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Posts Tagged ‘outliers’

So, if you want to piss me off, tell me what I can’t do.   I may not even want to do it, but if you tell me that I can’t, I will have no choice but to not only do it, but do it well.  This characteristic is both a blessing and a curse. 

I not only think I can, but I know I can.

On one hand, it has inspired me to excel in a number of things, especially academics.  For example, although I did not grow up in the civil rights era, I still had to contend with teachers that automatically assumed that I could not possibly be as smart as my white or Asian counterparts.

In middle school, we had a special day with our teachers to discuss future classes in high school.   I had a teacher tell me that I shouldn’t take AP (advanced placement) classes because it would be too difficult for me.  I took AP history and calculus in high school, and did well in both.  As a matter of fact, I was given a C in AP history, despite the fact that according to my records I should have had an A.  I talked to the teacher about it, showed him my records, showed him his grade policy and made it clear to him that my grade should not be a C, but an A.  The teacher changed the grade.  After he changed the grade, it pissed me off.  How could a teacher make an error in judgment that allows him to change a grade from a C to an A?  I have been a teacher now for approximately 15 years, and I have NEVER made an error that big.  As you can tell, this event that happened to me almost 25 years ago still bothers me.  It was clear that I was treated differently than my other classmates.  Another example occurred in high school, when for one semester, I was demoted to remedial English.  Granted, English was not my strongest subject, but remedial?  Even the teacher of the remedial English class did not understand why I was enrolled in her class.

I could easily turn this blog into a social commentary on how racism is alive and well and has held many students back simply based on the color of their skin.  I graduated from high school with a 3.9, I am in my high school’s hall of fame for track & field, and I graduated from UC Berkeley, and I still have multiple stories of people telling me that I was not smart enough to do things.  What about the black students that were B students, or C students, or even D students?  If as an A student I still faced obstacles, I can’t imagine what other students faced.  But this is not a blog about race, or not just about race, but about the obsession people have with what can’t be done.

Don’t tell me what I can’t do.  I can do anything, and just because you have chosen to limit yourself, don’t dare put that small thinking on me.  But, why are so many people concerned with other people’s opinions on what they can and can’t do?  And why am I not?  The easiest answer would be my parents, as I believe strongly that they instilled in me my “don’t give up” and the “don’t you dare tell me what to do” attitude.  But I want to go a little bit deeper.  In many ways it reminds me of ‘cultural legacy’ as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’.  I actually blogged about this book in My First Book Review.  In other words, do I have this attitude because of my culture?

In his book, ‘Outliers’ Gladwell describes a famous psychological experiment by Nisbett and Cohen.  They monitored reactions of people to being insulted.  Students were asked to answer a number of questions and then walk down a long, narrow hallway where unbeknownst to them, another person who was also part of the experiment would whisper the word “asshole” as they walked passed.  The researchers found that it did not matter if you were black, or white, rich or poor, a nerd or a jock, you responded to the insult the same, except for one surprising variable.  If you were from the South, regardless of your background, you reacted strongly to the comment, but students from the North actively calmed themselves when they heard the comment.  The author suggested that the “Culture of Honor” was passed down through generations of Southerners irrespective of almost any other environmental or genetic factor.

I think about the history of African-Americans in this country and wonder if I am the recipient of a “Culture of Rebellion”.  I think about the long list adversities that black people have suffered in this country, but yet have been inspired to create music, poetry, innovation, and various forms of success in spite of the obstacles placed in the way.  Although I would never compare my obstacles to slavery, lynch mobs, nor laws of discrimination, but the fact remains, I have a strong visceral response to people trying to prevent me from doing things.  Can culture be inherited?  If you have a cultural history in which the ‘sky was the limit’ or your ancestors had many options, maybe limitations would not be such a bad thing.  But if your ancestors were oppressed and limited by the dominant culture, self-imposed limitations would be counter-intuitive and very maladaptive to an oppressive environment.  As a matter of fact, under oppressive conditions, a spirit of rebellion would be necessary for upward mobility.  Quite frankly, if you examine history, some of the greatest innovations and social movements have come out of great adversity.   Maybe it is from my parents, maybe it is genetic, or maybe I have inherited a “Culture of Rebellion”, but I am glad I have it and I hope my kids will have it too, because no one should limit their potential by telling them what they can and cannot do.

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A couple of months ago Taco Bell was sued.  The lawsuit claimed that Taco Bell was wrong for calling their beef burritos, well, beef burritos because the burritos only contained 35% beef.  Taco Bell responded to the lawsuit by stating that their beef burritos contained 88% beef.  Soon after the news of the lawsuit became public and Taco Bell’s response, Taco Bell put their burritos on sale for 88 cents.  Don’t think this new price was lost on me, what about you?  Nonetheless, I have accepted the fact that their burritos are 88% beef.  It also makes me better appreciate McDonald’s for stating that their burgers are 100% beef.  Especially since I used to think that this was as stupid advertisement.  I often thought why would they tell me that their burgers were 100% beef? 

Remember this commercial?

