Browsing the archives for the learning tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      


10 Ways to Increase Happiness: The CliffsNotes Version

Techniques

laughter

There’s an excellent (if overenthusiastically titled) article on Inc.com called “10 Surprisingly Counterintuitive Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.” It lists 10 research-based insights into cultivating long-term happiness.

Here’s a summary of the approaches they recommend, which can also serve as a refresher to re-read once or twice over the next couple of days to a week after you read the original article (assuming you decide to read the original article), if you’d like a way to help ensure the ideas to stick.

  1. Allow feelings of happiness and disappointment to mix
  2. Keep happy friends close (or move near happy friends, or find happy friends nearby)
  3. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful
  4. Consider counseling, which the article describes as producing as much happiness as 32 times the money it costs
  5. Don’t be overeager to seize happiness
  6. Say “no” to almost everything and use “don’t” to stop yourself from unwanted behaviors*
  7. Be comfortable and realistic in recognizing your strengths and weaknesses
  8. Plan for the worst, both to create peace in the moment from knowing you’ve taken dangers into account and to be able to handle trouble more easily and effectively
  9. Give up things you love for short periods in order to appreciate and enjoy them more
  10. Picture realistic accomplishments instead of fantasizing**

*Item #6 strikes me as two separate points: the first is about not overcommitting yourself, which is huge and one of my own personal biggest stumbling blocks; the second is about how to talk to yourself about not doing something, e.g., not saying “I should work out” or “I have to work out” or “I can’t miss my workout,” but rather “I don’t miss workouts.”

**Item #10, for my money, was the least clearly presented, although in general I think the article is great. On this one, the key thing seems to be not giving up on visualizing wonderful things happening, but rather visualizing specific things it’s in your power to accomplish in the way that they might actually happen. For instance, fantasizing about becoming a basketball star may tend to sap your energy and undermine your success; picturing yourself making multiple baskets at an upcoming game and then practicing hard to make that more likely may well do the opposite.

Photo by Shindz

No Comments

Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music

Interviews

This post is the third in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths and Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”

The discussion in this post follows up on an idea Dwight brought up in the previous interview of becoming calm and not focusing on an attacker or problem.

Dwight Sora

Luc: If we’re engaging with an opponent (and I really mean this both in the literal and figurative senses), but we’re not letting the opponent take our focus, how do we strike a balance between being aware on the one hand and not getting sucked in on the other?

Dwight: First off, this is a question for which I still do not have a definitive answer. While prepping for my three degree black belt test recently, I was acutely aware that during Aikido randori (which takes the form of defending against multiple attackers) the very act of extending one’s attention to more than one attacker felt simply exhausting. Even though the situation was extremely safe and very controlled (for form’s sake, attackers during Aikido randori should be taking smooth ukemi or “receiving the technique,” not allowing the situation to turn into a knock-down dragged-out fight), I could feel my heart start to race, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicking into gear, etc. In particular, there were moments where I was aware that my back was turned to an oncoming attacker as a result of throwing aside another, and though this moment was brief, I could feel a spike in my stress level.

On one level, I do think it’s simply a matter of constant practice. You need to simply drill all those techniques into your muscle memory so that you can “think” with your entire body and respond to situations accordingly without wondering where your hand or foot is going. I really feel like learning martial arts is a lot like learning how to play music, especially improvisational forms like jazz. Drills and exercises are like practicing your scales, forms are like studying the work of other musicians so you understand what works and what doesn’t, and techniques are like chord progressions or melody lines that you can adopt, modify or riff.

In that sense, I believe the majority of those of us studying martial arts are more like musical students than actual musicians. We’ve practiced our scales a lot, have memorized a lot of pieces of music and have mastered a handful of melodies and chords; but only a handful of us really know how to make music. (To add, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize whether you’re a real fighter or not.)

