Posts Tagged 'conventional wisdom'

Feedback

Tin can phone on white background

The feedback you’ve been wanting: “You did a great job. This is exactly what I was hoping for. I wouldn’t change a thing. You completely nailed it, it’s fabulous.”

Of course, that’s not feedback, really. It’s applause.

Applause is great. We all need more of it.

But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback. And that feedback, if it’s more than just carping, will be constructive. It will clearly and generously lay out ways you can more effectively delight and create a remarkable experience that leads to better things.

If you’re afraid of that feedback, or unwilling to listen, it’s probably not going to arrive as often as you’d like it to. On the other hand, if you embrace it as the gift it can be, you may decide to go looking for it.

Empty criticism and snark does no one any good. But genuine, useful, insightful feedback is a great gift.

Applause is good too.

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The Racket of Education

educationracket

The government doesn’t do a great job of educating our children, mostly because there is inherently some level of corruption, and people and organizations think they need (more) money to do the great work. So it all ends up gamed, and the blame diffused. There’s a lot of good, mind you. I’m not advocating tearing it all down. But we do need to learn to see through the B.S. and maintain accountability.

The Show versus Reality: For the most part teachers are evaluated primarily on observation and test scores. For the first few years performance is evaluated by an administrator who comes into into classroom to watch. It happens about two or three times a year, and they generally know when it’s going to happen because either the admin team wants to be sure the administrator is there on a day and time that makes sense for getting the evaluation done (not wasting his or her time) or simply to give the teacher a chance to shave up the dogs and ponies as a favor. I don’t mean to imply that all teachers get a pass all the time. The principle usually figures out who the good and bad ones are, but this process, which could be instrumental, is only incidental toward that end. It lets them put the right things on a checklist, and takes the pressure off of them to take significant action that would otherwise be warranted.

Standardized testing is a measure that’s semi-objective, at least on the surface, but is fraught with its own problems. One of the big ones is that many teachers will teach to what they believe the test is, rather than to the overall betterment of the student. It makes the teacher look better, and again removes the burden for anyone to take more difficult action.

The other concern is establishing what the standards should be that are tested. This process is inherently filled with bias, whether cultural, demographic, religious or otherwise. “Standard” by definition ignores the individual. How much of this makes sense is debated. One problem I see everywhere that I’ve spent years talking about in this blog is how programmed we all have become. We’re made to think and act in certain ways so as to more easily fit or conform to society and be good workers. Of course, this mindset comes from a time when we needed people to show up for work every day and be good, consistent, quiet workers who don’t upset the way things are done or challenge anyone or anything. To conform. These days we struggle because the world has moved on, and this deeply ingrained training no longer serves us. We can’t figure out what to do. Schools have been very slow to respond to these changes.

Principals and superintendents shave the dogs and ponies for their shows as well. Schools and districts are compelled by honors and accolades from various sources. From Lighthouse Schools to National Board Certification for teachers to publisher rankings to accrediting agencies, school leaders are compelled to score high. Competition is good and it makes us better, but the problem here is that schools are going through the motions. While accolades from publishers or high scores from accrediting agencies seem great, they’re merely snapshots. If you look good that day or that week, by teaching something that will impress them (in spite of what lesson really should be taught in the context of the course material), it creates a perception that’s not reality.

You may have heard of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which in many ways is an organization that tries to help. Teachers who receive NBPTS accreditation have done good work and have done a LOT of work. I’m sure many people have been through the process and found it to be incredibly effective and rewarding. However, some get the certification and the promised increase in pay only until the next time the state decides budgets need to be cut. The state got the appearance they were looking for and moved on.

It’s not just firms like NBPTS that cash in on education. Publishing companies write textbooks specifically for large districts or large states. We’re talking big money here. Once books are adopted, many firms have a leg up on their competition. Textbook adoption is usually a district level decision. I’m not going all the way down this rabbit hole here because this one topic is covered quite a bit elsewhere, and one would truly have to have her head in the sand to not have an inkling of how gamed it all is, but suffice to say that the values of a few in power impact the many in unusually profound ways given how few controls there are in place to manage the merits of texts. It reminds me of the phrase, “History is written by the conquerers.”

Software developers also benefit from this situation. Schools are eager to adopt a new program or system to manage grades or attendance or all sorts of student data with only a cursory review. Sure, they talk a good game: peer review, teacher and parent consultation, blah, blah, blah. What it often amounts to is a five or six person panel calling the shot for the whole district.

