Monthly Archives: November 2011

Editing your life story (2)

Here’s a story I used to tell myself: I’m not good in groups. I’m fine one on one, but in groups I’m standoffish and socially unhelpful.

I told myself this story for a couple of decades.

And it turns out I was wrong. I’m not so good in crowds, but in groups someone like me can come in very handy.

I found this out the hard way.

About 8 years ago, after reading a book that advised me to do so, I decided to “face my fears” and therefore agreed to an adventure holiday demanding previously unknown levels of personal fitness in a land of large spiders with a group of total strangers.

And it was the group factor that worried me most as I sat on a 12 hour flight biting my finger nails to a record low.

Fifteen days later I was the only member of the group of 8 that crossed Costa Rica together who remained on good speaking terms with everyone else. I had proved the human bridge between 2 factions that developed about 4 days into our group challenge. The timing of which proved particularly unfortunate as we moved from hiking and biking our way (all manageable if you despise your fellow traveler) to several days of team sport. First white water rafting — where we all met with a near-death experience, then 24 hours of paddling through the hottest, slowest water I ever hope to endure.

At the end of the killer slow bit, we reached the Atlantic Ocean (having started at the Pacific) whereupon locals pounced on us, pouring champagne and shaking our hands. No one took a picture, no said a word. We crawled off to our first normal bed in a couple of weeks.

It was sad … But I did come home a new person. One that realized that if you’re stuck in the jungle with people who want to stab each other’s eyes out, I’m a better peacemaker than most. I’m good in a group because I spot trouble coming — I tend to watch and listen and bring into the fold those that might be boiling up into a silent fury. And, groups are good to me because they allow me to be alone but together with people in a way that’s can be a lot more energizing than one on one company.

My story about me and groups had been wrong.

Which brings me to the moral of the story (according to psychologist Timothy Wilson), sometimes the best way to rewrite a personal narrative story is to assume that it’s wrong and act accordingly.

Or as someone once put it — it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.

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Mini-masterpieces — editing your life (1)

If the stories we tell ourselves — particularly in hard times — make all the difference to our well-being and can save us from languishing in the trenches of life, then learning how to edit our personal narratives is a skill that I could certainly use.

We all know people who seem to believe in the PR version of themselves. I am not one.

By life stories I’m talking about the explanations we have developed for how things have turned out as they have.

My life stories include everything from how I came to live in London, why I’ve worked for the same company for the last 15 years, how my last relationship ended, why it is that I’ve been single since and the reasons I write non-fiction rather than the bodice-ripping tales of adventure that some people keep telling me would prove a smarter move.

Life stories are all about the why … the who, what, where & how are incidental, which means life stories are less about the details and more about the meaning.

We create them or borrow them from what people have told us in order to explain who we are — to others and to ourselves.

The trouble with most life stories is that we don’t notice them. They unfold and carry on inside of us influencing how we feel about ourselves and what decisions we make without our conscious permission to do so.

Let’s try a thought experiment — let’s just say that you get a call tomorrow from a headhunter who has you in mind for the best ever possible job you could wish to get. [I appreciate that a staggering amount of us have no idea what the job would be, but let’s pretend we do.]

The trick is this — in the interview you’re about to have with that headhunter only “the absolute truth” will do. Only the truth will get you the dream job. And by the truth, the headhunter means what you really deep-down believe about yourself and the life you’ve lived to date. He’ll want to know what sort of person you were at school, what you would consider the 3 most significant life choices you’ve made, why you made them and most importantly, what you fear about the future and why.

Odds are you’re going to feel a small bit of pressure in the hours between now and the life-changing interview. So it’s well worth giving some thought to what your answers might be to those questions … what life narratives start to crop up?

Mine are those I’ve mentioned above. What are yours?

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Abraham Lincoln meets Oprah

The story I told yesterday about my friend who lost her dad got me wondering about the connection between grief and gratitude … which through the magic of following Google leads down warrens brought me to the work of Dan McAdams.

A psychologist by trade, McAdams has compiled a social history of the sorts of stories that Americans tell themselves. These reflect the deep–down optimism that, as far as I’m concerned, marks the American attitude to life more than any other quality.

