Choose Your Memories

Short blog today based on a conversation I had recently.

I was talking to a graduating student about how he is going to choose a university. He has been accepted into his two top choices and he doesn’t know how he will decide which one to attend. One university is more widely recognized but would mean moving far from home, where none of his friends will go, and has a more difficult program. The other university is closer to home and has a slightly easier program. Both offer the same degree. After discussing that this was a nice problem to have, I gave him the advice I always give myself. Choose your memories.

Choose your memories

The simple truth is that all you are is your memories. The present is a fleeting instant, and the future is unknowable, so your whole life experience – and how you view yourself – is based on your memories of the past. In fact, there is an interesting perspective that points out that since it takes a small amount of time to process what your senses are perceiving, our “present” is in fact already past, which is pretty weird to think about. But that aside, too often people think about a choice like the one my student must make in terms of how the choice will affect their future. The truth is it’s much better to think about how it will affect your past. I asked him which memory he wants.

Which memory do you want?

He didn’t know what I meant by that. I said, picture yourself 10 years down the road. Right now I know that whichever university you attend you will finish the program. So 10 years from now, looking back at your decision, which one will you want to be glad you made? Who would you rather be? The dude with the memory of university A or the one with the memory of university B?

Choices are an opportunity to build the memory you want, which ultimately means to build the person you want. In this way they are very exciting. Every choice is your chance to be more awesome. Take control of your character and choose the memories you’ll be glad to have, so that you can be the person you want to be.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Politicians Don’t Win Elections

Last night the Liberal party got elected to a majority government in the province of Ontario. This means Kathleen Wynne remains the Premier of Ontario. I am disgusted. To be fair, there was no outcome that would not have resulted in my disgust so no need for Liberal party freaks to go all ballistic on me – unless you think it will make you feel better in which case go ahead. It’s a free internet.

Anyway … today I’ve seen countless pictures of Wynne doing the fist pump victory pose.

 

Kathleen Wynne after being elected Premier in 2014
Kathleen Wynne after being elected Premier in 2014

 

Each time I see one of these photos I get more and more irritated, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why that is. Contrary to the obvious reason, it is not because I wanted someone else to get elected, because I really don’t think anyone who was running was going to be worse than anyone else. It is also not because I feel let down in general, although I do.

No, I’ve come to realize that I am irritated by what it represents. It represents victory, and getting elected is not a victory. At least that’s not what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an assignment.

It is absolutely disgusting that politicians celebrate an election as though they won a lottery, or some kind of major sports championship. In sports, skill, long hours of practice, unwavering dedication to excellence and gritty determination in competition lead to victory. In sports you have to best your opponent and the championship is the reward for doing so. It is meaningful because it represents the culmination of all the work that went into winning, and it warrants celebration as a way of saying “Yes! Look at what we have accomplished!”

In politics getting elected does not mean you have accomplished anything of significance. It means you managed to convince a population that you are the right leader, who, in theory, intends to accomplish a great deal. These days that means you were the best liar with the most effective propaganda campaign, who most successfully demonized the other candidates, along with a mainstream media that shoveled your lies for you. How admirable.

 

Dalton McGuinty after being elected Premier in 2011
Dalton McGuinty after being elected Premier in 2011

The big celebrations politicians have make me wonder – really, deeply wonder – if they realize that what they have “won” is the burden to lead responsibly and to follow through on the promises to their constituents, as opposed to advancing their own personal goals of fame, power and money. It means they have been given a chance to accomplish great things. Getting elected to public office is the beginning of a long season. It is not a championship. But politicians sure act like it is. They prance around and accept the praise of the minions as though they have earned some great personal victory. As though they have WON.

See how victorious they are? See how they accept the love and praise of the crazed masses?

A political victory is not a trophy. It’s a gigantic group of people saying “You said you could make this world better for us. We believe you. we trust you. Please do it.”

I can hear the arguments now. People will say “They are celebrating the opportunity to follow through on campaign promises and to make positive change. They are celebrating with the constituents because they believe, more fervently than anyone else, that their getting elected is the best thing that could happen for the population and they only want what’s best.”

To those people I say “Do you really believe that? Do you really believe the celebration is not a great big self-congratulation on how awesome the person is?”