None of this compares to the accrediting boondoggle. These are for profit companies hired to manage…accreditations. Their agenda is to produce sales. Each time the accrediting agencies show up, the school puts on a nice show and blows a nice chunk of change on wooing them. They usually don’t even eat or spend time with students. Teachers, have you ever seen anyone from an accrediting agency so much as eating in the same cafeteria with the students?

Then there is the Cool Stuff Arms Race. Interactive white boards that barely can be kept working, or are so difficult to use they end up wasting more time than they are worth. Never mind that the school asks teachers to be careful about using it because the bulbs are expensive!  iPods (not pads, “pods,” the music players) were rolled out at many schools a number of years ago. Hardly used. Eventually dropped. Districts don’t seem to understand what it takes to feed and clothe these technological wonders they bring home. Each school seems to have its own handful of things, but the teachers are rarely consulted about what they need, and once they have (what they don’t need) they struggle with a less than fully trained IT staff to keep it running. It ends up being not worth the effort, and traditional means are often used, which in most cases work just fine anyway. It’s all up to whether the teacher is committed and good at it, not so much the technological pyrotechnics involved. Cool new stuff keeps getting added to look good to parents, the media, and accrediting agencies.

This is not to say it is all bad. Good schools do well overall. It’s just frustrating to watch the massive amounts of waste in the process. Waste that results in no money for things that matter. Like the teachers. They are treated like the same commodity pens and paper are in a lot of ways. We try to build a structure that forces them into a paradigm that some idealistic administrator visioned without really understanding that it’s nearly impossible to manage that type of human interaction so systemically. (The medical profession, by the way, suffers from the same thing.) Instead, we should be taking every possible step to build the competency of the teachers, and then paying them accordingly so that once they become brilliant and skilled, they will actually want to remain in the profession, rather than going out to get a real job where they can earn a professional living.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and it really shouldn’t take more, but the reality is it probably will. Government is horribly inefficient, but it’s the best thing we have. Until people get serious about (first) understanding what education is needed for kids and then (second) demanding it, I doubt things will change significantly anytime soon.

Meanwhile, how do you know if your kids’ teachers are doing a good job and the district is a good one? You can start by asking your kids and watching what’s going on with their scores on standardized tests. Look deeper. Ask your kids’ teachers what the kids are supposed to learn and ask the kids about those topics. Talk to your kids about the content of their courses. If you’re kids’ teachers are worth their pay, they’ll be glad you did. There’s no substitute for being an involved parent. Not an overbearing, annoying one. But one whose head is in the game paying attention, and talking with the teachers.

Some take this to the extreme of homeschooling. In some situations this may be a viable alternative, and I absolutely applaud folks who can do it, but I expect there are precious few qualified to teach their kids AP subjects in multiple disciplines. Private schooling can be a good answer answer. Certainly many of the inefficiencies and half-baked decisions are minimized, not to mention the elimination of the grindingly slow pace of any kind of change in any governmental body such as eduction. The good private schools can’t game their reputations as easily because they are accountable for what happens to the kids once they leave because they are populated by kids whose parents have resources and talk to each other in the community, not to mention many of them knowing themselves from experience what a good education looks like. But that’s the elite. Below that, it’s still going to require diligent parenting to ensure success.

Hands on. No escaping that. Look past the BS for reality.

 

 

Why We Need Show Business

bballglove

Some time ago I had an occasion to visit a practice session with the Indiana University basketball team. It had a very unusual element I had never seen or heard about before. They were working on the usual things: mostly executing their designed plays. The defensive team had twice as many players on the court, all of whom had on boxing gloves and were punching the offensive players in their bodies and arms. Not roundabout punches, but hard enough to knock them off balance.

In life most of the war is in our own minds. The chasm between what we know we can and can’t do is occupied by a battle with perception of ourselves. Everyone who makes it to the other side looks back and tells us it’s mostly mental. If you believe, and really try as if you’ve burned your ships, you can do it.

So what does this boxing-ball match really do? It doesn’t teach a basketball skill we would normally associate with the game. Basketball is supposedly a non-contact sport. Ha, ha, the joke is on you if you believe that! There is lots of contact in basketball, but any kind of punching is out of the question, or is at least called a foul. Some teams do play a very physical brand of ball, with a lot of various kinds of contact. Invariably, if your team is not ready for this, it will throw your game off. You won’t be able to get to spots on the court you want, you won’t be able to be in balance like you are used to, etc. It gets in your head, and soon nothing is working. You lose, even though your team may be better. It’s almost all mental.