Another way of looking at this question is to steal an idea from another teacher. I was once told to think of martial arts as not an external series of techniques by man, but a refinement of our basic animal instincts. Think of the way a common squirrel responds to its surroundings and possible

threats. It’s not thinking the way a person does, but it’s paying total attention to everything – sights, sounds, smells, movement. Its thoughts (whatever they are) are in total alignment with every fiber of its being, and if it needs to high tail it out of there, it seems almost instantaneous.

The idea is that maybe the study of martial arts allows us as human beings to get back to that sort of state, a kind of pure intuition. That, combined with the techniques we study, gives us a refined series of physical responses, a stronger “vocabulary” if you will, than simply running away (like the squirrel).

I don’t think this state of mind is particular to martial arts. I’m pretty sure when pro athletes talk about being “in the zone” or race car drivers feel like they’re watching their own actions in slow motion it’s the same thing.  [A note from Luc: There’s some good research to back this up. Interested readers may want to read “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow] I work as a stage actor, so I’m constantly hoping to reach that sublime moment where I can connect with the audience and really bring a character to life, while still taking care of those pesky technical details (hitting my marks, remembering my lines and cues, etc.).

For my own training lately, I’m working on “forgetting” my body. Basically, I’m trying to allow myself to trust that I actually do know all this stuff I’ve been studying over the years and to remove any self-conscious movement.

That even goes to trying not to think about getting into a proper starting stance and putting my hands in the right place, and see if it happens automatically. It’s a little strange trying to “turn off” parts of my brain, and very disconcerting (especially when you end up responding late) but it seems to be the only way I’ve been able to free myself of the crutch of thinking of technique all the time and see if I can have natural responses to a situation.

Photo by Maggie Mui

No Comments

11 Essential Things to Know If You Want to Write Fiction for a Living

Writing

My 16-year-old son Ethan recently wrote his first short story intended for publication, and my niece, a high school senior, is visiting colleges like Middlebury, Williams, Wesleyan, and Bennington looking for a school that can help her develop a career as a writer. Just in case I wasn’t already thinking enough about the topic, I also recently received this question through my Web site:

Could you offer some advice for my 17-year-old daughter? She is about to apply to a Canadian college for English, and she aspires to become a novelist. Her strengths are writing, philosophy, drawing, photography. She wants to be her own boss, and not necessarily take courses that most people do if they want to become a writer–any advice?

In terms of my qualifications for answering this question, I should make sure you know I don’t make a full-time living at writing. At the same time I’ve won a major international writing award, sold a book and multiple short stories, gathered a large daily readership for my Web site, and appeared in magazines that are circulated around the world. What may be even more useful in answering this question is that I run an online writer’s group, Codex, and have had the opportunity to talk to literally hundreds of skillful writers, from people still trying to make their first pro sale to ones who make a comfortable living from their fiction, about their approach to building a writing career and their experiences trying to do that.

Based on that, here are the 11 most important things I can tell an aspiring fiction writer.