Our society and our politicians have forgotten what it means to elect a leader in a democracy. We’ve forgotten that it means we just hired someone to do an important job. That they work for us. What other job has the bosses throwing giant adoration parties for the new hire? It’s absurd. In any company a boss celebrates an employee only after they have made good on the promise they showed in the interview process. They don’t attend parties thrown by the new employee and cheer rabidly as the person they just hired raises their arms in victory.

If it were me having been elected I would not be celebrating. I would be scared to death in much the same way I was when my kids were born, or the first time I had to go into a classroom and be an educator and mentor to a room full of other people’s children. I would be looking forward to celebrating the successes of my tenure in much the same way I celebrate my kids’ successes as they grow, or my students’ successes as they learn. I would be standing in front of my constituents, humbled, acknowledging that I understand the burden of the trust they have placed in me, and then I would get to work. I would save celebrations for times when something was accomplished that made their lives better. I would not have a party to kick it all off, simply so political junkies could hoist me on a pedestal and proclaim my greatness. Maybe that’s a character flaw of mine, but I don’t think so.

And I would not pump my fists.

My fist pumps would come later. After I had actually accomplished something people could celebrate.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Arithmophobia (Fear of Math): My Thoughts

I’ve been a high school math teacher for 11 years now, and I’ve also been tutoring students privately for even longer than that. Consequently I’ve seen the whole spectrum of math students. Everything from the freakishly gifted to the astonishingly weak, For the most part I think this is fine. Some people are wired for certain things and some are not. I am not wired to be a sprinter. I could train my butt off for years and still not qualify for a track team. I’ve made peace with that.

What I don’t think is fine however, is the growing number of math-phobic students I am seeing. Students whose deep fear of math is so intense that it is almost impossible to determine where their strengths and weaknesses in the subject are. To understand what I mean think of a person who suffers from stage fright so severely that every time they sing in front of even a small group of people their throat closes up and all they can manage is a pathetic croak. Anyone listening would conclude this person is a terrible singer. Yet it may not be true. The neurosis camouflages the talent and it’s impossible to know what the person’s singing ability really is. What makes it worse is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the cause of poor performance. After all, some people just can’t sing.

In math these students whose fear interferes with their performance very often conclude that they have no ability in the subject, which further feeds the phobia. A seriously vicious cycle that is difficult to break, even after it’s been recognized. So my question as of late has been, what’s causing the increase in math-phobic students?

I don’t have research to back my conclusions. It’s all purely anecdotal. However these observations have been made from the trenches. I see these students every day, in a classroom setting and one-on-one, for over 11 years. Here are my thoughts.

Poor Evaluation Criteria
More and more I am becoming convinced that this may be one of the single biggest causes of arithmophobia. I am talking about the alarming tendency for students’ grades to not reflect their ability, due to poor evaluation criteria. I’ll give you an example.

A simple linear equation to solve.
A simple linear equation to solve.
here is one student’s work, graded:
A flawed solution to the simple equation.
A flawed solution to the simple equation.

and here is another student’s work, also graded:

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.
The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The first student received a mark of 2/3, which rounds to 67%. What are we to take from this? Imagine the student coming home with a report card that says 67% in math. What would the parents conclude? What would an independent observer (like a university) conclude about a grade of 67% in math? The easiest and most likely answer is that this is a student who grasps roughly 67% of the concepts covered in math. With respect to this question and the topic it tests, it means the student grasps only 67% of the concept of solving linear equations. Now based on their work, do you believe that is a true assessment? What would we have this student believe? It’s disturbing to say the least.

But significantly more disturbing is the grade of 0/3 assigned to the second student. This student answered the question correctly, however the traditional approach is to assign one mark per step in the question, and since the student did not show any of the expected work, he lost all marks. Now he has 0%. What would that say to parents and universities? Most disturbingly, what does it say to the child?

Stop and ask yourself what it means to solve an equation. The above equation, translated to English, states that

“There is a number which is multiplied by 4 and then the product is reduced by 3, for a result of 29.”

The instruction “Solve for x” means

“Tell me what the number is.”

Student 2 has successfully done just that. Period. End of discussion. Not only has he correctly answered the question, but in doing so has demonstrated that he understands the question and has the higher level thinking skills to answer it without employing any traditional algorithms. And we work in an educational system which has evolved to tell this student that he is so bad at math he gets a zero. Shame on us. Shame on us all.