So you practice with boxing gloves to learn to handle these physical teams. Totally makes sense. But here is the non-obvious part. This is a sales job. The boxing gloves game isn’t that much like a real game. Conventional wisdom would tell you to line up a physical team to play in the way it will actually happen on the court? First, it’s not that easy to make such a team. The opponents you will face already have the best players who can do this. Second…you need to practice under worse conditions, so that actual game conditions are more tolerable. But do you need boxing gloves to do this? What is the point of big, red, boxing gloves? Here is the kicker, the third and big reason for it: by having played under these worse conditions in a very demonstrative, show business way that’s visually memorable, you have actually become sold yourself that you can work through it and handle it. The purpose is not so much to give you the skill and toughness, but to help you believe you have it. You have the visual mnemonic of all of those guys in red gloves punching you, and you learning to deal with it. You have become sold.

What have you sold yourself on in life? That’s the key to unlocking doors.What are you drifting towards as a result of accepting the sales job that has been done to you, whether by yourself or others?

Reminds me of a great line from an interesting movie about sales.

“There is no such thing as a no-sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock or he sells you a reason he can’t. Either way, a sale is made; the only question is who is gonna close? You or him?” – Jim Young (Ben Affleck), Boiler Room

The real “him” is your alter ego. That quiet voice of doubt that comes from your lizard brain wanting to keep risk low, and keep things comfortable. Sounds good enough, but as I have written before, comfort in the now belies the bigger discomfort of the future if you don’t act.

There aren’t many more ways I can think of to say it. Take the shot. You can probably get somewhere good, and you have rebounders around you in case you miss.

 

 

 

 

Reasons or Excuses

newtonsreasonsexcusesflat

When something goes wrong we quickly build ourselves a narrative about it. The story we tell ourselves isn’t objective, and often doesn’t even mesh with reality in more than a cursory way. Let a little time pass and that story becomes the totality of the event. It includes our interpretation of the circumstances, rationalizations for what we did, how we perceive others behaved or reacted, etc. We develop for ourselves a reason that satisfies our need to make sense of it.

Reasons or excuses? What are they, and what differentiates these emotionally loaded terms? Culturally, reasons feel to us like valid explanations, whereas excuses feel invalid and lacking in accountability.

Let me give you some examples. Common excuses for why restaurants, or other businesses, fail include:

  • Our purveyors were cheating us
  • Our concept was too progressive for the market
  • The market didn’t appreciate good food
  • Our landlord was unreasonable

The list is much longer than these few highlights. There are as many excuses for failure as there are failed businesses. If a person were to take accountability for their decisions and their actions, those excuses could be seen as the real reasons for failure, and they would look more like this:

  • We didn’t know anything about negotiating purchasing, and ended up paying prices we couldn’t afford to pay
  • We didn’t research our market well enough to find out what the market wanted, so we ended up giving them what OUR idea of good food was, not theirs
  • We failed to communicate what made us special compared to the competion, and the market didn’t respond  – or – We didn’t realize that our market doesn’t have the same ability to notice quality that we have, and we were really banking on them realizing our food was better
  • We didn’t negotiate a good lease – or –  we didn’t learn enough about leases going in to be able to effectively negotiate a favorable one

Recognizing the lack of accountability in the first set relative to the second is the easy part. Culturally, we seem to lump excuses into a morally questionable realm, almost as if they are lies. Excuse, by definition, connotes an attempt or request to not be held accountable.

“I was late for class because I was held up by a train.” Assuming the statement is truthful, is it an excuse or a reason? As a statement of fact, it fits with being a reason. If there is an implied request to not be penalized in some way, then it starts to feel like an excuse. The moral attitude (with its limitations) starts to surface here: you should leave in time to allow for being held up by a train. Of course, what if the person did, but the train was unusually long? We don’t have to go far down these technical rabbit holes to see that the language and implied meaning can be broken. Suffice to say that they are contextual and judged in the perception of the speaker and hearer, who are not always on the same page because communicating the nuances thoroughly can be difficult and time consuming, not to mention emotionally taxing under some circumstances. Sometimes one party just doesn’t care enough to worry about it.

“I can’t.”  As I have written before, this is often code for, “I don’t want to enough.” Again, the easy ones are statements such as, “I can’t seem to lose weight,” or “I can’t make it to your important event.” The former feels like an excuse, even though we know there can be very valid reasons. The latter feels like it probably has a reason behind it. Thus is how culture and context drives meaning. The trickiness of the second example is often in the desire not to hurt people’s feelings. We dance around and make excuses, when the cold, hard truth probably is, “I don’t care enough about your event to miss out on the other thing I have to do.” Now it sounds even more like a reason (though not very tactful).