  1. Making a living writing fiction is a long shot, like making a living acting or painting. If you try to do it, try because you love writing and will write no matter what. If you don’t love it, spare yourself the heartache and aim for a field that can actually pay the rent. This article from a few years back explains some of the sad realities of trying to make a living in writing.
  2. As the article I just mentioned suggests, you don’t have to go to college to become a good writer, but for some people–especially people who haven’t had a college education in another field–it can be an important step. With that said, facing actual troubles in the real world and learning something from the process is usually the strongest basis for writing that connects with readers.
  3. Write only what fascinates you and draws your passionate interest. Don’t waste effort trying to write something solely because it seems more marketable, more respectable, more lucrative, more popular, or more seemly. Writing what you love will help inspire you, make it easier to push forward through difficulties, and will shine through in both your work and your promotion.
  4. You can make a living at novels, feature-length screenplays, and other long-form work, but consider writing many short works first to hone your craft, to boost your spirits with sales, and to gain some credentials.
  5. Never get angry at feedback or critique. Try to learn from it, and use it if it strikes a chord with you, but make a practice of understanding that your work is not the same as your identity and that nothing you can write will suit everyone. Also, learn to distinguish between “I don’t like it now, but I would if you made certain improvements” and “I don’t like it because I’m not the right audience for your work.”
  6. Becoming a better writer stems from practice and feedback. Write a lot and get people to read your work by joining critique groups, submitting to publications, blogging fiction, or any other means that gets you information about how people experience your work. A useful article on this topic is “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage.”
  7. Read a lot of books about writing, but watch out for advice that you have to do things a certain way. Many very successful writers seem to believe that their way of writing, editing, planning, outlining, or of structuring a career is the only one that works, and this is rarely true. They will promote their ways of doing things because those are the only means they’ve experienced. Talking to or reading about more writers will clarify that there is not just one way to succeed.
  8. The publishing world is in the midst of a huge upheaval, and the way to build a writing career has changed even in the last few years, closing some doors and opening others. Self-publishing and eBooks are now an essential part of the process, whereas they used to not matter. Pay attention to the changes in publishing, but don’t let them throw you. People will always be willing to pay for good stories, so there will always be writing careers of some kind, but don’t get too attached to your career unfolding–or continuing–in any particular way.
  9. The most important basis for a writing career is strong, professional, affecting, engaging writing. If you always strive to make your writing better, you will be investing in your career. However …
  10. Regardless of how good your writing is, you will almost certainly have to market it to someone, whether that’s an agent, an editor, a producer, the readers themselves, or some combination. Learn how to present yourself and your work professionally, how to summarize your writing projects effectively, and how to connect with new people who might just love your books.
  11. Guard your integrity: it’s extremely valuable and very difficult to regain if lost. Misusing online review venues, misrepresenting your publishing history, or mistreating your colleagues, for instance, will all ultimately tend to cost you more than you’ll get in short-term benefits.

Photo by Christopher S. Penn

3 Comments

Vicki Hoefle: If They Can Walk, They Can Work!

Guest posts

Earlier this year, my partner Janine and I had the chance to study with parenting educator Vicki Hoefle, whose Parenting On Track™ program, with its roots in Adlerian psychology, strikes off in a completely different–and more effective–direction than any approach to parenting I had ever come across. Vicki has kindly made some of her parenting articles available to me to reprint here. If you’re interested in the topic or have questions, please comment to help guide me in choices for future posts.

I don’t usually post guest articles that promote a particular product, but I do strongly recommend any Parenting on Track book, course, or media you may be inclined to buy, and I hope that if you’re not inclined to buy anything you won’t be put off by this departure from my usual way of doing things.

This article originally appeared at http://www.parentingontrack.com/2008/06/if-they-can-walk/ .

If you’re beginning to wonder if you’re the maid or the parent, then…

A) You’re not alone

B) Now’s the time to do something about changing roles, and

C) Believe it or not, both you AND the kids will be glad you did now, and for years to come.

I realized at an early stage in my pregnancy with my first child that I could either be the maid or be emotionally available to my children, but I could not do both. Since there’s a far greater payoff to being emotionally available, I decided to train my children early on to help with the household chores.

Now, if you’re at all put off by the word train, here are a few other verbs straight out of my thesaurus: teach, coach, educate, instruct, guide, prepare, tutor… and you’ve got to love this one… school.

I use the word train because that’s what it is. And let’s face it, training is useful – it makes us all better at what we do. And knowing how to learn from our training is a skill in and of itself. A skill, I might add, that will serve your children well as they go off to school, into the workplace… but that’s another topic for another day. Back to making everyone’s life easier and more pleasant by taking off that maid’s outfit and giving your children a chance to be part of the family fun.

Is there an optimal time for training?

The quick answer is YES! Over the years I developed a very simple answer for parents when they would ask me how young they could start training their children to help around the house. My answer is, “If they can walk, they can work.” That’s right moms and dads, it’s never too early.

There are two good reasons to start training your children in what is essentially the fine art of cooperation and contribution, as soon as possible.

