The Dangers of Forming a Negative Identity

If we happen to be the type of person that wants to make the world a better place, we automatically assume that our approach will work. In 2020, an interesting phenomenon is that in an effort to make the world a better place, many well-meaning activists take on what I will call a negative identity.

Frame in the Positive

Let’s say I’m concerned about the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system. A noble cause indeed. I write articles about what is wrong with the criminal justice system and call out people who are complacent in it. This is valuable work. But I want to put out a note of caution. If we are always against a particular thing, what are we actually for?

One of the first Laws you read about when learning about affirmations is to always phrase your intentions in the positive. Not to get all woo-woo, but setting the intention to avoid danger and setting an intention to lead a fulfilling life produce different results. In order to avoid danger, you must effectively look for it (and you will certainly find it). If instead you set an intention to lead a fulfilling life, you would seek and find opportunities to do just that.

So perhaps instead of fighting an unjust criminal justice system and pontificating on how bad it is, we can create a positive vision for criminal justice. One of the main reasons why I was so impressed with Andrew Yang’s 2020 campaign is because he made it a point of saying that the state of our country isn’t just Trump’s fault, and that to get ourselves out of it, we need a positive vision of a new America. I think this resonated with a lot of people. We are so used to hearing what is wrong, and we are starving for someone to create a compelling vision of a better life.

Negative Voices are Loud

Negativity spreads much easier and faster than positivity. It is much easier to tear down than to build. It took many (probably 20+) hours to create my dining table. Any fool could destroy it within a matter of seconds. It is easier to point out negatives and tear things down. I’m not saying that there isn’t a time to destroy, but rather that in any effort to destroy, we should have in our minds the greater thing we will build in its stead.

There is great danger in forming a negative identity. The biggest danger is becoming stuck. If we fixate ourselves on the negative, we can ignore or even sabotage when something good comes along. Thanks for reading!

Why the 2020 Election will likely be Violent

I take no joy in doom prophecies. In fact, I consider myself a relentless optimist. However, the facts are mounting that the 2020 presidential election is going to result in some of the deepest civil unrest probably anyone has seen in their lifetime. I wouldn’t rule out another (likely more intense) bout of rioting coupled with an even more divided and non-cooperative federal government. After that is where I have no prediction for where things will go. The next couple years will likely contain even more upheaval, but also the opportunity for the transformation of our government and economy.

America Remains Divided

This is neither surprising nor unexpected. What is a little unexpected is that even in the midst of battling a foreign invader (coronavirus), we still haven’t found our common ground. Usually a “total event” (a war, pandemic, national tragedy, etc.) brings a country together. Coronavirus has pulled at our already loose seams even more. Wearing or not wearing a mask is becoming a political statement. States are deeply divided on when and what to reopen in their economy. Civic cooperation (as seen in a number of other countries) would have made for three months of lockdown, but many more months of a much better controlled spread. That has proven impossible here in the US.

Perhaps more importantly, America has yet to embrace a unifying figure. In order for substantive change and healing to happen, there has to be someone (or perhaps something) that brings Americans together. I was hopeful and excited with the campaign of Andrew Yang. One of his major campaign slogans was “Not left. Not right. Forward”. In my estimation, he was the only candidate with a specific agenda to heal our division. But Americans didn’t seem ready for him (despite a remarkable run for the highest office as a “nobody” in politics).

A divided country (probably at a level not seen since the Civil War) is a breeding ground for growing resentment and bitterness after an election. Donald Trump is openly adversarial to his “opponents”, but even Joe Biden doesn’t seem to represent national healing and unity. Furthermore, many Americans view him as an extension of the Obama administration, which was (not intentionally) part of the polarizing force that got us to where we are. If Donald wins, expect rioting, marching, protests, and civil disobedience. If Joe Biden wins, expect the same.

Inequality, Automation, and Coronavirus

As if we didn’t already have the perfect storm brewing, we add in social and economic inequality at multi-decade highs, Coronavirus, and the looming threat of automation as a response to a contracting economy. For all intents and purposes, the killing of George Floyd was a public lynching. This awakens the latent resentment that many Americans have toward a flawed criminal justice system. Americans are already feeling the economic heat in a very potent way. For some, coronavirus has been a chance to telework, but for many Americans, they left jobs that may not ever be coming back. And just our (bad) luck, many of the Government protections are set to expire this summer, and if a second wave of the virus hits in the fall, it could spell financial ruin for millions of Americans.