What else would it be?  Turns out there are other options.  But here is my problem:  I actually don’t mind that Taco Bell beef burritos are not 100% beef.  But why won’t Taco Bell tell us what is in the remaining 12%? I haven’t eaten there since.  I’m just sayin …

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So, I normally don’t do parenting blogs so close together, but the situation warrants it.  Oh, and for those that are keeping track, I still owe you a near-death-experience blog.  Don’t worry, I will get to it, and once you read it, you will wonder why you cared.

On a daily basis, I ask my son how is day went.  If you have kids, and more specifically, if you have sons, you know what the answer is 99 times out of 100.  He always responds, “Fine.”  Even when I attempt to follow-up with more specific questions, the gist of his responses are generally somewhere within the “Fine” category.  So, a couple of days ago, after trying my usual follow-up questions, such as, “Did anything exciting happen today?” or “What was your favorite part of class?” or, my favorite, “Who did you play with/talk to at recess?”, but after getting the same old recycled answers, I tried something different.  I asked him, “Did anything bad happen today?”

You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, that is an odd question to ask an 11 year-old boy.”  Especially when there is no reason to think that anything bad would happen to a kid in 5th grade.  But, you don’t know my son.  My son is the king of “Everything is all right.”  I think this is a great trait to have in most situations, except for when things are not all right.  I blame myself for this, as I am not one to complain.  I hate complaining as a matter of fact, and hate it more when other people complain.  The problem with this is that everyone, even me, needs opportunities to share the negative aspects of their life with someone.  As a matter of fact, if you have no one to share these parts of your life with, you will have major emotional problems.  In other words, you can’t bottle shit up.  It’s just not healthy.  Now, I know what you are saying, what about my issues with emotional people?  The truth is, it’s not emotions I have a problem with, it is the reactions/choices people make in response to their emotions that I question.   It is OK to be angry, it is not OK to take a crowbar to someone’s car window because they cut you off a mile back.  It should be OK, but it is not. 

Well, what about my son?  It turns out, the question, “Did anything bad happen today?” elicits a rather thought out, lengthy response.  The first time I asked him this question was two days after he wore his fedora to school.  Apparently some boys asked to wear it, and they had to be compelled by teachers to give it back.  My son’s version of this was quite positive.  He contended that they were going to give it back, and it was not a big deal.  But, it doesn’t take much to read between the lines.  Afterwards, I asked him, if he liked wearing the hat.  He said, “Yes.”

“Then don’t worry about what other people think or do.  And you need to know that it is OK to protect yourself.  Besides, you look great in that hat.”  I said.

We continued to talk about how he did not have to let others wear his hat if he didn’t want to, and it was OK for him to demand for his stuff back when the situation warranted.  It was a good conversation.

I also asked this question of him today, hence the inspiration for this blog.  It turns out that while playing volleyball in gym, there was a kid that was yelling at other kids for not hitting the ball correctly.  He apparently was yelling, “Watch the ball!” 

Brett did not like this.  I asked Brett if the kid yelled at him, and he said “Not so much.” 

“What did you do?” I asked. 

“I told him to be quiet.  He didn’t need to say so much.” Brett said.  

I said, “Good for you.”

The last couple of days have got me thinking about questions, and the role of the speaker and the listener.  I remember reading a book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell as he discuss how Korean culture was the likely culprit for a series of airplane crashes.  You see, Gladwell made the argument that in the Korean culture, subordinates are not to challenge or speak up assertively to their superiors.  So, as he argued, when Korean co-pilots had information vital to the security of the plane, they were not willing to correct or assertively argue for a decision that may contradict their superiors, even if it meant preventing a plane crash.  Many pilots now under go training on proper communication between officers, placing the safety of the plane first over cultural norms. 

I thought of this because I believe this is the relationship my son and I have developed.  I am his clear superior, and he actively seeks not to give me negative information.  He believes this so much, that even though I might ask about his day, he will censor out the bad stuff, unless I specifically ask for that information.  It makes me think that if the knowledge of culture can serve to avoid plane crashes, maybe the knowledge of family culture can be just as effective in avoiding future family “crashes”.  I don’t know if the current form of question will always work, but I think I have at least a glimmer of hope in better understanding our relationship.  I will make it very clear to him, that not only is keeping the bad stuff hidden unhealthy for him, but it is unhealthy for us.  One thing is very clear, it is not that my son is uncommunicative, it is just that I haven’t asked the right question.

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I would be remiss if I did not say Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!  Go get your drink on, but be safe.  Keep in mind that if you end up looking like this:

Isaac is excited to find out he is part Irish

 and are NOT 3 years old, you might have a problem.  I’m just sayin …

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So, I am not what you might call an avid reader, but every so often I read a book that I can’t get off my mind.  The book I just completed is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  Everyone should read this book, and I mean everyone.  It was actually first mentioned to me by my ex-wife’s brother and then later by my sister.  This is usually what it takes to get me to read a book for pleasure, multiple recommendations.