1. The first reason is that, if children have been invited to participate in family chores from a young age, contributions will be a normal and routine part of their daily lives by the time they hit the pre-adolescent, “I am not interested” age. So, it’s actually less painful for both you and your kids if you start ‘em young.

Consider this. When our children are very small, they come to us asking to help and we are quick to reply with, “No, too hot; too heavy; too dangerous; too sharp; too fast; you are too little; too slow; too short.” And then we send them out of the kitchen and into the other room to play with the plastic kitchens and plastic food and say, “Now go play and have fun.”

We continue to do this, over and over, for years, until one day, about the time that same child turns 10, WE decide it’s time for them to be responsible for their stuff and we start in with, “Hey, pick up your back pack; unpack your backpack; put your dishes away; clear the table; pick up your room; do your laundry…” Sorry ladies and gents, but by then, it’s too late! We have missed the most opportune time for training.

You see, when children are very, very interested in just about everything around them – including mimicking mom and dad, you, as a responsible, pro-active parent, can use that natural curiosity to everybody’s advantage and get everyone involved in doing their part around the house.

2. The second reason to start training your children early to contribute to the household chores is a very practical one – kids need years of practice to become good at doing “stuff” around the house.

Just take a second and look around your home. I’m sure you’d agree that tasks which truly contribute to running even the simplest of households require some pretty complex skills, and developing any skill takes practice, more practice, and even more practice. The sooner you start practicing a skill, the sooner that skill develops.

So, just how should I go about training my toddler to contribute to the household chores?

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • An immaculate house is NOT the primary goal. If you want it clean to your standards, wait until the kids are in bed and clean it yourself – but for goodness sakes, don’t get caught!
  • Set reasonable expectations based on the child’s age.
  • Notice what your child is doing, and talk about it.
  • Train in small time increments.
  • Start with something relatively easy, like putting back toys, then move on to more advanced tasks like picking up trash and helping with the dishes.

The following checklists should help you get started with your first attempt:

Planning Basics

  • What two jobs can my toddler attempt successfully?
  • When am I going to train him or her? (Pick a time in the day that works for you and your child.)
  • What are my expectations?

When Your Child Says, “No”

  • Smile and walk away.
  • Go do something more interesting like read your book, listen to music, paint…

It’s also good to keep in mind that training in the art of cooperation and contribution doesn’t have to be explicitly planned during the early stages of training. As long as you’re ready when the opportunity presents itself, you can instill this spirit at a moment’s notice.

When Your Little One Tugs On Your Pant Leg to Play

  • Say “Yes, I would LOVE to play with you, as soon as we use bubbles to wash the dishes!”
  • Ask another question like “Would you like to learn how to squeeze the dish soap or turn on the dishwasher?”

Above all, DON’T GIVE UP — the ability to cooperate and contribute is a life skill that takes practice. And, whether you know it or not, your little ones will notice that you never give up on them, and that means the world.

If you have stories about how life has changed, now that you have handed in your feather duster and started training your kids, please share your comments below!

For more information on HOW to stay patient, set reasonable expectations, teach in small increments, and encourage your child (& yourself) along the way, purchase our Home Program and join the forum — Today!

Photo by horrigans

1 Comment

Does Simply Believing That You Can Improve Help You Improve?

States of mind

An intriguing post from Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck offers the idea that simpler believing you can learn to do better can give you an advantage in performance, over time.

Dr. Dweck describes two ways to look at skills and abilities: the “growth mindset” and the “fixed mindset.” The growth mindset is a belief that practice and experience can improve skill. The fixed mindset is a belief that you’ve either got it or you don’t.