A long term effect of the coronavirus will be a turn toward increasing automation, creating major disruption in some of America’s largest industries. Food service for example is already shooting toward being contactless, making less need for waiters, waitresses, and hostesses. Grocery and convenience stores are already looking at ways to expand self-checkout. Walmart is going to expand cashier-less stores. What happens to the hundreds of thousands (likely millions) of Americans that will be displaced as a result? Your guess is as good as mine. On the campaign trail Andrew Yang spoke of the major disruption that driverless cars and trucks can have on our economy. Imagine this repeated over multiple industries, accelerated by the coronavirus.

I apologize that the tone of this post is mostly depressing. But if we fail to look at our coming difficulties with a truthful eye, we end up making ourselves less able to change anything, or at least take shelter for the coming storm.

In the long run, I am hopeful that the current and coming upheaval in America will see us better, stronger, and wiser on the other side. But there is no guarantee. Napoleon Hill wrote that “every difficulty has within it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit”. That seed needs to be germinated and tended in order for us to reap the subsequent benefits. So in whatever ways we can, let’s do the work of unifying our country and ensuring a better life for generations to come. Thanks for reading!

Why Success Isn’t Always Possible

I touch on a lot of this theory in my article Success is Cyclical, but I know anything insightful is worth repeating. Most people who are into personal development learn early on not to make excuses. We learn that our lives are our responsibility and we have to take action to get results. But as you mature, you realize results don’t always happen and aren’t always possible. You encounter numerous situations where the underserving get success and the intelligent, effective, and kind get ridicule. The reason this happens is because all living things are subject to cycles of growth and decay. “Good” things and “bad” things just the same. So the next time you feel like you want to be hard on yourself, gently ask “What season am I in?”, and you may get insight into your next moves.

Growth and Decay are two sides of the same Coin

Let’s take the stock market for example. Everyone loves when the market is up and hates when it’s down. Everyone, that is, except the wise. Wise people know that the stock market going down is both useful and necessary. When the stock market crashes, it forces companies and people to reorganize. After the first stock market crash we saw more legislation and federal protections from fiscal disaster. In 2008, we saw the Dodd-Frank Act. And, I believe, in the aftermath of the Coronavirus, we will see a push for Universal Basic Income.

A market crash can provide lower buying prices for a commodity that (we hope) will always go up. The point here is that when anything grows for too long, its outdated practices and inefficiencies necessitate a correction. This is why all successful companies, people, and organizations continually analyze and change as they gain more feedback over time. All those systems that don’t eventually fail.

Rewards and Recognition are Arbitrary

Speaking in generalities is a little dangerous. Of course rewards and recognition are good things usually given to the deserving, but not always. If you ever saw someone get promoted and you can’t wrap your head around why, this is why I say rewards are arbitrary. If you were a high-level executive at Enron, you would be rewarded and recognized for being dishonest. I think this happens in far more businesses than we would like to acknowledge. On the other hand, if you worked for an honest organization, you would be rewarded for hard work, ingenuity, and your ability to produce results. So if you took an honest, intelligent, hard-working person and put them in an executive position at Enron, chances are they would not be rewarded for their work (and hopefully the toxic culture doesn’t change their character).

Does that mean they aren’t doing the “right” thing? Of course not. It just means they are not doing the right thing to be rewarded under those circumstances. That’s why it is important that we screen all of the intimate relationships in our lives (work relationships, money management, romantic relationships, friends, etc.). We need to make sure our values are aligned with the values of the people we work closely with.

Hopefully this serves as some solace when you see things going sideways. Remember that success is not always possible, and that is a good thing!

Success is Cyclical

No one has ever been consistently successful and conversely no one has ever been a consistent failure. The degree to which we succeed in life indeed depends on our efforts and character, but we must remember that outward success is different from self-esteem. Successes are external measures (money, fame, prestige, respect, etc.) of your performance. Self-esteem is the internal measure of your performance. While having and achieving goals is good and healthy, we must remember that there is a certain level of arbitrariness that goes along with that. This idea doesn’t destroy the excitement of achievement and success but rather attenuates and puts it into perspective.