So what happens to this student? Well from my experience he either dismisses the subject as “a stupid bunch of rules” (and who can blame him? When the answer is so obvious what value is there in writing down a bunch of steps that do nothing more than add tedium?), or he “learns” that to be good at math you have to suppress your instincts and replace them with the all-important STEPS. And let me tell you something. By the time you get to senior math in high school, there are a lot of steps! There’s no way most of us – myself very much included – could memorize all those steps, know precisely when to apply them, and do so with complete accuracy and precision every time.

Enter fear.

Imagine for a second you are a dog. A puppy. You mean no harm to anyone and in fact are a bouncing bundle of happiness and joy. Unfortunately you have an owner who has anger issues. You’ve discovered that your owner hates it when there is pee on the carpet in the house. The reason you know this is because every time he discovers any he loses his temper and yells. So in order to help, you begin peeing in hiding places around the house. To a dog this makes a lot of sense and is very considerate. Unfortunately all this does is make your owner even more angry, to the point where he smacks you every time he discovers the hidden pee. Result? You are now afraid of the owner, and afraid of peeing. Nothing productive comes of this because despite your best efforts, and despite the fact that you are doing what you think is right, you are still getting in trouble. That is a recipe for fear. And that is what happens to students who do what they think/know is right, but get rewarded with marks like 0/3 for their efforts. How can a person continue with a positive attitude under those kinds of circumstances?

What also happens to a large number of students is that over the years, as they fail more and more to memorize the right “rules”, they become more and more disillusioned with themselves. The mathematics becomes totally obscured by the algorithms, to the point where students believe that the algorithms are the mathematics, and can hardly be convinced otherwise.

I tutor a student named Randy and she is in grade 7. Here is a question from a test she wrote recently.

Sam has answered the question “7 – 3 ½” with “4 ½”. Sam says this is because seven minus three is four, and then there’s an extra half to make four and a half. Is Sam correct? Explain.

Here is what Randy wrote:

Sam is not correct. To answer the question you have to convert 7 and 3 ½ to improper fractions, then subtract the numerators, then convert your answer back to a mixed number. This is what Sam should have done:
7 – 3 ½ = 14/2 – 7/2
= 7/2
= 3 ½
So the correct answer is 3 ½

For this answer Randy received a “2+” which is a mark out of 4, with these comments from the teacher: “What was wrong with Sam’s thinking? How could he modify his strategy so that it would work? Expand on your answer.”

Hmmmmmmm. My thoughts as a teacher were immediately “Those comments would have made good questions for students to answer on the test instead of criticisms of Randy’s answer”. In any case let’s have a look at how this result impacted Randy.

So marks out of 4 like this one can be roughly converted to percentages, which they ultimately will be for reporting purposes. A mark of “2+” converts to around 65%-70%. I implore you, dear reader, to tell me just exactly how Randy has shown her capabilities in subtracting mixed numbers from whole numbers to be 30% less than perfect. The message to Randy?

Because you were unable to extrapolate from the word “explain” that I, your teacher, was expecting you to delve into the mind of a person who, unlike yourself, can not subtract mixed numbers from whole numbers, I conclude that you, Randy are a mediocre math student, at best. Despite the fact that the question was in two parts (“Is Sam correct?” and “Explain”), and that you addressed both correctly, you should have known that what I was really looking for was for you to help Sam understand why his thinking was wrong, despite the fact that it did not say this anywhere in the question and despite the fact that Sam is a fictitious person. Please work harder from now on so that you may become a better math student.

Randy was in tears over her results. She said she was sure she understood the material going into the test but she’s just bad at math and she hates it and she is never going to be good at it. It took quite an effort on my part to show Randy that she completely and perfectly understands subtraction of mixed numbers from whole numbers and that the real flaw is the question. I’m not sure she is totally convinced and her grade in math will certainly not reflect what I know to be true so it will be a difficult pill for her to swallow. Randy is developing a serious case of arithmophobia based on experiences like this. She is not wired to “know what the teacher means”. She reads instructions and takes them literally, and then answers them as best she can, usually correctly. But since there is more wrapped up in the evaluation criteria than is revealed in the question itself, Randy is rewarded for her efforts with marks like “2+”. To her this makes math incomprehensible, and who can blame her? To her math is now a mysterious subject with weird expectations that you have to “just know”, and what hope does she have of being able to do that?