Based on other research, the growth mindset appears to be a lot more accurate: see past articles on LucReid.com such as “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?,” “Why I’m Proud to Have Been an Unoriginal, Talentless Hack,” and “Practice versus Deliberate Practice.” However, this isn’t Dr. Dweck’s point. Instead, she describes how the very belief in the possibility of improving tends to boost ability over time:

The fixed mindset, in which you have only a certain amount of a valued talent or ability, leads people to want to look good at all times. You need to prove that you are talented and not do anything to contradict that impression, so people in a fixed mindset try to highlight their proficiencies and hide their deficiencies (see, e.g., Rhodewalt, 1994) … In contrast, the growth mindset, in which you can develop your ability, leads people to want to do just that. It leads them to put a premium on learning.

Some interesting additional details: in studies, Dr. Dweck and colleagues found that people might have a growth mindset in one area but a fixed mindset in another. For instance, you might believe you can get better at drawing, but not at socializing, or you might think you can improve at baseball but not at math.

Mindsets are fairly durable, but as Dr. Dweck points out, “they are beliefs, and beliefs can be changed.” The lesson for all of us seems to be that having faith in our own ability to improve will serve us well regardless of what area of life we’re talking about. To cultivate this belief, I can recommend a couple of books: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

Photo by Express Monorail. Thanks to Vince Favilla for tweeting Dr. Dweck’s article.

No Comments

Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

1. In my last article, I talked about the huge benefits we can get from funneling information into an outline. Outlining is helpful for a single person (or sometimes a group) to take a lot of information and make regular use out of it. In this follow-up, I’ll talk about other ways to organize a lot of information or ideas, with pros and cons for each.

Wikipedia Concept Map by Juhan Sonin

2. One option is to remember only whatever happens to stick and be reconciled to forgetting a lot of it. This is often our go-to method, for instance if we watch a documentary out of personal interest. It’s perfectly appropriate if we’re not going to need to put the information to direct use but just want to be exposed to it. For instance, I haven’t done anything specific with what I’ve learned from seeing God Grew Tired of Us, but it added to my perspective and my understanding of other people’s lives, and I’m glad I saw it.

3. We can go over it repeatedly until it’s memorized, which is the way, for example, we try to learn foreign languages, because we need that information be available in our heads. If I want to go to France and speak with other people there, it’s not going to help me to have a laptop with me so that I can look up verbs > subjunctive > irregular in my outline to help me say “Would it be a problem if I were to go along?”

4. We can leave it unorganized and just go through the whole thing when we need something from it, as most of us do or have done with notes from classes. This can go along with the memorizing approach, but it’s very inefficient if you want to be able to interact with your information and find things in it quickly.

5. We can use a tagging system in which we label each item with all the terms that apply to it, so that in addition to looking at the information in order, we can also filter down to just a particular kind. This is the way most blogs are organized. For instance, you can click the word “organization” in the tags for this post to see other posts of mine on the subject of organization.

6. We can index it, as we traditionally do with books, but this is a lot of work, and my experience is that indexes aren’t used very often unless a person knows exactly what they’re looking for.

7. If it’s information that we can somehow make into images, we can visualize it as a chart, graph, map, or diagram. Visualizing information usually means losing or hiding most of the detail and often comes with a limit as to how much information you can add, but it creates a big-picture perspective that can be difficult to come by otherwise. One approach to this is drawing or using  software to create a “concept map” (also called a “mind map” or “spray diagram”). There’s an introduction to concept maps at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm . I must say that I don’t find concept maps especially useful, but they do seem to be fairly popular. If you get a lot of use out of them, your commenting to offer perspective on the issue would be much appreciated.

One popular (and free) concept mapping tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux is FreeMind.

8. Finally, we can link it, making connections between one chunk of information and other chunks of information. This is a lot of work, but it creates an environment in which we can flow freely from topic to another. Wikipedia (one of my favorite inventions of all time) and other wikis are organized this way, as is the Internet as a whole. It’s useful for information that keeps expanding, especially from different sources, but it’s nearly impossible to link together all the topics that might be related to each other, and it’s hard to find all of the pieces of any one particular area of knowledge; more often, we’re just led from one subject to another related one with no clear end in sight.