When Good is Bad and Bad is Good

Think about it. If success were a constant, the greatest men and women would always remain perfectly esteemed and free from criticism, or at least close to it. When you achieve something, it is an outward reward based upon the external climate. What I mean by that is your environment rewards you for meeting its temporary needs. Winning the presidency is a reward for making the best case to the American people that you can meet their needs. Winning a powerlifting meet means that, in relation to the other lifters, you were the strongest. Being a popular girl at school means that your body type, fashion sense, and personality are being rewarded for meeting the needs/desires of your peers. All of these things are neither good nor bad, just neutral.

So success is an external validation based on you meeting someone or something’s needs. Let’s look at an extreme example. For a while, Adolf Hitler was very successful. That doesn’t mean he was “good” or “right”, but rather that he found a way to meet (or supposedly meet) other people’s needs and desires. I am sure that there were wildly intelligent, empathetic, and dutiful people in Germany at the time, but they didn’t rise to power. For whatever reason, the environment chose Hitler. My point here is that no matter who you are, you will never always be successful. It’s impossible. Precisely because external needs and wants are always changing.

A personal example. As a teacher I work with groups of students in various capacities. Some years, my students love me. So much so that they buy me gifts and come back years after they have left to see me. Other years, much less so. I don’t think my students have ever hated me, but some years there are no awards or heartwarming appreciation. I, at my core, haven’t changed. I always treat my students the same. But times and things change, and for whatever reason, I am not that special to them. And that’s okay!

Success and Self-Esteem

Success is cyclical and elusive. No sooner than you achieve something, the desire for something bigger and better comes along. One achievement is a spur to the next. Totally natural. But focus on the internal as well. Self-Esteem is a result of feeling good about yourself based on your pre-determined values. If you value family, you will have high self-esteem if you take actions that show that. If you value loyalty, every time to are there for a loved one you feel good about yourself. Success never stays around indefinitely, whereas self-esteem never leaves you so long as you cultivate it. I’m reminded of a Bible verse: Do not store treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, but store up treasures in heaven.

Time and seasons will change, and certain virtues will go in and out of popularity. Everyone is subject to this. Sometimes, external rewards will validate our work and other times they won’t. There’s nothing bad about it, it just is what it is. If you can set your values and stay true to them, you can end up with the cake upon which success is the icing. Thanks for reading!

Creativity Pays Dividends

One of the benefits (and subsequent dangers) in modern society is that creation is optional. How many people do you know who know carpentry, ballet, or how to fix a car? We can get all of our material goods and entertainment from somewhere else for very cheap and very quickly. But just because we can…should we? In my experience, the creative act is a benefit in and of itself. It activates our latent energies, keeps us healthy, and helps us connect with others.

Creativity Creates Energy

One of my first big home improvement projects was renovating our kitchen. It came as a whim but ended up being an enjoyable (though difficult) summer-long project. In the process of deciding to do-it-ourselves, my wife and I not only saved thousands of dollars, we also unearthed a new hobby! After completing the project, I immediately began making a long list of new projects to get excited about. Creativity doesn’t just make something, it awakens energy for bigger and better acts of creation. The mind immediately goes to what greater thing you can do. It pays dividends because that investment is compounded as you continue to learn and grow.

I don’t want to give a narrow view of what counts as creation. Creation could be a Youtube channel, choreography, drawing, building train sets, writing, photography, etc. As long as you are making something that may be of value to someone (even just yourself), you are creating. Watch as your mental energies soar when you find a creative act that you enjoy.

Creation Makes us Healthy

Science is a peculiar thing in that you can use (or rather mis-use) it to prove anything. Bearing that in mind, there is science that shows acts of creativity can make you healthier both mentally and physically. This aligns with my intuition and experience because in most cases, creation is a highly coordinated physical and/or mental act. In my last article I talked a little bit about how cab drivers who stop driving have their brains begin to physically shrink. Similarly, it stands to reason that the coordination involved in dancing, carpentry, or playing an instrument would impart similar benefits to the brain. Here is an article that goes into the science.