According to Publishers Weekly, McAdams analyzed hundreds of American stories — the Horatio Alger success stories, the early, middle and latter-day self-help classics, the writing of Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln and good old Oprah. He looked at confessions from the Puritans and he read the narratives of slaves. He checked out all the back copies he could find of People magazine.

And what he found was this — that Americans tell redemptive stories.

Stories of deliverance from suffering. And that these stories help us on multiple levels. In one piece of research patients healed faster if they had a redemptive story to tell themselves. The kind of people who say things like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” have a much higher chance of surviving than the rest of us.

The interesting thing is this — redemptive stories are not happy tales. They are not glossed over, upbeat, superficial approaches to dark times. The deeper the trouble, the harder the toil, the longer the suffering, the more power a redemptive story has in equipping us with the perseverance to make it through such hardship.

All we have to believe is that Good can come from Bad.

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When grief turns to gratitude

I’m here in the Boston area for the next few days celebrating Thanksgiving. Last night I went out to dinner with a dear friend and regular Panic Station visitor. It used to be the case that years could pass between the times we’d get to see each other, but now that she’s moved back to Boston I get to see her at least twice a year, at Easter and Thanksgiving, when family tradition brings my brother and me back to mom’s house.

While we covered a huge amount of conversational territory, the words that stuck me when I woke this morning — checking my head for the ache and feeling relieved to find myself unscathed by the wine that we’d drunk, were the words, “I’m beginning to feel grateful now. My grief is finally turning to gratitude.”

Matisse – The Sorrow of the King

My friend was speaking of the sudden loss of her father last year.

Now, given the day that it is (for all those outside the US, Thanksgiving), we can expect that many a blogger will be banging on about gratitude and giving thanks.

For several years we’ve known that gratitude is the greatest single predictor of life satisfaction (thanks to the abundance of research into it under the positive psychology banner otherwise known as the happiness movement.)

Personally, I maxed out on the happiness stuff a few years back. We’ re all made differently and in my case, removing sources of unhappiness is what brings out the best in me.

Which is where gratitude comes in.

The noticing of things that comfort us — the occasional present moment, the nature surrounding us, an act of kindness directed toward us, the magical return of a missing shoe … are said to both build our sense of happiness and be a reflection of it. Which is to say being grateful makes you happy and being happy makes you grateful.

But today my friend’s words reminded me —  the value of gratitude to our psyche isn’t just the wellbeing it promotes in ordinary times, it’s the way it offers us a lifeline. Gratitude is a coping mechanism.  And so on this Thanksgiving Day, I’ve been thinking about some of the worst things that have happened and the silver lining that eventually came my way.


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The problem with our parents

It’s hard for me to take one of the most interesting theories I’ve ever come across and present it in a blog. Quickly. After my shower, but before I need to get going today on the laundry, the shopping, the packing of my suitcase, and before I go out tonight, and get back to work tomorrow and fly to Boston tomorrow night to visit my mom.

So I won’t try too hard. I only have about 40 minutes.

Instead I will tell you about the person behind the theory which involves a story even more interesting to me. Here goes …

Back in 1998 Judith Harris wrote a book called The Nuture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. Here’s some of the praise on the back of the book

  • ‘Harris’s assault on the assumption that screwed-up-adults should blame their families is a refreshing corrective.’ The Observer
  • ‘[This book] is brilliant – it has the unusual combination of being completely original, high interesting, and almost certainly correct.” Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works

But the most interesting thing about the book is how Harris came up with her theory that other children, not adults, have much more to do with how we turn out.

Before she wrote the book, Harris published an article  in the distinguished academic journal Psychological Review. Which triggered a good deal of questions — where was her university affiliation? where were her credentials — Harris was Judith, not Professor Harris, not Dr. Harris. She received an outpouring of replies from the academics who read this journal. Her favourite came from a Professor at Cornell:

Your article constitutes a major contribution to personality and developmental psychology — which only makes me even more curious about you. Are you an academic? A clinician? An unemployed steel worker who has an interesting hobby of writing seminal scientific articles?

Harris was the steel worker. Here’s how she replied to the professor

I said I was an unemployed writer of college textbooks. I explained that I had no Ph.D — I’d been kicked out of Harvard’s Department of Psychology with only a master’s degree. I had been stuck at home for many years due to chronic health problems; I had no mentors, no students. I became a writer of textbooks because that is something one can do at home. I was an unemployed writer of textbooks because I’d quit that job.