All of these approaches have their uses, but my sense is that outlining is the most underused and under-rated tool in the toolbox. If you’re comfortable with computers and have a mass of information or ideas to sort out, it may be just the thing to toss into your organizational mix.

3 Comments

What’s the Essential Job of Parenting?

Resources

Recently Janine and I attended a series of six weekly classes (with substantial homework assignments) taught by parenting advisor Vicki Hoefle. Our children are wonderful, but we were running into problems like computer overuse with our teenager and getting our two grade school children out the door on time. Before we knew anything about Vicki’s work, I would have expected some helpful tips, useful insights, and gentle tweaks to our parenting. What I wouldn’t have expected was to hear–and quickly come to believe–that I’d been basically doing it wrong … and that I was not alone.

Wait, but I’m a good parent!
It’s very difficult for me, and I think for a lot of parents I know, to consider the possibility that we could be screwing up on a basic level. Sure, no parent is perfect. Ideas like “Ah, I should have been more involved here” or “In future, I’d better limit that” are perfectly comfortable for me. What’s not comfortable is to have to grapple with the idea that although I view parenting as one of the most important things I could do with my life, and although I’ve put great thought and effort into being a good parent, I was misunderstanding something as basic as what my job as a parent was.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been a good parent. I love my kids, and I make sure they know it. I go out of my way to spend time with them, to support them, and to listen to them. I help make sure they have good food, a stable home, fun, safety, and good schools. I try to guide and advise them to help them become better and more capable people. Isn’t that enough?

In a way, sure: my kids are great. At the same time, it’s not exactly on the mark: there’s an important understanding I (and virtually every other parent I know) had missed. That understanding is about who should be in charge. It’s not the parents: it’s the kids.

Parenting isn’t about telling our kids what to do
What’s the essential job of parenting? If you had asked a few months ago, I would have said something like “To love, support, teach, protect, and provide for our kids.” I also would have thought it was a pretty great answer. So where does it fall short?

To answer that question, I have to think about the thing that Vicki pointed out to us at the very first class: when they’re 18 or thereabouts, in most cases, our kids will be going out on their own. As of that moment, we will no longer be able to do things for them, teach them much of anything, or protect them from the world. By the time our kids leave home, they will need to know how to do everything we currently do for them and everything we expect them to do for themselves, as well as a bunch of things that we adults already do for ourselves and they will have never had to do before.

They have 18 years to learn everything. Go.
The list of things to know includes how to do laundry, how to cook, how to choose healthy foods, how to eat at regular times, how to get enough sleep, how to get up on time, how to be reliable, how to solve problems without anyone else’s help, how to act in a crisis, how to spend money, how not to spend too much money, how to earn money, how to save money, how to make and keep friends, how to resolve arguments and disputes, how to drive, how to navigate, how to keep a home clean even if you’re very busy, how to limit games and television so that they don’t get in the way of things like school and work, how to tell whether or not other people are trustworthy, how to deal with unexpected setbacks … and on and on and on. The complete list is probably too long to even fully imagine.

As competent adults, we know how to do a huge number of things, a lot of which we never even let our children try, sometimes because we don’t think they can do it and sometimes because it’s our job to do. (Do you let your children pay the gas bill without oversight? Hire their own lawyers? Take themselves to the hospital? I don’t either, although there are ways for them to learn how to do all these things without having to be abandoned by us.) As a result, young adults out on their own often make huge blunders with money, love, cleanliness, health, school, work, friendships, and in other areas. Sometimes they find their way through and eventually get good at these things. Other times they find an unhealthy status quo, like staying away from other people because they’re too nervous about negotiating relationships, or bossing everyone around, or bingeing on doughnuts every Friday night, or avoiding getting a serious illness or injury checked out because they don’t know how they’ll pay the medical bill, or ruining their chances at a great job and getting stuck with a lousy one.

Some of basic principles I took away from Vicki’s classes were these: let children do everything they’re capable of; let them find their own way; and help them learn how to do the things they can’t yet do.