Creativity Connects

I consider myself personable. I like people, and can generally do well in a crowd or at a social event. Even though it is no major chore, my least favorite part of social interactions is “small talk”. This usually consists of people trying to explain to others why they are interesting. The unfortunate reality is that most people are not interesting because they are consumers rather than creators. Most people do well talking about sports, fashion, or celebrity gossip. Honestly it is a good way to connect with others. But truly interesting people always have a “project”. They pull out their phone and want to show you their latest table they made, or talk about a book they read and are writing an article about. These people have a certain magnetism because they are always building and learning. Next time you are at a social gathering, see how many conversations are consumption oriented and how many are creation oriented.

I hope this article helped shed some light on the importance of creating. What are some ways you create?

The Pitfalls of Thin Skin

When I was a teenager, I did a lot of general home improvement and maintenance projects with my father. My dad is a no nonsense kind of guy. If he asked me to nail up a piece of drywall and it wasn’t done right, he would literally tear down the wall and make me do it again. If the lawn wasn’t completely free of leaves, I could look forward to an afternoon of raking. While these experiences were frustrating in the moment, they taught me valuable lessons. And not only do I not hold my father’s stern discipline against him, now that I am older, I thank him for it.

Thick Skin Comes from Difficulty (Real or Self-Imposed)

Nature gives endless examples of what happens to living things if they are never challenged. Take a human body and stop giving it exercise (challenge) and it will atrophy. Take a taxi driver and retire him, and his brain physically shrinks. Alternatively give a good amount of exercise (not too much, not too little) and you create a robust (and attractive) human body. Challenge the mind with learning city streets and you can physically grow the brain.

Life in the 21st century is a life of limitless ease. And that’s good! Never before have we had so much available to us with a minimum of effort. But interesting things start to happen as challenge leaves our lives. Our lack of physical exertion has created the proliferation of chronic disease. Our lack of deep, meaningful (and challenging) human interactions has made our minds weak as evidenced by growing mental illness and stress. Our intolerance to opposing viewpoints has made our egos fragile.

In a great irony, never challenging yourself leads to even greater challenges because you are weak. If you can lift 200 pounds, when you are presented with a 100 pound lift, you barely feel strain. But how did you become able to lift 200 pounds? You continually challenged yourself. Alternatively, if you are lazy and never challenge yourself, those 100 pounds will seem insurmountable (and may in fact be so). This metaphor extends into our relationships, dealings with money, and our spiritual lives as well.

Protecting Ourselves and our Loved Ones from Ease

I try not to name problem without a potential solution. If the problem is being weakened as a result of a cushy life, the solution is controlled difficulty. Obviously we don’t push ourselves so hard that we cause damage, but we push ourselves hard enough to gain adaptations.

  • To beat relational fragility, seek out and form human relationship with all types of people.
  • To beat physical fragility, exercise (weight lifting and cardio) consistently.
  • To beat financial fragility, practice frugality.
  • To beat mental fragility, seek out opposing viewpoints and challenge yourself with new (and perhaps even controversial) information.

I hope you found some valuable insights for how to beat the effects of fragility in your life. Thanks for reading!

The Long Term Consequences of Grade Inflation

Similar to regular inflation, grade inflation is the idea that each time you give a student an “A”, the value of it becomes diluted. If we give everyone an “A”, it doesn’t mean anything. As a teacher, especially a math teacher, this pandering to students and parents has given me cause to believe that the current educational practice of grade inflation will produce many undesired long-term outcomes.

What is Grade Inflation?

Ok, I made this term up. When I say grade inflation, I mean the weakening of a grade as the main marker of mastery in a particular content. In the truest sense, an “A” in Algebra means a 90%+ (although we round up 89.5…smh). By itself, this is a very clear score. If a student can manage to get above a 90%, it shows that they have mastered most, if not all, of the content. And (in my opinion) very importantly it shows they mastered it when they were supposed to!