So what can we do? The answer is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement in today’s education environment:

Let’s start teaching MATH again. And when we grade a student’s work let’s stop comparing what they did to some sort of “template of perfection” and instead evaluate what the work we see says about the student’s fundamental understanding of the mathematical concepts. Solving an equation means finding the values of the variable that make the equation true. The fact that we have algorithms for solving equations is wonderful and essential for very difficult equations, but let’s not punish students who are able to understand and solve without the algorithm! Let’s celebrate those students because they are the ones who really get it. The algorithms can be introduced and reinforced later when the equations get harder, but it serves no purpose to tell a student like that they are bad at math, for they are truly not. And for students like Randy? Let’s throw away the rubrics and fancy words and assess what their work tells us about their abilities. If we want Randy to extend her knowledge to be able to help Sam modify his strategy so that it will work let’s help her with that, but there is very little value in tying her grade in math to that ability, unless that ability is very specifically what we are trying to teach and assess, in which case we need to ask ultimately how much is that worth and how should it be reflected in the grade that she will use to determine her performance?

Arithmophobia is real and it is getting worse each year. We must change what we are doing if we want to reverse the trend.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

What the Gym Has Done For Me

Growing up I had a lot of strengths for sure. I did pretty well in school, had a good sense of humour, a loving family and was always blessed with good close friends. But one thing was definitely not a strength: athletics. There was never a team sport where I didn’t get picked last and I certainly never cut that dashing athletic figure that some kids seemed to me to have been born with.

(BIG side note here – the large majority of adults you see that have that dashing athletic physique were NOT born with it … but I learned that little tidbit much later)

As a young child I was sick with asthma, and so I was always very thin. When I hit puberty and my body started demanding more food I began to fill out, but not in any good way. I just got fat. And as I got older it got worse. When my son was a baby in the late 90’s I couldn’t carry him upstairs to his change table to change his diaper without stopping to catch my breath. I have a vivid picture embedded in my mind of him lying on the change table in a dirty diaper and me standing over him huffing and waiting to catch my breath before I could change his diaper. All from carrying a 15 lb baby up a flight of stairs.

I won’t bore you with too many more details. I just wanted to paint a picture of who I was – a smart, funny, happy, fat guy. I experimented with different diets with varying degrees of success. One which I did fairly well with was The Zone diet, which took me from a size 40 waist to a size 32. And that was the beginning of my interest in the gym.

At first, my goals were all about looks. After losing all the weight on The Zone I found I was just skinny. I wanted pecs, shoulders, and abs. I joined a little gym near my house and applied the same dedication to working out that I had applied to adhering to the diet. The owner was a former competitive bodybuilder and a bodybuilding judge at the time. I knew nothing about working out and I was happy to let him design workouts for me. With his background he naturally designed workouts with bodybuilding in mind. Being a tech nerd I typed them into excel and shrank it down so I could tape it to the inside of my logbook. It’s still there though I’ve long since moved on to other plans.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I'd know what to do.
These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I’d know what to do.

I remember asking him how long it would take for me to actually see results. He said about 3-4 months. Great! I put my nose to the grindstone and did everything he said, and marked it on the calendar. I still have the log book I used when I started.

I did not see results after 3-4 months.

Now that’s not because the gym owner was lying. Most people should see results after that length of time. But I learned that my body is not “most people”. And that revelation may be the single most important thing the gym has done for me. I did not give up. I knew I was working hard and although maybe the mirror didn’t show much of anything, I was enjoying the workouts and loving the feeling of pushing myself past limits. Here are some entries from the very front of my logbook:

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar - I didn't know how much it weighed. Seriously!
Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar – I didn’t know how much it weighed. Seriously!

If you’re having trouble deciphering my handwriting join the club. My students love it. Here’s what it says (I’ll add the weight of the bar in, now that I have that capability)

Deadlift: 95 X 5, 115 X 5, 135 X 5
Leg Press: 90 X 8, 180 X 8, 270 X 8, 320 X 6
Close Grip Bench Press: 65 X 8, 95 X 8, 95 X 7, 95 X 6
Squats: 115 X 12
Bench Press: 95 X 8, 115 X 6, 155 X 8
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 40 X 5, 40 X 5, 45 X 5

These were big lifts for me, although looking at other lifters I knew they weren’t big lifts. I had to make a choice pretty quickly: keep comparing myself to others, let the depression set in and give up, or compete with myself and celebrate my victories. It wasn’t an obvious choice, despite what all the self-help and life coaches will tell you. I had gotten through life to that point without being a lifter and I could certainly rejoin the masses and be happy and healthy. Maybe take up running.