Not all there is to it
There’s much more to what I’ve recently learned about parenting, especially in terms of what problems with kids’ behavior are really about and how to respond in a way that addresses the real issue instead of just trying to fix the situation. I’ve had to let go of a lot of my previous assumptions about parenting, though the principles of love, involvement, and support have only been strengthened by this process. If I tried to explain everything our family has gone through in the past six weeks, you might not even believe me. I will say, though, that our family is much, much happier and more functional than I could have imagined we’d be. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re making steady progress.

How can I say this in strong enough terms?
I’ll try to express this as effectively as I can: I don’t think I know a single family with children at home that does not need what Vicki is teaching. Not a single one. I know some outstanding parents, and I suspect those outstanding parents would get at least as much–if not more–out of learning from Vicki as the average person.

When I say “need what Vicki is teaching,” too, I mean that any time, effort, and expense put into this education will pay off many times what was invested.

Just so you know, I have no affiliation with Vicki’s operation and don’t get anything for talking her up. The reason I’m so enthusiastic about promoting her work is that I think it is desperately needed.

Vicki has begun speaking more widely just recently, as her youngest child (of five) has just left the nest. This is good news for people who, unlike Janine and me, do not live in Vermont and would not previously have had direct access to her. Even more usefully, she has a book, Duct Tape Parenting, coming out in August. (She already has a for-Kindle-only book out called Real Parents, Real Progress, but it’s more of an extended preview of what she’s offering than a real resource in itself. Actually, it’s perfect if you wonder if there might be something to what I’m saying but don’t really believe me that it can make an enormous difference in your life yet. Invest the five dollars in the book and see whether you agree it’s worth pursuing.)

I’d suggest that if you can think of anything important that you’d like to improve in your relationship with your children, whether it’s a problem kind of behavior or anything else, that it would be well worth your time to look into Vicki’s site or her books. I’m sure there are other people in the world who have as deep and useful an understanding of parenting as Vicki, but I’ve never run across any of them, and they’re not the parenting experts I’ve heard of before. Prove me wrong if you can that Vicki’s take on parenting is something we desperately need.

Photo by Bindaas Madhavi

1 Comment

Don’t Practice in a Vacuum

Strategies and goals

A few weeks ago, Deborah Walker wrote a blog post commenting on my Futurismic article “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage” in which she asked for (and got) readers’ thoughts on the importance of feedback for her writing. One of the commenters, Joe Romel, protested that “the difference between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson isn’t hours spent practicing, okay?”

I agree with Joe: it’s not just raw hours that count; it’s hours of deliberate practice (see “Practice versus Deliberate Practice“). In the Futurismic article, I talk about how Tiger Woods got his start in golf: his father, a professional golf coach, began training him before the age of 2. Tiger got in not only hours on the green, but crucially, tons of expert feedback. By contrast, Phil Mickelson started golf as a toddler too, but under the tutelage of his own father, Phil Mickelson Senior, of whom the best I’ve found said is that he “could play a little golf.” Both grew up and rose to the top of the golfing world, but Woods rose higher. More time on the green? Maybe, but Woods also had much more expert instruction from the beginning.

Compare this to Mozart’s and Salieri’s stories: Mozart was instructed from toddlerhood by his father, whose musical instruction was renowned across Europe; Salieri began learning music at a young age (though likely a few years later in life than Mozart) from his brother, who was a professional violinist but not especially experienced at teaching music or composition. Both rose to among the most well-known musicians of their time, but one vanished in obscurity until he was vilified in a movie about the other.

Applying this to writing, I think the point is not just to write a lot (which is certainly essential to becoming really good), but to get a lot of feedback of the best possible quality.

This relates directly to first readers and critique groups. As Joe says:

Anyway, I’ve done first readers and crit groups, and…well…meh. If you’re lucky enough to find a really good reader, whose opinion you trust and who will be completely honest with you, then great, but otherwise…well…meh. Same goes for critique groups.