So what happens when we allow a retake, re-assessment, and allow students to redo projects? It shows them that they don’t need to necessarily demonstrate mastery the first time. If this was it, maybe I wouldn’t have any philosophical qualms. But what many schools are doing is introducing quasi grade quotas to make their data look better. I know I am not the only teacher who wants to protect the integrity of grades so they can keep their value. I have been in meetings where school leaders say “We need x amount of students to be eligible”. I think there is a huge problem with that. Instead of reality and standards being our guide, we place an arbitrary number as a goal and bend our standards and reality to meet it. It’s like saying you want to bench press 300 pounds, and then saying that 200 pounds is now 300 pounds. Crazy!

The Problem with Inflated Grades

Wanting students to do well is deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of teachers. We don’t want anyone to fail. Sincere as we may be, we also are tasked with helping others learn. And learning must be assessed, and not everyone will get 100%. And that is okay. A student can be very nice, but if they don’t know Algebra, do they deserve to pass? What message does passing that student send to the other students who actually achieved mastery?

The reason grade inflation is so insidious is because it is backed by a seemingly sound philosophy. We want everyone to feel good and succeed. But there is an irony contained within that. When you try to make everyone feel good, you end up making no-one feel good. If I got an “A” because I demonstrated mastery the first time, and another student gets an “A” via piecemeal retakes and second chances, my “A” is devalued.

Long-term Consequences

The main consequence of a generation of students with inflated grades is an inflated sense of their own achievement. When I enter the gym, I know there are people stronger than me. If I can squat 350 pounds and another guy can squat 400 pounds, I cannot with a straight face say we are equally strong. And you would call me delusional. Similarly, when grades lose their meaning and integrity, students will think they are performing better than they are. The interesting thing is that even they (in the back of their mind) know their performance didn’t warrant their grade, but we have been teaching them to ignore reality and seek what makes them feel good.

It is similar to an over-indulged child. If they never hear no, they become insufferable brats that no-one likes. They bend reality (mental illness) to fit their superficial needs, rather than accepting reality and basing future action upon that. To put the cherry on top, not only do you have a low performer, they think they are performing better than they are.

What to do?

You cannot separate learning in an academic setting from the relationships that it necessitates. This is why we want everyone to do well. We want them to feel like they belong and are important. We want everyone to get along. I believe we can do that while keeping the sanctity of grades.

We have to learn to separate grades from value judgements. Having bad grades doesn’t make you a bad person. It also doesn’t make you not a part of the community. Instead of bending our standards we can offer more support. But at the end of the day, it should be the student’s responsibility to make it happen (if they choose to).

Hopefully this didn’t come off as a rant, but more as an admonition and catalyst for a better way. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but there are many intelligent minds in education that can and are eager to do the intellectual heavy-lifting. Hope you enjoyed reading!

Universal Basic Income

I wrote in a previous post that Coronavirus will teach us many lessons and new ways of interacting and being in the world. I think a huge change that will come as a result (even after the virus dies down) will be Universal Basic Income. Perhaps not this (2020) election cycle, but I imagine a good chance in the next cycle.

I gave a project in one of my math classes that asked students to search for a home and calculate mortgage payments etc. I always try to give students some real world use for the math they are learning. Even though they all sigh when I say “math is beautiful”. Anyways, I linked for them to use Redfin to search up their homes. I (naively) assumed that Redfin was everywhere. It is decidedly not. My wife and I bought our house using Redfin and it was very easy, and from what we could tell, very “user-friendly”. But many parts of the country that are less economically well off haven’t even benefitted from this new technology. Long story short, I began looking for the reasons behind this technology gap. It couldn’t just be race, it was very clearly socio-economic.

I say that to say, I then stumbled upon “The War on Normal People” by Andrew Yang. A fantastic book! In the book he talks about how our changing economy (especially after the Great Recession) has pooled resources among smaller and smaller groups of people. Many Americans are simply being left behind. Yang says that automation will eventually put large groups of people out of work. His solution is Universal Basic Income. I immediately followed his every move starting in mid-2019 until he eventually dropped out of the Democratic Presidential race in February 2020. He did very well for a “nobody” competing among much better resourced and connected candidates.