But that was not the choice I made. I wanted to get better. I had to get better. Better and best are two very different words. Better is a journey. Best is a destination. And since living is a journey, I’ve always chosen better. I don’t need to be the best, though I can’t say I mind when it happens. But I always need to be better. I despise stagnation. So I accepted that my body is mine, and I kept at it. I also took lots of progress pics, for which I am very grateful. Here is a comparison of just before I started lifting to how I looked 3 years later:

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.
The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

There are changes, but they’re not drastic. If we are being honest most of the difference between the two pictures is how I’m standing and the fact that I shaved my little patch of fur. However there is some delt and tricep development noticeable, although it’s very slight.

I’ve been immersed in the lifting culture for 13 years now. I know that some the people reading this are thinking Dude, if that’s all 3 years got you then you were not doing it right. But here’s the thing, and you can take it or leave it. I was “doing it right”. I was lifting consistently 5 days a week, improving my lifts constantly, eating 5-7 meals a day, making sure to eat 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and all those other things one is “supposed” to do. And that’s what I got. Because that is my body. It resists change. But it changes.

Fast forward to today. I’ve had lots of victories and lots of defeats. I’ve been injured a few times, had my motivation ebb and flow, and of course I’m 13 years older. I’ve changed careers, pursued passions and experienced lots of joys and sadness. But this whole time I have been a lifter. And here are some lessons I’ve learned. I like lists so I’ll give you my thoughts in list form.

  • Compete with yourself
    In all areas of my life, I never compete with others anymore. I always compete with myself. When I do something I’ve done before, I always work my hardest to make sure I do it better. Whether it’s academics (I just completed a Masters degree), my career (every time I teach a lesson I use what I learned from previous ones to make it better), my singing, or pretty much anything. I don’t always beat the old me, but I always try to. And when I fail, I learn.
  • Think long term
    It’s very easy to get bogged down in daily routine and get stuck in status quo. But each day should be about advancing yourself in some small way. Make a plan. Stick to the plan. You may not see changes or progress from one day to the next but if your plan is solid you will see progress in the long run. Never forget your plan. When you suffer setbacks acknowledge them as setbacks. There are peaks and valleys but if you zoom out you will see the steady rise.
  • Don’t set artificial boundaries
    You can always decide that you are fated to remain a certain way. But what a shame that is. Always aim high. If you set boundaries on what you can do you’ll live within them. It’s not necessary.

All of these things are things I learned in the gym, and apply to my life. They are not the result of a seminar I went to (or a blog I read…), they are the result of my results in the gym, so I don’t have to convince myself to believe them because I live them. I am so grateful for this.

So now, although I certainly don’t complain about changes to my physique and I do want them, I don’t lift for looks. I stopped lifting for looks a very, very long time ago. I lift because of what it teaches me and how it affects my mindset in life.

Oh, I almost forgot (no I didn’t! ;)). Planning long-term and acting on that plan works. It’s the zoom-out that proves it. After 13 years of lifting, I can zoom out a bit. I have gotten results in my lifts and my physique! Incremental at the time, they sure do add up.

Here are some updated lifts from workouts over the last few months. For most I chose lifts I have video of:

Deadlift: 405 X 4 (here’s video)
Leg Press: 900 X 10 (I don’t have video of this)
Close Grip Bench Press: 265 X 5 (here’s video)
Squats: 365 X 4 (here’s video)
Bench Press: 295 X 4, 315 X 1 (here’s video of the 315 X 1, it’s a personal best)
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 140 X 5 (here’s video)

And here’s a progress comparison picture after 10 years of lifting:

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.
What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Death of the Mistake

(Disclaimer: NOT ALL PARENTS are guilty of what I describe in this blog, so please don’t take it personally. But many are. Far too many.)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I imagine you have too. Some of mine are pretty indelible for me.

Like the time my friend and I were playing with fire (literally) and almost burned down a hotel. We were scared to death and actually grateful we got caught.

Like the time I decided I could get through that intersection before the car coming from the left got there. Result? One totaled car that wasn’t even mine. It was my girlfriend’s car.

Like the time I thought I could get away without studying for my final exam in STAT 331 and still scrape a credit in the course. I earned a 42. I asked the prof to remark the exam which he did. The mark went down.