The heart of the book explores how and why people become successful.  And as the title of the book implies, people who are significantly more successful than most.  Are they successful because of innate abilities or is there more to their story.  For example, many professional hockey players are big, strong and very agile on skates.  But did you also know that a large proportion of them are born in January, February, and March?  Is this a coincidence?  If you read the book you will find that it is not.  Another example, and there are many, is of Bill Gates.  Yes, Bill Gates is über smart, but had it not been for key events in his life, he may never have been nearly as successful.  Or how being Korean, and more specifically the Korean culture may have been responsible for multiple airplane crashes.

I highly recommend this book.  It has made me rethink education, pathways to success, and the role of environment and culture in one’s potential for success.   The book even has me consider why some people live long lives in spite of poor habits, such as alcohol, over-eating, and other unhealthy lifestyles.  In the vein of this book, I have considered my own story of success and whether I am a product of innate abilities, luck, or a series of opportunities that had they not occurred, I would not be where I am today.

Whether you would consider my story a successful one will certainly depend on your perspective.  Let’s consider for the sake of argument that my story is indeed successful.  I am a university professor.  I earned my bachelor’s at UC Berkeley, PhD from the University of Kansas, and held a postdoctoral position at Northwestern University.  If you know me I think you would say I was intelligent.  I am fortunate to remember things that many people forget, and often after only hearing it once.  One of the things that I believe I excel at is looking at a problem, analyzing the constituents of the problem and coming to a solution, both quickly and to the point of resolving the problem.  It is these characteristics that make it no surprise that I am in science.  I have gone to some of the finest institutions in the world.  And earned a 4.0 while working towards my PhD.  Based on this information it would be no surprise to you that I am a Physiology professor and that my story of success is due to my intelligence and academic pedigree, but you would be wrong.

Of my two brothers and sister, why am I the only one with a PhD?  For that matter, why was I one of the first, if not the only member of my extended family to earn a PhD.  It certainly wasn’t because of intelligence that is an outlier to the rest of my family.  I assure you, my family has the intellectual capacity similar to most.  But I do believe there were a few key events in my life that were unique:

1.  I went to a private Christian elementary school, my siblings did not.  My class sizes were small.  I received not only more attention than my public school counterparts, but I received specialized attention.  Upon arriving at home, my mom would ask if I had homework.  I would reply that I did, but I completed it in class.  She would ask me if I listened to the teacher while I was working on my homework.  I replied, I did not need to, I already understood the material.  My mother responded to this information by requesting I be given more difficult work.  The school placed me in a small group of students that were more advanced in the class and tailored a program to our skills.  Could this have happened at a public school?  I eventually advanced beyond small group and, again at my mother’s behest, I was advanced to the next grade.  A consequence of this decision is that I graduated high school at 16.  Two things came of this event:  One, I was in an institution that was flexible enough to accommodate my situation and secondly, my mom taught me a very valuable lesson, complacency is NOT acceptable.

2.  My parents divorced.  Now, I am not praising divorce, but this event had some very interesting unintended consequences.  My mom had to leave the house and with me, find a place that she could afford.  We had to move across town and lived in a two bedroom condominium.  For a time, my brother and I shared a room.  Interestingly, this condo was in a “poor” part of a very rich neighborhood.  We were now in one of the best school districts in the state.  I went to a high school that was only two to three years old when I first set foot in the building.  Had I gone to the junior high and senior high of my siblings, the age difference, class size difference, and environment was as different as night and day.

3.  A professor at Berkeley that taught me all about graduate school.  I walked into the late Professor Ned Johnson’s office with one question in mind, “How do I do what you do?”  He told me.  He wrote my first letter of recommendation.  He helped me obtain two more.  He helped me get my first job after college, a Park Ranger on Alcatraz Island as the Natural Resources Coordinator for the Bay District.  On Alcatraz I met a professor from the University of Kansas who invited me to become a graduate student in his lab.  He and the chair of the department at the time fast tracked me into the program on probation.  I had a 2.6 out of Berkeley and so did not meet the requirements of the graduate school.  Their argument, I was a minority with potential.  As mentioned above, I graduated with a 4.0 and later that chair became my PhD advisor.  He studied marmots.  I now study marmots.

These are just three examples, but there are plenty more, for example, my entire family is made up of people who never give up and complacency is not an option.  What is your story?  Have you considered all the things that have happened in your life that has allowed you to be where you are?  The opportunities?  Maybe even opportunities that you missed?  As an educator I now think of students not as smart or dumb, but hopefully more of people who if given the opportunity can be anything they want to be.  What you will find upon reading the book, Outliers, is that the stories of success are not outliers at all, but individuals that were given opportunities to be successful.  Kind of encouraging isn’t?

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I had a fantasy football draft this morning at Hooters.  I have been in this league for several years now, and all 12 members take it very seriously.  I was on the waiting list to get in this league.  This league is serious.  It was my first time at Hooters.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it did not live up to the hype.  Don’t get me wrong, lots of squished together boobies, and tight clothing, and short shorts, but for whatever reason, I expected more.  Not a happy ending, but more.  Nonetheless, isn’t it illegal to not hire someone based on their looks.  There were no uggos, not one.  Not even a chubby girl.  I’m not complaining, and I am certainly not writing my congressman, but I would think there would be at least one lawsuit.  Just one chunky, mediocre, Hooters girl wannabe lawsuit.  I’m just sayin …

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