In comes Coronavirus. Even conservative estimates predict up to 30% unemployment as a result. People who are hard-working simply can’t work. It’s not their fault. They aren’t lazy, they didn’t do anything wrong, they were just blind-sided. It necessitates a change in thinking. If people who are willing and able to work can’t, should we deny them human decency? Would we rather spend our money on at least a certain percentage of lazy people on welfare? Or would we choose to give money to people as an investment, knowing that most hard-working people will immediately invest that money back in their communities? Most people won’t buy drugs or alcohol with it. They’ll get tutoring for their kids, get their car fixed, go back to school, or stay at home and raise children. So we see the first glimpse of a universal income from the Trump presidency?!?! Interestingly enough, living in the cultural “progressive” bubble that is the DC area, I find that many “democrats” are surprisingly close-minded about UBI whereas many more conservatives can see the value. Talk about irony.

My prediction is that Universal Basic Income will become a reality for all Americans within the next 10-15 years, likely sooner rather than later. What do you think? Thanks for reading.

Dear Coronavirus

I read an interesting article in which the author (in jest) wrote a prayer to Coronavirus. While meant to be satirical, it got me thinking about how Coronavirus has taught us many lessons if we wish to extract them. Here is my letter to the Coronavirus:

Dear Coronavirus,

Thank you for showing us the importance of family. In a real emergency we are forced to narrow our social circles to those who matter most. Thank you for reconnecting us with loved ones and reawakening our sense of collective duty. Thank you for giving us a reason to take special care of the sick and elderly. We have forgotten to do that for a while…

Thank you for showing us who our true leaders are. Thank you for exposing the opportunists and those prone to panic. Thank you for showing us the people of strong character, who look out for others and practice what they preach. Thank you for showing us the companies and institutions that care about people as more than just a dollar sign.

Thank you for making us slow down. We have been running furiously (to who knows where) for a very long time. Thank you for making us bored. Thank you for making us sit with ourselves in silence. Thank you for unearthing our need for continual stimulation. Now that we can see our low-level unrest, perhaps we can reorganize our society more mindfully.

You have already shown us so much, and I anticipate you will teach us more with each passing day.

Sincerely,

Mr. Muse

How to Not Care what Others Think

Not caring what others think at all may prove to be a fool’s errand. Of course we care (even if only a little) about what those important to us think. That is natural. What I am speaking of here is how to live our lives so that the need for approval doesn’t stunt our authenticity. 

Answers to big questions are often simple. Not easy, but simple. It may take a significant amount of time to actualize them, but the idea itself is simple. 

Why do we Seek Approval?

There are many habits in life that are the vestiges of our earlier human development. Approval seeking is a great example. Think about it. You are out in the wilderness with your tribe. You cannot survive alone. Because of this, staying in everyone’s (particularly the leader’s) good graces is a matter of life and death. Fast forward to modern life, there are very few people whose approval we need to live a good life. The only exception may be as a child. As a child, we should get the unconditional approval of our parents, but that is a different story for another day. 

We seek approval for fear of being cast out of whatever group we are in. If our friends love to gossip, chances are we will too, because our brains are telling us that if we don’t, we risk being kicked out of the group (that might not be a bad thing). Now, translate this to other areas of your life that could hold you back. Maybe you want to become a writer, but the criticism from those around you stunts your efforts. You want to study a new skill, but your sister unintentionally giggles when you tell her. That is when this perfectly normal survival mechanism becomes a sabotage mechanism. 

How to not Care what Others Think

Not caring what others think comes down to values. Story time. When I was in my early twenties, I loved reading articles from Brian Tracy. One of his suggestions was to come up with a list of values. I wracked my brain and had to confront the sobering truth that I didn’t have any. I had the values that other people wanted for me, but I had not developed them on my own. I mostly forgot about that exercise for a number of years. 

Fast forward 5-7 years, and with some valuable life experiences, I developed my own set of values without even thinking about it. After years of dealing with the problems of daily living, I naturally unearthed what was important to me. 

Whenever we fear the criticism of others, it is because we have not decided what is important to us. Don’t get me wrong, the fear may always be there, but in a much less overwhelming way that won’t stop you from taking action. When you have your values in order, you will realize that the only person whose approval you desperately need is your own. Other people’s opinions matter, and sometimes we need to alter our values based on valuable feedback. But the ultimate change is up to us. Getting your values in order may take some time. Life experience will help you unearth them even if you aren’t trying to. Exercises like this one can help you start, but remember, life experience is what will ultimately set your values in stone. 

Thanks for reading!

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