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Archive for the ‘learning’ Category

In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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One of the major events of my life was taking speech therapy when I was six. More than any other event, it is responsible for me becoming a writer. Probably, too, it is responsible for my sometimes bloody-minded tenacity and wish to prove myself.

My problem was that I pronounced a hard “k” sound as “t,” so that that “cat” came out as “tat.” It wasn’t much of a problem in kindergarten, although I once overheard someone’s mother asking if I was “retarded” (as the term was in those unenlightened days).

But Grade One was another matter. The class was divided into groups for practicing reading. The groups were named for colors, but, even at six, I could tell the group that I was dumped into was for slow learners. One girl in my group later struggled along for several grades before leaving for a school for the mentally challenged, while another boy was notoriously slow all through school.

Young elitist in the making that I was, I resented being lumped in with these people. And looking back, I’m appalled – how does a pronounciation problem come to be associated with a lack of intelligence? But I was also an overactive child, often charging about and speaking too quickly, and often my left-handedness left me clumsy. So possibly there was more behind the diagnosis.

Still, at least my parents and teacher, or some combination of them, decided I would go to speech therapy. So, after school, I started going regularly to a speech therapist, a pale-skinned woman with a haircut like Jackie Kennedy’s and what I remember as endless patience as I struggled through the verbal exercises she gave me.

The outing was an exciting chance of pace, but I just could not get what the therapist was trying to tell me. I tried to position my tongue and other parts of the mouth the way she showed me, but somehow I just couldn’t. Even when she held my tongue down with a tongue depressor, I didn’t have much luck.

By the accident of being at the right place at the wrong time, I became the poster-boy for that year’s March of Dimes, imitating a deaf boy with a headset so I could hear myself speak. But I still had the speech defect. Nobody said anything, but I could sense the concern in the discussions after each session between my mother and the therapist. Somehow, I wasn’t measuring up.

Then, suddenly – I could do it! I could hardly wait until the next reading practice to demonstrate my newfound pronounciation ability. Opportunely, the piece from the reader I was given was given over to the adventures of ducks, so I had plenty of chance to show off.

The experience left me with a preciseness of speech that sometimes gets mistaken for an English accent, as well as the abilty to enounciate clearly while barely moving my lips. Both traits survive to this day.

More importantly, it left with the feeling that I had to make up for lost time. Within a couple of months of correcting my speech defect, I was devouring the Hardy Boy series, and sitting in the advanced readers’ group. At the year’s end, when I was recognized as top student, the book I received – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – was already seeming a little slow to me (It was only later that I learned to treasure it).

That summer, I tried my first story, written in a notebook and concerninga pack of wild dogs. Its plot, if I remember correctly, revolved around dog thieves, and one exceptionally bright dog’s ability to remember the last three digits of the serial number of the van used by the thieves to carry out their dirty deeds. By the next school year, I was well into Alexander Dumas, and not looking back.

Books had always been a part of my life, and my mother had spent long hours reading to me. But, looking back, it was the inability to communicate properly that really roused my interest in words, and the unspoken shame of being in the slow readers’ group that made me determined to not only master reading and writing, but to excel in them. Although I soon stopped comparing myself to anyone else and gave myself over to the pure delight of language, the fierce joy of those drives, once created, never diminished. I wouldn’t have been an English instructor, a technical writer, or a journalist without them. Maybe, too, I wouldn’t have had the tenacity to become a long distance runner, either.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had a pronounciation problem. Would I still have developed along the same lines? Or would I have gone in a different direction, or even coasted?

It bothers me, too that so much of the direction of my life should be due to over-compensation. I mean, surely I could have found direction without going through unpleasant experiences. Did my life really have to be so Freudian? Or did speech therapy simply awaken inclinations that were already part of my brain-patterns?

But it’s not as though I was aware of any choice at the time. All I knew at the time was that I was going to prove everyone wrong about me – and, ever since, I haven’t been the same.

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