I didn’t like any of these or the countless others when they happened. Actually they felt pretty miserable. Yet each one has had an impact on decisions I made later in life and each one of those failures thus resulted in bigger successes. This is not a revolutionary concept. The phrase “we learn from our mistakes” is not new. But have you ever considered exactly how true it is? We aren’t born with an abundance of knowledge. In fact we are born with almost none. We know how to do things like breathe and cry and fill diapers, but we can’t even control those actions much. At first, all the knowledge we accrue comes from our innate curiosity and willingness to take risks. What’s funny is that as babies we don’t even know we are risking anything. We’re just really curious. Watch all the stuff a baby is willing to put in his mouth. You’ll know exactly what I mean. So babies try things and sometimes the result is pleasant or satisfying and other times its not. Each experience whether success or failure goes into the data bank and both guides subsequent experiments and imbues us with confidence regarding our ability to reproduce successes. In this way it is completely correct to categorize both “success” and “failure” as positive outcomes. And yet we have attached so much negativity to the word failure that it has become a thing to be reviled and feared … avoided at all costs. Which is a true tragedy, because success in the absence of failure is yin without yang.

As time passes the culture we grow up in imposes a formalized education, mainly because there is value placed on certain nuggets of knowledge. This happens in the form of school. And that’s where I come in.

Sort of. I teach high school so I guess I come in about 10 years later. After 10 years of a system which has sadly killed the mistake. Kids are no longer encouraged or allowed to experiment. They have to “get it right” the first time. Many parents spend insane amounts of energy making sure their children never experience failure, defeat or mistakes. A friend of mine calls this phenomenon “the snowplow parenting” model. The parents walk ahead of the child, plowing all obstacles out of the way, frantically making sure that no failure is ever experienced. As the child grows and the potential obstacles increase, parents run themselves ragged continuing to pave a smooth way. The effect this has on the kids is incredibly frightening. The child grows up not ever really experiencing a failure, but watching parents become more and more neurotic making sure this “failure monster” never has a chance to get near their kid. It’s a doubly-bad edged sword. First, no failure is ever experienced so there is no chance for the best kind of learning and second, the children pick up on this deep fear of failure and when they find themselves faced with the potential for a mistake they freeze in terror at the possibility. In short, they are simply not equipped to deal with anything but a smooth road, and lack the understanding and confidence that comes from having failed.

So what I see in my math class is kids who are petrified of assessment. I have seen kids cry when they earn a mark in the 90’s on a test. Worse, I’ve seen kids with marks in the 90’s crying when they come in to write a test because of how afraid they are that they might make a mistake. And I’ve had to defend marks to parents who insist to me not that their child earned a higher mark, but that their child needs the higher mark. In grade 9. A grade that no university or college even remotely cares about. A grade for which no scholarships are awarded. Yet the child needs the higher mark. Lest they experience failure.

This phenomenon may actually be the single biggest threat to our culture. Thanks to Snowplow Parents we are raising a generation of kids who have never had a chance to experiment and fail. Never a chance to pursue curiosity, which is the spark for innovation. So what we get is anxiety-ridden underperformers with huge self-esteem issues, fostered by parents who have made it clear that the child is not capable of fending for themselves and thus needs the parents’ involvement every step of the way.

Parents, please. Take a step back. Watch them do it themselves. Watch them fail and celebrate the failure. Mistakes are critical for evolution. Let’s bring them back. Let’s start the Mistake Revival.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Cell Phones and Independence

The other day my wife and I were doing some grocery shopping when her phone rang.

Side note: Before I continue with my post, I had to stop and read that first sentence over again. Read it again yourself. Now if you’re old enough, imagine it was 1988 and read it again. In 1988 language that sentence is pretty much a total non-sequitur. Today it is perfectly sensible. Funny how time-dependent the reasonableness of some assertions are.

Ok. So I was talking about my wife’s phone. She picked it up and saw that the call was coming from home. Conclusion – it’s one of the kids. She answered it of course. You don’t ignore calls from your kids who are home alone. Right? It was our 11-year old daughter on the phone. She was calling because our 15-year old son was on his computer Skyping (a verb that didn’t exist in 1988) with a friend and was unwilling to help her get something down from a tall shelf. He’s 6 feet tall, she’s 5’4 or so. In our house things on tall shelves are retrieved using my son or myself (I’m 5’11). In her mind, he was failing to uphold a sacred duty and as such, she was unable to continue with whatever plan she had that required the thing on the tall shelf. Crisis.

