizing, or is it because the teachers were taught to teach as if that were the case, and they don’t know how to do it any different? Or maybe a combination of the two?

And the big problem is that this is doing the students and the society that they will eventually be contributing adults within, a serious disservice, because not only does this make school tortuous and frustrating, it also discourages the students from ever going and learning things on their own, since their only experiences of learning are so horrible and frustrating.

It also means that as adults in larger society, they don’t have the mental tools to make sense of larger patterns. It means they don’t have the ability to look at the wide variety of data pointing to how our climate is changing and see why scientists are saying that this is a long term negative pattern that we need to do something about. It means that they don’t have the mental tools to look at the sweep of history to see how we got where we are socially and politically, and how we might change that for the better. It means that they don’t have the mental tools to see and understand patterns in their own lives of how they sabotage their personal or professional trajectories.

Because teachers only ever gave them unrelated facts to memorize, instead of showing them patterns and concepts that made the details understandable, and thus memorable. If they learned to see the patterns and connections, they did it on their own, perhaps despite their teachers, rather than because of them.

That’s why I try to do things differently with my students. Teach them the big concepts, the big patterns, the connections, the relationships, because by doing so, I’m not just teaching them math, I’m teaching them the tools to think at different scales, and go out to find other big, meaningful patterns that will illuminate the details.

I’m not entirely sure that I’m successful at this. But I sure hope I am, because we surely need people in the world with those mental tools, and those perspectives. Now more than ever.

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Are you an Artist?

It occurred to me the other day, that I’ve been blogging for over a year about creative writing and the creative process, and I have never stopped to really define Art or and Artist.

I agree with the definition that Seth Godin provides in his book “Linchpin”, which is a very broad definition, and it is basically this:

Art is something that requires some skill and craft to do well, but it is made special by the Artist, who brings his/her whole self into the performance of the Art.

So in other words, just about anything can be Art, as long as you bring some skill and soul into doing it. That means that Art is a whole lot more than writing, drawing, painting, acting, and the other ‘fine’ arts, but also includes things like waiting tables, and rehab therapy, and driving a taxi and many, many other things we don’t traditionally think of as Art.

But no matter what Art we’re talking about, it isn’t Art until there is skill and there is soul.

So if you want to be a writer, a true artist of a writer, you need to pursue increasing skill, but you also need to bring your whole self to the writing; let your readers see from your viewpoint, through your eyes. Let them see you reflected in your work.

If you don’t pursue always increasing your skill, then you are a dilettante, not a real artist, you’re not taking your Art seriously.

If you don’t bring your whole self to the writing, and let yourself be reflected in your work, then you are a hack. A highly skilled hack, perhaps, but a hack nevertheless.

And the same is true no matter what your Art. Bring the skill, bring yourself. You’re an artist.

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