Learning from readers who aren’t particularly in tune with what you’re trying to write or from writers who haven’t yet become very good themselves is not likely to be ideal, although it’s better than no feedback at all. It’s also essential to be actively interested in getting and using feedback. I admit, when I hand a story over for critique, what I’m really hoping for is that the reader will rush back to me, breathless and in tears, and insist that I recognize that the story is the best thing ever written in the history of the short story. Sadly, the result sometimes falls a little short of that–but at that point, if I’m going to learn anything, I have to switch from praise acceptance mode to self-examination mode.

My recommendations for feedback for writers are

  1. Find the best critique group you can,
  2. Send out work regularly to the publications or publishers you admire most in hopes of getting comments from editors even if you don’t sell the work,
  3. Discuss writing with people who know what they’re talking about (or find transcripts of such discussions), and
  4. Read books on writing by writers you respect.

This is more or less what I do myself, and so far so good, though I’m no Mozart or Tiger Woods (well, yet anyway).

Photo courtesy of NASA

2 Comments

Mirror Neurons and Accomplishing by Watching

The human mind

Mirror neurons are a surprising, fairly recent neurological discovery: cells in the brain that fire both when an action is done and when we see someone else performing the action. In other words, part of what goes on in our brains when we throw a frisbee, for instance, also goes on when we see someone else throw a frisbee.

I’ve mentioned before how imagining doing a thing activates many of the same parts of a person’s brain as actually doing the thing, and that visualizing ourselves in an activity is a good way to move ourselves towards doing it. The existence of mirror neurons suggests that just seeing someone else do something can make us more disposed and able to do that thing ourselves.

If that’s true, then it would seem that one of the ways we can encourage ourselves to make progress on something we want to accomplish is to simply watch someone else doing it. If we want to exercise, presumably it may help to watch other people exercise. If we want to become good at approaching other people in social situations, there may be benefit in watching other people be outgoing.

There are other reasons in addition to mirror neurons that this kind of approach may be particularly useful. One is that watching someone do a thing increases the amount of attention we’re paying to that thing, and the more attention we pay to something, the more likely we are to do it. Another is that watching others do something helps prove that the thing can be done, as when we see a friend clean up an area quickly and efficiently that we might otherwise have guessed would be difficult and time-consuming to clean. Yet another reason to watch others do things we want to do is that we can learn practical information about the tasks involved. Talking with people who are losing weight, for instance, can provide helpful information about nutrition and available exercise options.

So if you’re having trouble getting together willpower for a particular goal, consider whether there might be a practical way for you to seek out and watch other people who are actually accomplishing that goal … then go find them and soak it in.

Photo by ljcybergal

No Comments

Learn It Again, Sam

The human mind

If you’ve read many articles on this site, you’ve probably noticed that every once in a while I come back to talk about the same subject from a different perspective. There are a few reasons for this, and they’re the same reasons that learning the same thing more than once can be valuable in almost any situation where you really want it to sink it.

First, effective learning usually requires repetition over time, as I discuss in Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning, delving briefly into points brought up by neuropsychologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules.

Second, getting a new look at something heard before offers a new perspective to facilitate understanding it.

Third, that same new perspective (as well as the new situation in which you’re learning) makes it possible to develop more and different neural connections to that idea, increasing mental mastery of it.

Fourth, revisiting a useful piece of knowledge creates a reminder that the knowledge is available and increases the chance that we’ll use it. And as also discussed in my learning article mentioned above, using knowledge is one of the most effective ways to fix it in memory.

That extra opportunity to use the idea is particularly important because knowledge alone is not enough to reap us the benefits of an idea, even an idea about our own behavior. It’s easy to pick up a new piece of knowledge and imagine that it will be life-changing, only to have it fade away without ever having made an impact. The impact, of course, comes only from actively using the idea–for learning purposes, the more often the better.

Photo by khowaga1

No Comments
« Older Posts


%d bloggers like this: