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Posts Tagged ‘success’

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 am working on another post that will be ready this weekend, however, I must write a quick post about my son.

I just got back from dropping him off at football practice.  He can walk on his own, but sometimes I enjoy chatting with him along the way and then talking with his coaches to see how he is progressing.

Last week, Brett Jr. missed the football game because it was a later than normal game and he wanted to see his mom.  I totally supported that decision and his team did just fine, winning 52 to 33.  So, while talking to the coaches today, they asked me if Brett would be at the game this weekend.  You see, his game this Saturday was changed to a later time, and they wanted to know if he would miss the game again.  I said, yeah he will be there.  I said, “I talked with his mom today and he will definitely be at the game.”  And they responded, “Great, because we definitely missed him last week.”  You see, until last week, Brett’s team had only allowed 6 points in 3 games.  Last week they allowed 33.  The coaches said, “We missed Brett in the middle.”

I couldn’t stop grinning.  I mean, I was sorry for the team’s struggle, but was extremely happy that it was due to my son’s absence.  He is a star!

So, I am happy, but trying to contain myself.  I have locked and chained up “crazy sports” dad from the first two weeks of football, and I have promised my self to not to ever let him out again.  Nonetheless, I am very proud of my son, for more reasons than success on the field.  He is becoming more and more independent.  He is getting his homework done, he is studying for and doing well on tests, he is playing with his brother, and he is having fun playing football.  I am very proud of my son.  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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