She never heard from the professor again.

In one of life’s classic twists of fate she received the George A. Miller prize for her article. Miller was the former president of the American Psychological Society. And by chance Miller was the professor who had kicked Judith Harris out of the Ph.D program at Harvard 37 years earlier.

She’d done nothing wrong, her grades were fine, but it was his conclusion that she didn’t have it in her to come up with anything worthy enough of the Harvard badge. He’d written something to this effect in a letter to her that explained they didn’t want her to pursue her Ph.D.

In the intervening years Harris went on to be a mother. And a textbook writer. And she noticed that the theories and experiments she had to fashion into interesting textbook language didn’t add up. They didn’t explain to her why her two daughters were so different. She struggled with the idea that beyond genetic explanations (which she believes, but only account for half of who we are), her parental style would account for the rest. This was an idea with tremendous explanatory popularity throughout the 1980’s ad 1990’s when therapy took off like a tsunami. We might forget that now because genetics is back in vogue (after decades of their study being too taboo, too politically sensitive after all the effort of the civil rights movement to create a standard of equality that said all people, from all sorts of genetic variations, are just as smart and capable and worthy of the same treatment as the next person.)

Anyway, what Harris noticed is that this classic debate neglects a huge influence in our lives on what’s been called the “nuture side” but would be better known as environmental factors. She examines everything from why some children are more aggressive than others to how it is that immigrant children learn the language of their peers and not their parents and points to group socialization as the overlooked alternative explanation.

She argues against birth order theories, and twin studies and says “children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents, modify their behavior to fit with the peer group, and this ultimately helps to form the character of the individual.”

I didn’t come across Harris until 2005 but her arguments backed up my own belief that school forms us for life. So of course I liked it.

But like all major theories hoping to explain humans, it’s not that Judith Harris has nailed it — it’s that, as an outsider, she saw what insiders could not see. And she stood up and said something about it. What she said was the exact sort of thing that gets you fired from teaching Ph.D programs never mind wanting to complete one. It’s that she devoted years of her life building the case to convince the people that research our lives, that shape government and healthcare and educational policy and that medicate and “treat” us with therapy or bookshelves of self-help — that there’s more they should understand about what influences our personality and life-chances than our parents (the genes they give us and the way they treat us).

What she actually said is that parents don’t matter. But she was just trying to get published. What she goes on to explain is that this over-emphasis on parenting is a huge waste of time when what really makes all the difference is going on in the playground or at after-school sports.

Parents matter, but a whole lot less than Philip Larkin and our culture insists.

[Not that this means that I personally ever forget all that you’ve done and still do for us, if you’re reading this Mom] See, I told you that 40 minutes was a very tall order to sum up Harris’ life work and get in all the nuances, never mind give my own personal thoughts on the matter … but really I have to go.

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When is a factoid a lie?

Always.

Just recently a few of us from work were out to dinner at an Indian restaurant when someone (me probably) mentioned the word “factoid”. The man on my left is full of them. And I think I was re-counting the best factoids he’d ever passed along to me when he said, “you do know that factoids are not mini-facts or trivia, but pieces of mis-information?”

No I did not know that. I’ve been mis-using the word forever. And from the reaction from the rest of the table everyone else had as well. And so it was with pleasure that today I discovered that a renowned linguists also mis-uses it. (Not that I hate to be wrong by myself, but because it’s more interesting when lots of people are wrong all together.) On the subject of this weekend’s blog, I was flicking through one of the most influential books on the subject of what peers and school have to do with the nature-nuture debate (more on that tomorrow), when I stumbled upon the word-crime in question. There it was in the opening few pages of the book within the foreword  written by Steven Pinker. This Harvard Professor in linguistics made the following statement:

A strange factoid in our True-but-Inconvenient file is that children always end up with the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents

And so Pinker, like me and many others, confuses the real meaning of the world. If the file he refers to contains actual truths, then they cannot be factoids.

Yes, factoids are bit of trivia, but the point is that they aren’t true, they are just believed to be true because they’ve been repeated so many times.

Here’s what wiki had to say on the matter

factoid is a questionable or spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated—statement presented as a fact, but with no veracity. The word can also be used to describe a particularly insignificant or novel fact, in the absence of much relevant context.[1] The word is defined by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact”.[2]

Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”,[3] and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”. The Washington Timesdescribed Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”.[4]

Factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends.

And the fact that so many of us mis-use the word makes it a meme as well! Which I wouldn’t have known had I not checked out memes during last weekend’s blog of confusing terms.

Until tomorrow, when we return to the issue of how school experiences shape our personalities.

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The roles people play

I’m not sure when I first developed my pet theory that the roles we played at school can last a lifetime, but it was before I studied psychology or came across social theories that might back me up.

What I thought was this: school is where we have to learn to be ourselves in a group within many groups; it’s our first major test where we find out what our “role of least resistance” might be. That is, the performance that comes most naturally to us when faced with lots of peers — when faced with an overwhelming amount of opportunities to be rejected.

And school, just like the work place many of us are headed to afterwards, is where we spend a disproportionately huge chunk of our time on the planet.

I suspect my theory developed around 1995.

At the time I worked for Dell Computers. Each day I went to work in what I thought of as the George Jetson of offices. George was the father character from The Jetsons — a cartoon or “animated sitcom” from the early 60’s. And while I was not alive in the 60’s, The Jetsons made a brief come-back in the 80’s. In a nutshell, they were the sci-fi version of The Flintstones .  Given that I suffer from an intensely vague memory, it’s unusual that any TV programme, never mind The Jetsons, became so memorable to me. I guess it was because I loved the technology of their everyday lives. To this day I think of Jane Jetson in the morning as I ask myself Do I really have to take a shower, blow dry my hair, find something to wear, put on make-up? Why can’t life be like Jane’s where I could just walk over to the car-wash-like conveyor belt and come out the other side moments later all perfectly groomed by friendly robots, ready to go?

Anyway, I worked for Dell at their office outside Dublin which felt very much like a large hangar which made me think that just like George Jetson’s briefcase, the company could decide to fold up the whole building with the flip of a switch and move it to a different country. Who knew I was so forward-thinking and this is exactly what more and more companies would start to do.

But back to the point — inside this George Jetson briefcase of a building, I sat at my computer alongside two hundred other 20 something’s. So I’m pretty sure that’s when my “school theory” formed.

As for the role I played at school, over the years people have told me that I was some sort of outsider who managed to be cool, aloof and for some of the time … above being freaky. The other half of the time — or that is, to another group of people, I was just your average weirdo.

Which is odd, because I wasn’t particularly weird. I was just separate. And a bit of a loner, but a loner with “leadership energy” which drew other weirdos towards me — which I wasn’t always happy about because some of these kids were different for the sake of being different. And I’ve always thought that was stupid.*

So I was superior too.

Not that this role matched the me on the inside much at all (and this is another theory that I shall explore in a later post — that people with only a little gap between who they are on the inside compared with their outside role, suffer a lot less than those of us with a very large gap between who we really are and how we are perceived.)

I’m sensitive to the fact that we should be able to take a look at The Breakfast Club to find the character that I was. But we can’t. I was absolutely not what’s-her-face the posh snobby one (except possibly for one year of my life when I moved from a rich town where we poor to a poor town where we were, if not rich, then definitely wearing the wrong clothes). And if anyone says I was Ally Sheedy I won’t talk to them again. But it seems as if some version of who I was is probably captured in that movie. It was certainly the basic milieu of my teenage life. And it had the right soundtrack. But I guess I’m over thinking this because it was a movie about a cast of high school stereotypes from the American 80’s, so it’s no mystery I related to it … and if I’m not sure which stereotype I was — well, isn’t that the entire point of the identity crisis that’s otherwise known as being a teenager.

And so it was only when I got to Dell — a company on the outskirts of Dublin with cliques of its own and noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to an All-American, Catholic, Ice-hockey champion high school on the outskirts of Boston — that I realized that if you don’t belong in one place, then running off to try new places will backfire if you fail to notice that it is in your nature to be a non-belonger? And that non-belonging is born at school.

More on peer groups and social identity to follow soon …

*If you are a friend of mine from high school who was also a weirdo, I am not referring to you. You are a “keeper” and I did not regard you as weird for the sake of weird. I promise. I lost track of those people as soon I left America.

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