There are some things we simply can’t do in life, but most are choices we make.

“I can’t go out with you because I am already dating someone.” Most would be satisfied that this sounds like a reason, but is its really? The word “can’t” adds a weird layer of a lack of accountability, and therefor moves the statement toward feeling like an excuse, even if it’s deemed to be a valid one.

“I do not want to go out with you because I am already dating someone.” That’s closer to owning the accountability of it.

“I don’t want to go out with you because I believe that the risk of hurting the relationship I am in outweighs what I assess to be a very small chance I would be happier with you.” Or, “I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t feel attracted enough to break a date with this other person I like.”

Do you feel how these are getting uncomfortable? Excuses are often an (empty) attempt to keep comfort in tact by avoiding accountability. Reasons cut to the real truth of the matter.

It could also simply be, “I do not want to go out with you.” Sometimes what gets us into trouble is trying to provide a reason, and usually the reason is where it starts to feel like, and often is, an excuse.

Oh, but there is more.

Truth and trust become important currency when you’re in some type of valued relationship with someone. It’s easy to find ourselves caught between two valid concerns:

  1. I want and need to be honest with this person because…
    •  It seems like the ‘right’ thing to do
    • I want to maintain an assessment of trust;
      • It makes me feel good
      • I hope they will respond in kind
    • I believe it is in their best interest to know the truth
  2. I want to be dishonest with this person because…
    • I want them to feel validated, or not be hurt
    • I want to maintain the good feelings we have between us
    • I want to avoid conflict
    • I don’t want them to negatively assess me (as being rude or insensitive, a jerk, an idiot, etc.)
    • I believe it is in their best interest not to know the truth

You’ll decide to lean more toward one than the other, as conflicted of a choice as it may be. We can weigh it all out and try to do the least worst thing, but so much of what we often choose to do really boils down to our own comfort and desire to be liked.

An additional complexity of either of them is that sometimes the hearer just doesn’t buy it, and will believe you are operating in #2 whether you are or not. Now the speaker has lost the assessment of trust, the hearer is hurt, there are bad feelings, and potentially bad characterizations. Thus is the risk of the dishonest route, or is one of the nasty consequences of a weakness in trust and/or a weakness in the hearer’s self-esteem. It could also just be a misunderstanding or faulty assumption on the part of the hearer. In either case, now the tables are turned (insert dramatic music here). Now it is the hearer who must decide between #1 and #2. He can call out his concern to the speaker, or he can move along quietly with the bad feelings. Let it go, or ferret the truth out of it? Tough choice with the same pitfalls.

So this just turned into a post about how vital communication is between people who care about each other. It’s about how we have to accept the flaws in communication, the mistakes we make, and to a degree even the flaws in each other that lead to these mistakes. We need to give the other person grace, to empathize with how difficult it can be to parse through it all to find the right balance on the continuum between brutal honesty and smarmy validation, or between letting the other person save face versus the value of holding them accountable, all in the unavoidable context of our own comfort.

Religion is More than Belief

snowroad

Religion, spirituality, and belief have often been lumped together over the years, even though they have some inherent incongruities.

I recently made a comparison between religion and spirituality. As a quick follow up, it’s worth mentioning that my declaration about religion being based on belief in a supreme being was necessarily narrow in order for the very valid contrasts to be simple to understand.

I stand by the statement. That is the basis of it, at least with respect to the spiritual kind of religion (as opposed to one who has a religion about some secular thing like exercising). But that’s not all there is to it. Its main value may not be in its propositional content. Religion (in loosest terms) is not necessarily a set of scientific, objective claims about the universe. It’s not just beliefs. It’s a set of practices and rituals that have stood the test of time.

Things that have endured for a long time are, by probability, likely to endure – otherwise they would have died out already. It is hard to see The OdysseyThe BibleThe Iliad and similar works being forgotten, whereas last year’s bestseller is unlikely to be remembered in 100 years, let alone 1000. Time may refine things by getting rid of the bad parts & keeping the parts that humans have found valuable. Because religion has stood the test of time, we must acknowledge that with respect to probability, it must be valuable to humans in some essential way. In other words, it’s probable that if there were no human value, it would not have withstood the test of time.

Taken further, we could assume that when there is something in nature we don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in some deeper way that is beyond our understanding. So there is a logic to natural things that is superior to our own. What Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.