While my wife was dealing with the situation, I pulled out my phone to check Facebook. Naturally. I mean, you don’t just check Facebook while you’re on a grocery date with your wife but if she’s otherwise occupied go ahead, right? Of course. Everyone knows this. It’s smartphone etiquette 101 (try that one in 1988). So I pull out my phone and lo and behold, 2 missed calls from home. Guess I didn’t feel it vibrating over the hum of the freezer section while I was selecting a bag of frozen perogies (ok, that one works in 1988, but back up to 1903! Hmmm …). After my wife hung up, she noted 2 missed calls from home on her phone as well.

In case you’re wondering, the solution she offered was for my daughter to climb up on the counter and get the thing on the tall shelf, which is precisely what happened and everyone survived.

So my first instinct was to be mildly irritated that my daughter would need to bother us in the middle of a romantic stroll through the produce section with this issue. There was a simple solution and there’s really no reason why she should not have just done it without 5 phone calls. I had a plan to go home and have a chat with her about independence. She’s 11 and old enough to know better. I was laying the blame for this admittedly minor situation completely at my daughter’s feet. Then I realized what you may realize already. It’s not her fault. It’s ours. But maybe not in the way that you would think.

See, my kids have grown up with cell phones as a thing. When my wife and I go out we are always reachable. Now if we were home and some similar crisis were to arise, one of us would resolve it as parents tend to do. We resolve a million little things every day without really thinking about it: “I can’t find my shirt”, “There’s a spider on the wall in the bathroom”, “The dog threw up on the carpet”,  … the list goes on. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction for a kid to notify/defer to a parent with these things. Then at some point we either realize the kid is old enough to handle it on their own and let them know, or preferably the kid realizes that on their own and we never even find out the crisis arose and was subsequently averted.

And you know what occurred to me? That as I was growing up, I most often realized it on my own. And you know what kind of situations made me realize it? Situations when there was no adult around. Situations that needed to be dealt with and my only option was to deal with them on my own. I didn’t always deal with them the same way my parents might have, and I didn’t always deal with them very well the first time around, but deal with them I did. Because if my parents were out of reach I had no other choice.

And that’s it right there. With cell phones we are a generation of parents that are never out of reach. Like never. So that same instinctive reaction to turn to a parent for help is easily satisfied even when the parent is not present. And as parents we don’t always think about it. It takes a second to say “climb up and get it yourself”. It seems like no crime has occurred. But it has. The child has been robbed of the opportunity to solve a problem independently. And those opportunities are critical. Critical.

I have lots of stories but I’ll tell you only one more. It happened a year ago during a parent-teacher interview. At the time the student was in the tenth grade. 15 years old. She was going downtown to meet someone to job shadow for the day since there was no school for her. During the interview with her parents she called twice. They took the call of course. How do you not take a call from your 15-year old daughter when you know she’s downtown alone? So what did she want? Well both times she wasn’t sure which direction to go. The first time was when she got off the subway and didn’t know which street exit to take. The second was when she got to the street and didn’t know which direction she wanted to go so she didn’t know which bus to wait for. She’s a very bright girl. I’ve taught her for two years in a row now. She could have figured it out. What’s more, if her dad had not answered the phone she would have figured it out. Because her only other choice would be to curl up in a fetal position on the subway platform and wait for doom. And I have to tell you, she would not have made that choice. The smart money is on her asking someone in the subway. Like someone who works there. Imagine such a thing.

So what am I saying? Throw away the cell phone? Stop taking calls from the kids? Buy a step-stool?

Actually, none of those things. Cell phones are good for a lot of things (and step-stools around my house just end up being something for me to bark my shin on). But like any tool they can be used for evil too. So here’s my proposition, and we’ve already told our kids about it. I don’t expect them (especially my daughter) to know right away which things they need to consult us on and which they don’t. Some are obvious. If a Mongolian horde is descending on the house then yeah, give us a call. If there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom then maybe that’s one they can field on their own. Somewhere between running to the laundry room (where we store the big Costco package of toilet paper) with your pants around your ankles and positioning soldiers on the parapets with cauldrons of hot oil lies a range of solutions, some of which need a consult and most of which do not. So I’ve told them to think before they call. If they’re not sure, call. But if my wife or I know they can handle it on their own our only response will be “Handle it on your own. Love you. See you later. The oil is under the sink.”

In this way I hope to speed up the independence-gaining process which really seems to have been delayed by years in the younger generations.

Thanks for reading,

Rich