Religion is more about trust, or faith than about the objective, predictive claims that science deals in. The belief in religion is ‘epiphenomenal’, i.e. follows from practice, not the other way around. It’s about practice such as going to church, fasting, celebrating holidays such as Easter, various dietary restrictions, collective prayer, and so on.

If something like religion (or wine, or cities, or biological organisms, etc.) has been around for a long time, you may think of it as antifragile – otherwise it would have died out. If religion has endured for this long, it probably encodes a bunch of practices that – even if we can’t see the point of some of them – are likely to be right for humanity in some way. At least instrumentally, and maybe more.

 

 

Comfort

marshmellows

We seek comfort. Not just the nice sofa kind, but the emotional kind. You can see it in people’s actions all the time. We avoid what produces a FEELING of discomfort and gravitate toward what soothes and keeps us feeling safe. Comfort in the short run can be overrated and too much of a driver of our actions, while comfort in the long run may be underrated and isn’t focused on enough. We should be disciplined and take care of our futures. Those are the basics.

So we have been taught in many ways that comfort in the short term is not that important, and maybe even immoral. Don’t cave to your wants and desires. Instead remain disciplined, do the hard work, and stay the course. It’s that classic dilemma of what actions must be taken now to produce the future one wants. We think we sacrifice now to set up the fate (**) we want.

We fight against our tendency to live in the now. Yet, so many self-help experts tell us we need to live in the now more.

It shows in religion, career, saving money or other resources. Sacrifices. It shows in living a less than full or ideal life in hopes that we’re not squandering the future.

However comfort, when we have it, isn’t fully appreciated. We routinely take perfectly adiquite situations and blow them up trying to get more of something (excitement) or something different. We are taught that this is reckless and unwise. No, it can be in certain contexts, but it isn’t inherently so. It is simply our nature – to strive and have an ambition that there is something more. When we program people too much in the discipline of being disciplined, sometimes we inadvertently squish the life out of them. We chip away at the human sense of adventure, and we end up with a society of people who live in fear, can’t create, lack initiative, circle the wagons, and don’t contribute much beyond (maybe) hard work. Nothing wrong with some good hard work, but when it becomes out of balance with the human spirit to “go for it” then we get stagnant, and things begin to go sideways. The real “specialness” of being human is lost, and we risk becoming drones toiling away to get through a life avoiding too much thinking about what we aren’t. All for the sake of trying to protect an unknown future.

But we don’t recognize that the long run eventually becomes the short run.  It’s going to blow up by the time we get there anyway.

There is a balance to be had. Save a little money. Spend some time learning and improving. Don’t forsake your body or mind, but for heaven’s sake, live a life. Force yourself (if necessary) to have a sense of adventure, or act like you do and it will come. Take risks. Blow things up. Start over. I’m not advocating being reckless. I am advocating some actions that could appear as reckless to those around you who want to play it safe. Maybe that play it safe person is you. Blow that up. It is not as audacious as you may think, because if you’re playing it safe (also a risk), it’s probably at least partially because of the almighty fear, which is you not giving you enough credit for being capable and able to figure out how to navigate through the storms you chase.

You can do it if you really want to. The question is, what do you really want? Comfort or happiness?

LettingGo

`(**) – Meant to write “future” there, but it came out as “fate.” I kinda’ like that.

“You Have to be Pleasant”

jobsandgatesThat was a quote from a friend of mine some time ago. So much is revealed in words.

You don’t really have to be kind or pleasant. It’s a choice, like so many others. They all have consequences. For certain desired outcomes to happen, yes, you may well need to provide a pleasant mood.

“Have to” implies it’s a chore. It’s not what you really  want (to do). Or it is, because the outcome you may get is important to you. Either way, it’s really a choice.

You probably don’t really have to “be” pleasant. You may merely choose to act pleasant.

Thus is the story of our lives. We hide behind tricky language to define our reality when it’s really about deciding  (even if it’s subconscious) to do things so that we can get what we want, whether that’s validation, a sale, friendship, sex, to satisfy a need to feel good about ourselves, or quite simply a Pavlovian effort to get our body to produce some chemicals that make us feel good.

Only I could turn a pleasant interaction into some dark, selfish act! Of course it is not so bad. These are things we’re accustomed to doing to get along in society. Little lies. Sometimes bigger lies…and sometimes really big ones. No clear lines, which means we’re always navigating on a slippery slope. It’s all tied to context and mood, which aside from being questionable morally, also makes it unreliable.

I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if our culture was based around being more genuine with each other.


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